Hello new visitors. It’s quite possible you’ve found this site because of the Newsweek article. If you haven’t already read it, I recently wrote about 10 Cities/10 Years for Newsweek’s “My Turn” feature, which is a space for people to share their unique life experiences. In the article, I discuss the details of the project, what I learned about myself through doing it, and what I learned about America in general.
It was an honor to write for the feature and I’m quite pleased how the article came out. You can read it here:
City living is a great way to be reminded that America is uniquely complex, that there are millions of Republicans in “blue” America and millions of Democrats in “red” America. One of the silliest notions I’ve ever heard is that there is a “Real America.” According to many politicians, because I grew up in a town of less than 80,000 people, I’m from “Real America.” This concept, that “Real America” exists in the heartlands of the country, outside of our main metropolises, led me to wonder: What does that make the over 15 million Americans I lived among, in big cities, from 2005 to 2015?
After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I heard frequently about the “liberal bubble,” but that never fit with the country I experienced. In the cities I lived in—many considered liberal strongholds—I met all kinds of people whose views fit more neatly in the “conservative” box. There was the transgender woman in New York who adamantly defended the U.S. government’s use of torture on terrorism suspects after 9/11. There was the co-worker in Nashville who assumed, because I am an atheist, that I “sacrificed” children—her interpretation of abortion. For that matter, there were all the residents of so-called liberal cities who went to church every Sunday. I encountered all types of political and religious views over my 10 years; rarely did they fit in an easy category.
If you’d like more background on what exactly the 10 Cities project was (and continues to be), there’s always the About section. If you want to read some stories from the road, you can check out “The Book” section (scroll down and start with the Prologue). You can also check out other Press coverage. Or just take a look around the site; you may stumble across something I’ve totally forgotten I wrote.
Whether you’re a regular reader of this site, someone who used to be a regular reader and is just checking in, or someone who came across 10 Cities/10 Years because of the Newsweek article, I’d love to hear your thoughts: on the article, on the project, on life, on the 1962 Chicago Cubs, whatever. Leave a comment, show some love.
Cheers from Madrid,
P.S. Anyone who is interested in keeping up with my ongoing adventures, including my life in Spain and future publications, can add your email address over on the righthand side.
P.P.S. If you live in Madrid or are going to be in the city in mid-October, I’ll be doing a talk about the project and my writing at The Secret Kingdoms, a recently opened English-language bookstore in Barrios de las Letras. Get tickets here.
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.
It can’t be overstated, moving to a new country is a Herculean task, like scaling a brick wall with your bare hands.
Since my arrival in Madrid, just over a month ago, I have faced a slew of speed bumps and a not inconsiderable number of road blocks. My limited (read: pathetic) Spanish ability has been my greatest impediment, for sure, but hardly the only one. Some challenges are simply a matter of learning cultural differences and adapting; others, though, are intrinsically more complex.
Emily arrived almost two weeks ago, and less than 48 hours after deplaning, we were onto the apartment flat search. We had a hard deadline: Our AirBnB was only booked until October 1st. If we didn’t have a place by then, we’d be scrambling to book short-term housing (another AirBnB or a hostel), an expensive proposition that would only exacerbate the financial obstacle inherent to finding a new home.
Madrid in September is much like Boston in September, in that the city is awash in new arrivals, both students and teachers. Lots of rooms open up and there’s a mad dash to lock down a place to live before someone else takes it. In that way, Madrid is also similar to Brooklyn. So, take the two most difficult moves of my 10 Cities endeavor and combine them into one, and that’s basically this last week.
There were a number of housing options to consider. The first, which is the most common for expats, was for Emily and I to book our own separate rooms. There are various websites and apps for flat searches, with the most often recommended (at least by our fellow expats) being Idealista. Others include Fotocasa and the Badi app, that one specifically designed for finding individual rooms. (Craigslist, my go-to in the States, is all but useless here.)
The benefit of renting a room is that you generally don’t need to sign a lease or pay an agency fee. Of course, there are plenty of risks inherent in not being on a lease, and as someone who has moved into another person’s abode on numerous occasions, I know firsthand how often those arrangements tend to turn into “This is my home, you’re just renting a room here” situations.
