I have a new home. That makes 25 in 35 years.
On September 1, 2017, like so many September Firsts before it, I moved. Not from one US city to another, but from NYC to Madrid. As of today, I have been in Spain for exactly a year and a half. Of the 13 cities I have called home in my life, I have lived in Madrid the third longest amount of time.
At home in Madrid
I came to Madrid to teach English; rather, I used teaching English as an excuse to come to Madrid. Upon arriving, I joined with friends to finagle our way into a flat on Calle de Alcalá, a historical street that bisects the city, cutting a diagonal line through Madrid’s center. That four-bedroom flat was imbued with unassuming charm and the Madrileño aesthetic of a generation that had known life under Franco.
I technically lived in that flat for about nine months, enough time for one roommate to be replaced by another and the group to settle into individuals routine. While I lived there, most of my income came from online English tutoring, a workable if not consistent (or consistently enjoyable) endeavor.
Though I’ve given up teaching online, for a few hours a week, I still teach/tutor English to working adults and a couple preteen boys. The majority of my income, though, comes from a variety of freelance editing/writing gigs. Freelancing is both the worst and most OK way to work. It’s the definition of sufficient.
My 18 months in Madrid have been good – okay to great depending on the day. Early on, though, it become clear that my new life was just another version of the lives I had lived in all the other cities I had passed through. I worked, I drank, I wandered, I met people, I washed, I rinsed, I repeated. Okay to great, usually somewhere in between.
But, in March of last year, I met Helen.
Helen celebrated her tenth anniversary in Madrid back in January. For almost every day of those ten years, she has lived in various flats in Malasaña, a rapidly evolving neighborhood that in roughly a generation has turned from an at-times dangerous barrio to one of the hippest (and most expensive) places to live. Yes, your city guide recommended it.
Helen moved here from a town in the north of England not far from Liverpool. Before moving to Spain, she studied optometry and had lived in various cities across the UK. She has now lived away from her birth country long enough to have developed excellent Spanish-language skills, but she still starts most every day with a cup of tea and will always prefer English bacon over American bacon. No, she doesn’t want to talk about Brexit.
For over nine years (before we met), she made a life for herself. She taught English at schools and in corporations, before becoming involved in a TEFL academy. She’s built a network of friends here, both Spaniards and expats from the UK or elsewhere. She has a favorite Indian restaurant, a favorite terrace, and even a favorite apartment building (not one she’s lived in).
Wine and Whiskey
Helen and I matched on Tinder and arranged a date for a Thursday in early March of 2018. Then, as so often happens, she had to cancel due to work issues and reschedule for the following night. I agreed to the change, but I was dubious.
I hadn’t been on a date in well over a year, yet I knew, last-minute cancellations were almost always a sign that a date was never going to happen – for one reason or another. I was thus pleasantly surprised when I spotted her approaching on the street that Friday night. I had been preparing myself to be stood up.
My original idea for a stylish cocktail bar in Conde Duque floundered when the compact bar was packed. She suggested another spot a few blocks away and we wound up sitting in a brightly lit bar against a mirrored wall drinking wine (her) and whiskey (me).
Our conversation covered topics both common and less so, as first dates do. We went through the big three: Home, Family, and Why Did You End Up Here? Lulls in conversation were rare. At one point, when I inelegantly tried to explain the tone of my novel by referencing the incredibly niche book/TV series, The Leftovers, she not only knew the reference, she said she had enjoyed the show. A good sign.
Dates and Appendicitis
When, the following Friday, she invited me to meet her for drinks with her cousin and her best friend, I probably should have been freaked out – this was only our third date – but I didn’t think twice. If I had to choose between being grilled by (friendly) inquisitors or not seeing Helen, it was an easy choice.
I don’t suppose either one of us expected or even hoped there would be such a quick, thorough connection. It wasn’t based simply on similar tastes; in fact, despite having The Leftovers in common, we actually shared few pop culture points of reference. Rather, we aligned in more conceptual ways. For instance, when it came to our senses of humor, we never had to feel each other out.
