During sophomore year at the University of Rochester, it was time to decide what study abroad program to choose. After the exchange program experience I had in Tenerife, I knew I was going. It was just a question of where. I had heard about the Semester at Sea, where students live on a ship for a semester visiting ports all over the world. Also nicknamed “The Fuck Boat” among college students everywhere, which certainly sounded appealing, I was in a serious relationship with Chloe until the summer after sophomore year. I also decided that it would be a better fit for me to strengthen my Spanish skills and get deep into one culture rather than just get a taste of several different cultures. I considered Mexico, but finally decided on Sevilla, Spain.
I ended my relationship with Chloe just before junior year began after I suggested that while she studied in Paris and I studied in Spain, we could meet up once in a while. She suggested that if she were to meet a guy in Paris she would not want to miss out on that aspect of her study abroad experience. She had this idea of having a romantic affair with a French man (which never happened of course).
My parents flew over to Sevilla with me to help me get settled. We checked into a hotel and they stayed for a few days and then headed back home. It was really my first time on my own. I mean, I was ‘on my own’ in Tenerife but I was under the care of a family there. Even going to college was different, as I was living in a dorm and on campus with other students. It was still a bubble. This was the first time I was out in the real world, alone. Looking back, these few days before the study abroad program actually started probably played a major role in shaping my view of traveling and being alone. Luckily, the very first night I met a British woman and French man at a tapas bar. They were just traveling and had met each other that evening as well. The experience of getting to know strangers, from two different countries, clearly a few years older than I was, and sharing some drinks and good food and good conversation, was nothing short of amazing. They didn’t see me as Ashwin the non-Jew, the guy who’s not good at sports, or the nerdy serial monogamist who doesn’t have casual sex with multiple women. It reminded me of Tenerife. They liked me because I was nice and because I was from somewhere else.
I realized that this was my chance to completely let go of my inhibitions and become someone else entirely. Nobody in Spain knew who I was. I had already grown out of my shell in the first 2 years of college but this was the time to find out who I really was and what I was capable of. I was tired of being ‘the good guy’ and finishing last. Shortly after my parents left, I remember pushing myself to walk into a strip club with bright neon lights outside. Except I soon learned that it wasn’t a strip club at all. Apparently things that are illegal in the United States aren’t quite as illegal in other countries.
Once the study abroad program started, we had the option of choosing to live with either a group of students, a family, or a widow. I choose a group of students, but somehow was placed with a widow. I went to visit and there was another Spanish student living there. The rules were that I had to be in the apartment by 10pm, and I would not be given a key. I was out of there faster than a lightning bolt. That was just NOT going to work for my personal development strategy. I remember dumping several hundred pesetas into a payphone to discuss this with my mom, who said I should stay put because I was in Spain to study and not to socialize. Yet another cultural challenge of having Indian parents. But at this stage in life I had learned to ignore her and follow my instincts, and I requested a change of housing. I was assigned to an apartment with other Spanish students in a small plaza in the old part of the city, and best of all it was owned by a family who lived just a few doors away. YES! This was perfect! Freedom to do whatever I wanted, to come and go as I please, but still have home-cooked meals whenever I wanted. Perfect.
There was an orientation for the program and the entire group went on a ferry ride along the river in Sevilla. I remember that most of the students were female. I’m not sure why but I decided to get a picture with every single one that I thought was half-way pretty. Maybe I was just pushing myself to not be afraid. But they were all really nice and obliged me. I kept a journal of this entire experience so I really should pull that out one of these days and add more detail to this story!
Sometime before classes started I met my best friend Bill, and we paired up with 3 girls, Kathryn, Carrie and Amy. Bill started to date Kathryn (Kati), and I started to date Carrie. Amy was a lesbian, and somehow it just worked. The five of us became really close friends and chose our classes purposely to be on Mondays, Tuesdays on Wednesdays. So every Wednesday night we would gather, pull out a map, and plan our weekend getaway. Almost every single weekend, we would jump on a train or bus and go explore another area of Andalucia. Marbella, Malaga, Cadiz, Nerja, Granada, you name it. We also went to Barcelona and Madrid of course. We were all over the place and we had a blast together wherever we went. There was also Christian, who was extremely nice but was a bit dramatic at times. Christian was also openly gay and maybe he was also using this experience to find out who he was and explore his sexuality. Conversation with Christian was almost always about the gay nightlife in Sevilla. Although, he seemed to really take a liking to Carrie which pissed me off. I don’t know why I wasn’t capable of taking my relationships more casually and felt this need to fall in love with every girl that looked my way. Let’s save that one for another post. I remember telling Carrie that I thought Christian had a thing for her, to which she of course responded by telling me that I was crazy and that Christian was gay. Sure enough, they ended up hooking up at a bar one night. Heartbreak seemed to be in the cards for me during college.
