A year ago today, I left for Málaga. I got on a plane for the first time in 13 years, and set off for almost a year away from home. Part of me can’t believe it’s been that long since I packed up my things and landed on the coast of Spain, while another part of me feels like it really hasn’t been that long since I left.
Today, the next group of students began their semester in a place I spent the better part of 10 months. Coming back wasn’t hard, but saying goodbye definitely wasn’t easy. Being away for that long was difficult, emotionally. You can only try to make a new place feel so much like home before you realize that’s exactly what it can never be.
Málaga was supposed to be an escape. And for a time, it did become my cherished paradise, the twists and turns of the city center I will always know like the back of my hand. It also became my hell, an environment where I was always forced to be on and never fully relaxed; it was constant work, rewarding in the end, and draining. There would be moments when I was sitting on the beach miserable, while tourists next to me seemed to be having the time of their lives. It wasn’t easy to process what I was feeling, and it was usually made worse by my façade of glowing Instagram posts.
When you go away for a semester, right there at the end, you feel like you’re ready to go home. You end the experience before it gets bad, and most importantly, you do actually get to go home. I and some of the few who decided to stay for the year, we hit what I call “the wall”: the feeling when the vacation is suddenly over and you’re trapped on the island, your emotional supply depleting fast.
People will tell you if you go away for the year, it’s a great experience. And I will be the first to say that the end result was ultimately the best decision I could have made for myself. But growth is not always a beautiful process. It can be painful, ugly, and exhausting. Pair this process with the feel of endless summer on the Mediterranean and you end up feeling like there is something incredibly wrong with you. Who wouldn’t be having the time of their lives in this scenario?
To those who are getting ready to do this for a semester, or even a year, I will tell you what no one told me: It is not going to be all wine, beaches, and sunshine. There will be moments on the bus where you miss just walking down the street to your best friends’ place instead of juggling time zones and chaotic schedules for 20 minute FaceTimes. You’ll miss the nuance of seasons and traditions. It will occur to you on several occasions how many times you took your favorite meal for granted. You are going to have moments where you are breaking down crying at nothing or at everything.
But this will pass. You will get through it. You will be okay. Because in the end, you will come out more independent and so much stronger than you ever knew was possible. That growth, that journey, though not the most beautiful process, will be the most rewarding experience you will have for the time being.