“We Regret to Inform You of Another Delay”

11 Nov

An account of the joys and terrors of my first air controller strike in Europe.

Previously published this essay in the October issue of the Brown Yorker, so if you’re a Brownie, you’re lucky: you got a sneak preview at my weird adventures on the tarmac at Gatwick airport!

Striking is not a phenomenon I am terribly familiar with.  To me, it conjures up images of women in shirtwaists and men with pocket watches, hoisting handmade signs in faded photos from the early 1900s.  The only real strike I remember experiencing is the Writers Guild of America debacle from 2008, and only that because it disrupted my weekly ritual of watching Heroes.  When an email popped into my inbox from Easyjet, informing me that my flight from London to Toulouse might be affected by striking air traffic controllers, I didn’t pay much attention.  I’d just finished a vacation in London and was going to cap it off with a few days in southern France.  Striking was not the foremost thing on my mind.

That morning, the plane had already started taxiing down the runway when it suddenly stopped.  The pilot’s voice crackled over the speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that, due to a lack of communication from the Toulouse airport, our flight will be delayed for two hours.”  The girl next to me rolled her eyes.  I glanced at her.  Improbably, she was smaller than me and drowning in an oversized hoodie, with black hair hastily thrown into a ponytail.  In one hand, she held a Blackberry; in the other, an iPhone.   She switched back and forth between the two with dizzying speed.

“Um,” I said.  I didn’t want to bother her, but my only hope of contacting my friends in France was to get my hands on a European cell phone.  “Can I use your phone?  I’m American, and my phone doesn’t work, and-”

“Please, go ahead.”  Her English was crisp, tinged with a soft French accent.  “I just need to finish this email to my boss.  I won’t make my meeting.”

“What do you do?” I said, eyeing her clothes.

“I’m an art dealer advisor.  I work for auction houses across Europe,” she said, worrying a piercing on her lower lip.  I tried not to let my eyes get too large.  Here I’d been trying to figure out how many years younger than me she was, and she probably had enough money by now to buy more Hermés scarves than I’d even see in my lifetime.  Her name was Élise, with more emphasis on the first syllable than the second: the verbal equivalent of skipping a stone across a lake.  We drank paper cups of Earl Gray as she nobly tried to find me WiFi.

The movie that shaped my expectations of flights: rampant vomiting, inflatable pilots, and constant near-crashes

Later, I ambled up to the cockpit to ask the pilots if they knew how I could make a call.  I had some hazy idea that I’d find Ted Striker from Airplane! sitting in front of a wall of dials and controls, but instead two young women sprawled in the pilots’ chairs, checking Twitter for updates on the strike.  (This was oddly comforting.)  Although complaining about the French is a national English pastime, they were sick of it by now, so they expertly showed me the inner workings of the cockpit and let me log on to the airport network in the bargain.

“Where are you from?”  said one.

“Virginia.”

I watched her face.  Most Brits did not seem to know where this was, despite the fact that it was dedicated to a certain British queen.  “Is that near Texas?” she asked.

“Um,” I said.  “Sort of.”

“That’s okay,” she said, cheerful.  “I was top of my class in flight school.  I don’t need to know where it is unless I’m flying to it.”

The air traffic controllers at last deigned to let us through, and we took off for Toulouse.  I watched the sun rise from my dirt-stained window, tranquil despite the delay.  Airports can throw you all sorts of surprises, but I hadn’t expected to meet three talented women who were barely older than me.

Later, as Élise and I filed through customs, she unzipped her hoodie to reveal an impeccably fitted silk blouse.  “Au revoir,” she said, thumbs still glued to her Blackberry.

“Au revoir,” I repeated, and wondered if I’d see her name beneath a Sotheby’s sale one day.

Apparently the French strike all the time- they’re only rivaled in this by the Spaniards and the Italians.  Anyone else experienced strikes across Europe (or anywhere else, for that matter)?  Did they turn out as serendipitously as mine?

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Why I Can’t Walk Through Valencia Without Embarrassing Myself

3 Nov

I have a confession to make: I have a dog problem.

