The Girl With No Identity

fireworks-floral-with-bomb-and-matches-1993

I was lying on my stomach on the small back terrace of my host family’s apartment in Barcelona, using an old coat hanger to try to fish my favorite pair of underwear from the corrugated tin roof one floor below.

After the underwear fell from my hands while I was taking it off the clothesline, I’d debated what to do. I was alone at the house and too mortified to wait and ask for help anyway, but leaving them on the corrugated tin roof forever felt strangely unbearable. I decided I had to get them back, so I looked around the apartment and found a wire coat hanger. I bent it into a hook, which I attached to a piece of cable I scavenged from a closet. Then I got down on my stomach and lowered it down, flinging my arm out awkwardly to try to get it to catch.

*    *    *

The underwear incident happened about four months into my semester abroad and felt like an apt metaphor for the whole experience.

I arrived in Barcelona as a 20 year old in January 2003. I’d been to Europe several times with my family when I was growing up and had some idea, or thought I did, of what living abroad would entail. A heritage of meaningful foreign experiences propelled me forward. My grandfather had studied abroad in France, my grandmother in Switzerland, my mom in Paris, and my older brother in Germany. All spoke about their time in other countries with deep respect and fondness. Travel could be challenging at times, definitely, but my perception was that it was supposed to be fun and enriching. It was for people who were interesting, intellectually curious, and resilient. Cultural narratives about college semesters abroad did nothing to dispel this.

What I’m trying to say is that my notions of what studying abroad would look and feel like were not entirely realistic.

*    *    *

The first clue that my expectations were going not going to match reality was when I was discovered that my compulsory homestay was with a single dad rather than a mom, like literally every other kid I knew.

During the weeklong orientation before we were assigned to our host families, there was a rumor going around that one of the placements was with a man. The story was that this guy always requested women from Brown because, years earlier, one such woman had been placed with him, fallen in love with his son, and never returned to school. It seemed too ridiculous to be true. When the program staff told me that I’d been assigned to the solitary host dad, I was rattled. Really rattled, actually, but I tried to be cool. Like other dumb, reversible situations I’ve gotten myself into in life, I was convinced that I had to make it work no matter what. Everyone felt bad for me, which made me even more determined to not reveal my anxiety.

His name was Joan (pronounced zho-ahn, it’s the Catalan version of the name Juan) and it is not hyperbole to say that he was ogre-like in appearance. He wasn’t a tall man, a characteristic accentuated by a substantial gut. He had large features that were exaggerated by purply, pockmarked skin and wore the aviator-style eyeglasses popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s. His hair, which was abundant, was always neatly side parted and brilliantined into a shiny helmet. He smoked furiously. He wasn’t rude or mean, but nor was he warm nor welcoming. Maybe he sensed my nervousness about the whole situations and, yes, dislike for him. Whatever the reason, we did not hit it off.

Joan. Photo credit: Eddie Marritz
Joan. Photo credit: Eddie Marritz

 

Life outside of Joan’s house wasn’t great for me, either. I wasn’t making any new friends or social connections through school. Two of my classes were with the other American students in the program, and two I took directly at the University with Spanish college students. The two that were through the university were far more interesting – not that I understood the nuances of much of what was being taught. But I liked the people watching, and the old university buildings. Having to go to class and complete assignments imbued a comforting sense of purpose to an otherwise totally unstructured existence. I had a few friends in my program, and I don’t remember why anymore, but we didn’t spend that much time together. Then again, maybe no amount of time with friends would have dispelled the feeling of isolation.

I was depressed and lonely.

Everything was made much worse by the fact that I was paralyzed by my lack of total proficiency in Spanish. Accustomed to a very verbal existence and using language as a primary means of connecting to other people, I was mortified at my inability to express my thoughts and opinions. I was maddened by my own discomfort but couldn’t bring myself to speak if I couldn’t do so perfectly. Since that was impossible, it resulted in me speaking very little indeed. And without language, I had no personality.

I thought a lot about an aunt and uncle who, years earlier, had hosted a German exchange student for a year. They were gracious and warm to her, but complained about how difficult she was privately to us. She never seemed happy. She didn’t want to do anything. They just didn’t enjoy having her around very much. I imagined Joan having similar conversations with his friends and family about me. “She barely speaks!” he might say. “What a bore. I think she might have social disorder.”

Not-speaking became a way of being. Joan didn’t work, so we were often not-speaking in the apartment together. I clung to the familiar. I read, and re-read, a lot of books. I also ate and slept more than I ever have in my life. It turned out that the rumor about the Brown student (whose name was Miriam) and Joan’s son was true. They came over for brunch with Joan’s ex-wife one day. Miriam refused to speak to me in English.

My parents visited for a week in the spring and I can hardly remember being happier to see them. We took a road trip and listened to the Beck album Sea Change. I felt intense, interior joy at being heard, seen, and understood so effortlessly. As the end of the semester approached, I became keenly aware of exactly how many days remained between me and the return home, which had come to feel like a return to being myself.

I spent my last day in Barcelona wandering aimlessly, finally ending up in Plaza Catalunya, one of the city’s busiest hubs. I had already packed and taken care of everything on my to do list. I was surrounded by people and activity but had so sense of purpose, however small. I’d failed even at enjoying my last moments in a city I objectively thought was wonderful.

*    *    *

I recently had a long conversation with my mom about her year in Paris. She has strong, happy memories of Sunday croissants with apricot jam, visiting the Louvre every week, and discovering figure painting and Egyptian Art for the first time. She also told me something I hadn’t known before: she’d been lonely and homesick at times. She felt anonymous in a big city and a foreign language. The experience had indeed been rich, but it was not easy.

