The last night.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

From the very first week in Salzburg, I was terrified of May 28th and what it represented. I remember during Caroline's and my trip to Spain (which took place early March), sitting at dinner with her, and talking about it.  She had always told me how terribly sad "the last night" had been for the group last semester, and I'd always known on some level our "last night" would be worse.

It was always apparent to us -- any of us, the boys and girls alike -- how rooted we were in Salzburg; especially evident any time we would leave Salzburg for a weekend trip or excursion. No matter how much fun we were having elsewhere, there was always the inevitable exclamation, "I just wanna be back in Saaaaalzburg!". I don't think this is true for every study abroad experience; in fact, I know it's not. We were all extremely lucky to find ourselves in Salzburg. My friends who have studied abroad elsewhere have had far less magical experiences in far less magical cities. When JC and Hunt came to visit, they were in awe during the entirety of their stay. JC even came back later on in the semester, because he loved Salzburg so much and loved our group of friends. Later, Hunt expressed to me, "There was just something about was awesome. I don't know what it was, it was just the best place." JC told me, too, "I loved studying abroad in Spain and I don't regret it at all, but sometimes...sometimes I wish I had chosen Salzburg. The friends you had there... you lived in such a cool place with all those friends...sometimes I just wish I could have studied there instead."

There was never a moment when I wasn't head-over-heels in love with my life in Salzburg, or completely grateful for the fact I could call it my home. As I said, even as early as March, I had become hopelessly attached to it. I remember one night I had stayed up very late, editing videos on my computer, and I was watching the sun come up, and listening to Animal Collective's 'Grass', and I realized that I had been in Salzburg for over a month already. It was kind of a surreal moment - I felt as though, maybe, a week had passed - and the fact that I was exhausted probably only enabled my fragile state, but I sat there watching the sun come up, looking out my window into the mountains with tears rolling down my face thinking, "Why do the days go by so quickly? How has it already been a month?"  I don't know if I was crying from sadness, or happiness or perhaps a little bit of both.

I became a very emotional person in Salzburg; I found myself tear-ing up sometimes just looking at the mountains, or crossing the bridge over the river in the snow. I was moved to tears regularly by the beauty and magic of the place and what it meant for me. I've been talking to friends here, trying to determine exactly what it was about our time in Salzburg -- why it was all so perfect. Part of it was who we met there, the friendships that were made, the memories that we shared together. But a common thread within all of our experiences was that Salzburg was an escape; it was safety, it was security, it was refuge. Safety in the literal sense, yes (as far as European cities go, Salzburg is the safest city there is, I'm convinced), but safety in the figurative sense as well. The extent of our worries there were managing our money, going to classes, completing our schoolwork, and that was it. No one made us feel insecure, no one made us threatened. We existed in a community of international students where everyone was equal. We didn't have jobs (although at times I would have loved the extra income). Our jobs consisted of appreciating each other, appreciating the culture, appreciating the beauty of Austria and the surrounding countries, learning the language, learning who we were as individuals. After discussing this on end recently, I've realized we all felt like it was the only time in our lives when we could really be ourselves without worrying about pleasing anyone or molding ourselves to the ideas of what other people think we should be.

These past several months, I've made a point of truly savoring every moment in Salzburg , knowing that it wouldn't last forever. After spring break had finished, we had a little over a month left; 5 weeks to be exact. Caroline, Kayla, and I lamented this one night, "Only 5 weeks?!?" Right now, I'd kill to have 5 weeks back -- 5 days, even. 

This past week leading up to "the last night", we were all preoccupied with writing papers, studying for exams, preparing for presentations, etc. Wednesday, May 28 arrived and I handed in 3 papers, took 2 exams, and presented in German for one of my classes. As I rode the home from my last exam, it hit me: it is 8:00 PM and 90% of my friends will be at the airport in 12 hours, waiting to fly back to the States. I hadn't let myself fully process that, with the anxiety of finals week. In fact, I was so deep in thought over this that I missed my stop and had to step off at the next one, something I've never done before. 

I sprinted home, the whole time thinking, "What a waste of 5 minutes", because at that point, every minute was precious. As I turned the corner to Billrothstrasse - my street - I saw a group of Erasmus students walking toward me with Caroline. These were our friends, catching the bus to Augustiner, where we would begin "the last night". It was fitting that this night coincided with the FC Barcelona v. Manchester United futbol game, which would be playing on the big screen at Augustiner (the famous Salzburg biergarten). I ran inside my room to shower before meeting up with everyone at Augustiner, hating the sight of the 1/2 empty room, as Caroline had already packed her things for her flight home. 

Very quickly, I showered, dressed, and ran to the bus stop. I caught the bus into town, but instead of waiting for the bus to Augustiner, I ran on foot. I'm sure people wondered why I was running wrecklessly down the sidewalk but I had to get to Augustiner as fast as I could. When I arrived, the Erasmus students were inside with Caroline, and the American students were outside in the biergarten. I divided my time equally between the two groups; watching the game inside with one group, sitting outside with the other. It was a very bittersweet couple of hours; one of the best nights of the semester but in the back of everyone's mind was the fast approaching conclusion to the best experience of our lives.

