The Hill in Casa de Campo


Photo Courtesy of Jack Johnston

This weekend I visited Casa de Campo, a very large park in Madrid. There were a lot of people there—masked and physically distanced—but all enjoying the spring weather and clear skies. My host mom even made a tuna sandwich for me to take and enjoy in the park. My favorite area was a group of steep hills that, once climbed, had breathtaking views of the city. I was far away from the true hustle and bustle of El Centro (downtown Madrid) but from the top of my hill I could still make out the ornate details of the historic buildings and still appreciate the sprawling and very consciously laid out city before me.

Studying abroad this semester at SLU’s Madrid campus has been a very different experience than that of my friends who studied abroad in the past. I had heard so many stories from them about going out every weekend to the discotecas (dance clubs) and all about their experiences while traveling across Europe. In my time here, I have not visited a single discoteca nor have I even left Madrid. I mainly spend my time just walking around the city.

This semester is different, but it’s what I needed. I turned 20 years old right after the pandemic started in March 2020, and I will soon be turning 21 here in Madrid. Of my 21 years of life, this past year has probably been the worst one: being forced home when I was expecting an amazing summer in St. Louis, my junior year of college reduced to online and distanced experiences and not to mention living through the most polemic and chaotic time in contemporary American society (there was a freaking coup attempt in January). I spent most of the year either cooped up in my childhood bedroom or cooped up in my apartment in St. Louis. Relationships with family members, friends and even myself changed drastically, and not always in a positive way. On Jan. 18, 2021, I was very ready to get away to Madrid.

Most people I talk to from home treat my abroad experience like a beloved pet of mine who just died. “Oh, I’m so sorry this is happening—but if there’s anyone who can handle it, it would be you!” or “I really hope things improve for you, you deserve better.” I don’t disagree, but just because there’s an 11 p.m. curfew in the city with the most bars in the world doesn’t mean my semester is an automatic fail. A semester in Madrid is more than just getting drunk and jet setting across Europe (although I do really wish I could do those things).

I have been going to all of the museums, eating all of the food and walking all of the narrow historic streets. My host mom is one of the best people I have ever met. She doesn’t speak English but we spend hours every evening talking about the city, Spanish politics and cultural differences between Spain and the rest of the world. After a year of disconnecting myself from the world because I felt suffocated from the pain, Madrid has given me a chance to take a deep breath.

That’s what I found myself doing on the top of that hill in Casa de Campo, taking deep breaths. I made sure there was no one around, and I lowered my mask to fully taste the fresh air. I knew that the city I was looking at was very far away, and from that hill I could not make out all of the amazing experiences that other people may have had, but I could still see a beautiful city and see the community that has picked me back up.