Emily and I had come here with the intention of rooming together as we had in Boston; unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find someone renting multiple rooms within the same flat. It happens, but they tend to be dorm-like situations where they specify only men or only women.
With room rentals out, we agreed that our best bet was finding a flat of our own. In the weeks before Emily’s arrival, I’d done a fair amount of research on what two-bedroom flats were available. For anything that didn’t look like a serial killer’s lair, we were going to have to lay down a hefty pile of euros.
Fortunately, in my time here in Madrid, I had met many expats who were similarly on the search for a place to live. It was true, a two-bedroom flat was going to be costly, but if we added a third roommate we could mitigate some of the upfront costs while also decreasing the number of buried bodies we’d have to sleep on.
I spoke to two new friends who were interested in being our third roommate if we found the right place. The first was the one of the first people I met in Madrid, Calla, originally from Kentucky, currently in Madrid to teach English (unless stated otherwise, you can pretty much assume every American I’ll mention is here to teach English). She was staying in a flat with a mixed group of semi-locals and had been on her own unfruitful housing search since before my arrival. Her search had nearly netted her a place to live on a few occasions, but each time one factor or another had undercut the candidate home and she had passed.
The second potential roommate was another new arrival who I had met through Calla, Megan from New Jersey. Her situation was similar to Calla’s in that she had a semi-definite place to live, and could extend her stay if she needed to. She also had other potential arrangements, but I kept her in mind just in case. In a new country, it never hurts to keep one’s options open.
Thus, waking up on Saturday morning, eight days before we had to be out of our AirBnB, Emily and I expanded our search to three-bedrooms. There were dozens of options on Idealista. To each one with promise, I would send a Google-translated email and then Emily would call. Though not fluent, Emily’s Spanish is head-and-shoulders better than mine, so the responsibility for direct communication fell entirely on her.
By Sunday afternoon, we had contacted over two dozen different flats. Unfortunately, Madrid is a city that takes its weekends seriously, so few of them were returning calls. At the end of searching on Sunday night, we had only one viewing lined up, a three-bedroom near Prosperidad with a suspiciously small-looking living room.
The woman on the phone told us the viewing would be at noon, but recommended we show up early because it would essentially be first come, first serve.
“So, we should be there at 11?” Emily asked. The woman laughed. No, not quite that early.
We Americans are perhaps a bit overzealous, especially compared to Spaniards. As I was told by a Spanish man I met a couple weeks earlier, in Madrid, no one is on-time, ever. “Early” means arriving when you said. Arriving American-early (i.e. before the agreed upon meet-up time) is seen as weird, even for a job.
We decided to arrive at 11:50 just to be safe. That Monday morning, before the viewing, we happily received return calls on some of our other messages. We lined up two more viewings for later in the evening. By the day’s end, we’d see a total of five.
We arrived at the Prosperidad flat by 11:45, believing we’d be in the frontrunning, but unfortunately, we weren’t the only Americans on the prowl. A small crowd had already gathered outside the building. By the time the woman arrived to show the flat – at 12:15 – the sidewalk was full of potential renters. As our naïve optimism deflated, Emily and I returned to our phones to continue our search.
We liked it; didn’t love it. The three bedrooms were large (the largest of any we saw in our search), but its “living room” was really just a wide hallway they had stuck a couch in. Still, we agreed, if the place were offered to us, we’d take it.
The next flat on our viewing list was the only one we found that wasn’t being rented out by an agency. An older couple were privately renting out their own place. Emily and I both loved the spot, a well-maintained three-bedroom with an actual living room and a kitchen. We tried our hardest to be charming (well, Emily did; I mostly stood around staring blankly as the conversation switched from Spanish to English and back again).
The couple was sweet, but as we left, we each had the impression that we hadn’t matched up to whatever indefinite measure they were using to judge possible tenants. Still, if offered, we’d take the place in a heartbeat (basically, this was how we felt above every place, especially as the day progressed and we grew increasingly pessimistic).
Our third stop of the day was mostly a lark, a fifth-floor, five-bedroom that was being rented at the same price as all the three-bedrooms we’d been looking at. I’d sent a message earlier in the morning, not expecting a response, but while Emily and I stopped for a beer – because that’s what you do here – she got a call asking if we could stop by. We had time to kill before two other viewings, so we said we’d come right over and check it out.
