by Carly Okyle
I thought that it would be like a scene out of The Sun Also Rises. I imagined that I would travel around Europe having outlandish, exciting adventures with The Old World as my playground, and I assumed that I would return as a sophisticated, cultured woman who’d cultivated a taste for imported wine and foreign men. Of course, I was almost a century too late to take part in Hemmingway’s world of alcoholic ex-pats. I never would have fit in anyway, since I preferred Shirley Temples and the occasional glass of Manischewitz to cups of Cognac or tumblers of scotch.
Instead, I arrived for my five-month stay in Sevilla as myself – the Jewish, mildly disabled vegetarian. My crazy, sexy escapades were mundane in comparison to those found in tales from Hemingway, but they seemed exciting to me. I attended a university that was 500 years old and had close ties to the opera Carmen, I tasted (and instantly loved) te con leche (tea with milk) and ron de miel (honey rum), and I enjoyed living with my host family’s friendly German shepherd, Taison (pronounced Tyson, after the boxer). I smelled the orange trees and checked out a bar across town. Everything about the everyday was thrilling. The language was beautiful, and the food and the architecture were incredible. In fact, one of my favorite things about the city was the sight of the Torre de Oro (Tower of Gold) across the river after the sun had set. My life was as exotic and fabulous as I dreamed it would be.
At least, it was for a month or so.
Pretty soon, daily life became, well, an everyday sort of thing, even in Southern Spain. I went to my classes and tried to keep up with the lectures, which were all taught in Spanish. I went for tapas or drinks with my friends, all of whom were American. Before I could shout “Ay, Dios mio!” I began meeting my buddies at the Starbucks down the street, the one that was conveniently located next door — literally! — to a McDonalds. I’m embarrassed to admit that one night, two pals and I decided to go out to dinner at Pizza Hut. Yes, Pizza Hut. I swallowed my shame along with my personal pizza and forced my guilt down with sips of Coke.
I could swear that I heard sighs of dismay from my friends and family who were still Stateside. I would get e-mails and phone calls from all of my loved ones asking, “What do you mean that there’s nothing to report?” and prodding me with, “There must be something exciting that you could tell me.” For a while, I was bothered by the mundane aspects of my study abroad experience. I must be doing it wrong, I thought. One night over dinner, though, a friend’s mother reminded me that the eventual banality really was amazing in itself. I wasn’t on a 5-month vacation, I was actually living abroad. Thus, I had all of the usual experiences of a “normal” life in Seville. Soon after, a trans-Atlantic visit from my parents reignited my passion for the city, as I was able to see and encounter it as they did, with fresh eyes.
When I talk about my semester overseas now, I share only my favorite vignettes of my time there, keeping the more pedestrian moments to myself. Instead, I focus on the truly fantastic aspects that I was fortunate to experience. I mention my excursions to Ronda, Madrid, Brussels, Morocco, Rome, and Amsterdam. I talk about nights at the Flamenco bar and the hookah bar, or the time I tried my first paella. People seem to like these stories better. “Wow! That sounds so glamorous and exciting,” they tell me.
Although I recognize that life abroad is actually quite similar to life in the United States in its routines, I smile and nod in response. I let people assume that life in a foreign country is more enthralling. After all, if I may steal a line from Ernest, isn’t it pretty to think so?
This article was originally featured in August issue of The Resident.