I wasn’t dreaming, was I? Could this really be my commute to school every day — a 20-minute walk down cobblestone streets lined with cafés, jamón legs hanging in every window, ancient churches, and Spaniards sipping their coffee or beer?
How did I get here? Was this allowed? I felt giddy, like I was at camp rather than studying abroad for a semester. And I had to be studious. Unlike my peers who came from colleges that would give them either a pass or fail, my grades were being directly transferred to my college transcript.
I remember sitting in my Spanish language class looking out the window at the historic courtyard and the towering cathedral. Its bells temporarily interrupted my daydreams but left my heart soaring.
I admit I felt a little bit of guilt. My joy was too great, I thought. My days were filled exploring new cafés, museums, and churches. I sat journaling in a garden overlooking the city; going on runs by the Roman bridge; late night galavanting with new friends. I walked by a croissanterie each morning and resolved to try every variety they offered before I left (a whopping three dozen at least, which I am proud to say I achieved).
My life seemed truly decadent, extravagant. The guilt creeped up until it turned into daily moments of thanksgiving. Somehow, I knew that this time abroad was sacred. And though perhaps I truly didn’t deserve such beauty and joy, I was called to relish it and let myself be transformed by it.
I didn’t realize then that these moments of glory are rare gifts. Whether or not we deserve them doesn’t matter — every now and then we get to experience extravagant beauty that’s meant to remind us of the goodness in the world, ground us in it, help us give thanks, and transform us. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.”
I experienced a steady transformation abroad that continued when I returned. I started to give thanks not just daily, but moment by moment. “Thank you for this opportunity,” I found myself saying. “Thank you for this beauty. Thank you for this conversation. Thank you for this croissant.”
I hadn’t realized it before, but I hadn’t exactly been a “person of gratitude.” I wouldn’t say I was a total grump or anything, but I had forgotten how much of this life was a gift from other people: from God, my parents, my friends, professors, my community. It took going abroad to remind me that I had gotten there because of the hard work, influence, and sacrifices of other people. I was not a self-made woman.
Back home, I started calling my parents more often just to check in on them and say thanks. I wanted to cultivate a relationship with them that I had failed to attend to during my moody teenage years. This was so unexpected on my parents’ end that my mom actually thought I was depressed. What was going on with her fiercely independent daughter? Why was she calling so much? Something had to be wrong.
My mother helped me continue to cultivate gratitude, which led to an active prayer life. I told her all this gratitude had just welled up inside me, and I didn’t exactly know what to do with it. She advised me to spend 5–10 minutes each morning giving thanks to God. So I did.
I remember sitting on my sunny balcony in Northern California with a hot cup of coffee in order to spend a few minutes in quiet gratitude. Broad statements of thanksgiving quickly became more detailed with each passing day. Yes, I was thankful for family, friends, education, my health. But I was also beginning to notice the little things that made my life meaningful.
Now, practicing gratitude doesn’t make everything perfect. But it helps us to focus on the little things that are going well when we are tempted to focus on what’s going wrong. I could give thanks for my ability to walk to class rather than bemoan a boring lecture, for my ability to use my mind to learn new things, rather than complain about spending time studying for final exams.
My friends and family began to notice a drastic change in me. I was more present to other people and more joyful. This joy radiated in a way I couldn’t explain. It was not something I was seeking, but a fruit of my daily practice of gratitude. It led also to a more active prayer life and a greater love of my faith. I began to approach God not with a list of demands or wants, but with open hands used for praise.
Experiences that transport us from what’s familiar have the capacity to help us see the world anew. For me, this was a result of the beauty I experienced while studying abroad. What began as a thrilling adventure ended up changing my life forever.
Who would have thought that jamón legs hanging in café windows could change your life?