This is maybe not a new development.  I was raised by parents who considered the two dogs they adopted before my birth to be their first two children, and I’ve grown up with no less than five dogs of varying size, breed, and personality.  Whenever I Skype my parents at home, I get a few minutes to reconnect with the three who are still with us.  Schizo Dog, whom we added to our family after she had been abused as a puppy, is a gorgeous Chesapeake Bay retriever: ladylike, regal, and completely insane.  (She once ate an entire door frame, and her bladder control has never been what you’d call…constant.)  Snuffly Dog is a shaggy black mutt who has the same cheerful, cuddly ugliness as most indiscernible mixes (is she a shepherd?  A Lab?  Maybe part spaniel?  It’s anyone’s guess!).

Small Dog, who is undoubtedly a bit of a camera whore.

Small Dog, who is undoubtedly a bit of a camera whore.

Small Dog, a late addition to our family, is half wire-haired Dachshund and half Shih-Tzu, meaning that many people mistake her for a teddy bear until she barks.  This breed is apparently called a Schweenie, which is possibly the silliest name for an animal ever created.  Growing up with dogs rubbing their faces against my knees, eating food off my plate, and licking my nose when I’m sad means that it’s never been a question of whether I’ll adopt a dog when I get my own place.  Instead, it’s when.

The root of my problem is that Valencia.  Is full.  Of.  Dogs.  I can’t even walk to the fruit store next door without encountering several Chihuahuas, a few pugs, and maybe a terrier or two.  Owing to the small size of most Spanish apartments, most dogs are of the little kind (it isn’t strange at all to see hulking men in leather jackets walking frilly Pomeranians with bows in their hair), but the occasional golden retriever or Bernese mountain dog isn’t uncommon either.  In the main plaza, I once encountered a Great Dane so large I probably could have ridden him down the streets of Valencia instead of taking the bus.  It seems like every single Valencian has a canine best friend, which means that I feel the pain of lacking one even harder.  Maybe it’s my latent maternal instinct kicking in and telling me to reproduce, except that my brain seems to think that I’m a dog, because all I want are puppies.  Lately, I’ve been ending every message to my family with “and please send me a puppy in the mail, xoxo, Elizabeth.”

In which I bond with Maravilla, the cuddliest donkey ever.

In which I bond with Maravilla, the cuddliest donkey ever.

My obsession has gotten so intense that I’ve found myself going gaga over animals everywhere.  A pair of regal, plump Persian cats that I’ve named Victoria and Albert live on the balcony below my apartment in Spain.  My roommate Sally and I sometimes spend our mornings meowing at them, trying to see if they’ll meow back.  (They haven’t.  Yet.)  In the nearby town of Bocairent, I let a two-month-old boxer puppy chew on my fingers and leave bite marks on my leather Steve Madden boots, then had an intimate moment with some random man’s donkey.  I will sometimes stop dead in the middle of a street to stare at someone’s schnauzer or doe-eyed chocolate lab.  At this point, I’m considering making a sign to tape to my shirt that says, “I’m Not Staring At You, I’m Staring At Your Adorable Dog.”

Things have gotten so bad that I found myself Googling “animals in teacups” a few nights ago.  Did you know that all kinds of baby animals can fit in teacups?  Because THEY CAN!  Take a look:

Kittens!

Bunnies!

And this hedgehog even matches the color scheme!

After reading this Buzzfeed article, I terrified my boyfriend by telling him I wanted a kid for Christmas (before I clarified that I meant a baby goat).  I told my mom that I was thinking of adopting a dog and keeping it in my dorm room next semester.  Perhaps I’ve always had it in me, or perhaps living in Valencia has brought it out, but I am starting to lose it to clumsy-legged bundles of fur.    All I can hope is that I’m able to hold onto my senses until I return to Schizo Dog, Snuffly Dog, and Small Dog in December – or my host mom might come home to find that I’ve snatched a ‘regalito’ for her off the streets while some poor dog owner had his back turned.

