Thursday, 15 December 2016

Walking out of the Fold

I was 19 years old when I moved to Barcelona, 20 years old when I left. I still see the time that I spent in Spain as the most pivotal year of my life—the year that, more than anything else, determined the course I would take and the kind of person I’d be.  

Halfway through my year in Barcelona--at Parc Guell

The most life-changing year of them all—including the year I worked in Guatemala’s war zones; including the year I got cancer. This probably sounds strange at first, but during these other major events, I was in my late 20s and my mid 40s, respectively, and I think that made a huge difference. Then, I was much better equipped for a challenge than I’d been at 19—when I was, in retrospect, really a baby. By those later stages of life, I had pretty good emotional and psychological resources—thanks, in large part, to my year in Spain.

Climbing Grandfather Mountain, in North Carolina
Not all 19-year-olds are as young as I was. By young I mean unformed, untested, untried. I mean that, excepting my first year of college, I could not remember living anywhere else but in Hickory, North Carolina, a town of about 30,000. A town where, on clear days, you could see Grandfather Mountain at the eastern edge of the Smokies, and where I went through the local public school system with the same group of kids from kindergarten through our senior year. It was cozy; it was comforting; it was unassailably safe. Growing up, I felt central—maybe even essential—to that town, to that group of people.

Before I moved to Spain, the only other place I knew well was Harrisonburg, Virginia, where I’d spent my freshman year at Eastern Mennonite College (EMC). One state farther north and much fuller of Mennonites than my hometown, Harrisonburg was still quite a similar place: about the same size as Hickory, and comparably rural and Southern. At EMC, my first year, I felt a sense of belonging even more powerful than I had in Hickory. I am Mennonite by birth and upbringing; on both sides of my family tree, ever since our ancestors high-tailed it out of Europe following the Counter Reformation, we have been Mennonites. When I arrived in Harrisonburg at 18 and enrolled in its Mennonite college, I felt welcomed into the fold.
The EMC--now EMU--campus.

My EMC professors had taught my parents before me and still remembered them. They’d also taught my many uncles and aunts. They even told stories about them. (“Remember when your Uncle Doug hung that effigy off the water tower?” Well, no, I didn’t, but I’d heard about it.) Many people in Harrisonburg still remembered The Mennonite Hour, a groundbreaking (for Mennonites) radio program on which my grandfather had been the main speaker. At EMC, my new friends and I soon discovered that our parents had been friends before us—right here in these very same dorms, these same classrooms. When I began dating the guy I thought at 19 I would marry, it didn’t take long to find out that his father and mine had taken the same science classes together, 20-odd years before.

My grandfather, B. Charles Hostetter, on The Mennonite Hour
Wherever I looked, I saw connections between me and the people around me—connections that had been forged long before I ever arrived. It was so easy to take them for granted. At 19, I’d rarely met anyone who didn’t belong to my family, or to my church, or to the rural South. I didn’t know anyone well who was not a member of one of those groups, of my extended big cozy clans.

Hickory, North Carolina, and Harrisonburg, Virginia: How could I ever belong anywhere else as deeply as I did in these places that had gathered me in and held me so close as I grew up? Both in my hometown and at my new college, I felt my roots going down deep.

And how could moving to Spain at age 19 have been anything less than a transformation? How could it not have rocked me right down to the soles of my feet?

I had no idea what I was getting into, when I signed up to spend my sophomore year of college abroad. I didn’t have much choice in the matter—it was a requirement for my Spanish major—and right up till I left, I didn’t dwell on it much. But the last 24 hours at home, I became suddenly weepy. The morning my parents and my boyfriend and I drove to New York for my flight, I actually went and sat on my mother’s lap and cried. Walking through LaGuardia Airport to my gate of departure, I carried with me a huge stuffed animal—a long-armed plush monkey—which my boyfriend had given me for my birthday. Without a flicker of shame I carried that monkey onto the airplane and held it in my lap all the way across the Atlantic. What kind of first impression this made on the other American students flying with me to Spain for the year, I can only now shudderingly guess.

