After living in Spain for a month, I still used the wrong key.
There was one tiny key and one significantly larger key on the keychain that Luis handed me on my first day of studying abroad in San Sebastián. The apartment required a key first to access the bottom floor and a second key to enter each unit. Luis slowly pointed out to me which key was for which door. Then he explicitly stated in Spanish to never drink Marga’s last Coca-Cola. I was not listening and solely absorbed “unlimited soda.”
After I was introduced to my host family, I decided to explore the city. I left my new apartment without a glance over my shoulder. It was no wonder I got lost on that first day. I neglected to even check the address before I rushed out the door. A few hours later as I struggled to find my way home, every orange-rooftop building looked identical and imposing. The air was thick with humidity as sheets of rain slewed down upon me. The locals dressed like they were all late to rehearsal for an eighties movie.
Instead of counting on myself to remember the way home or listening to Luis’s directions, I ended up, totally, completely lost. I didn’t know how to ask for directions in Spanish, I had no phone to call for help…heck, I couldn’t even recall which of my two keys to use for which door. I stumbled through the rain, jamming each key into lock after lock, hoping that one would magically cause the right apartment door to open.
That was my first key identity crisis. When I finally, miraculously found the correct apartment, it didn’t make sense to me that the small key worked for the first door, the savior-from-the-rain door. The larger key should be for the larger door, in my opinion. Getting lost all by myself in a foreign country taught me a harsh lesson- it was time to start challenging my assumptions.
The first few weeks in Spain were an adjustment, to say the least. I had never taken a taxi by myself until a ride back from a discoteca one night. My driver bellowed to me in incomprehensible Basque the entire way. We later silently bonded over Celine Dion when I ran out of poorly swaddled together attempts at conversation. Upon my arrival home, I again tried to force the large key into the keyhole for the larger door. Unfortunately it still wouldn’t work, and I resorted to the smaller, correct key with great contempt.
While studying abroad, I choked down my least favorite food, jamón (coincidentally ham is incredibly popular throughout Spain) five days out of seven. The elevator up to the fourth floor of my apartment building never worked. Somehow I lost the book that I had been fervently reading. For the first time in my life, I was forced to be completely independent, a scary concept that I could never seem to grasp. To top it all off, I always mixed up which key was for which door, reminding everyone around me that I was a silly foreigner.
In most cases, people were there to help me. A boy from the local university lent me another copy of that book I misplaced. My host mom, Marga, surprised me with a bag of croissants that made up for the terrible ham. I got used to taking the stairs. I also learned to depend on myself for the first time. It was my responsibility to practice the new language or master cultural norms such as the two traditional Spanish cheek kisses. The cheek kisses are actually a lot more difficult than they seem. More than once I narrowly avoided kissing locals on the mouth or awkwardly nuzzled a new friend’s cheek. Although for most people, these aren’t profound challenges, they forced me to face the need to be more independent.
My trip to San Sebastián was in no way perfect and in every way beautiful. When I left for Spain, I tried to escape my life back home. Unfortunately, changing my location did not spontaneously disintegrate my problems, but amplified them. One of my favorite quotes that I heard on this trip goes something like “all travel writing is really about home.” Every issue that I encountered in San Sebastián was a direct link to my problems back home- my dependence on other people. Peeling myself away from so much reliance on those people helped me to appreciate them. More so, it made me value myself.
Keys and locks and irritations like taking the stairs all boil down to one concept: self-reliance. One evening, I went to a beach gathering full of travelers from Finland, Sweden and Mexico all by myself. I never would have gone solo to something like that back home. I ended the evening with warm hugs and (of course) cheek kisses. I walked alone on the beach whenever I had the chance, which was solitary and liberating. In no way was studying abroad a cure-all experience, but it forced me out of my comfort zone. San Sebastián drowned me in the new and the strange. In the end, it made me rescue myself, rely on myself and believe in myself. And even though I could never remember which key went to the right door, I started depending on myself to unlock it.
When’s the last time you got lost? Leave a reply below!