Sometimes it still feels like yesterday, sailing over the Atlantic en route to Barajas International Airport, mentally preparing to touch down for “a year” in Madrid. Half of me running away from a 9-5 marketing gig and a relationship that had faded to friendship, the other half desperately hoping to recreate the love affair with Spain that had been luring me back since I reluctantly left just two years before.
My first go around had been a whirlwind of just a few months, dancing until dawn in Barcelona, losing myself in the hills and caves of Granada’s Albayzín and Sacromonte, and eventually settling into an overcrowded apartment of artists and bohemians in Sevilla.
This time was different. Rather than those dreamlike Andalucian days of painting, writing and daydreaming along the banks of the Rio Guadalquivir, I had a job waiting in Madrid and was meant to start over from scratch in a country I adored but a city I’d never been in and that didn’t interest me in the least.
There was no way I could have known as I clumsily navigated Madrid’s metro that morning that six years later I would be writing this post – my sixth Spaniversary. From the nonstop madness of Madrid (which I did, in case you were wondering, fall madly in love with) to the sundrenched coasts of the Canary Islands, Spain remains my muse.
As I celebrate my sixth Spaniversary, I offer six reflections of life abroad for those who are considering an international move. Some melancholy and some encouraging, these are my musings of a long-distance life.
1. You’re Not Traveller
I was miserable my first months in Madrid. I had long been accustomed to life as a long-term vagabond, having lived and worked abroad here and there over the years. It had always been easy – making friends and carving my place in the world wherever I happened to unpack.
But in Madrid I wasn’t a traveller bouncing in and out of hostels and free to jump in on the whenever-whatever adventures that usually piqued my interest. Here I had a job and an overpriced flat with way too many roommates, and rather than being surrounded by the visual poetry of Andalucía, I felt like I was in a concrete jungle in a city that hadn’t yet revealed herself to me. It was the first time in my travels I had ever second-guessed
my instincts and considered turning around.
Unlike travelling, you can’t just pack up your backpack and jump on a bus to the next town if you don’t meet anyone who sparks up a conversation worth having. Moving abroad is definitely full of new sights and tastes and experiences, but it’s also waking up early and going to work, paying your electricity bills and going to the supermarket. For those vagabond souls out there, working abroad does enable us to intimately discover new places, but in a very different way than backpacking.
2. The People Make the Place
My first months in Madrid were clouded with loneliness, newly single and in a new place where I didn’t know a soul. The city is loaded with newbies in September so it wasn’t hard to meet people, but it took some time to meet people who I actually really jived with, friendships based on like-mindedness rather than just staving off loneliness.
Then suddenly one crisp November night, I was wandering aimlessly with my adorable Belgian roommate. The city was already dressed up for Christmas, from the sparkling tree at the heart of Puerto de Sol to the glittering fairy lights that lit up Gran Via. We picked up a litro and parked ourselves on a curb to listen to Grupo Ernesto – a local madrileño band that filled Calle Preciados with music every Sunday night.
We laughed and sang along, soon joined by a couple of mutual friends who danced along with us as the crowd grew. As we walked back home that night, Madrid was so much more beautiful than it had ever been to me over the previous months, and it wasn’t the Christmas decorations or the cerveza. I realized at that very moment that the people make the place, and that anywhere in the world can be home as long as you’re surrounded by the good ones.
3. You will always be a stranger in a strange land
No matter how deeply you delve into the local culture and no matter how often your colleagues joke that “tú eres más Canaria que el gofio”, this is not your land.
I eat lunch at 2:00 and dinner at 9:00 and stuff my face with 12 grapes every New Year as the clock strikes 12. I know to order tinto de verano – not sangria – on a dizzyingly hot July afternoon and that Sunday afternoons in Madrid were created for vermouth and pinchos after a stroll through El Rastro market. These things are second nature now, but they don’t belong to me.
