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A Naturalista Debunks Myths About Natural Life Abroad

by Aidan Keys
A Naturalista's Guide to Europe: Debunking Myths About Natural Life Abroad | AIFS Study Abroad | AIFS in Granada, Spain | Diversity Abroad

It is January. I am stumbling over in the Málaga airport with two large suitcases in either hand, and a carry-on breaking my back. Yes, I have overpacked (I brought about ten pairs of pants— trust me, you don’t need that many). But in my defense, I have filled half of one suitcase with haircare products. I’ve got a really large afro. It requires certain time and care, and I don’t expect to find Cantu or Shea Moisture in the five months I am going to stay in Granada. The truth is that I won’t.

A month later, though, I am in Madrid. My friends and I are staying in Lavapiés, where I find many people who look like me and, lo and behold, a beauty supply just a minute away. I can’t explain how comforting it is to see Camille Rose, Carol’s Daughter, and DevaCurl on the shelves, to spy a woman braiding a girl’s hair in the back of the shop. I feel at home.

Then I feel a little silly. When I’d first arrived, I’d stuffed so many products in that suitcase that I could barely walk! And though the Madrid beauty supply does not offer as much variety as my go-to spot back home, it presents everything I need to be happy. Before I left the United States, I heard many times that I would need to stock up on hair products. But now, as I prepare to go back home, I’d like to set the record straight. Let me debunk some myths for you about the natural life abroad.

A public art project documenting black Italians right across from the beauty supply in Florence, Italy’s city center.

PRODUCTS

Products, products, products. We all have our favorites, so I won’t get into my recommendations for specific lines and brands. I’ll focus on practicalities: bring one of each item you require in your haircare (one hair lotion, one co-wash, one conditioner, etc.). This frees up space for you so you don’t wind up in my situation.

The amount of product you bring of course depends on you, your hair, and your habits. But the city in which you’ll be studying abroad and the cities to which you plan on traveling also factor in the mix. I study in Granada where there is not a significant black population, and where many of the black people who live here are recent immigrants who have not had time to establish community stores that cater to their needs. It’s a little annoying, but given these circumstances I cannot expect to find many businesses that cater to the cultural needs of black people. Madrid, however, features many longstanding, established communities of black people and people of color. So even in Lavapiés, a historic district close to the city center, I have access to black haircare products. If you choose to study in Granada, I’d advise you to get your haircare products from Madrid when you visit— it’s a great city, only four and a half hours away, and a nineteen euro roundtrip bus ride.

I’ve found that many of Europe’s capital cities boast large, established black populations. During my study abroad experience, I’ve gotten to go to Amsterdam, Paris, Lisbon, and London. You will find a beauty supply in all of those cities. Just be aware that it may be hard to take products with you due to airport standards. Consider buying your products from nearby cities.

Do not expect to find all the products you need. Shea Moisture, for instance, only ships a fraction of its lines to Spain. Also, keep in mind that many of the products you will find will be overpriced compared to the US. But you’ll definitely find something. Trust me.

STYLES

Consider protective styles! I’ve been lucky to have traveled most of the weekends I’ve been in Spain. But the dry air and fast lifestyle of jetsetting has taken somewhat of a toll on my hair. It’s a little difficult to bring all the products I need to other cities, especially if I’m taking a plane. Plus, when I finally get home, I have to take extra care restoring moisture into my hair and it’s a whole thing. With box braids, I could be saving all of that wash-and-go time getting tapas, going on a hike, or whatever else Granada has to offer me. Some girls I know have had their box braids in since the beginning of the semester. But if you want to get yours redone, consider going to a beauty supply in Madrid or any other city with a large black community.

NATURAL GIRLS ARE EVERYWHERE

One thing I’m still not used to in Spain is that a lot of people stare at me as if I am some wearing a very tall purple hat with green polkadots. Granada is a small city in the south of the country, so I understand that perhaps I am the first person some people have laid eyes on with hair like mine. Knowing this does not make the experience of being gawked at any less disheartening.

Luckily, natural girls are everywhere. Once, in Amsterdam, disoriented in the train station after a long struggle to get a ticket to to the airport, I found myself lucky to meet a black woman in African dress who came up to me to compliment my hair. She spoke Dutch, but I knew what she was saying. I think that one of our fears as black Americans is that we will always find ourselves as the vulnerable only ones when we travel abroad, especially to Europe. But the truth is that black populations in Spain, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Portugal, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, and other European countries and have been thriving too long for us to still believe that they don’t exist. Another time, in Paris, I was standing in line for some Lebanese street food, and a black woman with braids complimented my afro in French. Her friend told me in English: “she says it’s beautiful.” I think about these women in Amsterdam and Paris when I am feeling a little uncomfortable on the street.

Even though I haven’t gotten to meet many black women who live in Granada, I’ve made a few student friends who understand The Struggle (staring, not finding many products). My best advice to you would be to surround yourself with some other naturalista friends! If you are unable to go to Madrid or wherever you need to get to the beauty supply, chances are, your girl who’s going to Paris next week has got you! And if you need to vent about some man’s roving eye the last time you walked to the Alimentación, you know you’ve got someone who understands.

BEST OF LUCK

I hope that this blog has helped to debunk some of the myths you may have about studying abroad or traveling as a natural girl. If you’re thinking of coming to Granada and you are a little worried but I’ve helped to reassure you, great, great, great! Maybe you’re thinking about going to a big city, and you feel a little relieved (awesome!). Whatever you decide, go on and see the world, girl. Let the world see you and your hair.

I’ve included the names of a few beauty supplies in three cities down below:

MADRID

Tala Cosméticos

C/ Lavapies 52-53

28012 Madrid

Spain

BERLIN

Cocoon Hair & Beauty World

Hauptstraße 30

10827 Berlin

Germany

LONDON

Afro World

7 Kingsland High St

London E8 2JS

Kingsland, De Beauvoir

UK

This post was contributed by Aidan Keys, who spent her spring semester studying abroad with AIFS in Granada, Spain.

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