leaving loneliness behind in Madrid
Madrid wakes slowly on Sunday. I walk through the winding alleys near plaza mayor, smiling politely as I pass elderly couples exiting churches and groups of friends returning home from Saturday-night adventures. The midday sun throws us all into shadows of the old, marigold-colored buildings. I drag a finger along their warm walls and move intuitively through the city.
Over the past month I’ve learned the nuances of my new monotony: the tangled streets, cheap breakfast spots, good grocery stores, where to buy a fan. Tomorrow, I will take the Circular 2 bus line to my internship at a non-profit, take the 1 Metro line to the gym after work, and walk down Calle de Segovia to return home, like every weekday. Perhaps I’ll grab dinner with my roommates in La Latina or meet up with a friend at the Royal Palace. For now though, I step slowly, reveling in in an unrealized and unplanned afternoon.
Not yet wanting to return to my un-air-conditioned apartment, and without enough energy to trek to el parque del Retiro, I veer to the right of my normal path and wander through el parque de Atenas. It is comfortingly still and somewhat quiet. Expanses of trimmed grass and emerald shrubs have parted for pebbled paths where couples walk their dogs. Adults smoke beneath the scattered trees while their young children race to the playground at the far end of the park. In the opposite corner, a bar fills with cheery music, employees unloading boxes of alcohol in preparation for the evening.
I unpack my lunch on some uninhabited ground and sit beside it. The grease from the bocadillo de calamares has bled through the wax paper wrappings. I take a photo of the golden-toned sandwich for my parents. “The best in Madrid,” a Tripadvisor comment had claimed. I bite into the bread and deep-fried squid. Two euros well spent.
Once I finish the sandwich and a rainbow-hued pastry from Madrid’s Pride Week festivities, I relax and watch emerald monk parakeets fight for crumbs. I am alone. I wonder if my roommates a few blocks away have noticed my absence. However, despite being in a foreign country, despite every relationship in my life abroad being a new one, my aloneness is not haunted by loneliness.
I expected loneliness—braced myself for the ache in my chest that plagued me during my first weeks at Brown. According to Huffington Post article “Lost in Translation: Loneliness Abroad” by Isabella Basco, loneliness is “the common dark side” of studying and interning abroad. Why? Factors like culture shock, a new environment, and major lifestyle changes– all formidable causes for the feeling– are not only unavoidable but also fundamental to the living abroad experience.
Over the days leading to my departure, I perused countless online diaries where college students described their consuming loneliness and desperately clung to any half-handed advice they gave. A GoAbroad blogger told nervous travelers to rest and allow for space. Someone else suggested keeping busy so as not to dwell. “Start practicing Mindfulness Meditation,” a Study Abroad Portal blog post claimed.
Still, I am weeks into the program and feel a startling lack of loneliness. Instead, I am secure, calm, and confident in my relationships and myself. Moreover, I realize just how lonely I had been during my recently finished school year.
Although I made many friends throughout my first year at Brown, I often felt distanced from them, as if I were an extraneous attachment to their social circles. Everyone always seemed to be more connected to others than they were to me. Indeed there was a startling lack of intimacy in all my friendships, never sharing problems, secrets, or our real emotions. I knew it took time to access that intimacy, but I was not willing or able to give that time. If I did not see you going about my normal classes and daily schedule, I simply did not see you. I spent my free time sitting alone outside lecture halls or working through homework by myself in my room. At the time I did not mind. I enjoyed the peace and freedom of not having to work around others’ schedules. But I hadn’t gotten over my loneliness, I’d adjusted to it.
Panic and the sense that I had no one near to turn to had become a daily part of my life. I kept to myself because I didn’t want anyone to know I was lonely. I studied because I feared that I would have no support if I failed and that no one would care. Although toward the end of the school year I grew closer with some and was partially unburdened from the weight of loneliness, I still dread returning to that lifestyle in the fall.
I am not alone in this. A national survey of Canadian university students found 66 percent of them reported feeling very lonely. A 2016 U.S. study saw 60.6 percent of students in American universities expressing loneliness as well. It’s not just being at university, though. A 2014 AXA PPP healthcare poll determined that 18-24 year olds are “four times as likely to feel lonely ‘most of the time’ as those aged over 70.”
These statistics sit within me like an unanswered question. A million miles away from my normal life and friends, and I have somehow managed to escape loneliness—if only temporarily. Perhaps it is the lack of constant work encouraging solitude, or the varied opportunities to socialize and have fun, or the Madrid lifestyle. Perhaps it simply took a clean slate and new adventure for me to pay attention to my connections with others. I wonder if that attention– my newfound sociability– will survive the fall semester.
I pick up my belongings. Green Whatsapp notifications fill my phone’s screen. One of my roommates wants to order in for dinner. I reply and begin walking home.