Every October I heat up hot wine and invite the gang over to carve pumpkins. I learnt to make pumpkin pie from scratch when I couldn’t find the canned stuff, and spent 3 full days dying Easter eggs with the kiddos at school. They humor me, but these things don’t belong to them.
Coming from the perspective of a gringa who grew up in an immigrant community in LA, this resonates with me on a few different levels. This realization that the parents of my dearest friends have raised their families in a sort of cultural hybrid, as I’ll likely do if I have children here. I look back on Christmas’ making tamales with my friends’ grandmother, or collecting gold coins thrown out by Lolo on New Year’s Eve, and I realize how beautiful it was to have the opportunity to share in the traditions that had been guarded by the family for so many years.
It’s so easy to take for granted the simple customs and traditions of your community, until you have no one to share them with.
4. Life back home goes on without you
You will miss weddings and baby showers and first birthdays. Your best friend will get engaged or have their heart broken and you won’t be there to celebrate or commiserate for either. Try as you might, you will all too often miss the most important days in the lives of people who are most important to you.
You’ll FaceTime more often at first, but it will die down as your new social circle grows and your free time shrinks. Something silly will happen that reminds you of an inside joke, but you won’t have anyone to laugh with, and those jokes are never really as funny when you try to explain them to someone else.
When you go home for a visit, there will be new boyfriends and girlfriends you haven’t met, new inside jokes that you don’t get, and even damaged friendships dividing your once inseparable chosen family.
You’ll meet up for coffee and get the news, the highlights. But it won’t change that you weren’t there to help a lifelong friend move out when her fiancé stomped on her heart, or even just to toast your buddy’s big promotion.
While you’re absorbing the sights and sounds of countries and languages that had barely touched your radar before, life in the familiar goes on without you.
5.Those that want to be in your life, will
There are some who I called my best friends since childhood who have become strangers, yet there are others whose friendship have stood not just the test of time, but an ocean, a continent and thousands of kilometers.
You know these friends because when you see them, absolutely nothing has changed. You walk into their home (you barely recognize it now that the posters have been exchanged for framed art and the futons for feng shui) and you kick off your shoes, find the corkscrew in the same drawer it’s always lived in, and laugh until one or both of you falls asleep on the couch.
These are the friends that make sure to FaceTime you at birthday parties so everyone can pass around the phone, the ones that wish you a happy New Year when the ball drops on your time zone.
These people are priceless. They are family beyond blood. They have chosen to build bridges and keep you in their heart and mind despite the obstacles. Never take these people for granted. You know who are, and I love you ❤ .
6. You are always homesick for somewhere else.
Last week I took the bus to work, and as we wound up the hill beneath palm trees amid the balmy tropical heat, Danza Kuzoro playing from the driver’s radio, I could have sworn I was in the Dominican Republic, could have tasted the chinolas and heard the neighbors calling K-LO-K, como tú ‘sta!
In Portuguese there’s a word – saudades – “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone”. Having lived in a few different places for extended periods of time, these saudades can sneak up on me when least expected.
The smell of fresh ginger and hot summer storms pulls my heartstrings back toward Cambodia. Every Christmas my heart longs for California and every spring I remember those first sunny days in Madrid’s Retiro Park, when you can finally kick off your boots and scarf in the grass beside the estanco and echar una siesta as the sun dethaws your winter bones.
Would I change it?
I would be lying if I said I never had doubts. By the time I graduated university, I had a coveted marketing position at an international NGO that allowed me three months a year field time in places like New Zealand and the Caribbean.
As most of my friends were barely transitioning from serving jobs into “the real world”, I was already burnt out on the 9-5 and constantly scheming of excuses to stay abroad for longer and longer chunks of time.
Moving to Spain meant accepting a (painfully) huge paycut, a mountain of annual immigration paperwork and a loss of security. It also enabled me to meet my partner and many of my dearest friends, to become fluent in a second language and to explore dozens of countries throughout Europe and northern Africa. Like most things in life, there’s highs and lows, ups and downs, give and take.
But I absolutely wouldn’t change it.
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