As had been my suspicion, most of the bedrooms were on the smaller side. There was one “master” bedroom with a double bed, massive closet space, and its own private terrace. Otherwise, there were two half-sized rooms with fold-away beds, one closet they were trying to pass off as a bedroom, and a fourth, isolated room off of the kitchen that appeared to be the servant’s quarters. It was an ideal home for a family with small children, so even though it had a large kitchen and one of the biggest living rooms we’d seen, we weren’t sure it could work for us.
One plus in its favor, though, was that we could offer it to both Calla and Megan. We could afford the place with just three of us, but a fourth roommate would make the cost sharing even better and would make the landlord feel more secure with us.
The fourth flat Emily and I saw was immediately our favorite. It was spacious and very modern looking, with average-sized bedrooms and a nice location just a few minutes’ walk from Parque de El Retiro. As Emily haltingly made her way through an all-Spanish conversation with the agent in a suit, though, it started to become clear, even to my clueless ears, that it was going to be an uphill battle to lock down this, or any flat.
Our fifth and final viewing of the day only confirmed those fears. Now 6:30 in the evening, Calla was able to join us. Unfortunately, one of the prerequisites for renting the space was that we have job contracts in Spain, something none of us had or would have for at least a few more weeks. It was clear that almost everywhere we hoped to live would have a similar requirement. Collectively, we had sufficient funds to pay rent and put down extra deposits, if required, but the rental agents were mostly uninterested in seeing our financial statements. No job contract, no flat.
After a full day of viewings and walking the city, the three of us dejectedly went for beers and one-euro sandwiches at 100 Montaditos. I was trying my hardest to focus on what we could accomplish, despite the major hurdles, but it was hard not to see the day as a failure. I concluded that if we hadn’t found a place by Wednesday evening, we’d have to all go separate ways and hopefully find rooms on our own in less than four days.
Our discount sandwiches and beers led to, “Hey, want to grab another drink,” which eventually snowballed into buying bottles of wine and whiskey and drinking until sometime past three in the morning. By the time Emily and I woke the next morning, hungover and weighted down by a pound of cream cheese and crackers we had drunkenly ate before crashing, our housing perspectives were looking even dimmer.
We spent the day in our beds searching for more flats and sending out our collective financial information to each agent who had given us their email address. We thought – hoped (prayed!) – that if we deluged them with our overwhelming proof of financial solvency, one of them might just say, “Okay, fine, take the flat, jeez!”
With no viewings lined up for the day, all we could do was send out messages while the whiskey/cream cheese ball in our guts slowly oozed out of our pores.
To our amazement, in late afternoon we received a somewhat confusing but ultimately wonderful message: We could come by the office and put down a 300€ deposit for the five-bedroom. If we wanted it, it was ours (of course, it wasn’t really that simple, but we were sinking).
I hastily created a group Whatsapp message with Calla and Megan and told them our news: If they both wanted, we could all move in together. They, of course, would need to see the place for themselves to decide.
We arranged for the four of us to view the flat the next morning at 9 am. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time to decide. Emily and I had a viewing for a three-bedroom that evening, but otherwise, we’d been wholly unsuccessful getting any responses the day before and we were rapidly running out of time.
In a turn of events that will surely never be brought up again, Calla overslept and missed the viewing, so it was just Megan joining us. We “facetimed” with Calla while walking the flat (isn’t technology kind of crazy?) so she could “see” the place for herself, but it wasn’t the same.
After the viewing, with the agent needing to return to the office, the four of us met for a drink at a nearby café. We hashed out the pros and cons (con: small bedrooms; pro: not homeless) for over an hour. The decision was toughest for Calla who hadn’t seen the place, but all of us were in a similar position, and taking the place was essentially an all-or-nothing situation (they wouldn’t sign it over to just three of us).
Through some uneasiness, the four of us agreed: We’d take it.
As if it were that easy. Since none of us had job contracts, we had to throw down a giant pile of cash to secure the place; like, a Scrooge McDuck’s money bin amount of money. In hopes of bringing down the cost, we offered a first-born child, but it turns out a) none of us have children and b) apparently child-based payments have fallen out of favor here in Europe. Who knew?