People don’t know how to react when you tell them that you didn’t like studying abroad. I laugh about it now, but the expectation for the experience – mine and everyone else’s – was one of wonder, transformation, and adventure. When the opposite ended up being true, it felt like an enormous personal failure. There were many things I loved about Barcelona — the fantastical architecture, the liveliness, the hidden alleys and dazzling boqueria open air market were enchanting. But without the context of a meaningful social foundation, I was adrift.

I went back home, and to school, eager to make light of the experience if asked, and otherwise to move on quickly. For a long time I felt disappointed in what I thought my disenchantment with my semester abroad said about me. Eventually, I forgave myself for the legitimately difficult parts and recognized that there were other people who would also have been seriously challenged by them. It was a lesson in how important having a solid social foundation is for my happiness. It was a lesson in paying attention to who I was, not who I wished to be.

And if you’re wondering about that favorite pair of underwear, in a small but significant triumph, I did get it back.

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Image: Fireworks Floral with Bomb and MatchesGlennray Tutor, 1993

14 Comments

  1. How brave to tell the truth about a situation that collided with the presumed expectation.It couldn’t help that he smoked and drank and looked the way he did. You probably learned something from this experience, but I’m not sure what. How could you? Except that you are now a person who lives through your words.

    You are no longer invisible, not by a long shot.

    I’m sorry you had to go through this. But thanks for writing about it.

    • leda

      You use the right word: collision. I do think there was value in the experience (although perhaps not six months of value, which was how long I was there!). I half-jokingly refer to it as character-building. I do think I felt I needed to be tough and stick it out. This is a situation where that attitude may not have served me that well.

  2. Tim M.

    Thank you for sharing, Leda. I think I felt very similarly about my first year of college. I remember wishing that someone would have told me that getting accepted to a school wasn’t the entire struggle. Once there, you had to live it, and that presented its own challenges. I really enjoyed my time abroad in Vietnam, I think because it was so exciting and different. But coming back to school was hard.

    • leda

      Yeah, very much so. A series of struggle to be accepted, relief at knowing, and then struggle again to establish yourself in a totally new context. “Character-building” or something… !

  3. Virginia Abbott

    Out of all of my experiences abroad, my semester abroad (also in Barcelona) was the hardest. I too can relate to feeling isolated, depressed and without a sense of purpose. Yet, I learned important lessons from that semester that have served me through every subsequent move abroad. Never again did I approach a move to another country with wildly unrealistic and romantic expectations for what my life would be like. And, most importantly, never again did I expect the mere act of being abroad to fulfill me. To be happy in another country, you need the same things you need to be happy at home– structure, meaningful social interactions, goals. I think you are right, Leda, that too much attention is given to how enriching it is to study abroad and not to the hardships. However, most people I know who have spent time outside of their countries can relate to the exact struggles that you endured. I personally think it is a valuable experience to go through at some point in your life.

    • leda

      So well said, Virginia. You do need the same things, regardless of where you are. I also look back and wonder – why didn’t I tell more people how I was feeling? I learned later that many people felt lonely and sad, but I think I felt embarrassed to say anything. Like it reflected badly on my character. But in keeping it in, to some degree I also deprived myself of realizing I wasn’t alone.

  4. I started reading this post because the title was excellent and alluring. When I came across the phrase in the intro “strangely unbearable,” I thought, ‘aha! I know who wrote this because that is a locution leda would use.’Then the story made me think of the stage and unbearable lightness of being from when one of our sons spent a semester in the Czech Republic and when we decided to visit, I read Milos Kundera’s unbearable lightness of being, which was like reading about someone fishing for underwear off a second story roof.

    This is a fine piece of writing.

    • leda

      Philip! Thank you for saying so. I didn’t realize my writing was that recognizable, but then, you know me well. And I love that. (And thank god I got that underwear back, right?).

  5. Michele Urvater

    Alessia doesn’t have time to comment on this blog but I do and as you and Steph know, hers too was an isolating and unhappy experience with a very distant family. I think the father of the family never acknowledged her first. Maybe these study abroad programs should be re-examined; maybe another person of about the same age should be present in the guest home?

    • leda

      Yeah, I will say that the people I know who had tougher times did often – although not universally – have homestays. On the other hand, other people I know had amazing home stay experiences. So much of it comes down to who they put you with, and who know how they decide the placements? Hard lessons.

  6. Hana Marritz

    What an intriguing title. it says all about how you felt those six months. The title also gives some distance to the experience; like you can see that girl now, and she is not you. Not you because what this experience taught you was not to ignore that girl who is crying out in pain. Go help her.

    You are such a powerful writer. when I started reading this, I laughed out loud repeatedly. until the sadness of it crept in like a dead weight. I felt so badly for you. So great you can write about it with humor, recognizing your own and everyone else’s fallibility is not easy to do. I struggle at laughing at myself and my rediculousness. What a great gift that is. and what a great gift you have.

    I was so fortunate in my year abroad. i was placed in a family with two other women who became my friends-not bosom friends, but solid supporters. But the greatest thing of all was the amazing madame of the family, Mme Fourneau (means oven). She was the Earth Mother. I will never forget her, and she is always very close to my heart. She made all the other amazing things that happened that year possible. I wish you could have met her and lived with her.

    • leda

      What a wonderful thing to say. Thank you. I too wish I could have met Madame Fourneau. She sounds like an incredible person – plus, I would just like to meet her because of the profound effect she had on you. Writing this piece made me understand your experience so much better – I will never forget how so much of who you are what you love today (including Egyptian art, figure painting, and dogs) was shaped by that experience. Love you.

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