I left Augustiner after the American students left but before the Erasmus students left. I sprinted from Augustiner straight to O'Malleys to meet up with the Americans. When I got there, it was evident that everyone was cherishing the last few hours with the group even though no one was acknowledging it. About an hour after I arrived, Sandy approached me and said, "Hey Jenn, I'm gonna take off." It hit me right then -- this is really happening, isn't it? Completely unexpectedly, I felt tears welling up in my eyes and I grabbed Sandy to hug her goodbye. I knew I would inevitably cry on this night but I never expected the flood of emotion when saying goodbye to a person from whom I live 5 minutes away in Oklahoma. I knew why I was crying though, and it wasn't because Sandy was leaving. I told her, through my tears, "You are the reason I left." Recollecting this only made me cry harder: Sandy calling me last September saying, "Let's leave the country!"...Sandy wanting to study in London, me choosing Salzburg, Sandy deciding to choose Salzburg as well...applying, getting accepted but thinking, "My parents will never let me do this"...standing in the Student Union when my dad told me on the phone that I could go...celebrating with Sandy only moments after receiving this phone call...Sandy pushing me to turn in all of the required documents and saying, "It's too much work, Sandy -- I can't get it all done in time"...her encouraging me and helping me finish the VISA process... This series of events flashed through my mind and through my excessive tears I thanked her and hugged her goodbye, and everything seemed to come full circle.

She didn't cry but told me, "Jennifer, I couldn't have done this without you. I know you love it here but I can't wait to go home." I continued crying, unwilling to let her go, and said, "I didn't want to come here and you made me.  Thank you so much." She nodded and said, "But look what you made of it. Look what happened to you." 

When I stopped to think about what really had happened to me -- how much I had changed -- it was one of the most humbling realizations I have ever had. Before our trip, I distinctly remember saying to Sandy, "I am ONLY going to be friends with Austrians or other Europeans. I'm never going to be friends with any of those American students." That is no exagerration, I actually remember saying those exact ords. During the few minutes of Sandy's goodbye to me, those words flashed through my head and I cringed. Yes, I did become friends with so many Europeans -- some of my very best friends this past semester were Erasmus students -- but through that process, I found lifelong friendships with so many of the American students with whom I swore I'd never be associated (for whatever embarrassing reason). I would like to have known God's reaction when I said those words to Sandy so long ago, knowing that I would meet Kayla, Caroline, and Lindsay. Needless to say, thinking of these friends only made me cry harder and I hugged Sandy one last time and she left.

So yes, I was the first one to cry, but everyone soon followed. There were about 40 American students there, and each one proceeded to leave in a gradual, painful process as we all said our goodbyes, not knowing when or even if we'd see each other again, which is a weird feeling when you've seen these people every day for the past 5 months (really spending every second of the day with them, too). Saying goodbye to each person -- crying, hugging, then repeating the process minutes later to the next one -- it was excruciating. At one point (probably the lowest point of the evening) I sat in the corner with my head in my hands, sobbing and through my tears saying things like, "Who thought one semester would be an appropriate amount of time for this kind of experience? That's obviously a terrible idea; look at us!!!" It was true; with the exception of Sandy and maybe one other girl, everyone was utterly distraught and visibly heartbroken in a collective state of denial. Even the boys in our group were not above acknowledging their grief. I remember Chris O'Connor saying to me, "These have been the most amazing months of my life."  Robert, too, told us, "My friends who have studied abroad before told me a full semester was too long -- that I'd be dying to come home by the end of it. So why am I not the least bit ready?"

I cried on Robert's shoulder for ahile (we all did at one point or another...thanks, Rob). Around 3:00 or 4:00 AM, Caroline and I left the remainder of the group and headed back to IK. No one was asleep when we returned; everyone was staying awake until the last shuttles came in the morning. Caroline and I joined everyone in one of the common rooms. We sat on couches across from each other (with the Spanish boys, of course) and stared at each other with the same half-smile.  I couldn't help but think back to the moment when I found out I wasn't rooming with Sandy after all.  I remember thinking, "This had to have happened for a reason."  How obvious, now, that that reason was Caroline.

We ended the night with more goodbyes, more tears, and in the morning, they were gone. It was the emptiest feeling waking up and realizing that our group of 52 American students had been reduced to 7. I know I will see many of these friends again, even though they live in far away states, but I know it will never again be the same and it makes my heart ache to accept that. Caroline and I can re-unite but we will never again live 10 steps away from the Spanish boys. Kayla can fly to meet me but we can't call Lindsay to meet us at Europark and then share a 300g Milka Bar on the bus ride home. I have to come to terms with this -- and over the past month I really have come a long way with accepting it.  And I think that the heartbreak was completely justified for the kind of experience we shared together. 

I have lived a life here that was similar to a fantasy. I had so many friends from home tell me, "I look at your photos and I read your blog and I watch your videos and I can't believe this is your life" or "I hear your stories and it sounds like something out of a movie." At risk of sounding prideful, I agree with all of them; my life here was unbelievably rich and full of culture, friendships and adventure, and of course the intoxicating beauty of the Alps. And yet I have no choice but to accept that this group of us will never again live together in the most magical and charming city on earth within 10 minutes of each other, where every day is better than the day before, and if the morning begins poorly, the night makes up for it.

But at least we have the stories, the memories, the photos, the videos, and the friendships -- especially the friendships.  Thank God for the friendships.

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