“Muere lentamente quien no viaja, quien no lee, quien no oye música, quien no encuentra gracia en sí mismo.”

Those who do not travel, who do not read, who do not listen to music, who cannot laugh at themselves slowly die. –Pablo Neruda, Nobel Award Winning Chilean Poet

My Life Began in Spain
Secretly, I believe I have a Spanish soul. In 1966, nine months before I was born, my parents visited Southern España. Twenty years later, with their help, I studied a semester in Toledo, Spain. There my adult life began.

In 1987, the Fundación Ortega y Gassett study abroad program was a small United Nations. Sixty undergraduates from eleven American and European countries lived together. We educated, loved and hated one another. That exposure refocused my snapshot of world history, politics, and economics. I discovered America was a continent, not our nation.

I was fortunate; in Iberia I found myself. Taking trains, making decisions, following my follies, I transformed from wallflower to leader. The self-reliance I gained traveling alone and living in another culture ensured I could enjoy life’s best and survive its worst.

As a child, hearing stories of how my dad won a traveling prize and he and my mom explored Europe, such a journey seemed a rite of passage. However, each year only 5% of US citizens travel overseas; just .1% are student exchanges. I’d argue travel is not a luxury, but an essential education, although fewer than 2% of undergraduates study overseas. Those who do are more likely to finish college and 97% of them find work within a year of graduation (49% is the stateside average). Study abroad can open the door to confidence, to life skills, and to self-knowledge. Come peek in the window…

The Adventures of Super-Gringa
At 20, I took the chance to go on a semester abroad in Toledo, España. I went to practice my Spanish and to reside closer to my friend stationed on a US Army base in Germany. My family encouraged me to travel although we could barely afford the trip. The Fundación Ortega y Gassett program cost $4100 in 1987, whereas a regular semester at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis cost $1400. I worked all summer in the windowless sub-basement of the University of Minnesota Wilson library to earn my contribution. Somehow my parents gathered the money for program tuition, room and board, and a plane ticket to Europe. They wisely sent me across the pond without a credit card. After working part time through college I was accustomed to spending all the money I made each week.

I am farsighted in several areas. These do not include clothes, money, or men. I buy earrings or suede boots with no thought of tomorrow. However, I can do the math to calculate train tables. After traveling 1300 miles, I arrived in Toledo 20 hours early; a day’s worth of adventure. If I had a simple hiker’s backpack, I would have been reveling in discovery of Toledo. However, I wasn’t in the mood to wander because I had loaded myself down with luggage.

As a visual person, I am a map junkie. In the days before handheld GPS, I found my way around Europe using local tourist maps, a AAA Europe Travel Guide and the Sleep Cheap Guide to Europe. I didn’t walk around with my eyes locked on my phone for directions, because I did not possess one, nor did any other North American I knew at that time. I would check my map from time to time, but I roamed in a way rarely exists today in our controlled, tracked, overly-prescriptive lives.

Mystery fascinates me, perhaps because it’s not in my nature. I’m a straight shooter. I delight to encounter unexpected beauty; the tile mosaics of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, the incredible arched stone height of Segovia’s Roman aqueduct still standing tall, the view of Toledo from the hills across the Río Tajo, untouched by time.

That August, as I navigated through Europe, I surprised myself. I was able to arrive in a city, ask for a map from the first newspaper seller or tourist info booth and plan my day. I’d look at the downtown attractions and head off walking. I found to my surprise, I remember locations visually. I could see the map of the city in my head. The medieval churches, downtown plazas, and great museums were a feast for the eyes. When I was especially brave, I took the bus or subway, guessed at using ticket machines displaying a language I didn’t know. Coming from a family of alphas, I had rarely been completely in charge of my fate, making my own decisions. On my trip, I learned the joys of choice and self-determination.

Traveling alone scared me a little. But when I finished, I was proud I navigated the railways between Germany and Spain by myself. I thought I’d save hotel fare if I stayed on the train. However, I don’t sleep well sitting down. Funny, I didn’t find guarding my seven bags restful either. I was the computer of my train connections, rather than a website algorithm. I found a new skill!

Was I an ugly American? Possibly, yes. I found out I am a typical gringa. I am tall, with blindingly light-colored skin that is common in Northern Europe. My blue and yellow eyes look green. I have an orthodontic smile that shows all my teeth. I want a bathroom in my hotel room, a hot shower on demand, and an early dinner. As a clothes-horse gringa, packing light did not come easy. I preferred to drag seven suitcases across Europe rather than forget anything. Turns out a pair of Levis, which I left at home, was the only waist down outer garment I needed. People outside the US do not change their clothes every day. And rain boots or waterproof shoes would have saved the dissolving of my best leather flats in the autumn rains of Madrid.

Living in Spain for a few months my junior year of college changed my life. Seeing my boyfriend stationed in Germany before and after my semester in Toledo was fun. But I fell the most in love with Spanish and Latin American culture. Spanish has been my guiding light ever since. The self-determination I learned traveling alone serves as my seatbelt on this rollercoaster called Life.


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