Until then, I’d never spent more than a few weeks away at a time from my family, or from my boyfriend. Suddenly, if I wanted to communicate with any of them, I was reduced to writing them letters—letters which took a week in their transit, coming and going—or to taking their precisely 10-minute-long phone calls every two weeks, at midnight (6 pm on the East Coast, which was when long-distance phone rates dropped lower).
La Pedrera, a building by Antoni Gaudi,
which I walked by on my way to school

Until then, I’d never spent more than one day at a time in a city, and the total of such days, before Barcelona, I could have counted, I think, on one hand. I’d never lived in an apartment. (Had I ever actually been inside one before?) I’d never ridden on public transportation, and for months the city metros—their labyrinthine dark tunnels, their crush of fast-moving people—were a daily nightmare to me. Though I’d studied Spanish in school for four years, I’d never had actual conversations in it—certainly not with a native speaker. (Those first months in Spain, every time I did talk to someone in Spanish—an hourly occurrence at least—some part of my brain kept monitoring the exchange from above: “Look at us, we’re speaking Spanish.”)

I’d never ridden a train—much less across national borders. Never had wine with lunch. (Never had wine before at all, really: Wasn’t I a good Mennonite girl? The first time I ever got drunk was with my Spanish host family, the day it was announced that Barcelona would be the site of the 1992 Olympics, and my host father opened champagne.)

Barcelona, seen from the hilltop of Montjuic
Nor had I ever known American students like the ones who were studying with me. Among them were kids of Jewish and South Asian descent; they’d never heard of Eastern Mennonite College. Their home institutions were Brown and Cornell and Princeton and UCLA. They were gorgeous. They were tall and skinny and brave. They put on do-rags and played their guitars at metro stations all over the city. They seemed to exude confidence. They strode around Barcelona in backpacks and black turtlenecks, chain-smoking and speaking Spanish—even Catalan!—at a machine-gun-fast clip. Back home, I had thought I was cool; I thought I was pretty smart. But within this new group of American students, I saw there was a whole different set of standards I’d hadn’t even known to imagine.

There’s a future book to be written about this, perhaps. For now I’ll just say that three decades after that year in Spain ended, I still see it as an enormous, jarring, harsh gift. Barcelona taught me to enjoy my own company, to be a world traveler and a world citizen. It taught me to read maps and to love cities, and to speak Spanish fluently. It's also the reason I didn't get married in my early 20s, as my then-boyfriend and I spoke of doing, before I left for Spain.

But if you’d seen me in Barcelona—if you’d tracked my behavior—during the first 6 or 7 months I lived there, you would hardly believe that any of this “gift” stuff is true. I was depressed. I was lonely. I dreamed of going home again, every day. I missed my boyfriend, my friends in high school and college. I missed my grandparents, my parents, my siblings. My youngest sisters, Cindy and Sandy, were only 8 years old when I left, and I loved them like they were my own. (I still think of them, somewhat, like that. The children who used up my maternal urges, when I was still very young.) For some reason I no longer recall, Cindy and Sandy both called me Pete, as a nickname. The summer before I left for Spain, Sandy in her pigtails and bare feet had plumped down one day in the yard and started bawling from out of the blue. When my mother went running to see what was the matter, Sandy gulped out, “I don’t want Pete to go to Spain!” Any time I reminded myself of this—sitting in my single-bed, brown-papered room in Barcelona, looking out on the elevator shaft—I’d burst into crying myself.

My family in Hickory, as we looked about 2 years before I left for Spain.

My longing for home—for what I’d left behind—almost stunted that year.

I’ve been thinking of this, as I read Annie Dillard’s beautiful memoir, An American Childhood, again; a whole chapter of it is dedicated to Dillard’s love of exploring her environs by foot, when she was a child. “I walked and memorized the neighborhood,” Dillard writes. “I made a mental map and located myself upon it. At night in bed I rehearsed the small world’s scheme and set challenges [for myself] . . . . I traveled over the known world’s edge, and the ground held” (42).

I, too, lay in bed as a child, running my mind’s eye over and over the network of roads that opened out from my house. I had the same maps in my mind as Dillard describes, but rather than thrilling, I found them terrifying. Dizzying. How strange that I could walk out the door of our house in Hickory, that front door as familiar to me it as my own skin, down the red-brick front steps and across the red-brick front porch where my dad or my grandma always planted red-and-white impatiens in summer, then out the one-lane wooded drive to Sandy Ridge Road . . . and from there, to more and more roads forking out, leading in all directions, to other towns, other states. If you walked or drove far enough, if you followed enough branching roads, one after the other, the world would look utterly different than the one you had left. You’d be so far removed from the place where you started you might never find your way back.

I started writing this post with the intention of thinking about our tendency, as humans, to fear difference. To shy away from the Other. To cling to ways of thinking and being that are deeply familiar to us. It’s a tendency that seems worthy of further reflection, here in this era after the 2016 U.S. elections.