We managed to scrounge together enough money between the four of us that the agency eventually just said, “Yeah, whatever, take the keys, get out of our office, we’re tired of looking at you.” We did it.
No, it’s not a perfect place. There have already been some hiccups (no hot water; insufficient number of building keys), and there will surely be more (which I’ll document at a later date, I’m sure), but the important thing is, we have a place to live. We have a home.
Life in Madrid can begin in earnest.
It’s been an arduous trip so far, and surely will continue to be, but my life on the road has taught me an important lesson: Take your victories where you can.
It’s not all technicolor photographs and sunset cocktails.
There have been difficulties. There always are. If you’ve read the account of 10 Cities/10 Years, you couldn’t have possibly come away believing that this is an easy way to live. It’s not just the financial and health concerns, the physical and mental toll, the loneliness and isolation, the unending self-doubts and recriminations… you know, actually, it is just those things. But that’s a lot of mierda.
Now, add to that list full immersion into a foreign country. Got your Xanax?
You may not know this, but the first major city I lived in was not Charlotte, NC. A year before 10×10 launched, in the summer between my junior and senior years, I moved to Washington D.C. for three months.
My college girlfriend – with whom I would move to North Carolina the next summer – had landed an internship with the D.C.-based Stars and Stripes newspaper. She attended Northwestern and I was enrolled at Kansas University, so we rarely saw each other during the school year. Against the better judgement of our parents, we decided to live together for the summer in our nation’s capital.
We found a studio apartment being rented out by a woman who was leaving the city for the summer (for India, if I recall correctly). It wasn’t easy making arrangements from two separate cities, but we managed it and locked down a place to live from June through August.
My semester ended in May, but NU’s quarter didn’t conclude until mid-June. With no reason to stick around Lawrence, I moved to D.C. on my own. For the first two weeks, I would be alone in a new city, my first experience of being a stranger.
It was an auspicious time to be in D.C.: On June 5th, four days after I arrived, former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, passed away. (I had nothing to do with it.) A seven-day state funeral followed.
I had only been seven-years-old when Reagan left office, so I have no specific memories of life under his administration. For me, the Eighties are defined by Back to the Future and Family Ties. For all intents and purposes, my president was Michael J. Fox. Still is, frankly.
Depending on who you ask, Reagan’s legacy covers the spectrum from the Second Coming of Christ to a worse war criminal than Pol Pot. At the risk of being labeled a “Centrist,” I suspect it’s fair to say he falls somewhere in between those two poles. At the time of his death, I had next to no opinion of Ronald Reagan, so when I heard his funeral procession would be reaching the Washington National Cathedral – a mere 15-minute walk from my new hope – I thought, “Let’s ‘ave a look, aye.”
Some citizens waited for upwards of seven hours to catch a glimpse of the body in person, but I wasn’t that invested. I opted to stand on the side of the road with the rest of the plebeians to watch the procession of limos and police cars. There were celebrity newspersons and politicos popping in and out of view, a sort of morose red carpet affair.
By some ironic twist, I happened to take up a spot directly to the left of a small coffle of protestors. Now, in today’s political climate, that might seem unremarkable, but these discontents represented a rare contingent among those gathered. Stranger, still, the group of protestors were not voicing opposition to the former president’s policies.
Brandishing brightly colored signs, a handful of conservatively dressed women and children chanted messages echoing the sentiments of their poster boards: “God hates fags” and “America is doomed.” Flying out from their home base in Topeka, KS, the Westboro Baptist Church (sans patriarch, Fred Phelps) were protesting a man who many blame for worsening the AIDS epidemic and who few would call a friend to the LGBTQ community. Baffling.
As it turns out, Reagan, a former actor, had been friends (to some degree) with Rock Hudson, a famously gay Hollywood star who died of AIDS in 1985. Though Ronald and wife, Nancy, have been accused of refusing to help Hudson receive AIDS treatment – which you would think would put them in good standing with the WBC – the fact that Reagan never publicly disavowed the movie star was enough to earn the church’s ire. No one does purity tests like brain-rotted bigots.
As confounding as all of that is, for me it was more bizarre that I had relocated over 1000 miles (~1600 km) and somehow ended up in the aural radius of a hate group from just outside my hometown. That didn’t seem fair. I mentioned my incredulousness to the man standing next to me who had been engaging in some futile sparring with the WBC protestors.
