When I was eleven-years-old, I told my mom that I would move to Spain one day.
“Why?” she would ask.
“I don’t know Mom” I said as I mounted my Razor scooter (anybody who was anybody had a Razor scooter back then).
“I just know that one day I’ll move there and marry a Spanish woman.”
I couldn’t explain why, and I still can’t. I just had to go to Spain. The fact that I couldn’t explain why was precisely why I felt the calling was real. All of the seemingly practical things in my life—the things I ought to do—were easily explainable. I had just graduated from university. It was logical that I should find a stable job with good benefits and a 401k.
But this calling had no explanation for existing, it simply was. It also had a touch of danger and adventure to it. I couldn’t resist. I was working for my Dad at the time as an electrician’s apprentice and I was struggling. I only stayed because I needed the money and because I love my Dad. He was the greatest boss in the world, but I was tortured by the thought of doing this for the rest of my life. He was completely understanding when I told him I had to quit.
I wrestled with the idea of not going, but then I realized that this was a chance to do something different with my life. If I stayed in the United States, life would have been, well, predictable. I would get a job in sales, move to Boston, climb the corporate ladder and eventually start a family. It felt like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. It wasn’t going to be enough for me.
Mustering as much courage and naivety as I could, I decided to move to Spain to become an English teacher.
My parents came with me to the airport to see me off. When we got to the security check, my mom had tears in her eyes. It was time to say goodbye. “Honey, have the time of your life” she told me. I was her only child, but she has always been my number one fan, cheerleader and trusted advisor. As much as it may have hurt, she never would have allowed me to not go.
When I first arrived in Spain in late August, it was a shock. Not a culture shock, but a “I just threw up in a trashcan because I am so stressed because I can’t find a place to live and I am five days removed from being homeless” shock. We were led to believe finding a place to live in Madrid would be easy; but it was, for lack of a better word, hard.
It was also hot. I mean, hot. One hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit and no breeze—hot. So hot that you can’t sleep—hot. So hot that you need to peel the fabric of your clothes off of your salt-drenched and sticky body like a bandaid at the end of the day—hot. Spaniards have a saying “hace un calor de cojones” which directly translates to “it’s hot as balls” but I’m not sure that does it justice.
Once I did finally find a place to live and the weather got cooler, things began to settle down.
I began teaching at a bilingual high school in Madrid as an assistant. I was one of the lucky ones. My teachers gave me a fair amount of responsibility; allowing me to lesson plan for entire History, English and Geography classes. Most of the time, I felt like a real teacher. Contrast that with the horror stories of some assistants whose teachers made them count crayons at the back of the classroom until class is over. I started to form relationships with my teachers and students; they went out of their way to make me feel like family.
Some people in my teaching program came to Spain mostly to travel. They would use it as a springboard to Ryan Air jet set to a new European city every weekend. That looked like fun, but I was determined to be in, travel and explore Spain. I didn’t just want it on my Instagram, I wanted to feel it in the marrow of my bones. The traveling I have done has been mostly within Spain. I realized that, for me, to travel well is to have the darkened, unexplored corners of your being illuminated. It’s a spiritual experience if nothing else. As I’d walk down a certain street or into a certain church, I would think to myself, “Maybe I’ve been here before in another life.”
Learning the Spanish language proved more difficult than I assumed it would be. Much more difficult. Spaniards, especially those from Madrid, speak at an incredible rate. The sheer quantity of words fit into one single sentence is mind-boggling. “Whatever this beautifully unintelligible conglomeration of noises and throaty sounds is” I thought “it isn’t Spanish.” I’ve stuck with it, though. I’ve made a point to speak the language at every available opportunity. It’s still a frustrating process, but I never thought I would have made it as far I have in nine months.
I’ve also been taking Salsa dance classes every week. At first, it was just a fun way to take part in one of Spain’s many cultural traditions. But little by little, it began to take on a life of it’s own. If learning the Spanish language makes the culture come alive in your mind, then Salsa makes the culture come alive in your body. The sensation of your and your partner’s body moving in rhythm is electric. When danced well, it’s sensuality, intimacy and grace in motion.
I can honestly say I’ve never felt more comfortable in my skin before. In part because of how I’ve grown as a person here; the insecurities, fears and anxieties I’ve let go of. But also because of this country. Spain has a way of giving people permission to relax and be themselves. The contentment is palpable here. Back home it often felt like a death race to the finish line, and I was not cut out for that lifestyle. While I’m constantly challenged in Spain, these are the challenges I want: living on my own, learning more about myself, discovering what it’s like to stand on my own. I can feel myself blossoming and that’s the most fulfilling part.
I’ve made some great friendships, and a handful I’m certain will be for life. Some will be staying here with me next year, others will be leaving and moving on with their lives. But life is a revolving door, people will always be coming and going. I try to cherish the limited time I have with the people I’m with now, knowing that everyone has their own path to follow. I have to accept that some people in my life will be marathoners, others will be sprinters.
I did however manage to convince my best Spanish friend to be my girlfriend, which is my favorite part of this story. I was basically forced to ask her out after I accidentally sent her a text (which was intended for my best friend back home) explaining how much I liked her. That’s another embarrassing story for another day, though. For now, I’ll just say that she’s one of the best things to ever happen to me.
This is only a highlight reel of my experience here so far. It’s gone nothing like how I expected it would. It’s only been nine months, and as this year comes to a close, it feels more like a beginning than an end—I’ve already decided to return to Spain for the coming year.
I still struggle with the idea of moving back home. I think there will always be a pull to return to where things are familiar. But then there are always those moments which remind you why you came in the first place. Like when we caught a taxi in Barcelona and the driver was driving us to the fountain in Montjuïc. The driver and I started speaking in Spanish, but my attention was drifting outside looking at the buildings we were driving by. Before I knew it, I realized we had been having a whole conversation in Spanish. It flowed effortlessly. The language came pouring out of me in a way I never imagined possible. I couldn’t recognize myself as the person who used to be afraid to order a coffee.
In that moment, I didn’t feel like a tourist anymore. I didn’t feel American, but I didn’t feel Spanish either.
I felt home.
When I came here I spoke almost no Spanish. I was an outsider. I didn’t know why this longing brought me here and I still don’t. But the deeper I fall in love with this place, the more I think, “Yes, this could be home too.”
That’s the hardest part. This would all be so much easier if I didn’t like it here, if I didn’t meet my girlfriend and if I didn’t fall in love. Then I could just go back to the United States and tell the story about that one time I moved to Spain for ten months and ate tapas, drank Spanish wine and met a beautiful woman. Then I could just get on with my life.
But love makes us do crazy things. Instead I have to come to terms with the fact that this may be much more than a ten-month vacation. This might be the start of a brand new life.
It’s funny, Spain is a beautiful place, but in hindsight, it wasn’t the beautiful, picturesque landscapes I fell in love with. It wasn’t the food and it wasn’t the women—though there is one particular beautiful Spanish woman and I did fall in love with her.
It was the people I fell in love with.
It was their warmth, their touch, which crept into my being like a thief in the night, and stole my heart forever.
They say that wherever you travel, provided you’ve done it right, you leave a part of your heart there.
Well, I left the whole damn thing here.
And if She offered it back to me, I wouldn’t take it back.
Not for one second.