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The Common Traveler: A short story

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Staff Writer

MAY 05, 2019

The fog draping the sky makes the city look like San Francisco, like home, as the plane glided down onto the runways of Madrid. The trees outside were just as green, the gravel beneath me was equally as dull. This new world did not seem too different.

I rushed through the Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez airport, searching for the baggage claim where the university’s email had said to meet my classmates and the study abroad program officials.

I found myself amidst the expected chaos of a large transportation hub, with the familiar hum of spoken English replaced with rapid dialects that my mind could not comprehend. Strangers bustled around me, suitcases jostled by, the distant roar of planes flying off throbbed through the airport,  as I remained paralyzed in the labyrinth of pedestrian traffic.

Wanting to feel productive and following the instructions of the university officials, I went to the closest ATM, withdrawing wads of euros. I looked down at the colorful, thin paper the machine spat out, replacing the crisp, green dollars I had used my entire life. No longer did I have the near-universal signs of home to hold in my hands, and nor would they have any value here. I was no longer in America.

As my anxiety grew, I acted quickly, looking for someone to point me in the direction of baggage claim.

“Excuse me,” I said to an airport worker. He quickly replied, “Lo siento. No hablo ingles.”

I circled the terminal, struggling to catch snatches of English, feeling immersed in spoken sounds I couldn’t understand, my voice incapacitated by this new language. Panic reemerged.

Eventually, I gave up and after retrieving my luggage, I was ushered into a cab that would take me to the apartment I would stay in for the semester.  Jet lag and homesickness pressed down on me as I passed antique Spanish buildings, narrow streets and grand statues that contrasted with the sleek glass buildings, wide roads and quaint, suburban houses of my hometown. I shivered, feeling as though I was in unfamiliar terrain.

Hola. De dónde eres?” the cab driver asked me.

I replied slowly in fragments of Spanish, telling him I was from the United States and studying abroad in Madrid. He waited for me to respond before saying, “Ahhh. Welcome.”

I smiled, attempting to talk to him in Spanish, but he continued on in  English. Throughout the ride, the driver pointed out landmarks of Madrid, suggested the most popular bars and clubs to go to, and described to me the city’s party culture, welcoming me to the country that would be my home for the next four months.

When we arrived, I tipped him twenty euros, thankful that he took the trouble to ease my distress.

“No, no. Is too much,” the driver said, pushing the money back to me.

I shook my head, “No, por favor. Take it. Muchas gracias.

He relented and smiled, replying, Thank you.”

I walked up to my apartment, baggage in hand. After I emptied out my luggage, settling more of my things into the apartment, and latching on to every detail of the new space – the yellow floral pattern on my comforter, the crown molding framing the clean, white walls, the French doors that opened up to the balcony overlooking a church and town square- reassurance fell over me like a blanket. This was my new home.

Days slipped by as I became more immersed in Spain; Spanish became familiar as part of the background ambiance, the unfamiliar streets became intimate to me, my classmates and roommates became my friends. I quickly discovered the best places for tapas and paella, the quickest routes to campus, which train lines went back to my apartment, the bars to get the cheapest sangria, my favorite routes to run through Retiro Park. Within a month, I crafted a life in Madrid.

When Spain became more of a home, I began to travel around Europe. Yet, what surprised me was not finding a myriad of differences between home and these countries, but discovering more similarities; the vegan fad was spreading everywhere, the songs of Drake and The Beatles played in the background of all clubs and stores, the wide-eyed looks of tourists were identical to ones back home but snapping photos of the Palacio Real instead of the Golden Gate Bridge.

One weekend, I traveled with a friend to Paris. Following a visit to Versailles, we sat in a neighboring Starbucks before our train arrived. While we waited, we saw an elderly woman rush inside.

My friend and I watched her turn around, disoriented amidst the chaos of a crowded Starbucks. Strangers bustled around her while she stood paralyzed. She turned, searching the crowd. When she met our eyes, she hurried towards us.

Perdon, hablas espanol?!” she asked me, hysteria tumbling out her voice.

“Yes ma’am,” I responded in Spanish, “I do speak Spanish. Do you need help?”

My friend and I were startled when her voice shook, her eyes brimming as she explained to us that she could not find her family, her phone did not work and she could not speak to anyone as they all spoke French.

I nodded as she anxiously relayed her story to me. When she completed her story, I handed her my phone to call her family.

After talking to her son and settling on a meeting point, she took hold of my hand as she passed me back the phone. With her other hand, she cupped my cheek the same way my aunts and grandparents would when they greet me.

Gracias cariño,” the woman said. She drew something from her purse and pushed it into my palm. I looked down at my hands, finding twenty euros in them.

“Oh no. Please. I cannot take this,” I insisted in Spanish, pushing the money back to her.

She shook her head, “No, por favor. Muchas gracias por la ayuda, cariño.”

She patted my hand again before striding out the door to meet her family.

My friend grinned at me, surprised at what had occurred.

“Well,” I said, “I guess I’m buying us dinner.”

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Contact Katrina Fadrilan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katfadrilanDC.

MAY 07, 2019