“I can’t believe these people are here,” I said. “They protest everything. They show up every year for my high school’s graduations.”
One woman, looking to be the leader of the WBC troupe, overheard my comments.
“Oh, poor baby,” she mocked, “did we protest your graduation? Fag lover.”
Internet trolls, meet your forebears.
As unexpected as it was to find myself in the presence of the WBC, it was a reminder that, though for me this was a humongous move, I was still in America, and state lines are not borders.
Maybe I wasn’t really all that far from home, but I felt like I was on the moon.
I’ve rarely discussed just how depressed and overwhelmed I felt during those two weeks. Back in Kansas, I’d been going through one of my lowest periods, stuck in limbo with no clear path forward; but at least I had friends to distract me. Sitting in an empty D.C. apartment, there was nothing to mute the roar of my unhappiness.
I’ve never been one to keep a day-to-day journal. Even this blog at its most active has hardly been about detailing my life in the moment. Yet, in D.C., alone and terrified that I had leapt into something way over my head, I pulled out a college notebook and began writing almost daily entries.
Those anguished scribbles detail a boy completely unsure of himself, depressed naturally, but also scared and angry and utterly directionless. I worried I wouldn’t find work; I had doubts about the sustainability of my relationship; and I was certain that I would fail as a writer. I poured all of those fears onto those college-ruled pages.
“I need to work. I need to write. I need to read. I need to get dressed and get out the apartment.”
All these years later, it’s paradoxically comforting and discouraging how much I relate to that sentiment.
What I didn’t recognize at the time, what, in fact, I didn’t recognize until this past week, was that I was experiencing a form of culture shock. Generally, that term suggests the hardships of adapting to a different country where familiar touchstones are no longer accessible. Sure, D.C. was much bigger and more populated than my Kansas hometown, but it wasn’t all that dramatically different. I could still speak the language, for one.
And yet, reading back over these old entries (I’ve kept them all these years though they embarrass me terribly), it’s impossible not to note all the symptoms of culture shock: the loneliness, the anxiety, the shame at not knowing how to behave in new situations, and the certainty that deep down I didn’t belong.
Those are the same emotions and doubts I have faced with every move; though they lessened to some degree with each successive year, they never went away entirely.
Those same emotions and doubts have hit me intermittently ever since landing in Madrid. It’s been a long time since I experienced cultural shock this acute. To be honest, I kind of haughtily believed I was beyond that, that I was too well-traveled to succumb to it. But, here we are.
I’ve met a splendid array of Anglos here in Spain, many from the States, plenty of others from the UK and other locales. As with all moves, I’m sure many of them will slip out of my life sooner than later, but the hope is to cultivate a few friendships from the group.
I’ve been fortunate to find a smattering of expats with whom it’s been possible to have more intimate conversations. One recurring theme in those conversations is the feeling that it’s not possible to fully express the difficulties of adjusting to a new home, that for Facebook and Instagram friends back home, it’s easy to assume the bright images and smiling selfies tell the whole story.
It’s not all technicolor photographs and sunset cocktails.
The answer to the question, “How is Madrid?” is a long and complicated one. It can be answered with some simple (but accurate) platitudes: It’s beautiful, it’s welcoming, it’s awash in delicious food and copious amounts of affordable alcohol.
While all of that is true whether you’re a tourist or a new transplant, for those of us in the latter camp, this new city life is also challenging, providing a mixture of housing complexities, occupational difficulties, and cultural barriers. Madrid is a superb vacation destination, but this isn’t vacation. This is life now.
To be sure, Madrid will be a wonderful experience, a transformative one. Just as D.C. was a move I needed to make before I could hope to take on 10×10, there are hurdles to bound over in this city that will make future opportunities possible. I’ll make it; it’s not always easy to believe that to be true.
By this time next week, my best travel companion, Emily – of Boston and cross-country road trip infamy – will have arrived, ready to take on the next year in Madrid with me. As with all things, we are on our separate journeys, but we will travel this road together for a time. That’s exciting and, yes, even comforting. Not every challenge has to be met alone.
It’s probably because of Emily’s looming arrival that I’m reminded of that summer in D.C., the way that I struck out alone and was forced to confront my anxieties – myself – on my own.