Lest there be any doubt about the closeness of my family of origin:
Here we are in a bed that my sisters designed--and my brother built--
to hold all five of us siblings.
When I look back at my poor, sad, terrified 19-year-old self, I see why I was so terrified. To stop missing home so profoundly—to cease focusing on it in order to focus instead on the city around me, the people with whom I was living—meant that I’d have to change. If I let go of the past so as to embrace the present more fully, something in my way of thinking and seeing would shift. I didn’t know how, or how much exactly, but I had that subconscious fear. Accepting my new environs, letting myself become comfortable with them—from walking the streets of Barcelona alone to hanging out with the other kids in my study program to making friends with my Spanish neighbors, to buying my first all-black outfit—would mean a relinquishment, to some extent, of my previous life; a loosening of old connections. I’d have to stop seeing home—the Mennonite community, the American South: for me, those two had merged—as my primary identity. It would no longer be my single lens for seeing the rest of the world.

I did make this transition, by the end of the year. (When I flew home that summer, my stuffed monkey was ensconced in my suitcase, and that was all for the good.) The transition has stayed with me over the years; it has shaped my life ever since then, and I continue to be grateful for it. But at the same time, I understand too why I was reluctant—why it took me the first 2/3 of that year in Barcelona to give myself over to it. I must have sensed even then that expanding my world view would not come without a cost. In doing so, I’d never again feel quite as cozily included in one stable place, so much like a part of the clan, as I’d done the first 19 years of my life. In becoming at home in the world, I feared the rupture—the subtle but permanent break—with the world’s quiet and safe-feeling corners, with the communities I’d thought of as home.

Even Annie Dillard, that intrepid child explorer, ends her chapter on walking with the thrill of returning home after having walked away from it farther than ever: “What joy, what relief, eased me as I pushed open the heavy front door!—joy and relief because, from the very trackless waste, I had located home, family, and the dinner table once again” (44).


  1. wow PG-- I read this, and am in tears--the pixs, remembrances, the journey--- thanks for sharing so
    profoundly!! mom

    1. Thank you, Mom! I'm not sure how you managed to make a comment on here in my name, but I love it that you did.

    2. How freaking hilarious that mom commented on your post with your name!!! 😂😂😂. I'm glad missing me did not cause you any additional angst! I must correct one part of your story, I built that "bed" at the behest of Cindy and Sandy. I am not really sure why they wanted it built but I do remember building it.
      I love your writing. Keep em coming.

    3. Wally, I have no idea how Mom posted on here in my name. It was some kind of magic mind meld!

      Thank you for the kind words--and for the correction! (Duly noted: see above!) And though I may not have missed your 12-year-old self so very much back in the day, I miss you NOW, if that's any consolation.😂

  2. Replies
    1. I know that's true, Shirley!

  3. You have just jolted me back to August 1988, when I debarked from a bus in Barcelona on my way to take up a teaching post in Huesca, Aragon. I think I was probably a little more worldly than you portray yourself, however, I recognise the feelings of isolation. The longer the year went on, the more time I spent with my eyes closed, walking through the remembered streets of England, shop by shop. However, this was also the place that I first started to seriously try to write - deliberately obscure poetry, which I have long since realised was incredibly successful as no one could understand a word of it; a nasty habit I have divested myself of.

    More poser to your blogs.


    1. Bruce, we just missed each other in Barcelona (well, by about a year)! It sounds like your own year in Spain was pivotal, too, in that it started you on your path a writer. I've noticed how being shaken out of your normal environment has a way of shaking up your creative life, too -- sometimes in very good ways.

      (Also, I love the type-o "More poser." At first I thought it was another British expression I hadn't yet heard!)

  4. Just lovely, Patricia! I always think of you as worldly wise and can't quite imagine that you were so cautious at age 19. But I can say that leaving Hickory has been life changing for me too. And yes, that change does create some sense of separation from the people of my youth.

    1. Thank you, Joyce. I know it comes with its own challenges, but I've always been impressed by how gracefully you've re-entered our hometown after your own long absences from it.

  5. Living in different countries and parts of the US is very humbling and life changing I think. I wish all 19 year olds were required to have a multicultural experience like you and I did.

    1. Kristin, I completely agree! I've often wondered what a different kind of country the U.S. would be, if all 19-year-olds WERE required to spend significant time immersed in another culture -- on their own, without family, having to operate in a 2nd language. I do think it would make for a more compassionate and open-minded culture in the U.S. as a whole.