Hiraeth: Homesickness When It’s Least Expected

10 Sep

I know I haven’t posted anything here for quite awhile, but since I’m abroad this semester, I may sporadically or regularly update this blog with thoughts from my travels.  If you read my blog before, welcome back!  If you didn’t, I hope you enjoy it now.

A fountain in the Ciutat Vella, the oldest section of Valencia.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to travel.  Given half the opportunity, I will jump on a plane, train, or bus to anywhere.  My wanderlust began five years ago.  After visiting Ireland, Italy, and Spain for tantalizingly brief periods of time during high school, I had all kinds of pipe dreams: attending Trinity College in Dublin, working as a writer and waitress in Siena, and visiting museum after museum in Barcelona’s Barrio Gótico.  When I ended up in the same state as my hometown for college, I let go of those plans for the next item on my travel bucket list: studying abroad.  Most people seemed surprised when I told them how badly I wanted to go gallivanting off to Europe.  “Why would you want to leave UVA?” they asked, bewildered.  But for me, the question was never why.  It was where, and how soon.

As soon as I discovered UVA had an established and respected program in Valencia, I set my heart on going my second year.  I scrutinized the online schedules (Hispanic Linguistics!  Islamic-Iberian Culture!  The Art of Picasso!), delighted that all the classes would be taught in Spanish only.  I perused photo galleries of students smiling at the Valencian beach, in front of the futuristic Ciudad de Artes y las Ciencias, and on a weekend trip in Paris.  How, I asked myself, could this be any more perfect?  I didn’t so much as ask my parents to go as tell them that I was going.  (Fortunately, I am blessed with parents who are used to dealing with a high-strung, whimsical, and stubborn daughter).  Money was deposited.  Plane tickets were bought.  Suitcases were packed.  On September 3rd, 2013, I left the Richmond airport for a JFK flight to Madrid, where I would take a commuter plane to Valencia.  I knew no one, would be staying with a host mom I had only seen a picture of once, and spoke the local language like a demented seven-year-old (if Spanish even counted as the local language; I spoke nary a word of Valenciano, the local dialect).

And (much as nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition), I did not expect homesickness.

The Welsh word hiraeth, a languorous, chew-on-it-for-a-moment kind of word, has no direct translation in English.  It means a combination of longing, yearning, nostalgia, and wistfulness.  This is what I did and am feeling.  It was probably compounded by getting sick my first day in Spain.  I started feeling lightheaded and nauseous on the plane ride.  On my first morning in Valencia, when I was supposed to attend orientation, I couldn’t get out of bed without collapsing.  I missed most of orientation, the proficiency test the next day, and the all-day trip to a nearby beach the day after.  My mood was one of the bleakest I’ve ever felt.  All I wanted to do was buy a plane ticket back to Virginia (and that’s not an exaggeration; if you were to look at my browser history, you would find all kinds of searches for air fare).  I kept crying unexpectedly and for no reason.  Walking down the stately Gran Vía del Marqués de Túria near my apartment, with its tall palm trees and old ladies walking Pomeranians and young couples pushing strollers, I cried into my sleeve and tried not to vomit.  Later that day, I went into a supermarket to look for nail scissors and couldn’t find them.

“Please, where are the finger cutters?” I asked a clerk in broken Spanish.

Mercifully, she understood.  “Over there,” she said, pointing.

“Thank you,” I said, and burst into tears.

Yesterday I was walking back from the UVA center in Valencia with my new friend, Stephanie.  I was telling her how terrible I felt, tears welling up in my eyes once more.  She stopped in the middle of the street.  “Elizabeth,” she asked, “why are you here?”

I answered without thinking.  “Because I want to endure surprises.  Because I want to improve my Spanish.  Because I want to be independent.”  And I knew it was the truth.  Despite my desire for travel and my head-in-the-clouds nature, I am a schedule kind of girl.  I like knowing where I am going and how long I will be there.  If it were possible to map out my entire life, I would probably do that.  But arriving in another country means that there is no order.  Being in Spain feels like drowning: no way to breathe, no way to hold myself up.

Some of my new friends and I enjoying the good weather in Valencia

Some of my new friends and me enjoying the good weather in Valencia

However, I know that somehow, order is going to coalesce out of this chaos.  I am going to learn to live with the dreaded not knowing sometimes.  Already, things are beginning to settle down.  I stood by the window of my bedroom, staring out at the square in front of my host mother’s apartment, sobbing once more.  Suddenly, I realized that I was smiling.  I was crying from happiness.  I’ve begun my classes, with their familiar uncomfortable desks and students unwilling to talk on the first day.  Last night I watched a historical bodice-ripper called Isabel (about Queen Isabella) with my host mother, the kind with verbal smackdowns in rapid-fire Spanish and the weird sort of sex with all the covers pulled up and all the clothes on.  It was awkward in the familiar way that watching Game of Thrones with my American mother is awkward.  Today, I rode the bus to school by myself and got off at the right stop.

I think it is safe to say that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  At home, I have a family, friends, a boyfriend, and a school that I love.  I won’t see them for a while.  But here, I can spend my evenings eating helado until 3:00 in the morning.  I can go gallivanting off to France for the weekend.  I can see the Roman ruins of old Valencia.

I may still fail at this.  It’s possible.  But I want so much to succeed, even if it hurts this badly.  All I can say is: wish me luck.  It’s going to be a wild ride in so many more ways than I expected.

This song’s been comforting me a good deal.  Thank god for progressive bluegrass and Nickel Creek.  Some of the lyrics: 

Your first dawn blinded you, left you cursing the day.
Entrance is crucial and it’s not without pain.
There’s no path to follow, once you’re here.
You’ll climb up the slide and then you’ll slide down the stairs.

It’s foreign on this side,
But it feels like I’m home again.
There’s no place to hide
But I don’t think I’m scared.

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