I have been here before; but, of course, I also haven’t. In the emptiness of each new home echoes the memories of past homes, until you’ve filled it with new furniture.
It’s strange to be this deep into my 30s and yet still feel a kinship with a 21-year-old version of myself who had seen and experienced so little. What did he know?
Meh, what do I?
“All I want now is to be happy. Is that too much to ask?”
I’d make fun of your emo earnestness kid, but honestly, it’s not a bad question.
The first thing you should know is that I do not speak Spanish. That is to say, I know how to ask for beers (“dos cervezas, por favor”) and I have the ability to read most signs and can even get the gist of more complex sentences, but when it comes to the actual act of holding a verbal conversation in Spanish, I’m (currently) hopelessly adrift.
I’ve meekly sputtered “No hablo español” a dozen or so times by now. One of my first evenings here in Madrid, a couple stopped me to ask directions, and as I had grown accustomed to saying I didn’t speak their language, I had already excused myself before I realized a) their accent wasn’t Spanish and b) they were asking me where the Domino’s Pizza was located. I couldn’t have helped them with that, anyway, but I still felt silly.
One simple phrase of my basic vocabulary is getting a work out: Lo siento. “Lo siento, no hablo español.” “Lo siento,” as I squeeze through a crowd; “Lo siento,” as I stare blank-faced at the cashier in the chino (convenience store); “Lo siento” as I act generally like a New Yorker in a decidedly un-New York city.
I know I could also use “perdon” in some situations, but I don’t feel it quite conveys all the information “lo siento” does: “I am sorry I am an American in your country and despite taking three years of Spanish in high school have retained almost none of my education.” Those two words pack in a lot.
Of course, the first thing anybody will tell you is that in the major cities of Spain, Madrid and Barcelona in particular, you don’t actually need to speak Spanish. Most people have rudimentary English skills, at minimum, and are unperturbed by being forced to use them. If I was a mere tourist here, like I was exactly one year ago, that would be fine, but that feels like a cop out for someone who intends to be here for an indeterminate amount of time.
I’ve met quite a few people in the less than two weeks that I’ve been here. The vast majority of them are involved in TtMadrid, a Spanish education/TEFL training course out here that is associated with the International TEFL Academy from whom I received my TEFL certification. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the couple different opportunities I’ve had to hang out with these large English-speaking groups, even as I recognized that among them, I am still an outsider. They’re sharing an experience that I am not.
One thing I’ve noticed immediately is that living three years in one place has dulled my social skills. The longer I lived in Brooklyn, the easier it was to feel comfortable staying in and avoiding crowds (as crowded as New York is, it’s actually quite easy to be alone). Every time I approach a new group, every time I enter a strange restaurant, my social anxiety flares up (even more so knowing that I’m unarmed with the language) and my mind starts swearing at me, “This is a stupid idea.”
And then it isn’t. It’s almost always a good time. Here, so far, I’ve wound up enjoying myself every time even if the first 20 minutes or so are radioactively awkward. Most of the English-speaking people here are in a similar boat to me, living in a new country, uncomfortable with their Spanish, and still getting their bearings. In that way, I have an advantage: I own this boat.
It’s also why I do this. I was always the last person on earth who seemed equipped for 10 Cities/10 Years, a decade in which my anxiety never lessened below a simmering heat. But I need to put myself out in uncomfortable situations so that I don’t become yet another hermit writing angry screeds online. I mean, I already am that person, but at least I still go outside sometimes.
If 10 Cities/10 Years was my master’s program, now I’m going for my doctorate. All the old challenges of starting over in a new city are here, but with additional cultural and language barriers. To overcome them, I’ll have to put myself out there and practice using my Spanish at every opportunity.
So I don’t know the language. And I don’t know the culture. And I don’t know the people. And I don’t know who I am in the midst of yet another rebirth, another reboot, another starting over. I’ll get there.
New York City, split into five boroughs and a thousand neighborhoods, cannot be defined as one thing. When someone dismisses this city with some hoary cliché about hipsters or millionaires, I know they’ve never actually spent any time here. This city has as many personalities and styles as it has corner bodegas.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan, rarely been to Queens, coasted through the Bronx, and touched my toes on Staten Island. I’ve had one experience of the city, and it is hardly representative. But it is still authentic.