Bill and I took one or two trips alone after that but we all ended up being friends again. After the program ended in Sevilla the 6 of us hopped a plane to Berlin where we would start our 4 week train tour of Europe. I remember going through immigration in Berlin and laughing with Bill about how it still looked like the Gestapo. In Berlin, we split into two groups because some of us wanted to go to Poland since it was so close, and others wanted to go to Dresden. The plan was to meet up in Prague in a few days. I wanted to go to Warsaw and I’m glad I went. Although when we got off the train we really had no idea where to go and communication was a real challenge. It seemed like back in 1997, everyone spoke either Polish or German. English was not easy to come by. We saw a streetcar but couldn’t find a place to buy tickets for it. People seemed to be getting on and off so we figured that we could buy tickets on the streetcar itself. We were wrong, and of course, we were immediately approached by two men who pulled out a badge which may have just as well been from a toy store for all we knew. They asked us to get off the street car and showed us the fine that we would have to pay. There was literally zero communication but we somehow conveyed that we had no idea and did not intentionally ride without paying. One of the men flipped the page where the fine was listed and showed us a lower amount. So we agreed to pay it. We joked that they gave us the “stupid American” discount. We later learned that one has to buy tickets for the street car at the local magazine shops.
We took a train to see the concentration camp at Dachau which was important to Bill given his Jewish heritage, and then made our way to Prague to meet up with the others. Prague was beautiful and we saw this bizarre puppet show with Beatles music. While in Prague we saw all of these posters for a music festival where Sheryl Crow, Midnight Oil, Ziggy Marley and INXS were playing (all big names back then)… but the dates were at the tail end of our trip and we had just started! Tickets were only $20 though, so Amy and I decided to buy tickets and said that depending on where we were at the end of the trip, maybe we would come back. We went on to Vienna, then Budapest. Vienna didn’t impress me much back then but little did I know what an important role it would play in my life later on. Budapest was more interesting and I remember visiting some caves just outside the city. It was the 6 of us and two school buses full of elementary school kids from a town called Eger. They were so nice, and invited us all to go with them on the school buses back to Eger, and even offered to put us up in the houses of the kids! We all talked about what a great experience that would be, but we already had train tickets to Italy from Budapest and we knew our time was limited. We spent quite a bit of time traveling through Italy walking through the five towns of Cinqueterre and headed down to Rome.
We skipped France altogether and headed to Geneva, where Carrie and Kathryn left the group to head back home. The rest of us ventured onward to Amsterdam, Copenhagen and we headed up to a small town in Sweden called Varberg, just to get the Swedish stamp in our passports! We literally just picked it off a map and decided to go there. Unfortunately (or fortunately as it would turn out), we missed the last train out of Varberg back to Copenhagen. But there were no hotels in Varberg… so we asked a guy at the train station where we should stay, and he told us about an old fort that overlooks the sea, where if you pay the woman $20 you can rent an old prison cell (no longer in use of course). That turned out to be one of the coolest experiences of the trip.
Bill left us after that, and Amy and I headed back to Prague to see the concert. Also amazing…. But then we had a very long train ride all the way across Europe from Prague to Madrid where I then flew back home.
I keep in touch with all 5 of my friends from Sevilla. Sadly, Bill passed away in 2002, about 5 years after our European adventure. While we were in Nerja, he told us about a brain tumor that had appeared, but that after an operation they thought it was gone. But it wasn’t, and it came back with a vengeance. I flew to L.A. to participate in the funeral. Bill was one of the very few guy friends that I have had in my life and it was really hard to lose him. I still keep in touch with his parents as well and I’ll never forget him.