The Power of a Single Story

28 Oct

I think it’s fair to say that I am bamboozled – in the best way possible – by all the responses to my last post.  Thank you all so much for reading, sharing, commenting, and thinking about my words.  Yes, I was trying to make a point, but all I was really doing is what I try to do with the majority of my writing:  tell a story.  The timing of that post coincides perfectly with what I’d like to do next, which is focus on other peoples’ stories.

There’s no way to deny the power of a single story.  J.K. Rowling became one of the most beloved and influential authors in the world by scribbling one in cafés and on her old typewriter.  James Joyce’s Dubliners helped inspire the Irish independence movement and the Easter Rising of 1916.  Dreaming of heroes and bounty hunters, Flash Gordon, and Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, young filmmaker George Lucas wrote a series of scripts in the early 70s that would become Star Wars, the third highest-grossing film in the history of cinema.  A diary given to a Dutch girl on her thirteenth birthday would be found two years later and published as The Diary of Anne Frank, the quintessential warning against the Holocaust.

I don’t pretend that my stories (or most stories) are nearly as influential, but it’s clear that stories in general hold humanity enthralled.  That’s why, when I got to Spain this semester, I wanted to investigate the stories we hold dearest to us.  As part of an independent study, I’ve created Everyday Folktales, a blog of interviews in the vein of Humans of New York and other sites that aim to shine a spotlight on what at first seems ordinary.  The posts will have two questions, which anyone can answer:

  1. Tell me a story.
  2. Why did you pick that story?

I want to know what you think when I say the words Tell me a story.  Is it your favorite fairy tale from when you were younger?  A memory?  The plot of your favorite book?  Something you make up on the spot? Whatever it is, I firmly believe that the stories we tell ourselves and each other also reveal what is most human about each of us.

If you’re interested in participating, feel more than free to do the following:

  1. Write down, in no more than 750 words, the answers to both questions.  If you’d like, create a video of yourself telling the story to go along with it.
  2. Send it to epb3xw@virginia.edu.  If you’re friends with me on Facebook, feel free to message it to me that way.  Include a picture of you and a title for your story.
  3. The story will go up within a week, and you’ll get the enormous satisfaction of knowing that a) people get to listen to you, and b) you’ve helped me a good deal in my independent study

If you’re in Valencia, Spain with me right now, good news: you don’t even have to do the work of filming yourselves!  I’d love to have as many UVA program participants as possible become interviewees, so comment or shoot me an email if you’d like to join in.  I’m working on getting good filming equipment, and we can talk/film whenever is convenient for you.

Although there’s nothing on it yet, you’ll be able to check out Everyday Folktales in under a week, so stay tuned and keep it on your radar!

To cap things off, here’s Isabel Allende with my favorite TED talk.  “There’s a Jewish saying that I love,” she says at the very beginning.  “‘What is truer than truth?’  Answer: ‘the story.’”

 

An Open Letter to UVA on Sexual Harassment and Assault

17 Oct

Two weeks ago, I celebrated my one-month anniversary of living in Spain by grabbing bocadillos (thick, bready Spanish sandwiches) with my friends Sarah and Katherine.  We chatted with Rita, Katherine’s intercambio (language partner from Valencia), mouths full of bread, egg, and chicken.  The steady 2:00 sun filled the cafeteria of the Valencian psychology department with light.  We remarked on how much better our Spanish is getting: no longer do we have to fish around for quite so many words, or blush and stutter because we can’t get our point across.

Studying abroad has taught me two crucial skills thus far: to communicate openly and to know that I am stronger than I think.  Writing these posts has been a way of being frighteningly, cathartically open about my experiences.  Living in a country in which my native language isn’t the one emblazoned on street signs, splashed across advertisements, and spilling from people’s lips means that I treasure every moment of honest communication I can find.  Five weeks ago, I wondered whether I had it in me to stay here until December.  Now I know I can, and that knowledge has given me the peace of mind to discuss another subject that I feel is worth talking about.

