In the fantastic film about studying abroad, L’Auberge Espagnole, Xavier, our main character, makes the following observation upon arrival in Barcelona, Spain (it’s in French, but these are the subtitles with some bits edited out):
“When you first arrive in a city nothing makes sense. Everything’s unknown, virgin. After you’ve lived here, walked these streets you’ll know them inside out, you’ll know these people. Once you’ve lived here…crossed this street 10, 20, 1000 times…It’ll belong to you because you’ve lived there. That was about to happen to me but I didn’t know it yet.”
This narration in the film really stuck with me not only because it’s true, very true, but because that’s what I wanted most out of my study abroad experiences – to have those streets, parks, shops, and sidewalks, including their inhabitants, to belong to me and I, in turn, to belong to them. But you can’t get there without experiencing the unknown first.
That first bike ride through alleyways to taste the not so yummy kroket in Utrecht, Netherlands is a perfect example for a time when I truly felt nothing around me made sense and what was around the next curve was completely unknown. (That I was focused on not getting killed by my fellow cyclists, I’m sure, had nothing to do with it.) It is only in hindsight that I can recollect that there was a prior way of seeing things. At the time I didn’t know things would look different, would change. As a result, I may have ridden in the same alleyways a number of times and not have known it. If I did, they never looked the same as that first time.
Before understanding all this, the fact that I couldn’t retrace that first bike ride drove me insane. I am someone who is good – no great – with directions, maps, moss growing on the north side of the tree, we parked the car over there stuff.
But that first time had no previous sensory attachments, no known destination until it was chosen for me, no frame of reference. There was one time near the end of my four months that I thought I recognized an alleyway. But I couldn’t be sure. I wouldn’t be seeing it with the same virgin eyes.
It wasn’t about the geographic components. It was about me. How me living there had changed the way I saw the roads and spaces around me. New memories colored spaces. The roads, canals, shops, and alleyways became mine.
That street is where I was asked what time it was by a Dutchmen and I both understood and answered correctly (grammatically) though I gave the wrong hour. That square is where I saw Prince Willem-Alexander and his future Princess Máxima on their parade route through the city. And along that canal is where I said goodbye to a very dear friend.
These memories and stories are what make the streets yours and you theirs. In time I was able to achieve my goal of belonging. And when I have the chance to return to Utrecht, a lot will have changed over the years but those memories will still be there and that street, square, and canal will still be mine.
Post Script: The capturing of the study abroad experience shown in L’Auberge Espagnole make it a must see for anyone who is planning on or just thinking about making that leap.