My girlfriend waved goodbye as the escalator pulled her upwards until she disappeared into the Madrid terminal. I felt my jeans 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 relearn 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 change the outcome, our suitcases rolling through the rubber streamers like a drive-through car 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 you get for doing cutsies.
I 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. After a long day of speaking Spanish, I would often look forward to going home and eating my dinner in front of the computer.
Shovel, watch Netflix, repeat.
While lobbing food into your face is a pleasurable activity, 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.
Writing is kind of like a game of telephone. Things get lost in the process, meanings misinterpreted. In Stephen King's book "On Writing," he asked the reader, "What is writing? Writing is telepathy." If that's true, it makes since that your original intentions sometimes turn into purple-monkey-dishwasher.
Last week, my column got a lot of attention from various communities in Spain; American expats, Spanish locals, etc. I've been getting a lot of feedback about the piece, and the more I hear about it, the more I realize that something got lost in translation between my keyboard and some readers.
If you didn't see the piece, it was an illustration essay about the differences between Spain and America. Most of the comments were appreciative, but there was a sizable group that thought I was complaining about Spain.
Which was not what I was trying to do at all.
It’s fitting that the word alien gets thrown around when talking about immigrants. Because the truth is, in navigating another culture, it’s pretty easy to feel like a big green Martian. Things you think are universal get flipped, and the second you think you get it, a new confusion arises.
I get it. That’s just travel.
And truthfully, many of those differences are the reasons that so many Americans and I can’t seem to leave Spain. I like café con leche and canas. I like mixing eating and partying, and that clubs don’t close at 2 am. I like inexpensive doctors and high-speed trains.
Still, as good as things are, I still miss things from home, the good and the bad. I miss silly Bay Area slang like “cutty,” hearing Drake blasting from passing cars, and walking into literally any bar and buying an IPA.
It doesn’t mean that I need to embrace the culture here anymore than I have. It doesn’t mean that I expect everywhere around the world to be like America.
It doesn’t even mean that the stuff back home is any better (though I will never concede that a Madrid Burrito is better than California one).
It just means I know where I come from. As long that doesn’t close me off from experiencing Spain, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
That would be the end of the column except for we are missing a vital character in this plot: the local people. Wherever you’re a foreigner, whether it’s bustling Beijing or beautiful Paris, your cultural comparisons impact the locals, whether you were just venting or not.
Back in San Francisco, I used to get so irritated with visiting New Yorkers; all they could talk about was the Big Apple! That was so crazy to me! Why not learn about a new place instead of comparing it to a place you already know and love?
But I get it now. I don’t think they compared everything to home because they thought it was better.
Maybe that was just their way of taking things in.
Tune in every Friday for more missed connections and thoughtful, cultural ramblings.