It was 2014. I was 21 years old and living my best life, cut off from the rest of the world and enjoying daily sunsets in Cádiz. It was my Erasmus year in Spain. Everyone had told me how incredible this year would be, that I would be carefree, a social butterfly set out to see the world. They were right.

There I was, falling in love with the Spanish language and culture, ecstatic to meet people, up for trying anything, with adventure waiting right around the corner, not because something wild happened in town but because I was open to life.

Every weekend, a band would wake me up playing in the square beneath my window. Every Thursday I’d go to a jazz bar near my flat to listen to live music. Every Monday I’d go for a morning yoga session overlooking the beach. Every little activity gave me joy because Cádiz has a peculiar power of attracting even the most random people and make them want to stay, offering a place for everyone be it, grandparents, street artists or students.

In the six months I was there, I got to know the winding, cobbled roads of the old town that seem almost identical to each other like the back of my hand. This, I was proud of and it made it sense since I spent most of the time out and about. In Cádiz, I discovered how much I liked ‘street life’. You know, where the unexpected happens, where you have philosophical conversations with strangers on the street, where sitting down at a bench with a friend looking at the clouds is just another Tuesday afternoon. That kind.

That was my life for 6 months before I moved on to a new location. Surrounded by good friends, cheap yet delicious food, music and the sea. Nobody had prepared me though how having such an amazing time on my Year Abroad would make anything that came after it difficult to fully enjoy. Because nothing topped it.

I kept searching for my new Cádiz anywhere I went and even when things were going well, they were never as well as back then. They told me my Erasmus year would fantastic, but they didn’t tell me about the withdrawal symptoms I’d have after it.

cadiz,spain

Of course, I knew that the Erasmus lifestyle wasn’t really reality. I had no responsibilities, I was given a monthly allowance and I could get by with being out all the time. Hardly a realistic take on adult life. Cádiz is a place I love so dearly that going back, even for a vacation frightened me.

What if it didn’t feel the same? What if I didn’t remember how to get to my favourite restaurant? What if the people I knew that made the place so great were no longer there? I had put Cádiz on such a high podium that I was afraid of returning and ruining the memories.

Everything changed this year.

cadiz,spain

In late 2019, a close university friend suggested we go back to Cádiz to celebrate the carnival; a huge two-week-long fiesta. Three of us signed up and within a few weeks, flights and accommodation were booked. It was finally happening, six years later, I was returning to one of my favourite places on earth. Eek!

The first day there was overwhelming, all 3 of us childly excited, pointing in every direction as the memories rushed back. We spent the day simply walking up and down the streets we knew so well, remembering our hangout spots and funny stories. The 3 of us were flatmates so of course, we visited our old home, this time staring at our terrace from the square underneath and not the other way around. We went to our favourite beach and our favourite restaurant, all giddy.

When the carnival madness began, we threw ourselves in and as we were walking between the crowds, we kept looking around to spot familiar faces. There were none. If there’s one thing you must know about Cádiz it’s that it’s tiny, so bumping into people you know becomes a habit, a must. It was quite a strange feeling when I recognized nobody and nobody recognized me either.

What made it easier was that at least I was with my Erasmus buddies, the people who knew exactly how it feels, who had been part of the happiest year of my life and I of theirs.

girl at sunset in cadiz,spain

For years I had wanted to return to Cádiz and relive those magical moments that brought me so much joy, but I didn’t, in fear that it wouldn’t be the same. If I’m being honest, It wasn’t it and being back was a nostalgic, bitter-sweet experience.

Someone else was living in my flat, other Erasmus students were having a blast and my favourite bar had moved. The atmosphere felt somehow different. It made me realise that it probably won’t ever be the same yet I remind myself of how unbelievably fantastic it is that that experience happened and I feel extremely grateful and lucky to had lived such an amazing time with so many wonderful things to cherish. My fellow Erasmus readers probably recognise the feeling.

Instead of feeling blue about not going back to that time and desperately trying to re-create moments, a feeling of immense gratitude takes over. I will always hold each memory close and perhaps the feeling of nostalgia doesn’t ever go away completely. Alas, a life full of cherished memories is a pretty good one, don’t you think?

postcard in cadiz,spain

Going back almost gave me a closure I didn’t know I needed. A reality check to accept that Cádiz 2014 is over and that’s okay. It was a fabulous part of my life and now is a different cycle, I am a different Eleni with different wants and needs. Yet it’s always easier said than done, isn’t it so my fellow Erasmus friends?

This trip was like ripping off a bandage. One long due. But instead of a scab lays a beautiful memoir of the happiest days of my life, that in a way, shaped who I am today. And what a beautiful thing that is.

 

All photos are copyright of Eleni Philippou