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The Green Grass of Home

A group of students from the School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi recently traveled to Spain for an immersive learning experience that provided rich exposure to Spanish culture and cuisine, while affording myriad opportunities to capture their experiences in written and visual formats.

The majority of the trip was centered in Barcelona, with excursions to other locales during the four-week trip. Leading the program were professors Jason Cain, Chris Sparks, Mark Dolan, and R.J. Morgan – all of whom taught courses in integrated marketing communications and journalism while the group was overseas. 

The students enjoyed many cultural experiences, but they also put in a lot of academic work, too, writing in-depth features, gathering documentary photos, exploring international brands and exploring relevant topics in media studies. 

In a place as beautiful and complex as Spain, each day brought new experiences and amazing photo opportunities. Shared here are some of the images and travel essays the students captured on their journey. We hope you enjoy it.

By: Catherine Romaine

IMC graduate

I.

The trip to Barcelona from my small town in Louisiana is but a short, 18-hour commute. Nothing I haven’t done before, right? 

My plane touched down. Despite my familiarity with travel, this new place felt at first a very long way from home. I tried to set that aside. Because regardless of my feelings, Spain would be my home for the next four weeks. That’s the study-abroad experience I signed up for. 

Barcelona’s metro transit system was my next mountain to climb. I didn’t understand the map names, nor could I ask anyone around me for help due to the language barrier. I figured it out. 

On one of those first trains, I sat next to a mutt named Mayla. Her owner was friendly, as I’ve come to believe most Spaniards are. I shared that “mais la” – similar to Mayla in spelling, identical in pronunciation – was a Cajun-French term we use back home that directly translates to “but as it was.” Many Louisianians use it out of annoyance, frustration or disbelief. 

Thinking of that little turn of phrase linked me back to my home. As I watched Mayla’s khaki tail wag with excitement, I discovered a strange sense of comfort, as if the 5,084-mile distance between myself and my family was maybe insignificant after all. 

I got off the train. I was dressed differently than the locals and took an extra, stumbling beat to scan my metro card and leave. I looked twice, then three times at the name of the station just to confirm. I felt like a tourist and knew I looked like one. 

I thought one more time about the dog. At home, sure, but surrounded constantly by people she didn’t know and a world she couldn’t understand. 

I wondered if Mayla ever felt as out of place as I did. 

II.

Classical pianist Seong-Jin Cho bangs his talented fingers on the ivory keys. He catches air as the force of his hands lifts his bottom half out of his seat. His movements match the design of the building behind him: broken multicolor tiles, each right where they belong. 

The concert hall, Palau de la Música Catalana, gives a performance in itself, each pillar of architecture and color telling a story to its audience. The concert hall is the only one of its kind in Europe. By day it’s illuminated entirely by the natural light that seeps through the stained-glass walls and ceilings. Pink and white roses sit delicately in the ceiling, similar to the bouquets of flowers presented to visiting musicians after they’ve shared their craft.

Much like the sound coming out of Cho’s piano, the organization of the tiles makes no sense. But somehow, does. The sum greater than the parts. The noises coming off the keys sound fluid, like a waterfall, then turn sharp like the jackhammer of an inexperienced construction worker. Cho keeps his hands delicately on the keys for periods at a time, then jolts back as if he is touching a hot stove. Cho is only 29 years old, but his reputation is that of a master. He won Japan’s Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in 2009, the youngest ever. 

As I sit watching him fully engaged with his art, I consider the amount of pressure that must weigh on him, surrounded by a hall full of people who’ve paid money to watch him perform. Only seven years his junior, I have so many questions. Did he choose to play the piano, or was it a parental decision? How often does he practice? Do his hands hurt? Does he ever mess up? Would the audience even notice if he did? 

Some in the crowd seemed uninterested. Others, like the young boy seated directly above the pianist on the balcony, dozed off periodically. But most were beyond intrigued. Most had their eyes glued to the shiny black of the piano, locked in as if they were reaching for the climax of a thrilling story. I wonder if he notices?

