Around 350 days ago, I sat on my great-grandmother’s quilt covering the canopy bed that I requested for my 10th birthday, staring at the packed and recently purchased Marshall’s suitcase, and the purple backpack from my high school days. Together they contained the jeans and dresses and sweaters to get me through one year of life. In that moment, I held fast to naïve hopes of a life-giving, life-changing year. I entertained rose-tinted visions of colorful new friends, my almost-immediate fluency, my sense of belonging in pretty new places and their, presumably adaptable, cultures. All of these desires came to fruition; eventually. 350 days of life brought fictitious hopes to a reality I am honored to call mine. Fluency, inclusion within the confines of conflicting cultures I collectively call mine, and the acquisition of colorful new friends wrote themselves within the pages of my story. What I did not expect were the steps in between the steps; including but not limited to abrupt confrontations with my cultural and linguistic identities, of real relationships with real people and the very real pain in leaving those with whom I shared sacred portions of my beating heart.
I spent six months living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, attending the local university as the only foreigner in my classes and living with an Argentine family. I wrote all new words in a little notebook that acted as an almost Bible, threw out my English novels (immediately bursting into tears) and limited my Skype calls with American friends to almost none. Basically, I cut myself off from the language that allowed me to be the me I knew in order to create a me I had yet to meet, the me I needed to become to thrive in a new culture. Argentina wrote the chapter of my life entitled “The Most Difficult & The Most Important.” Because in Argentina, I saw myself grow from monolingual to bilingual, monocultural to bicultural; I felt myself becoming proud for Americanisms that I thought were worldisms, I yearned for the presence of American principles and detested others. I wanted to bring America to Argentina and I wanted to bring Argentina to America. Six months of life later, I left my heart on the doorstep of Quintana 556 and cried bitterly as I drove through the graffiti filled streets I knew as my own, leaving one home for another.
After completing a two-week stint in the states (the necessary amount needed to send my passport through express-mail to change my student visa from Argentine to Spanish), I re-packed my Marshalls suitcase and purple backpack for the second half of my nomadic year.
For the past five months I have held a mailing address in the south of Spain, where my letters arrive to a charming flat where Fermina, my precious Spanish host mother, makes freshly squeezed orange juice in the mornings and irons my underwear each Monday afternoon. My life in Spain looks altogether different from the life I led in Argentina—I attend university classes with Americans where we speak in English when our professors are out of earshot and where girls wear sweatshirts and baseball caps to class and don’t even get glared at, because we all come from stars and stripes and apple pie. These five months of life in Europe opened my heart to a different kind of life, one where shops close during the hour of siesta, where an afternoon spent nursing a long lunch constitutes an afternoon well spent, a life where I find myself continuously surrounded by people with whom I feel at home. My brain has become full with memories of tobogganing on the 1994 Olympic track in Norway, of not-so-gracefully falling into the Loch Ness Lake in Scotland, of reunions with old friends in France and of a million conversations over bottles of cheap wine in run-down apartments in zip codes all over the world.
I am returning to the states, much sooner than I could have ever anticipated, as an altered version of myself. These most difficult and life giving 350-some days I have the privilege of calling part of my story will forever define me as me; and for this I am filled with nothing but gratitude. To the people with whom I crossed paths with this year, the hearts who became forever intertwined with mine, to the sights that stole my breath and to the more than a few tearful rides on public buses—I am forever indebted to you, for making me me, for changing my heart and for both welcoming me and excluding me, for within these moments I grew and I learned. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to see all of you, world, and I expect you to continue reminding me that I am much too small for that.
Elise Holzbauer is a senior from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. She is a Spanish & Elementary Education double major with a minor in Latin American Studies. On campus, Elise is a Hawk Host and a Resident Assistant. Elise enjoyed being involved with the Spanish Club, Weekly Service, Appalachia, Ignite, Hawkapella and the Winter Immersion Program. Read her full blog and learn about how you can study abroad at Saint Joseph’s!