Can A Place Change Who You Are?


The hardest thing about writing about Madrid is finding my beginning. Because the story of Madrid and the story of who I was before and who I became after it does not fit solely into the stretch of the five autumnal months that I spent living there. Madrid does not begin in the moment in which I arrived tear-stained and exhausted off a plane from Frankfurt, nor does it end with the long walk I took from my apartment in Lavapies to the shuttle near El Retiro that would eventually take me to the airport where I would catch a flight back home to Dallas. The story of Madrid stretches a lifetime, stretches far beyond my living in that space, far beyond the writing I have done and will do about it. For me, Madrid lives like an unfinished poem and even though thoughts of it have filled the pages of journals and word processing documents, there are thousands of verses left to discover.

When I think about where all of this began, all of the thoughts of Madrid, the small kernels and revelations that would eventually push me into its warm embrace, I think of the summer after 8th grade when I was fourteen and living at home in Dallas. I was young and restless and was just beginning to rub the blindness of loving home from my eyes. I found that home was a place I no longer fit fully—it was not hate or disdain, simply a loosening of my tiled self from the mosaic of my city. I realized, for the first time, that just because I had been born in one city did not mean that I had to live there for the rest of my life. This realization, though small and obvious to me now, was a revelation to my life; that I could choose my own geography, could forge a path and a way of living that took me out of this city, was liberating and terrifying and left me wanting.

This was the summer of gorging on the words of the Lost Generation: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein. I was fascinated by their abandon, the ways in which they flung themselves into the wild. I loved their thirst for purpose. I loved the way they wrote about foreign cities, the manic way they devoured places like Madrid and Paris with their poetry. I burrowed into their prose and found great comfort in the way they harnessed their sense of loss and frustration (a sense I felt gnawing at the pit of my chest) and turned it into adventure. I promised myself that someday I would be like them, would leave home to discover for myself where I belonged and for whom I belonged. In the mean time, I would busy myself with the sticking of photos of the great European cities into the criss-cross grates of my bed’s iron frame so that, as I tucked myself underneath my bed to read past curfew, I could make a sky of all the worlds I wanted to explore. There, I would practice my poetry and my Spanish, would allow myself to imagine a life that would take me swerving.

This is why the story, my story, of Madrid is a complicated one. Because when I stepped on that plane in the Dallas Fort-Worth airport bound for Frankfurt, it was not just a rucksack full of clothes and journals that I carried. I carried years of dreams, years of expectation, years of what felt like endless waiting. I stood on the tarmac and there was no way that I could be anything but fourteen, could be anything but a boy who always knew that his purpose in life was to see the world and to be changed by it.

And so, for lack of anything deeper or more poetic, we’ll say that I went to Madrid to see if it would change me, to see if it would make me more adventurous, would make me live with and discover purpose. I went because I wanted to find myself, as if the soul of who I truly was would be waiting for me at some café or leaning against a lamp post near the metro or folded into the arms of someone with whom I was meant to fall in love.

I imagined that person welcoming me and asking me what had taken me so long to find my way to him. 

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