Americans Abroad

Alia caught in the act of trying to take a normal photograph. I'll show you!

Well, I finally did it: I had a proper spring break trip.

Never mind that I waited until I was a graduate student to do it, or that I wound up in Barcelona, not Cancun, and that it barely got above sixty degrees.  All the parts were in place: there were messy nights at overcrowded clubs, bottles of 83 euro-cent wine, a million-and-one pictures of smiling friends mimicking great (at least, that’s what they tell me) sculptures pieces of artwork, and even a slightly-too-cold-but-at-least-we-have-a-beach day of sunbathing.

Real men eat baguettes and drink .83 euro wine.

It wasn’t quite how I envisioned it (nothing really is).  At some point last year, I had grand delusions of spending my breaks couch-surfing across Europe, hitch-hiking and living off scraps the “freegan” way. Just two weeks ago, I was doing research on Barcelona’s world-famous okupas (squats) and making plans for a little bit of anarcho-tourism.  At the very least, I hoped that I would meet some locals and have a chance to practice my Spanish in anticipation for thesis research this summer (yes, I know they speak Catalan).

Hey! We're Americans! We act dumb in restaurants!

In the end, though, I took the beaten path, which—endless guilt complex aside—felt comfortable and, well, the most like an actual vacation. I didn’t practice my Spanish much beyond asking vendors at the market to not give me plastic bags.  While I looked on disapprovingly at the mindless partiers from the U.S. and U.K. in Thailand, having returned from Spain without meeting a single Spanish person, I suppose I now have no room to judge.  And I never made it to the okupas, though I did get some great pictures of them.  Couch-surfing and activist-center hopping might be cheap, but it needs an awful lot of planning, and by the time break rolled around, I was just burned out.  All in all, the yawning gap between my purported identity as a radical—as doing things “differently”—and the reality of my life as an Oxford student has never felt so apparent.


Brain dump about the perils of being a “normal” tourist / person aside, though, I had an amazing time.  There’s not much point in offering a blow-by-blow account, especially since the highpoints were many but not easily captured.  I particularly loved walking along the Mediterranean at midnight, running up to a castle overlooking the Olympic grounds, and buying fresh produce at La Boqueria. It felt great to read a book about development without a pen in hand, soaking in knowledge for its own sake.  And—more than anything—I loved sitting in our apartment chatting, realizing that, six months into graduate school, I do have people I can call friends. It’s kind of absurd to go to school in England, then travel to Spain, only to make friends with a handful of Americans, but if that’s what it takes, I’m all in.

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Jukebox: Yann Tierson – Les Jours Tristes

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