19 março 2020

A Fear Of Flying They Call It

Image in Public Domain.

Being the easily impressionable student that I am, I decided to take on the collegiate tradition of studying abroad. It's a common cliche to hear alumni gush about how studying abroad changed their life, and will change yours, too. The salesmen sure know how to pitch, but I can't say I was completely sold.

I study Spanish, by the way. No, it didn't come out of a great passion for the language, or anything noble like that. In my freshman year of high school I had to select two electives. I chose Spanish and Wood Shop, since they seemed to be the easiest grades. Sure enough, they were. I intended to stay for only two years in Spanish, but stayed longer for the fiestas. Yes, I'm sleazy.

A few scholarships later, I found myself at the airport, ready to go. Well, not so ready. My proficiency in Spanish was crap. I'd only taken a cursory glance at the map, so I getting lost was inevitable. My destination was Santander, Spain. A city I'd never heard of before.

The luxurious plane trip did well to calm my nerves. I have always been pensive about flying, having heard the stories of cramped seats, crowded bathrooms, and crappy airplane food. I didn't worry too much about airsickness (since I'm not prone to vomiting), but I grasped my sick bag should Pazuzu suddenly feel the urge to possess me. I expected lifting off to be like riding on a roller coaster (did I forget mention I don't like those?) yet flying through the air hardly felt any different that riding in a car. Better even. My fears about airplanes were assuaged halfway between the in-flight movie and risotto. This was the Blackjack of Setzer Gabbani. Yet, alas, no flight lasts forever.

In the book of Exodus, Moses names his first son with Zipporah, "Gershon", while in exile from Egyptian royalty. In Hebrew, "Gershon" means "stranger in a strange land." In Spain, I thought my name was "Gershon", but in Spain, my name was "mud."

My problems started as soon as I landed in the Madrid airport. The place was a labyrinth and with no David Bowie to guide me, either. After studiously running around in circles for about two and a half hours, I finally found my plane...just about to take off! The flight crew had to stop the departure for me to get on. I scrambled into my seat, sweaty, delirious, and paranoid.

I took a taxi to my host mother's apartment, knowing my habit for getting lost. The Spanish was mostly basic, "Hola", "¿Que tal?", "Estoy bien", etc. I think those cheap formalities would've sufficed, but I overreached my hand and chewed off more than I could swallow. She gave me a slightly confused look. To this day, I wonder what it was that I said. A cat named Rita also lived there. Cats speak the same language in Spain.

I soon had to meet up with my classmates at "Ayuntamiento" which is Spanish for "town hall." I stepped into the streets nervously, my hands jammed into my pockets for fear of thieves. I tried desperately not to look a tourist, but that veneer faded as soon as I brought out my map of the city. I was lost for two hours. A fat lot of good the map did. At the end of my struggle, I gave in and searched out a taxi, but the cab driver nearly laughed me out the vehicle. It turns out that Ayuntamiento was only a few minutes away.

The next day was hardly any better. Classes began at 8:30, so I woke up at 6:00, knowing that there would be a long walk ahead of me. The school was somewhere on the other side of the city, and I had no idea what it looked like. I figured at the time that a university would be easy to spot. Well, you know what they say about assumptions.

The trek was tiring, to say the least. It often had me going uphill through the various neighborhoods and alleyways. I recalled watching The Flash on the plane. How I would've loved to have had Barry Allen's super-speed at the time. Though if I did, I might've missed out on many of the aesthetics. The shops and dwellings of Santander were melded to fit into the rising landscape. Laundry hung on clotheslines outside of the windows, while pigeons scurried on the grounds, pecking for bread crumbs. By the orange hues of sunrise, it all looked at times as if I had wandered into a painting. Though I doubt if a late student would get extra credit for cultural appreciation.

La Universidad de Cantabria was far smaller than I had anticipated, though I suppose that was for the best. If it had been any larger, I'd probably get lost there, too. The university, small though it was, would become something of a second home for me. The think with relish on the countless hours I would spend outside of the cafeteria, listening to quirky stories NPR, memorizing Spanish vocabulary, or eating what was left of my pig liver sandwich.

Perhaps it was the Sea of Cantabria that kept me (relatively) sane throughout all of that initial madness. My host mother had an apartment near the sea, so it sort of functioned as my North Star. I need only know where the sea is, and I'd (eventually) find my way home. It was a great, wide blue that glittered in the sunlight, its waves licking the shore.

I suppose there's something poetic in the sea, though I can't tell you exactly what it is.

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