We share a pugnacious investment in politics that’s tempered, somewhat, by our mutual senses of irony and pragmatism. Her reaction to the Brexit vote had been remarkably similar to my reaction to Trump’s election, even down to the celebration-turned-drunken-commiseration that we had on the nights of our respective votes. From afar, we follow the ongoing turmoil of our home countries, some days with more interest than others.
The world is a disquieting place – more often than not these days – but life goes on.
And then, on the evening of what would have been our sixth date (give or take an extended weekend), Helen had to cancel once again. This time, she told me she was headed to the hospital because of stomach pain. She was sure it was no big deal. She might even be able to still meet up with me, she said by text. When the process was taking longer than expected, she wrote:
Well the doctors are all panicking over appendicitis but my guess is it’s something less dramatic
That was a bad guess.
She went in for surgery the next morning. That same evening, I was flying out to Portugal for eight days, so I was desperate to see her that afternoon. After my persistent badgering via texts, she agreed to let me stop by. A couple of her friends who were already at the hospital rushed to throw some makeup on her before I got there, unnecessarily.
I texted her every day from Lisbon and Porto. Meanwhile, with a few more days stuck in the hospital, she read my novel. The first night after I returned, I went to see Helen the first opportunity I could. It turned out, her mother, who had come to help out during the recovery period, was there too. The three of us spent the evening together. Again, maybe a reason to be freaked out, but I wasn’t.
I knew by how I felt the moment I saw Helen again that we weren’t just dating.
In part because of her lack of mobility post-surgery, and in part because we just wanted to spend as much time together as possible, by the end of April, I was practically living with her. By the end of May, I was. In the first week of June, we submitted my empadronamiento with Helen’s Malasaña address to make it official.
This was the first relationship I had been in almost a decade that had staying power. If I’m being honest, it is probably the first relationship I’ve ever been in where circumstances – either within or beyond my control – aren’t precluding it from continuing. Later this year, we’ll file for pareja de hecho (de facto couple).
In almost a year together, we’ve had our ups and downs. We have fights, we sometimes struggle to communicate our perspectives to each other. But even in the arguments, what comes through is our similarity, our nearly unthinkable alignment in how we view matters, in ways both good and bad. The central frustration underneath every disagreement is that we both know how the other person would think and act if roles were reversed.
Which is why the good times are so great. We know how to make each other happy, and we’re constantly learning how to better be in each other’s presence when one or the other of us is in a bad place mentally. I’ve written quite openly (and often) about my struggles with bipolar, a disease that makes me want to hide away from everyone. I don’t want to hide away from Helen.
Which is all to say, I’m in a relationship. It’s a stable state of being, which is not common for me. It’s worth fighting for.
Puerta del Angel
On Wednesday, Helen and I moved in to her newly purchased flat in a neighborhood called Puerta del Angel. This neighborhood, that is clearly on the precipice of gentrification (whatever that means in Spain), falls on the western side of the Manzanares “river”, across from the Palacio Real. Like my first apartment in Madrid, this barrio reflects the older generations that built it, but youthful energy is moving in.
This marks the first time since I was a teenager that I’ve moved to a new apartment because of a decision someone else made. Which is not to say I’m moving because of Helen; I’m moving with Helen because it’s where I want to be.
When I lived in Chicago, I had a coworker with whom I had many conversations about love, life, and all that other stuff. One day, he told me that he imagined I’d move to Europe someday and wind up with a European woman. (This guy also said he wanted to learn how to play saxophone to impress girls, so he probably isn’t clairvoyant.) I liked that sound of that back then. I like the sound of it now.
I don’t know what comes next, other than a few more days of unpacking boxes. My 10 Cities/10 Years may only ever exist as a collection of blog posts on this site. If so, let it stand as a testament to change. The young man writing angry atheistic screeds and making silly (and fruitless) attempts at internet infamy has grown up and moved on. I changed a lot over ten years of traveling, and I celebrated that change through my project.
But some things remain the same. I’m still an atheist, I’m still internet unfamous, and I’m still in Madrid.
None of those truths are changing soon. I’m all the better for it.
Happy anniversary, LB.