Friday, I dressed all in white and headed out to participate in San Fermín, the festival made (more) famous by Hemingway in his novel, The Sun Also Rises. The city swells to about two million for this one week in July, and my friends and I dove straight into the crowds of people, wearing red kerchiefs and sashes. It was loud and packed with fireworks exploding overhead. Spontaneous parades formed around us in the streets.
How did I, an autistic woman with severe anxiety, end up in the middle of one of the world’s largest parties?
My motto is, “Show up scared,” and I definitely did that by coming to Spain as a study abroad student. Before landing in Spain, I knew almost nothing about the three other students from my university. I had never been to Europe. I was terrified that I would be the oldest person in the group and no one would want to be around me. I arrived already resigned to spending the entire month alone, pepper spray, and a personal alarm in my backpack.
Instead, I found a few people to hang out with, and we got to know one another while stumbling through the early days of jet lag, while making lists of must-visit locations, and while negotiating purchases in little shops around the city.
Still, something is different about me, and San Fermín made that something impossible to ignore. The trouble is, I want to tell you what is different, but I cannot entirely make sense of it myself. If I had attempted Mardi Gras in New Orleans last Spring, it would not have worked. Crowds of people make me want to hide in my room and never come out. Somehow, the crowded streets of Madrid (for Pride) and Pamplona (for San Fermín) didn’t panic me at all. I even felt relaxed while wandering in and out of plazas I’d never seen before and stopping to listen to a heavy metal concert.
- Crowds? Check.
- Loud music? Check.
- Unfamiliar location? Check.
This weekend, I learned that I can do scary things without feeling like a tightly wound ball of nerves. It is going to take a lot of introspection to figure out exactly how to recreate the feeling of ease with which I have been navigating the metro, finding my way through strange streets, and diving headfirst into new experiences. It isn’t my norm, but I like this version of Heather.
Spain has introduced me to myself. It turns out, I didn’t know her as well as I thought I did. I really hope I’ll be able to take her back home with me in August.