After a sleepless night of last-minute packing mixed with a large dose of loopy, I head out to Sky Harbor Airport towards destiny itself. I carry with me perfectly calibrated luggage – 50.5 and 49.5 lbs, baby! – a few new toys, several hundred almonds, and a savagely wandering heart, one which always seems to be with those from which my body is furthest. As such, the goodbye is appropriately teary-eyed, but we come to strong consensus not to re-enact a storybook linger.
There’s nothing remarkable to mention about the flights – I am getting very good at zoning for hours on end. Upon arrival, I collect my bags and overhear someone dropping the F-bomb several times in succession behind me. Um, excuse me. Did you say Fulbright?
Bingo! Several of us cab it together to Colegio Mayor Mendel, the orientation station location situated in la Ciudad Universitatia, a student area to the northeast of central Madrid. We check in to single dorm-style rooms spread out over seven floors, each equipped with its own private toilet/shower, plus enormous windows that in my case open to a panorama of Spanish architecture.
Oh my god. I’m in SPAIN!!!!
There’s a fascinating mix of the familiar and the new in this visit for me; my confidence swells when I maneuver in Spanish, but I have very little experience in the big central city. Madrid doesn’t remind me of Bangkok one bit. There’s a calmness here that seems unusual for such a cosmopolitan destination, and it’s, for the most part, quiet. At least, in la Ciudad Universitaria this is the case – I’m planning on looking for housing in much more centrally located neighborhoods, so this impression may shift course.
I take a quick rinse then head down to breakfast in the cafeteria – but it seems I have dallied excessively, and it has been cleaned up and away. I find Alice, platinum blonde biker chick from Florida whose engaging brightness is utterly undermined by my technically true description, and we head out to Cafe Glace for coffee and chitter-chat. She’s snagged a research grant working with a Spanish astrobiology team on a project involving robots on Mars. Go on and read that sentence again, I’ll wait.
This is what’s gotten me most in a tizzy about the coming year; literally every single person I’ve met today has been fascinating, and in an enormous variety of ways. Fulbright wisely didn’t schedule any orientation activities today, so the entire time has been dedicated to meet/greet, a process that works so much better organically than it ever could have during stilted “get-to-know-you” exercises.
Fulbrighters on the whole are incredibly friendly, inviting any newcomer immediately into conversational circles and presenting genuine interest as to how you got there and what you’re all about. Everyone asks whether you’re a teacher or a researcher, where you’ll be based, what you’re thinking about housing. Where are you from, where did you go to school, what did you study, why Spain?
Most Fulbrighters seem to be emerging fresh from the college chrysalis, but there’s a few others who spent some buffer time having non-academic adventures. There are far more women than men; everyone is interested in speculating why that might be.
And thus far I have not met even one stuffed-shirt. I admit to that being a vague concern before I set off – the Fulbright name is wielded with such authority; would grantees puff themselves full of this image, use it as a pedestal? The answer is a resounding ZERO PERCENT – such behavior would probably be giggled at ’round these parts. People are effervescent and down-to-earth, ambitious and accessible.
Several groups coagulate over the course of the evening – one is gung-ho about encountering salsa dancing, but most of us are interested in investing in a solid night’s sleep after perhaps a quick drink. We meander down to the nearest location, a totally deserted bar blasting American pop music. We are enough to fill it with our expansive American-ness, which actually manages to drive off a few potentials who poke in curious heads.
We care not. We sip enormous cups of tinto de verano and are generally overflowing with optimism regarding the coming year.
Lovely ladies Charlene, Sam, Kate, Kelsey, and Libby flash winning smiles for the camera.
Around 11:30, the bar does fill up with non-Fulbrighters, many of them dressed in semi-costume, likely celebrating the final day before university classes begin. We check out soon after, but certainly not before a brief Shakira-fueled dance break.
The carousing collegefolk sing their way across streets.
I love my new camera. Love, love, love. Need to finish reading the manual so I can take outstanding night shots instead of just damn good ones, but it’s all a process…
Tomorrow, the orientating begins. Heather, Fulbrighter who worked at my school last year and is planning on returning as an Auxiliar at the end of this month, laughingly advised through email not to get discouraged at the massive amount of meetings – what’s important is to open a bank account, find a place to live, and, I’d add, revel in the joy of being once again in the glorious world of Spain.