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Things left behind

Four thousand miles away from the sleepy lobby of a dusty hostel in the heart of Paris, France, the community I had abruptly left behind was nearing a prideful triumph. Charlottesville, a college town that values its rich academic tradition more than its athletic prowess, watched gleefully — as did I, my eyes glued to a laptop — as Virginia knocked off mighty Duke. In a basketball game. On a championship stage, no less.

So while the Cavaliers closed in on a 72-63 ACC Championship victory, I took a moment to imagine the euphoria taking place back home: friends erupting in cheers on the Corner, family members glowing with pride — even professors and Charlottesville residents showing little restraint in their celebrations. Two months into my four-month study abroad journey to Barcelona, I had taken very few moments to consider all I had left behind. Now was one of those moments.

Despite the majestic attractions waiting just outside my hostel — the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, the Champs Elysees and Notre Dame — it was the little details of a life left behind that brought me the most joy. Memories flashed through my mind — trivial things like a 29.5-inch orange ball going through a 10-foot high hoop and the feeling that the John Paul Jones Arena bleachers give off when the student section really gets rocking.

As I watched the last few exhilarating minutes of the Cavaliers’ first ACC title in 38 years, I thought of the frustrating paradox that sports fans must endure: that of being both totally invested and oddly powerless in something that feels larger than life. And while every fist-clenched grimace and exuberant gyration drew concerned stares from the Parisian hostel employees around me, my reactions felt strangely appropriate.

I may have been the only person in all of Paris sitting by himself indoors on a beautiful March afternoon watching a college basketball game on his laptop. I knew that. But I also knew that hundreds of friends, family, classmates, professors and neighbors mimicked my demonstrative reactions. I knew that just as I leapt to my feet as a Joe Harris three-pointer splashed through the net or trash-talked Coach K as the Cavalier defense came up with another key stop, others back home were doing the same.

That knowledge temporarily closed the distance between me and my second home, and renewed my sense of connection to Charlottesville. For those brief moments after the buzzer sounded and the Cavaliers were crowned, I no longer felt like a scared, clueless tourist wandering the streets of a city I hardly knew. Instead, I felt like a Cavalier fan celebrating just like Cavalier fans do.

The morning had been a whirlwind tour of art and culture. As I went from staring back at the Mona Lisa to wandering the banks of the Seine River, where like-minded tourists had left locks to symbolize their perpetual spiritual connection to this city, I yearned to be French. I wanted to fit in, to belong in this magical land rather than to simply observe it.

But my mind inevitably wandered to the seemingly inconsequential — a basketball game taking place 4,000 miles away — and I came to appreciate the seductive pull of the world I had left behind.

The majesty of the Parisian streets and culture captivated me, but it did not, as I anticipated, supplant my more simple passions. While perusing some of the world’s most acclaimed artwork, ascending to the top of the Eiffel Tower and chowing down on crepes, it was difficult not to daydream about Jabari Parker being pummeled by the Cavaliers swarming defense.

While my European journey had often felt like an attempt to escape from the mundane, my unavoidable fixation on the Virginia basketball team’s incredible run betrayed an important truth. All the wonders in the cities I had traveled to — London, Paris, Amsterdam and Madrid, in March alone — were admittedly eye-opening and inspiring, but the truly extraordinary and irreplaceable parts of my life were located in Charlottesville.

Despite actively trying to blend into a new city and culture, I desperately missed the sense of unity, camaraderie and shared ambition that embodied the 2013-14 men’s basketball team — intangible things which are also characteristic of the University community more generally. A sports team made me feel both intimately connected to and conspicuously removed from that community in a way no Skype date or Facebook thread ever could.

As I return to Grounds for my final year, I bring back not only unforgettable memories of some of the most incredible sights in the world, but also a new understanding and appreciation for the life I have here. Never again will I take for granted the unifying power of a truly magical sports run and the incomparable joy it brings to those immersed in it.

Watching from afar as the University rallied around the Cavalier basketball team made me wish — literally — that I could close my eyes beside the Eiffel Tower and reawaken at a bar on the Corner with a good view of the ACC Championship game.

And while I don’t doubt that during a particularly slow-moving sporting event this fall my mind will wander to the European marvels which now reside only in memory, I will take solace in knowing that when I stood beside those very same marvels, my mind also wandered to the games that I will never again take for granted.