And in the end (II)

The experience.

By most standards, five weeks is not a very long time. It’s just long enough for God to make Noah and his family mucho miserable while He cleaned up the filth of the world, but beyond that I wasn’t sure that anything significantly life-changing is marked by a five-week period.

At least, that’s what I believed before I went on this dialogue. As it turns out, a LOT can happen in five weeks, and some of it really can – in the long run – change one’s life. I learned many, many new things, and unlearned many, many more things I thought I knew.

Questions I had at the beginning of the trip: What would it be like, being a stranger in a group of strangers, living together in a strange land? Would I be able to write about what I wanted to? Would I get along with the people I’d been assigned to live with? How would I handle the language barrier? How much money would I end up spending? Would I like the food? (Although to be honest that one didn’t worry me much – I always like the food.)

The answers came first in a trickle, then in an avalanche. To start, the group didn’t stay strangers for long; in two nights, we managed to go from not knowing one another’s names at the airport in Boston to openly – and I guess somewhat tipsily – talking about long-time crushes and bowel movements. From that, I learned: There is nothing like travel to bring people together.

Reporting, I found (somewhat to my surprise), was a blast. It was everything I thought it would be and nothing at all like what I expected. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a foreign correspondent, covering events on unfamiliar territory; seeing things others haven’t and talking to people others won’t; and making the world available to yourself and to others through the written word.

Well, I sure as hell found out.

There is no way I would have ventured past the usual tourist spots if I hadn’t needed to meet with sources at random (and awesome!) local cafés; no way I would have gotten to know the Metro as intimately as I did if I hadn’t needed to bounce around the city and its outskirts in the quest for information, people and good pictures; no way I would have discovered in myself the ability to look harder and dig deeper for that a-ha! moment that is the heart of a great story. From this, I learned: The best parts of any trip are the unexpected moments of discovery, whether it’s of a life perspective provided by a transsexual sociologist, or a new, secret place to kick back with a beer.

More importantly, I think, I learned that this is what makes me want to be a journalist.

Not that I discount, in any way, the cultural exposure. Not only did I love the visits to museums and the Palacio Real and the towns and monasteries in the surrounding countryside; but I also took pleasure in the lectures and discussions with politicians, economists and journalists. I now feel I can talk about Spain’s economic and socio-political issues with some measure of confidence – something I value, because it allows me to make-believe I’m not a country bumpkin seeing Europe for the first time. (Technically, I grew up in a city… but you get the picture.)

Then there was the roommate situation, and the cabin fever that spread through the group. As much as we interacted with locals and walked the city streets in ways that no tourist ever does, we were also isolated with one another – an island of American students in a sea of Spanish people. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time with the same group of people, needing and wanting them around me while also wishing I could be alone with my thoughts for just one minute.

From that I learned: There’s nothing like travel to make otherwise nice people want to strangle each other.

I kid. Kind of.

Actually, I learned that I’m a pretty independent person, when it comes down to it. I love socializing and being around friends, but I’ve found I need my “me time,” my private space, my moments of solitude. Constant companionship, it seems, can drive me mad. (Note: I’m alone as I write this, devouring a delicious burrito by an open window and loving every second of it.)

As for the language barrier, well. It sucked to an incredible degree, and I’m absolutely ready to go back to a place where I don’t have to shrug apologetically when someone starts talking to me at random. But I compare it to training with hundred-pound weights in a planet where the gravity level is twice that of Earth: When I get back to familiar ground, 100 pounds won’t feel like a thing.

It will be so much easier to ask for interviews and go up to people back in the States, because I’ve now tasted the sheer desperation and paralysis associated with not being able to communicate with someone you need to talk to.

More than anything else from this trip, that is what has made me – and will continue to make me – a better reporter.  

I also learned that I’m not too bad at navigating and getting myself around an unfamiliar city; that I have the self-discipline to refrain from overspending (which isn’t to say I didn’t spend a lot of money anyway); that I love, love, love food. (OK, that last one wasn’t anything new. But it was a reinforced lesson!)

All that and more in a mere 40 days and 40 nights.

I think Noah would be proud.

Click for Part I of my end-of-Spain series!

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