Rape and sexual assault on college campuses and other educational institutions has become such a topic du jour around sites like Jezebel and xoJane that it seems as if some people ignore it entirely.  Not so long ago, I would have counted myself among that number.  It happened, I knew, but surely not at my school – or if it did, it couldn’t occur frequently.  Then I came to Valencia, and during some of the most open, frank conversations I’ve ever had, I heard stories from almost every girl I met.  One got drunk at a party, went home with a boy but told him she didn’t want to have sex, and found him on top of her later.  Another was raped at a frat and then blacklisted.  The cases of assault and harassment seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.  With those stories filling my ears and humming in my blood, I decided to tell my own.

Almost six months ago, when joining an organization at my university that I very much enjoyed participating in, I found myself in need of fulfilling one last requirement to join.  As a prospective member, I had to get to know several long-term members in an informal setting.  The day before the semester was over, I needed one more meeting.   A man in the group had reached out to me previously, and since we shared interests in travel and foreign languages, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind chatting with me over coffee to nab that final requirement.  As the day wore on, the situation began to change.  First he pushed the meeting back to night.  Then he said he’d pick me up.  Then he said we could just go to his apartment.  Then there was no one else there.  It became clear to me that a casual conversation about all the places we’d traveled wasn’t what he had in mind.  Despite my repeated excuses, he continued kissing me, pinning me to the couch, and touching me.  It took me two hours to convince him that I wanted to go home.  I walked, shaking, up the steps to my dorm room, papers in hand.  In the ‘location’ space for the meeting slot on my sheet, he’d written that we’d talked in the library café.

It wasn’t rape, I kept telling myself over the following days.  It wasn’t rape.  I never said no, not exactly.  The other half of my brain kept picking out the flaws in those words.  He was twice my age, twice my size, and twice my strength.  He held a position of power over me, both physically and metaphorically, because he knew I needed one last meeting before the next day.  He probably thought that, as the only first-year female in my prospective group, I wouldn’t turn him down.  And just because it wasn’t rape didn’t mean that it didn’t signify anything.

I eventually went to the president of the organization to tell her exactly what had gone down.  Furious at what had happened to me, she wrote out a list of my resources.  Let me take a moment to say that, during this step of the process, I met a group of dynamic, intelligent individuals who took the time to constantly make sure I knew all my options.  I was fed waffles.  I was treated at the Pigeon Hole.  I was given legal advice and personal advice, all of which was sound.  But the president told me that the only way to expel this member from the organization was to hold a hearing and pass a vote.  Not only would this man have the chance to twist the scenario to his liking and reveal my name, I had no evidence.  This was a classic example of a he-said-she-said case: no evidence on either side, just bitter feelings and a gnawing sense that this had been wrong.

I then considered reporting him to the university.  In my research on that front, I found some truly disappointing statistics.  In the past twelve years, UVA hasn’t expelled a single student for sexual assault.  However, during the last academic term alone, it’s expelled six for violations of the Honor Code.  For those of you who aren’t students here, UVA expels students who break the Honor Code, as per the single-sanction rule.  The Honor Committee website defines an honor violation as follows: “a Significant Act of Lying, Cheating or Stealing, which Act is committed with Knowledge. Three criteria determine whether or not an Honor Offense has occurred:

  • Act: Was an act of lying, cheating or stealing committed?
  • Knowledge: Did the student know, or should a reasonable University student have known, that the Act in question was Lying, Cheating, or Stealing?
  •  Significance: Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?”

Call me crazy, but sexual assault seems to be on par with, if not worse than, lying, cheating, or stealing.  To put things in perspective, let’s apply the same parameters to what happened to me.

