by Sean Thielen
On a rainy Wednesday in February, I quit my job. Fifteen minutes later, I bought a plane ticket to Madrid. Twelve days after that, I was walking through security at LAX with nothing but a small backpack and my passport.
For the first time in months, I felt terrified. Yet I had never felt more alive in my entire life.
Since last September, my life had become a monotonous routine of sitting in class and sitting at work, punctuated only by the hours I spent sitting in traffic. Friends were distant; family even more so. Going out on weekends was no longer a way of having fun, but something necessary to maintain my sanity. I felt like I was drowning in work I had to complete.
Welcome to the real world, kid, they’d say at work.
Screw the real world, is what I’d say back.
Except, I never actually said it. I just forced a laugh and went back into my office and sat in front of my computer for the rest of the day, counting down the hours until I would do it all over again.
I was so bored, and I was becoming so sickly comfortable with my little self-contained routine. I was 19 years old and stuck in a dead-end job on top of going to school full-time. I was going to explode. Something had to be done.
So I did what everyone always talks about doing but never does – I ran away to Europe. Only for the weekend, of course. I just needed some time to gain some perspective, to break free of the life I felt shackled to.
My nerves set in as I traveled further and further away from home. “Why did you ever think this was a good idea?” was the only thought in my mind as I walked off the plane in Madrid and was funneled through customs. I had to remember to breathe as I tapped the buttons on the Metro ticket terminal.
But just three hours later, after wandering the dark streets of Las Latinas and walking into a random tapas bar where none of the staff spoke English, I knew exactly why I had done it. In an instant, I found myself enveloped in Spanish hospitality. I was surrounded by some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I had ever met. Most couldn’t speak any English, and as the drinks kept coming and my attempts at Spanish inevitably dissolved into a slur, our conversations became more and more fragmented.
But no one cared. I walked from bar to bar and went from disco to disco, dancing and singing and talking with this transient group of madrileños until six in the morning.
I met an Austrian schoolteacher, a German phsyicist and a French medical student. I ate eel and octopus and jamon iberico, and drank cheap beer and tinto verano and coke from a glass. I took trains through the countryside and rode bikes through the city that had some of the most beautiful sights and architecture. I also saw one of my favorite bands and was able to view some of my favorite pieces of art (Bombay Bicycle Club, Las Meninas and Guernica). I watched three sunrises during the four days I was in Spain, and was the victim of so much friendship and hospitality that I didn’t know what to do with myself.
And there was a moment where someone asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and that question stopped me in my tracks. For the past six months, I was a web developer at a marketing agency and an English major at Chapman University. But in that moment, standing on the other side of the world, I was no longer any of those things. I couldn’t tie my identity down to any single, quotable phrase. In that moment, I was free.
Call it a hopeless rejection of the way life is supposed to be. Call it the romantic wanderlust of someone who has no clue about how the real world works. Dismiss me however you like. But the world is a lot bigger than you think. It’s wild and crazy and full of surprises.
And, you know what? So are you.