What Stays and What Goes: Being Myself and Not Myself Abroad

Everything in Cádiz is beautiful and walkable. From my apartment, where I live with a host family of four – Bibi, Jorge, and their children Paula and Guille – I walk 2 minutes to the nearest plaza, where I often meet an American friend in my program who lives nearby. I walk 10 minutes to school, where I’m currently taking a 3-week intensive Spanish course with other international students and where I’ll take my 3 semester-long classes with local students starting in late September. I walk 15 minutes to the nearest beach, La Caleta, where you sit cozily sandwiched between two centuries-old Spanish castles, San Sebastián and Santa Catalina.

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La Caleta at sunset

On a short walk following the waterside path that curves between La Caleta and my home, I was looking admiringly at the tired, content old men casting their long, curving rods off the piers into the bright evening sunset (9:00 is still evening here). Later, thinking about how to describe the phenomenon of my life here – tourist and more-than-tourist, English-speaker and almost-Spanish-speaker, Amherst College student and University of Cádiz student – I began to feel like here, I am attached to my U.S. self with something like those old men’s fishing line.

I can feel myself getting cast out, again and again, a little bit farther each time, heading (willingly or not) towards discomfort or risk, venturing briefly outside of my ordinary habits and personality traits. Sometimes these risks are very little, as small as playing a board game with my host family. I don’t like playing board games, and I’m usually not very good at them. But, in a tiresome and sometimes annoying effort to get my host siblings (ages 9 and 11) to like me, I think I’ve played more board games in my three weeks here than I have since starting college: Monopoly, Clue (“Cluedo” here), and checkers on a New England Patriots-themed board (gifted by a past American student), not to mention other games like Chopsticks (“Deditos” here) and Marco Polo.

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Patriots-themed checkers

Other times, I push myself out even farther away. I’ve started going places by myself, something that I try to avoid at home and at Amherst. (Yes, I’m the person that still doesn’t like to sit at Val alone.) The other day, I walked to La Catedral, bought myself an ice cream, and went to a beach, La Playa Santa María, alone. I know this might not seem like much to others, but for me, this is still a step away from my normal self. Another step away was experiencing Cádiz nightlife. I couldn’t party the whole night away until the arrival of the first morning bus around 7:30 a.m., like many gaditanos (Cádiz locals) do every weekend, but I made it until 4:30 a.m. without falling asleep on the dance floor, and I’m proud of that. My latest cast outwards is actually the biggest of the trip so far (and perhaps the most directly related to fishing): I joined a swim team yesterday! Between the head coach that yells Spanish I don’t understand, the 14-year-olds that swim faster than me, and the girls that introduced themselves and promptly interrogated me about what prom is like in the United States, it’s bound to be an adventure.

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La Catedral

But after each big, sweeping cast outwards, I reel myself in. I get too tired, or too nervous, or too uncomfortable, and I retreat clumsily back up into my old self. The whole thing is noisy, too. There’s an exhilarating whoosh, like fishhook cutting through air, when I push myself even the tiniest bit farther outside my comfort zone. My heartbeat is so temperamental that I can still feel it quicken when I ask my host mom if I can have seconds on lunch, or when I wave across the street to an international student I recognize from class, or when I want to order my café con leche with ice. And, like the old men’s rusty rods, there’s a creak of disappointment when I notice myself scooting back from risks to someplace more comfortable. I still can’t bring myself to ask strangers for directions, even when I’m lost (which is often). I still crave English, though this feeling has dissipated a bit and hopefully will continue to fade the more knowledgeable and comfortable I become in my Spanish. At the beginning, I remember feeling the relief of finally speaking English after hours or days with my host family in a powerful, physical way: my head stopped pounding and my whole body suddenly felt lighter. It honestly felt almost like I hadn’t been fully breathing. English feels SO good. This is why I usually give in without protest when restaurant servers or other students talk to me in English. This is why I smile when my host family plays songs in English in the car. There is something just delightful about hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” while driving through southern Spain.

To be honest, thinking about the U.S. also feels good, though I know there are many, MANY reasons why it shouldn’t. Living abroad has made me begin to recognize and reckon with my own Americentric-ness. I wasn’t aware of its depth and pervasiveness. Why am I surprised when people don’t know where or what Wisconsin is, when I can name pathetically few regions or provinces of other countries? Why do I still feel like there should be American power outlets here somewhere? Why do I remain 100% convinced that people should eat dinner before 10 p.m. and that eggs are truly a breakfast food? Some of this bewilderment is just good old homesickness, which I’m sure will stick around, but I hope I can cast myself out beyond a lot of these Americentric thoughts and opinions by the end of my time here.

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My typical breakfast (Note: the fruit on the right is a paraguayo, which my host family insists you can’t eat with the skin on, even though it tastes just like a peach.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about what of yourself stays and what of yourself goes when you’re abroad: which sacrifices you make, which risks you take…and where the pieces of you are that won’t budge much. What do you gain each time you cast your rod out far into the huge ocean of a new country, a new home? Is there such thing as too far? How do you know when to reel yourself in and re-ground yourself in what you know? How can you stop yourself from cranking the reel backwards in times of discomfort, confusion, or downright panic, and turn these moments into experiences of growth? While these questions might not get answered, I think the thing to strive for while I’m here is balance, continuing to cast out when I can and reel in when I need to.

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