One of the hardest, and simultaneously most rewarding, things I’ve discovered about being abroad is knowing that when I go home for the evening, I’m not going home to my family or to a space that I will ever, in any sense of the word, own. I am a guest in another family’s house. While they care about my well-being and treat me as one of their own, it’s not the same. A small part of my mind constantly questions whether I’m intruding on their daily lives. I’ve made becoming invisible an art form. I’ve always had a knack for leaving things exactly as I found them, for slipping in and out of places silently, and for having a minimal physical impact upon the environment in which I live. I’m not shy, no — I’m discrete, like a stagehand in black. Without them, the show can’t run. But their job is to be discrete. To be invisible.
I thought that these skills would help me fit in better with my host family. If they didn’t see daily traces of me aside from the food we eat together at meals, they wouldn’t have anything to criticize. To talk to me about. I would be in control of initiating interaction with them, meaning I could do whatever I wanted.
But, in reality, that makes absolutely no sense. Going abroad means stepping out of your comfort zone. About being noticed — about making the cultural mistakes and listening to your host family talk about how far you’ve come in the first few weeks you’ve spent together and laughing about the beginning with them. I didn’t have that bit while I know some of my classmates did. I learned about Spanish habits by observing, listening, and generally being the biggest creeper this family has never not-seen. Of course, they don’t know that. Only I do.
Up until I realized this, I had done exactly that: whatever I’ve wanted to do. And because I’d been terrified to make noise, I’d missed some amazing opportunities that I’m only now, a month in and gone, beginning to recover. I passed up the chance to earn some money by teaching English to some Spanish children because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to help them as I believe my level of speaking is significantly lower than my level of listening, reading and writing. I’ve always had trouble verbally expressing myself. English, Spanish, Ancient Greek. The language itself has never mattered. While being quiet here has helped me blend in, feel more comfortable and even be confused for a native Spaniard, it hasn’t helped me improve.
Improvement, in my experience, comes from talking. From realizing that there are people watching you — they aren’t judging you. Half the time, they just watch because there’s nothing else to do. It’s rather customary in Barcelona for people to stare at you on the street for no reason at all. It’s also customary for a boy/man/sir to let you know that he finds you attractive as you’re walking by.
At first, this is very uncomfortable. Especially when it happens on a frequency level you’re unaccustomed to or if you’ve ever struggled with body image as I have in the past. This is the one instance when I recommend staying quiet until you know how you want to react. Keep walking. Maybe smile back. Accept the compliment mentally. Let it lift your mood. You don’t ever have to see that person again. It’s a big city. There are more important people to avoid offending with silence. It shouldn’t feel negative. And if you like it, take the same route again at a similar time — because, after all, Barcelona is routine — and see what happens. I pass by a Turkish restaurant every day on my way to university at the intersection of Mallorca and Aribau. One of the handsome cooks waits at the window every day to see me. The only words we’ve ever exchanged are ‘hasta mañana’. But seeing him smile and, on occasion, wink at me as I walk to class has helped me discover that standing out isn’t a bad thing.
Who knows. Maybe we’ll talk more one day. Maybe we won’t. What matters is having the confidence to seize every opportunity you’re presented with while abroad without worrying about how people are going to perceive you. You don’t have the comfort zone of your friends to hide behind. You have to make news ones. You have to get involved. You can’t waste away in your flat and still have a good experience in a foreign country. The second you start mentally accepting that standing out is natural and exciting is the second you open yourself to living a generally fuller life in the years to come as well as while studying abroad.