This guest blog post was written by Alisa Taranchuk, who spent a semester in Barcelona, Spain with our partner, BarcelonaSAE.
As my time in Barcelona comes to a close, I am left trying to compartmentalize my experience. For several days, I have been wondering what one experience was truly the most transformational? Yet, is it that simple? Can the arc of my character growth be traced back to one zenith where everything “clicked”? Was it traveling to Vic, a pro-Catalan town north of Barcelona, for work and seeing green landscapes canvassed in yellow ribbons? Was it sitting with friends in Plaça del Sol, eating patatas bravas and drinking mojitos, marinating under the afternoon sun? Was it coming back to my apartment at night, sharing a cigarette and a few words with my roommate, and watching from our balcony as the sun sunk behind towering mountains, shrouding Barcelona in star-studded twilight?
Of course, it isn’t any of these singular moments. The metamorphic experience of living in Barcelona cannot be traced back to one cathartic moment of awareness. There was no “ah ha!” moment; there was no sudden awakening. In fact, there was no zenith at all. To say there was implies that my evolution has reached a completion. And that certainly isn’t the case. I have realized that Barcelona provided a gradual and continuous transformation. Every experience melded with its antecedent, forming an amalgamation of adventures, tribulations, events, and encounters that became foundational pillars. Barcelona hasn’t proven to be an arc, but an unwavering bedrock from which there is only up.
It is clear to me that since my experience has been transformative, it is nearly impossible to expound upon it in only a few pages. This is partly so because it is hard to pinpoint which experiences will manifest in my life and to what extent, and partly because it is difficult to take something so tremendous and boil it down to something uncomplicated. I’ve come to realize the cornerstone of transformation is continuous learning rather than direct cause and effect.
Yet, I’m still left with the task of trying to present a written scaffolding of my newfound connections. I’ve spent many days trying to figure out how to sum it all up, and then I remembered a Catalan phrase: fer-ne cinc céntims, or “make it five cents”. It means to explain something succinctly when you don’t have much time to talk. Ergo, I present to you the cinc céntims version of my experiences in Barcelona.
The driving force behind my decision to go to Barcelona was that I didn’t know what to do with my life. I loved biochemistry and I loved research, so surely it made sense that having a career in biochemical research would be fulfilling. But I wasn’t sure. Progressing further through college exacerbated my overwhelming unease of committing to a potentially unsuitable career choice. The opportunity presented itself to step away from school, family, friends, and whatever else might be influencing me, and to gauge whether my passions were worth pursuing (or frankly, if they were even passions to begin with). So, after a couple of months, some paperwork, and a few interviews later, I was on a plane to Barcelona.
My internship was the cornerstone of my growth. The real-world experience of working in a lab and leading a project was surreal, difficult, and worth every moment of stress. Every hurdle pushed me to keep going; an unexplained tenacity overcame me. Things went wrong often , and I stayed up researching and reading, toiling away in the laboratory, powered by a deep-seated urge to find solutions. My internship also provided me with more than just a newfound persistence. It equipped me with qualities of substance. From apathetic supervisors to language barriers, I had to learn how to navigate through frustration and discontent early on.
Feelings of displeasure were translated into patience and compassion. I accepted that I was an anomaly in my surroundings: the first intern, an American that spoke just enough Spanish to order food and make small talk with taxi drivers. If I wanted to be accepted, it had to be by way of composure and equanimity. I countered every moment of confusion, dismissal, or irritation with tolerance and moxie.
So that’s how I began to approach living abroad in all aspects. If I wanted to be accepted into my community, I had to accept my community the way it was. I knew I was trying my best, and I had to accept and trust that the people around me were too. I made a cognizant choice to acknowledge this central truth. The first weeks were hard . Homesickness and feelings of isolation crippled me. I felt like it was pointless to try to fit in and any attempts to do would prove futile.
I came to understand that if I yearned to be welcomed into my neighborhood, I had to be welcoming too. I had to extend respect, gentleness, and tolerance to everyone. This was a pivotal moment for me. From this point on, I recognized that transforming my attitude and refining my ethos was crucial to overcoming culture shock and easing myself into my new reality.
Living in Barcelona day-to-day was an ongoing struggle that was only remedied by personal evolution. From buying groceries and hailing cabs to ordering food and taking Spanish lessons, everything presented its own challenge. Each day began with a new hurdle but ended with a lesson learned. I realized that comfort can be stagnating, and the only way to evolve was to be uncomfortable. So I forced myself to speak Spanish, to have genuine conversations with cashiers and cab drivers, and to order food in Spanish even though I was given an English menu. I forced myself to visit new places, see new sights. I forced myself to meet people. I put myself in positions where I was scared of being judged because I knew that was the only way I could learn and grow. As I began to blend into my surroundings, maneuvering through two languages, social etiquette, and Barcelona, adapting became second nature. I realized that there is a difference between making a space for yourself within a community and molding your mindset to fit a community.
My entire experience in Barcelona was marked by this sort of evolution. It is the ability to be adaptable. It’s easy to superimpose yourself on to any situation and environment. It was tempting to speak English, it was tempting to go to the same, familiar places. It was tempting to come overseas and continue living as if I had never left Chicago. But, what would have been the point of that? Is the point of living abroad not to fully immerse yourself in the culture? If so, immersion is not dipping your toe: immersion is taking a cannonball plunge. I could have easily molded my experience around myself. But I let it sculpt me instead. I let interactions with waiters soften my edges. Conversations with strangers on the metro were chisels, and fleeting exchanges chipped away at me. I let Barcelona refine me and carve me until patience, kindness, compassion, and introspection puddled in my pores. I was malleable, I was fluid. I went with the ebb and flow of change, of my new life.
Traveling to different cities and countries cemented this capacity to acclimate. And I discovered that the ability to adapt is transferable. I refused to let transitional shifts upheave me and uproot my foundation. Instead, from Morocco, Germany, Italy, Hungary, and every place in between, the lessons I learned in Barcelona manifested in my different cultural experiences. Interactions in other countries helped me grow and understand more. I related to more cultures, to more people and their experiences. Traveling alone and wayfaring through different cultures also helped me realize that I had become self-sufficient. I was capable of navigating unknown spaces by myself. Even though traveling and living in Spain altered already existing components of my personality, it also exposed elements of my character that I previously didn’t think I possessed. I never imagined myself as particularly independent. I always relied on others and on remaining in my comfort zone for protection and support. I always felt like I had the backbone of a chocolate eclair. Yet, I managed to explore over ten cities by myself. I found comfort in my own presence. I slowly began to rely on myself more. This newfound strength became my driving force. While my driving force had previously been uncertainty, now my driving force is confidence.
And so the question I am pondering now is, how will this experience change me in the long-term? How will it impact me, in personal relationships and in my career? Will I become more multi-dimensional? I must admit it’s hard to say: I’m still evolving and I’m still learning. Some of the things I have learned living abroad became apparent to me immediately and some things blossomed more slowly. I know I have become more kind, patient, introspective, trusting, and courageous. I know that these characteristics transcend boundaries of race, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability. I know that I can extend what I have learned to others. But I don’t know what the future holds; all I can hope is that I continue progressing, learning, and evolving. Barcelona has not completed my character arc: instead, it exposed the beginning of all that is yet to come. And I can’t wait!