I closed my eyes to focus. The music plays like the soundtrack to a movie I cannot see. I have to picture the scenes in my head: sadness, adventure, triumph, joy. None of them make a coherent story, but all feel relatable. 

After reeling off a complex series of compositions by well-known composers like Brahms and Ravel, Cho stood up on the glossy wooden stage and bowed several times in thanks before leaving. Hearing the emotions of the crowd, he came back out not once but three more times for enchanting encores, then at least a dozen times for standing ovations, flowers and extended applause. 

Back home, I took piano lessons in elementary school, but when it didn’t come naturally to me, I quit. I wonder if Cho has ever felt like that. I wondered if he gets homesick.

Barcelona is a long way from Seoul. It’s a long way from Louisiana, too.

III.

Our temporary apartment is small, much too small for seven college-age girls and all their American accessories. I feel cramped in the tiny space, and thankful it is only interim. 

The view out of our jammed living room window, however, makes up for any inconveniencing flaws.

From our second story view, a bit above my direct eyeline, sits Spotify Camp Nou, the home stadium of the FC Barcelona soccer team. On Sunday nights when a home game is scheduled, the 100,000-seat stadium overflows onto the streets, the entire space filled with drunken and excited people. 

I spend a lot of time staring out that window. 

I like to look down at the dog park that sits between our building and the stadium. It is seemingly always occupied, which I mostly know because I can hear subtle barking outside my window all through the night. It’s a dirt oval that has obviously been occupied and used to its fullest capacity, where owners let their pets roam free while they scroll mindlessly through their phones.

There are three red wooden benches that sit just outside the park, close enough to hear the barks and smell the smells, but far enough to avoid any licks to the face. On this particular day, I was drawn to what appeared to be a high school-aged couple sitting on the leftmost bench. The girl is wearing all black, and has dark, cool-girl hair, so dark it almost seems purple. She has her left leg crossed over her right, coolly leaning against the back of the bench. 

The boy is her opposite. He’s wearing a bright blue soccer jersey with the logo of some local sports team across the chest. His curly brown hair is mopped on his head as if he doesn’t own a hairbrush or doesn’t care to use one. 

I wondered if he had the kind of mom who threatened to chop it all off if he didn’t get it under control. That’s what my mom would do.

I can’t tell exactly what their relationship is, but from my view it seems to be either a first date or an unreciprocated crush. The girl has her purse positioned between them, placing a physical boundary in the space. Their mannerisms and body language speak volumes. 

The boy seems nervous, and switches often from his seated position next to her, to standing in front of her, to perching himself on the concrete block in front of the bench. Each time he stands he disturbs a bird or two, who then leave their positions to flock further away. He looks to be head-over-heels. He leans in when he talks and smiles with fascination at each of the few things she says. 

She clearly doesn’t share his enthusiasm.  

She doesn’t pay him much attention at all, in fact, and she picks up her phone every few seconds to distract herself from the present moment. After what looks like a few moments of silence, they both stand to leave. He puts his arm around her, and she reciprocates for a few steps, but then gives him a friendly pat on the back and drops her grip as they fade off into the city, out of my eyesight.

And now I feel a bit creepy. I can’t help but wonder if anyone has ever observed me from a similar distance during an intimate and confusing time in one of my past relationships. Surely, in my small hometown, there have been spectators making their own judgements as to what types of conversations we were having.

On my first night in Barcelona, a mere two weeks ago, I remember thinking that this view was not what I expected at all. I had envisioned a kaleidoscope of vibrant buildings, scattered patches of colorful flowers, and bustling roadways. Instead I got a dog park, and I found myself feeling disappointed. 

But now I understand that what I can see through this window is the genuine Barcelona—an overlooked tapestry of hidden wonders, revealing the city’s untold stories and unassuming charms.

IV.

Three weeks into my dreamy European summer, I physically ache to go home. 

“We’ll figure it out as we go,” one of my circumstantial friends says, as we aimlessly roam the city streets, seeing a lot of nothing. 