  • Was an act of sexual assault/harassment committed?  Yes.  Again, let’s look at UVA’s resources.  The sexual violence page defines sexual assault as “any form of forced sexual contact.”  Compared to cases of rape and other forced sexual contact, I was lucky.  But did I want this contact?  No.
  • Did the student know, or should a reasonable University student have known, that the Act in question was sexual assault/harassment?  This one is a little harder.  Perhaps this student somehow interpreted my friendly behavior as a sign of interest.  I doubt that he took me to his apartment specifically thinking, “I am going to sexually harass this girl.”  But my reluctance and lack of verbal consent should have been a clear sign that I wasn’t interested.  A reasonable UVA student – hell, a reasonable human being – should know not to proceed from there.
  • Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?  I cannot imagine a response to this question other than “yes.”  Imagine a situation of sexual harassment or assault happening to someone you trust, and who trusts you.  Would you like that to happen?  No?  That’s answered, then.

I try not to pretend to be anything other than what I am.  I am only a writer.  I am not a lawyer, nor am I an educator, nor am I any kind of authority on what kinds of laws govern sexual harassment/assault cases on university grounds.  I was not raped, just put in a situation that made me queasy.  And outside of the organization in which I am involved, I didn’t report this to anyone.  In some ways, that makes me part of the problem, and I wish I had taken further action six months ago.  But I know enough to say that all people – women and men both – who are enrolled at any educational institution deserve proper protection from that kind of situation.  If it does happen (and it will – I’m not naïve enough to imply that it can be eradicated entirely, even by the best schools), they should feel safe in the knowledge that whatever happened to them will be treated with the same gravity as lying, cheating, or stealing.  To any members of the UVA Sexual Misconduct Board who happen to read this post: you are on the right track, but you are not doing enough.  When students who have been courageous enough to report their stories (Kathryn, Annie, Anonymous Wahoo) consistently come away saying that they feel blamed and that their perpetrators are able to get away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, you may want to consider that the way that you’re evaluating cases could use some work.

I have come to love so many aspects of my university: lying on someone’s old quilt spread across the Lawn on a fall day, taking creative writing classes with the incredible English department, blissfully stuffing a Bodo’s bagel in my face.  Others I have come to hate, and none more so than this one.  The University of Virginia already has a centuries-old reputation for sweeping distasteful problems under the rug, such as misogyny and elitism.  It is now also gaining a reputation as an institution that fails to protect its own students in the most basic of ways.  Nearly ten years ago, Hook wrote a story called “How UVA Turns its Back on Rape.”  I’m still not sure it’s accurate to say things are much different.  Today, when debates over rape culture, allocation of blame, and nitpicking over sexual assault laws, semantics, and definitions run rife through the media, it is now more important than ever for UVA to tighten its standards.  A true community of trust, after all, does everything it can to foster that trust in every aspect of student life.

An aside: thank you to all the students I’ve met who have shared their stories with me.  You have all survived so much and are so incredibly strong.  You are my role models.

An Idiot’s Guide to Valencian Traffic

2 Oct

                

The Spaniards have a reputation for taking life at a pace that’s a little less frenetic than that of the U.S., and that was one of the aspects of Spanish culture that I most wanted to see for myself.  As someone who’s used to meticulously organized calendars, meeting deadlines, and rushing around Charlottesville or Richmond with a notebook in one hand and a caramel macchiato in the other, I was hoping for some relaxation.  And, for the most part, that’s what I found.  At 11:00 A.M., the avenues of Valencia are full of people stirring sugar into their morning tea and spreading olive oil over toast, chatting with their neighbors.  At 2:00, when the Mediterranean afternoon swallows up the city in a haze of sunlight and heat mirage, most stores are locked up tight for the siesta.  At any time of day, I see throngs of Valencians ambling down the central garden of the Río that runs the length of the city, pushing strollers or walking dogs so slowly that I wonder if they are actually moving.  Things aren’t so crazy here, and I like that.

                But when it comes to driving, all those notions go straight out the window.  Spaniards drive like they are participating in a nation-wide NASCAR race.  They zoom through narrow streets at speeds that make me cringe, constantly changing lanes and swerving around motorcyclists.  Stop signs and red lights seem to be a gentle suggestion to many rather than a command.  What’s even more unnerving is that plenty of people drive while texting or calling.  On my second day in Spain, a friend and I were walking along the nearby Gran Vía del Marqués del Túria when a young guy, texting and driving, ran a red light and rammed the car in front of him.  Both cars shuddered from the impact, and a thin plume of smoke rose from the first car’s hood.

