The first question about my adventures abroad came from my mother. We are in my childhood home, talking about Europe over spicy mangshor jhol and toasted, crispy naan. It feels surreal to be back in the living room, sprawled on our cozy, ten-year-old couch, halfway through an episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”. The air filtering in through an open window is colder than anything I’ve experienced in the past four months. I can’t believe it’s just typical winter weather for the old me.
My mind immediately drifts to summer. In late August, a couple old friends and I drove up the California coast, from Los Angeles to Portland. Risa, my high school newspaper’s editor-in-chief, had spent three months exploring the country in her car, and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I had a nuanced perspective, but still I got caught up in thinking I was in this big, bad world. I disliked the idea of being alone and vulnerable in a pool of strangers.
I embarked on my flight to Barcelona in the subsequent weeks and felt roughly the same. Besides visits to family in West Bengal I’d never been abroad before. The looming fears of pickpockets, scammers, and malicious opportunity-seekers looking for lost tourists hailed like a rain-cloud over my general excitement to live overseas. Before leaving, though, Risa gave me some critical advice that has stuck with me since.
She told me that, more often than not, people are kind.
When my mother asked me what I took away from studying abroad, I remembered Risa’s advice once again. Despite the fact that we live in an economic structure actively encouraging self-interest, humans look out for each other. Early in the semester, I met local after local willing to walk me to destinations I couldn’t pinpoint on a map. Catalans welcomed my roommates and I to National Catalonia Day with open arms, enthusiastically filling us in on the separatist movement. Visiting a friend in Warsaw, an employee on the commuter rail was more than happy to speak Polish into Google Translate to give us directions.
I avidly follow politics and current events, which conditioned me to have a pessimistic outlook on society. It became increasingly difficult to see potential in the world, and it took effort to believe that things could change for the better. The independence of traveling allowed me to discover that, in every situation I felt lost and scared, people helped me out.
In Barcelona, I ran across one of my favorite Angela Davis quotes to this day. She said, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” This might have crossed my mind before this trip, but I didn’t internalize it until then. I began to believe that most individuals are doing their best, even in a system that doesn’t always allow us to. My journey to Catalonia taught me this. It taught me how to explore a more optimistic, hopeful side to myself I’d neglected for too long.