Matt St. John is a writer and author living in San Francisco. His works have appeared in publications like Vice, El Pais, the East Bay Express, and more.

Returning to the United States after nine months in Spain

Returning to the United States after nine months in Spain

      My girlfriend waved goodbye as the escalator pulled her upwards until she disappeared into the Madrid terminal. I felt my jean pockets for a tissue, finding nothing but a boarding pass and an expired Spanish visa.
     While tears in your passport are much more valuable than stamps, the crying had to stop before airport security. I wasn't out of Spain yet, and communicating in Spanish to scary guards is rough, even without sobs and a runny nose. 
    The next thirteen hours would be a transition, from one country to another. I spent the last nine months in Spain learning a new language and culture. Now I had to re-learn the old habits, which were packed away in my mind like dusty boxes in an attic.
                                                                                  ...
    As I stood in line at security, an elderly Spanish couple snuck up behind me and cut me in line. The American in me was highly offended, which gave me hope. If I was pissed about being cut in airport security, than I was remembering my cultural heritage faster than I thought I would.
    In the United States, it doesn't matter if you are waiting for a punch in the face, the line is a sacred ritual, and your spot hotly coveted. 
    Spain's version of the line is less rigid, leaving wiggle room for advancement. Cutting seems to be acceptable as long as it's done with absent-minded intention: walk up, avoid eye contact, and take a quiet step ahead of your competition. 
     I would have said something, but they had executed the maneuver perfectly, leaving me no choice but to congratulate them on their seamless technique.
                                                                                  ...
    I walked through the rope labyrinth, put my bag on the conveyor belt, and walked through the arched x-ray. The Spanish couple waited anxiously at the conveyor belt a couple feet ahead of me. 
    We had gotten off on the wrong foot, but if anything was going to bring us together, it was the anxiety of getting in trouble for not putting our toothpaste into clear, plastic bags.
    We watched our luggage closely as if staring could somehow change the outcome. Suitcases rolled through the rubber streamers like cars going through the wash.
    Mine emerged fine. Theirs were not so lucky.
    They watched in horror as a tiny metal arm appeared, like something out of a science fiction novel, pushing their bags into the hands of a uniformed woman.
    I did what anyone would do in that situation. I took my things out of my blue bin, happy it wasn't me. The uniformed woman was yelling at the old Spanish couple,'Is this your bag? Is this your bag?' They stared back at them blankly. 
    I knew that look. 
    I wore it on my face daily; at the bank, at the super market, on the subway. Recognizing that look was as easy as spotting my reflection.
    Or maybe that's just what they get for cutting in line.
                                                                                  ...
    I boarded the airplane and found my seat in coach next to two Americans. It was an aisle seat, which — besides worst case scenarios — carries more responsibility than sitting by the emergency exit. You are the gatekeeper between the stranger in seat 'B' and...well, pretty much everything:  bathroom breaks, stretching, etc. 
     I could give access or take it away, making me the coach equivalent to president of a three seat America.
    We hit the sky, and soon into the flight, my constituents turned on their TVs and started shoving food into their mouths. Just fork to mouth, fork to mouth, repeat. 
    It was disgusting, sure. Crumbs flying, lips smacking, blank eyes staring deep into tiny screens as if they contained juicy secrets. 
    But if I'm being honest, I was happy with this vulgar display. It validated me. When I lived in Madrid, I would return home after a long day of speaking Spanish wanting nothing more than dinner and my computer.
     Shovel, watch Netflix, repeat. 
     While lobbing food into your face is a pleasurable activity for the eater, for the viewer it's fairly disturbing. The chewing sound alone was enough to make me want to revoke their cabin rights for at least an hour. 
     Still, it alleviated some of my eating shame. I didn't personally have bad table manners. 
     I was just being American.
                                                                                 ...
    High in the sky, some where over the Atlantic, I started to regret my choice of cut-off shorts. 
   The cabin seemed to be a few degrees above a well-stocked, industrial refrigerator, and on top of that, my personal air vent was blasting a steady, arctic stream across my exposed thighs.
    So I asked the American to my left,"Hey man, is my air conditioning on?"
    The man stopped shoveling his food for a second and peaked up at the panel and then back at me.
    "Nah man, yours isn't on." The shoveling commenced a second after the sentence left his lips.
    "Ah, well it's super cold in here..." I continued.
    He sighed and looked at me like I was asking him to do my taxes, reached up to his vent and moved it slightly.
    "Since yours isn't on, I went ahead and moved my vent a little bit so it isn't hitting you so much."
    Then he commenced shoveling.
   Private property is everything in a three seat America.
                                                                            ...
    When I got off the plane, I ran into the Americans again after passport control. 
    "We have to stop running into each other like this," they said.
    'I feel like that's going to be impossible, at least for the next two months,' I thought to myself.
    
Be sure to check out my last post, an ongoing series of illustrations depicting the differences of Spain and the United States. You can check that out here.   

Check back often for more travel musings, burrito reviews, and attempted honesty.

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