“Holy shit,” I said (eloquent as ever).

Traffic continued to hurtle down the avenue.  The other driver opened her door and got out, surveying her smashed fender.  I fully expected obscenities to be shouted, accompanied by calls to the police.  But the two drivers only looked at each other, then at their ruined fenders, then back at each other.  The woman shrugged.  Then they both got back in their cars and drove away.

“Holy shit,” I said again, this time in awe.

Think it looks easy to get to this picturesque fountain in the middle of the street? Think again!

This nonchalant attitude towards automobile damage seems to extend to pedestrians.  Valencia has many wide, multi-lane streets split down the middle by small gardens or rows of palm trees.  This means that crossing the entire street can become a high-stakes adventure in two seconds flat.  The electronic walk signal or not has a habit of blinking once, then suddenly turning red.  Many are the days that I get stuck right in the middle of a busy street when the little green man on the signal disappears.  When that happens, traffic speeds towards me, splitting around me as if I am a rock in the middle of a river.  As you might imagine, this is somewhat unnerving.  My roommate Sally, who has nerves of steel, often rides her ValenBisi (a public bike you can pay to use and park in designated Bisi spots all over the city) inches away from these cars.  I, too, would like to get off my butt and Bisi around the city, but the thought of being smashed into a pile of gears and fleshy bits keeps me from actually renting one.

“One day you might learn how to drive here.  You never know.  I got used to it,” the UVA program director told me when I commented on it to her.

I am still not sure how to explain the discrepancy between most of Spanish life and driving, but I am now pretty sure of one thing: I will probably never drive a car in Valencia.  Getting over culture shock is one thing.  Getting behind the wheel, though, is another.

Serendipity

22 Sep

A story about getting luckier than I deserved.

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) at night

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) at night

 

Last week, I began rereading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, trying to rekindle that love of travel that I thought she and I shared.  When I first read the book years ago, I envisioned her strolling through the streets of Rome with hazelnut gelato in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, the Mediterranean sun glinting in hair that was as golden as mine.  That, I thought, was what my experience was going to be like.  Gilbert makes it sound so easy.  Don’t speak the language?  No problem!  No friends in this country?  Don’t sweat it!  Eat some pizza, visit some fountains, and everything will turn out fine.  Right?

The truth, I’ve discovered, is that it’s anything but.  But I kept going back to the passage she wrote in which she collapsed, sobbing, on the floor of her bathroom.  God, she says, spoke to her then.  He said, Go back to bed, Liz.  I always found that part the hardest to swallow.  Why would god take the time to talk to someone who’s never bothered to speak with him before?  Why that moment?

And yet, as I lay in my lumpy bed last week, listened to the traffic roaring by on the Gran Vía, and cried (as usual), I couldn’t stop thinking of it.  God had never spoken to me before (except he maybe hit me in the head with a fifteen-pound cross on Christmas Eve last year, but that’s a story for another time), so he probably had better things to do than talk to me, anyway.  But I couldn’t help whispering through my tears, “I can’t do this alone.  I thought I could, but I can’t.  Please help me.”

For days, I didn’t think he was going to answer me.  Sunday morning, I ran out of tears and just sat in my bed, thinking about what to do.  My host mother had been gone for most of the weekend, leaving me alone.  I hadn’t slept in three days and hadn’t eaten anything substantial in two.  I had left messages in Spanglish on the phones of my Spanish psychologist and the program director, telling them I had run out of options.  I was going home.

However, I was incredibly lucky to have been blessed with good friends as soon as I got here.  Stephanie and Sally, two other UVA students living nearby, answered a desperate Facebook message I sent.  They dropped what they were doing, showed up in my host mother’s apartment, and made me a cup of tea.  Then they carved up a melon and fed it to me.  “Look,” said Sally, “why don’t you come over and have dinner at my place tonight?  I hope you don’t mind, but I told my host mom about you.  She wants to meet you.  Maybe talk things over with you, if you’d like that.”

