Midnight in Piccadilly Circus, London: A sea of city lights splash the high-rise buildings with white luminescence as I stroll the streets alone. From over my shoulder, I hear a male voice speak to me charmingly. “I like your boots,” he says in English, to which I respond out of instinct, “Gracias.” Studying in Spain this fall has deeply ingrained basic Spanish phrases and words into my vocabulary to such an extent that I cannot escape using them even when I am traveling in England – a country where the people speak my native language.
When I turned around, I expected to see a face bewildered by my response. However, the man who gave me the compliment smiled pleasantly and initiated conversation in Spanish. We talked on the corner for two hours and discussed the philosophy of meeting new people. He told me that, just as we had met, people will continually enter and exit my life, and, in their absence, I must determine their relevance to my existence and remember that fate has a purpose for bringing people together. Then we parted ways without exchanging information or making future plans to see each other again. He simply said, “Maybe one day fate will reunite us as well.” And then he left.
In fact, the verb “to leave” has several definitions. It not only means to depart a location, but also, to impart a mark or to have something remaining. Therefore, although I will be leaving Spain in three weeks, when I do, the country and the people will have left a lasting impression on me and will have given me stories and memories that will last a lifetime. I have also learned that you cannot truly understand a different culture until you struggle to become a part of it.
Before studying abroad, I didn’t know that Spain has 17 autonomous communities – Catalonia and Basque Country, both of which desire complete independence. The country has four officially recognized languages (Castilian, Euskara, Galician and Catalan) that are about as different as Arabic and Chinese. Their constitution only welcomed democracy in 1978, after spending close to 50 years in a dictatorship. An anti-smoking law was passed January 2006, outlawing smoking in places like offices, shops and schools. The authorities do not uphold the law, however, because going to a restaurant means eating in a cloud of fumes. The Spanish youth frequently have “botellóns” in parks, where large crowds gather with plastic bags full of alcohol in order to drink illegally in public together. Also, while there are still many bullfight aficionados, not everyone attends this cultural event, as most of those in opposition reject the idea on behalf of animal rights.
From these facts, I have also learned that Spain reflects a society of major recent changes. It is a country that continues to evolve and, at the same time, is a country that has also changed me, especially through the people I have met.
Remembering forever the man I met on the corner in London, whom I may as well consider a friend for the advice he imparted to me, I have learned that people move in and out of our lives constantly, but with a purpose, no matter how long or how briefly they remain. My friends abroad educated me about the facets of Spanish lifestyle, and I will go back to the United States being able to communicate with people I wouldn’t have had the ability to speak to previously.
At the end of a journey, we never say goodbye to the people and places that we loved and the times that represent our existence, as they permanently become a part of who we are. While strangers to Spain may think of it as the place for tapas, flamenco dancing and the running of the bulls, I will think of it as a place that was once my home.