I feel frustrated, and can’t help thinking that if we had a premade plan, I’d be getting more out of this experience. I suppress this feeling in an attempt to seem laid back, but the main thing we have in common is that we both chose to sign up for this trip.

Stuck in a yearlong, end-of-college, ‘I have to figure my life out’ rut, I believed that embarking on a four-week European adventure would hold the key to all my dilemmas. Although I couldn’t quite articulate the exact nature of these issues, an unsettling feeling had enveloped me for far too long. I’m self-aware enough to know that I have a problem with always searching for the next best thing, and it seemed as if I had reached the pinnacle – college was supposed to be the “best four years of my life,” right?? – and now I had no idea what to do as an encore for the next, oh, sixty years or so.

An unfamiliar song came on my car radio a few days before I received my diploma, and I felt tears down my cheeks within seconds. 

“I feel like I want to go home, but I am home.”

The lyrics effortlessly captured the essence of my indescribable emotions. The past four years had been spent meticulously constructing an enviable college experience, but I was ultimately left feeling empty. 

I pride myself in looking like I have my life together, even when I don’t. I always have. I am a duck treading water: perfectly calm on the surface, but legs flailing underneath.

Despite the weight of all the stoles and cords on top of my graduation gown, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had done enough. Had I accomplished all that I aspired to? Why had my cherished friend group morphed into something ghost-like? Why hadn’t I won the awards I had sought after for years? Why had my acquaintances won them instead? 

Simply put: I have had a massive, ungrateful stick up my ass. 

A European summer seemed like the perfect escape from my dreary existence. America sucks!! Based on what I’d seen on social media, it seemed to pale in comparison to everywhere else. The weather, the public transportation, the nonchalant rhythm of life, the Instagram content! Europe promised me all of the above. That’ll show everyone! 

A planner by nature, I feel most comfortable scheming out each and every second of my day. Although the realm of spontaneity occasionally offers up extraordinary experiences, I find comfort in the predictability of well-structured expectations, ones that are within reach and certain to materialize. 

Recognizing this tendency as, maybe, part of my problem, I endeavored to embrace the laissez-faire lifestyle so effortlessly embodied by those around me, particularly as I made my way across the alluring culture landscape of Europe.

So I “planned to not plan” while abroad. 

For the past four weeks I’ve worked so hard to be the easygoing friend who goes along with any plan suggested. I didn’t ask too many questions, and I let others take the lead. 

All of this grass looked infinitely greener in theory than it turned out in practice. From my lived perspective, it’s dead and brown and so dry that it crunches when you walk on it. 

There are, of course, incredible aspects of Spanish culture. I adore the architecture, the surplus of unleashed dogs, and the cheap price of a cappuccino. There are, however, an infinite number of things that make me realize my appreciation of home. 

I miss towels that come straight out of the dryer, free water with meals at restaurants, and being able to drive my own car. 

I miss my family, who I don’t call enough. I miss my friends, who, although they’ve decreased in number, I’ve come to realize are more than enough for me. 

I miss my Central time zone, which I never considered to be thankful for before. I miss alone time. I miss familiarity. When I moved to Oxford, Miss., four years ago to start college, the town became a place I knew and that knew me back. Really knew me, no matter how much I thought my flailing legs were being hidden underwater. 

I miss the scheduled, expected agenda of my daily life. It makes me happy to check things off a list and accomplish things I set my mind to completing. 

Aimless wandering is expected in Spain, and after four weeks of faking my way through enjoying it, I’ve given up. I miss the hustle of America, the anticipation of success, and the exhilaration of busyness. 

And so I’ve reached a new conclusion about myself on this trip, but not exactly the one I thought I’d reach: 

IT IS OK that I have a major stick up my ass!

I am not built for the laissez-faire lifestyle. I am a planner, and that’s ok. I love my new hometown in northern Mississippi, and while I still yearn to leave at some point, to keep striving for the next big thing, I’m also realizing there are so many little things about my life that I haven’t been taking the time to appreciate. 

All it took was an 18-hour plane ride to help me finally understand.


Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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