5 Years in Madrid


September 1, again.

I have now lived in Madrid for half the length of my 10 Cities project. I’ve been here for longer than any of the other 12 cities I’ve called home other than Lawrence, Kansas, my first home.

At the end of my fifth summer in Madrid, quite possibly the hottest summer of my life, I’m inevitably thinking back on the the half-decade I’ve lived in Spain. Boy, a lot has happened. I’ve made friends, lost friends, traveled to half a dozen new countries, taken thousands of photos, finished writing two novels, gotten COVID-19, seen multiple friends have babies… Oh, and, of course, I met (and pareja-ed) Helen. DWOML.

Meanwhile, back “home”, so much has happened since I left the United States – at least two plagues and one coup – yet, here, time can sometimes feel at a standstill. Some months crawl by. I suppose that’s inevitable after having lived my life on a strict yearly schedule for a decade. Any year in which I don’t completely upend my entire existence is going to feel a bit more drawn out.

Which is, of course, intentional.

Tattoo in black: Idiot, Slow Down

Slow Down Idiot

On September 1, 2015, the day 10 Cities/10 Years was officially completed, I went to an NYC tattoo parlor to get my final project-related tattoo: “Idiot, Slow Down.” Taken from the Radiohead song, “The Tourist,” the tattoo is a reminder to myself to stay still and not let an innate restlessness rob me of what’s right in front of me.

(It’s also frequently a phrase of great consternation to store clerks who see it peaking from my shirt and wonder who I’m calling an idiot.)

Since I’ve been in Madrid, I’ve gotten only one new tattoo, a Spanish translation of lyrics from “Coxcomb Red” by Songs: Ohia. During a dark, post-project period, this song found me and helped keep me going long enough to travel to Spain and figure out a new path. These lyrics caught my attention immediately:

You said every road is a good road
Between the next road and your last road

Like so many of my previous tattoos, those words (in Spanish: “Cada camino es un buen camio”) can change meaning based on context. I love the original idea conveyed in the song itself – which, in tone and melody, suggests a kind of bitter finiteness to living – but also, out of the context of the song, the words take on additional significance. There is no inherent right way to live, just so long as you stay on the road.

So, what makes a road “good”? The travel itself.

Will I get more tattoos here in Madrid? Almost certainly. Just don’t know what yet.

Living in Madrid

When I first arrived, I lived near Ventas in what is technically Barrio Salamanca with an assortment of American roommates, all of whom have now returned to the States for a variety of reasons. Six months into my life here, I went on my first date with Helen and we’ve been together ever since. I moved into her Malasaña flat, then, some months later, we moved to our current home.

I’ve now lived in Madrid’s Puerta del Angel barrio longer than I’ve lived in any home since my parents divorced and sold the family home. I was 17 when my mother and I moved into a small loft apartment for my senior year of high school. Since then, the longest I’d inhabited any dwelling before my current one was 2 years (a fact that can complicate matters when I have to verify my identity with banks).

Life in Madrid is relatively easy, for various reasons. The main one, though, is it’s cheaper than basically any other comparable city, certainly more so than all the US cities I lived in, other than perhaps New Orleans. I live comfortably without making work my end-all, be-all of existence. I realize I’m fortunate in that, and my circumstances are not all people’s circumstances. But, also, I spent my 20s eschewing anything resembling a career and I had plenty of people telling me I was going to regret that financial instability.

Now I have socialist healthcare, can travel to beautiful countries for a few hundred bucks, and work (mostly) when I want. I think I did okay.

There are aspects of Madrid (and Spain) that aren’t perfect – for one, there isn’t a word for “customer service” in Spanish. But that’s the constant give and take of life, knowing that there is no such thing as paradise, no utopia. You determine the things that matter most to you and hopefully you can place yourself in a situation where the good outweighs the bad.

I made countless choices in life to get to where I am, and the main reason I can be satisfied with where I am in life is because I made those choices. They weren’t made for me. There are plenty of roads I bypassed on my way to Madrid (often, the “right” roads), but the detours I took had some amazing scenery.

What’s Next?

I don’t know. I’m here now. I’ve slowed down. I still travel fairly frequently, albeit as a tourist, not as a new resident. I’ve found a home, I’ve found a life with Helen. Beyond that, the future is unwritten, just as it was when I finally completed 10 Cities/10 Years and didn’t have a new destination in mind. However, unlike September 2015, when the sudden completion of a decade-long project left me feeling listless and lost, I feel content, no longer restless.

I’m not naïve. Problems can (and do) still crop up, both personal ones and ones beyond my control. The daily nuisances of life never end. Moving to Madrid didn’t suddenly make life a cakewalk (far from it in many situations). Life will always be a road, potholes and all; that’d be true no matter where I lived.

If you’re feeling lost and aimless, would I recommend dropping everything and moving to a foreign country? Not necessarily. Your circumstances may not allow it. All I can say is, if you’re not dead, you haven’t reached your final destination yet.

Helen and I have talked about the possibility of living other places at some point, but there’s no rush. If the opportunity to take another road presents itself to us, we may take it. But, right now, the road we’re on is pretty damn good.

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