Image

Sally and I pose in front of a Spanish McDonald’s (classy, right?)

Blanca, her host mother, lived in an old building with laundry flapping from clotheslines in the inner courtyard and a smooth, beveled staircase that rose nine floors into the Valencian skyline.  When we arrived at her apartment door, she had just gotten back from the beach with her son and daughter.  Her skin was still warm from the sand of the Malvarrosa.  Half Swedish, half Spanish, she had blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and pale skin spotted brown from forty years in the Spanish sun.  “Come here, Elizabeth,” she said, smiling.  I (surprise!) burst into tears.  She enfolded me in her arms and let me sob into the shoulder of her housedress.  Then she handed me a set of keys.  “I want you to know,” she told me, “that you are a friend, and you can always stay here.  Always.”  She sat me down on the couch, made me a cup of chamomile tea, and massaged my hands.  “I am going to feed you dinner, you are going to take a long, hot shower, and then you are going to sleep in my extra bedroom.  But first my children are going to take you to a movie.”

Blanquita and Manu, Blanca’s thirty-something children, kissed me on both cheeks, gave me a glass of orchata (a sweet, creamy Spanish drink made of almonds and sugar), and whisked Sally and me off to the movies.  They chose Asalto al poder (White House Down in English), a very silly movie in which Channing Tatum shoots a lot of people, blows things up, and drives cars through windows.  Manu paid for our tickets.  When I protested, Blanquita winked and said, “When a Spanish man offers to pay for your ticket, you don’t say no.  It doesn’t happen often.”

For the first time, I felt like Valencia was somewhere I could be content.

Dinner, instead of the tongue-burning, salty vegetable mix I had grown accustomed to, was a variety of foods I recognized and wanted to eat.  (Tomatoes with goat cheese!  Ripe peaches!  Whole-wheat bread with olive oil!  Flan!)  “I think dinners should always have music in them somehow,” Blanca told me as we served ourselves.  She slipped a CD into her CD player, and the strains of the Appalachian-tinged song “Ashokan Farewell” filled the room.  “Now, Sally tells me you can sing.  Yes?  Would you like to join a choir?”

I blinked.  “Um.  Yes, please.”

“We can do that!  And do you play any instruments?  Piano?  Guitar?”

“I play the flute,” I told her.  “But I didn’t bring it with me.”

“Ah!  Well, then we’re going to rent you a flute to make you happy.  You are a sensitive girl, yes?  An artist.  And artists need their art.”

I could only stare at all of them as they ate: the way Manu gesticulated with his fork when he talked about the English classes he was taking, Blanca and Blanquita’s bright blue eyes, the crinkling of Sally’s brows when she laughed (which was often).  After dinner, as Blanquita and Manu washed dishes, Blanca made me more tea.  “Tell me,” she said, “do you believe in god?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted, after a pause.

“But you recently asked god for help?”

I was floored.  “Yes.”

“God sent me to you,” she said matter-of-factly, stirring more sugar into my tea.  “I am an angel, but I am not special, because there have been and will be many angels in your life.  We are all lucky in that way.  Just remember, Elizabeth, that I will always be here in my house for you.  So will Sally.”

Yesterday, after a twenty-four-hour waiting period so that Sally, Blanca, and I could be sure of what we wanted, I moved into Blanca’s apartment.  “I feel like Harry Potter going to Hogwarts,” I told the program director as she helped me haul my luggage (bulging from the haphazard way I had re-packed it) into a taxi.

“It’s wonderful to have you here for good,” Blanca said when I got there.  She kissed the top of my head.

Every time I think I’ve had it in Valencia, life tosses something else – namely, someone else – my way.  I have had the honor of meeting an incredible group of people here, and I hope my luck doesn’t run out during this semester.  And I still can’t tell you whether I believe in god, but after having my own Elizabeth Gilbert moment, I can say that the bonds which connect us are much more curious and delightful than we are led to believe.

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.