By Emily Kelleher
I pushed aside a plastic curtain and stepped onto the main dance floor, where trees grew through the concrete floor and TVs hung haphazardly off the wall, playing nothing but static. I shivered and crossed my arms, my eyes following the tree trunk upwards until they met the pitch-black sky, unencumbered by a ceiling.
It was the end of my 48 hours in Budapest, one of the last trips of my six months living abroad. By then I’d been to half a dozen countries, but Hungary was the first place I visited whose national language was not offered by my high school, where the Euros I’d become so accustomed to weren’t accepted, and where Uber didn’t exist. At breakfast that morning, my friends and I typed each price on the menu into our phone and waited for a converter to translate the Hungarian Forint into USD, immediately ordereding second lattes and donuts for the table.
We’d read about the makeshift bars established in abandoned pre-war buildings in Budapest’s old Jewish quarter, but unlike so many must-see stops along our European tour, walking into one felt more serendipitous than touristy. I hoarded details in my head: the bars tucked in nondescript corner rooms, the hodge-podge of furniture, arranged as though the previous owners had left abruptly, or someone had curated it to look that way. I was sure I’d finally entered someplace foreign, untouched by the swathes of American study abroad students who informed which pictures were sought after and which restaurants offered menus in English.
We walked through a half dozen connecting rooms in search of the bathroom. One sold drinks behind a dining room table. Another, visible from across the second-floor balcony, offered late night food. We waited in line for the bathroom behind a pair of Irish girls and marveled at our ability to find a place nobody we knew had been. When we stepped inside, the graffiti covered door swung towards us, and I stuck out my elbow to stop it, landing on a spot where, in pink and orange marker, someone had written the Greek letters of my own sorority.
The signs were there. In Paris, I walked into a pharmacy and got only one syllable of my “bonjour” out before the pharmacist responded with hello. At the Budapest restaurant where we’d eaten breakfast that morning, all I had to do was open the door. Later, at the Christmas market, we walked from stall to stall, drooling over the same churro cones I’d seen sold in Bryant Park. At the baths, we took the pictures we’d seen so often on our feeds, and later ducked inside a Marriot to have someone call us a cab home.
American study abroad programs began in the wake of World War I, the idea being that if citizens could forge connections to foreign places, their native countries might look more kindly on one another and avoid the kind of conflict that had just ravaged the world. Students were encouraged to immerse themselves in their host country’s culture, learn their language and eat their food. But by the time it was my turn, I found that wherever I went, the word had already reshaped around me, and adjusted to my American expectations.
I prepared for my semester in Strasbourg, France, by taking a mid-level French class, something I’d done every year since 7th grade. I spent the summer dutifully tapping away at my Duolingo app on the way to my internship, where I met another intern who had just finished a semester there. But once I was eating dinner with a real French family every night, my skills proved lacking. Still, no matter what collection of incorrectly conjugated words stumbled out of my mouth, my host mom knew what I was talking about. She and the rest of the family spoke fluent English anyway. And German. And Spanish.
In Italy, we drove our rental car down a route that we realized far too late was more of a hiking path than a road. But a man saw us, knew immediately that we’d been led astray by faulty satellites on our way to a particularly scenic town, and pointed us in the right direction. In Amsterdam, friends insisted on eating lunch at a restaurant called the Avocado Show. I wasn’t thrilled, believing I could eat the same overpriced, underwhelming, made-for-Instagram meal back in New York. The wait was too long anyway, but when we arrived, we found six girls in our sorority leaving the restaurant, having also visited Amsterdam from their respective host cities. Later we climbed onto a boat and took a canal tour together, where we passed another boat of students from our school in New York. At the Moco museum, we looked at art from all over the world, and read about it on signs written in English.
Before college, the only people who ever asked where I was from also were from nearby. When asked, I’d tell them the name of my town, about the place near the water with the main street that still had trolley tracks in it, where the chamber of commerce held a parade on the anniversary of the town’s founding each year. It wasn’t until college that I started being from Long Island. Instead of trolley tracks and waterfront parks I watched people imagine me among bad accents, crowded shopping centers, and commuters drinking beer out of paper bags on the Long Island Railroad. Abroad, I felt the weight of something much heavier. At dinner with my host family on Thanksgiving, I explained how we celebrated back home, leaving out the mythical origins of the holiday but admitting that the day of thanks was swiftly followed with a blitz of consumerism called black Friday. In my European human rights class, learning that the US remains the only industrialized nation to use the death penalty felt more personal thanks to my professor’s habit of referring to the US as “your country.” At the big American sized grocery store in the suburb where my host family lived, I once passed the International section. Scanning rows of rice noodles and Goya seasoning, my eyes stopped on a jar of marshmallow fluff and a can of Heinz baked beans. They were there, I realized, representing America.
When I arrived at my gate in the Amsterdam airport to a crowd of study abroad students dressed in Urban Outfitter jackets and Firenze sweatshirts and the sound of people talking two volumes louder than I’d heard in months, I was already home. Hearing the loud and suddenly obnoxious chatter, I cringed a little, knowing that this must have been what my presence had felt like in all too many restaurants and museums and trains over the past five months. It was as if, for a minute, I could see myself as everyone else did.
Emily Kelleher is a journalist based in New York.