A little over 2 and a half years ago, I made my first trip overseas to Europe. I was meeting up with my sister, who was studying abroad in Florence, Italy at the time. I remember packing everything-and-nothing-at-all into a backpack and a small carry-on. I boarded my flight and next thing I knew it 9 hours had passed and I was eating homemade pasta carbonara with my sister’s host family in Florence. My very first travelling adventure to that beautiful Italian city ended far too soon. But my time there, and the ensuing two-week trip around Europe, hooked me on the “addiction” that is international travel.
My sister and I returned from our shared European adventure in late May of 2014. Since then, my sister has not returned to Florence, or even left the country for that matter. Yet, as the American college kid stereotype would imply, she still walks around saying “Ciao” to her friends and referring to our father as “Babbo”.
This really shouldn’t bother me as much as it does, but besides our family ancestry, my sister is about as Italian as a ham and pineapple pizza. The entirety of her Italian vocabulary has dwindled down to those two words, and her understanding of a nation of 60 million is based on a 16-week clubbing binge that had occasional college classes to attend.
I understand I’m being a bit critical here, but that’s because I’m terrified of becoming the same stereotype I just spent half a blog post bashing. You see, I was lucky enough to travel abroad again in July 2015. Like my sister before me, I was participating in a study abroad program, but this time it was in Seville, Spain. Like my sister, I stayed with a wonderful host family. And now, like my sister, my Spanish is dwindling to “Dora the Explorer” levels of pitiful. Most depressingly of all, like my sister, I have no plans to return to a place I claim to love and see the people I considered a second family.
This theme is my constant struggle with travel. I love to participate in new cultures, peoples, and customs. Hell, I even got a degree in it. The issue is, however, that like so many other travelers, I only ever stay for the honeymoon period and participate in mainly “touristy” things. My couple month foray in Spain involved travelling nearly every weekend, and drinking every night.
My dose of reality came from my host mother. We developed a great habit of sitting down and having conversations with each other after my nights out. The copious amounts of alcohol afforded me the confidence to practice my Spanish speaking skills, and she presumably enjoyed the company. Either that or my drunken Spanish must have been comically amusing. But I digress.
Our conversations would touch on everything from musical artists (we’re both massive fangirls of Pablo Alborán), what I was going to eat for a late dinner, and the socioeconomic struggles facing the people of Spain’s southern Andalucía region. That last part sticks out a bit, but that’s the closest I can do to mirror the way I felt when I finally realized my 8 week “cultural immersion” program did anything but immerse me in the “true” issues of Spain.
Once my Spanish level, and intoxication level, were high enough, I could delve into the true reality behind my “dream city” through conversation. The people of Andalucía have a lovely way of live full of many nights spent enjoying the company of friends and family. They have a tradition of parties in the street and a casual approach to all obligations.
Unfortunately, my host mom also enlightened me to the staggering 41% unemployment rate. In fact, During the period I was there, the unemployment rate was statistically the worst of all regions in Europe. Meanwhile, my friends and I were still thrilled at the low cost of a glass of beer and always ordered more than enough tapas to go around, blissfully unaware of just how necessary our money was for the livelihood of all the restaurant workers, teachers, and host families we interacted with daily.
You see, without the influx of cash and laxed spending mentality of the tourists, the city I grew to love would simply decay into ruin. No matter how much I wish, I can never become a part of Seville. If I were ever to decide to move to the south of Spain, my work would take money from those in the 41% that need it. My salary would restrict me from drinking so fluidly with my friends on the streets. The expensive dishes I ordered would become solely a complimentary cup of olives. My benefits to the city would quickly go from many to none. I’d officially overstay my welcome.
That’s the issue I have with traveling. I long so much to stay and feel the exuberance and bliss of exotic locales, but it simply would hurt these places I’ve come to love. Being a tourist may leave me wanting more, but overstaying my welcome would only create further need in an already struggling Spain.
I am a “tourist”, through and through. And I think I’ve finally come to terms with that.