The giant bowl of steaming couscous is placed in front of us-garnished with a colorful array of boiled vegetables and a scattering of mystery meat. Our host mother smiles, motioning for us to pick up our spoons and dig in. There are no plates, no portions-just a group of people sitting around a table sharing in the soul-warming flavors of the Moroccan dish together.
Since arriving in Madrid in mid January, I have been on a constant journey of trial and error. I have had magical days-stumbling upon an adorable cafe in a neighborhood I never knew existed, and returning home to an incredible dinner conversation with my host parents about Spanish politics. There have also been real lows, like getting lost at night during a rainstorm, feeling that sinking sense of helplessness.
I have had moments of feeling completely alone-in my room, yearning for the comfort of a trip to Eagle’s Deli for brunch with my people back at Boston College. But for all the moments of loneliness, there have been so many more moments of joy and accomplishment. I have learned to cherish the small triumphs-successfully giving a stranger directions to the closest metro in Spanish, being able to chat with my host dad about the morning news headlines.
My moments of isolation and frustration have made me so much more self-aware. I have learned how to be alone and to actually revel in walking through the city by myself, discovering something new every time, or seeing it in a different way. I no longer expect to order a coffee and receive it within five minutes. I am slowly becoming more patient, because what’s the hurry anyway?
My hours of alone time have taught me how strong and independent I have become. But, they have also made me realize how important it is to be weak sometimes. While I have learned to cherish loneliness, I have also learned how vital community is in holding us up when we need to lean. In my most vulnerable times, I turn to my support systems back in the U.S. And, of course I turn to my BC community in Madrid-we hold each other up. But, I also look to my host parents, whom I have come to trust and love like family.
My understanding of the power of community was reinforced during my trip to Morocco. One afternoon, we hiked up to a small village embedded in the Rif Mountains. We spoke to two women, a mother and her daughter, who invited us into their modest home. They prepared couscous and Moroccan tea for us, and through a translator, we learned about their lives, and they asked us questions about ours. In their village, arranged marriages are sometimes still secretly coordinated, schooling is encouraged but not really enforced, and illiteracy is common. There is no running water, no technological distractions, only their devout faith, their family, and their community. Before we left, the older woman offered us a piece of advice that I think back on sometimes. She told us to hold on to our families and to never let them go, because they are the most important things in our lives. This trip really reinforced the idea that tangible possessions do not foster happiness. These women live a completely sparse life, but they were bubbling with life and glee, smiling, laughing, and holding our hands. Right before we packed up to descend the mountain, they said we are family to them now.
Sometimes I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in the individualist culture thatis inculcated in us. It’s so easy to feel like we deserve more, that we have been treated unfairly, that our problems are clearly more important than those of the guy next to us on the metro. Being selfish is so easy. But really, above all, we are all human beings. We are all part of a community, and we all need that sense of camaraderie. Without being able to communicate in Arabic with these women in the village, we were still able to laugh together, to share stories, and to form a bond in which we all felt comfortable opening up to each other. They immediately embraced us, and I can say I have never felt more welcome somewhere than in that tiny mountain village in Morocco.
My bouts of loneliness here have taught me the power of being part of something greater than myself-the lifeline that my loved ones are for me, and that I hope I am for them. In digging into that bottomless bowl of couscous together, and in using body language to express extreme gratitude, I have expanded my definition of community. I will always remember that random stranger on the streets of Madrid who offered me the Google Maps App on his phone during the torrential downpour. I no longer felt completely alone. When we look up more, and think outside of ourselves more, there is so much we can give, and from that, so much we will receive.