As I’ve done for previous cities I’ve lived in and left, I’m taking time to look back on my time here and grade various aspects of the city. Let me stress, though it should be obvious, that these grades are based on my experiences which have been shaped by a lot of factors that are not universal. This isn’t an attempt to give a definitive grade of the city, only to organize my final thoughts on yet another one of my short term homes.
Let’s get going.
Public Transportation – Hoo boy, this is a loaded topic right now. On the one hand, New York’s subway system is the most extensive in the country, one of the biggest in the world, and connects culturally distinct neighborhoods to create a melting pot like no other place in the world. All that, and it has free wifi.
On the other hand(s), MTA is riddled with systemic problems and hopelessly obsolete equipment, all coming together to create one of the greatest metropolitan clusterfucks of all time. It’d be impressive if it wasn’t so damn infuriating. Hurricane Sandy only exacerbated the issues and an already strained system – which has a ridership far outpacing its capacity – is currently in a transitional period. Repairs and improvements are possible, but the costs will be staggering and will necessitate massive disruptions, all of which might prove worth it in ten or fifteen years, but for current New Yorkers (not especially known as being even-keeled), it is going to be a nightmare. (One of a number of reasons I’m happy to be leaving now.)
There’s a lot of blame to go around, though currently it’s mostly falling on Governor Cuomo. There’s no question that he deserves a chunk of it, but in reality, the underlying problems are the result of a kick-the-can mentality that has existed for decades. This city – and state – needs to act now or matters will only get worse and worse.
And, yet, if I’m being honest, I’ve personally been quite lucky. When I first moved to the city, I was on the C and A lines, which are inconsistent and overcrowded, but by no means the worst in the system and generally within spitting distance of being on time. Better still, since moving to Crown Heights, I’m right off of the 2, 3, 4, and 5 lines, four of the most accessible and reliable routes in the city. That might change when other lines get shut down for repairs, but for my time here, it’s been ideal.
To give a fair overall grade, I have to consider both my personal experience and the general quality of the system. I’d give it top marks if I were only reflecting my experience, and it’d barely get a passing grade if I were solely grading on the big picture. So splitting the difference:
City Planning – From the very first time I walked through Manhattan, some fifteen years ago, I was awestruck by the sheer grandeur and scope of this modern wonder. When people think of a city, whether they’ve been here or not, they’re thinking of New York. As far as modern metropolises go, it remains the truest form.
There are a lot of ways in which NYC is falling behind other major cities (see: Public Transportation), but it will forever remain one of the most unique and successfully laid out cities in the world. Even more impressive, a lot of its “city planning” was achieved by mere chance, a natural evolution guided less by intentional design than by individual actors pursuing their own interests and somehow forming a cohesive whole.
Yes, many neighbors make strange bedfellows: Chinatown and its pervasive fish smell flows over to some of the most expensive and ostentatious avenues in the city. That’s just part of the charm. There is nothing I enjoy more than taking a walk through urban spaces, and what New York offers more than any other US city is an unending kaleidoscope of facades and personalities. Sure, in a post-Giuliani world, it’s lost much of its aura of danger, and Times Square is a logo-ejaculating neon nightmare, but there’s still plenty of grime to be found if that’s your bag, and if that’s not your bag, something more to your tastes is only a short subway ride away (assuming no delays).
NYC is massive. While there are many neighborhoods that feel downright suburban and there’s no shortage of economically impoverished areas (I’ll leave the debate over gentrification for someone else), this city manages to both be an explorer’s delight and still absolutely accommodating to a homebody. I can’t tell you how many Brooklynites I’ve met who rarely leave their neighborhood, let alone the borough. Truly, something for everyone.
Bars/Nightlife – Um, yeah, New York has nightlife. What really needs to be said? If you like to drink and hang out late with other people who do, you are never going to be out of luck in this city. When I first moved to the city, I happened to move into one of the few bar deserts in all of Brooklyn, a yet-to-be-gentrified portion of Bed-Stuy where you could walk for fifteen minutes in any direction and not find a watering hole. Truly, a rare spot. It didn’t last long, because at the beginning of my second year in that apartment, I stumbled across The Evergreen, newly opened and within walking distance of my apartment.
Other establishments were starting to open in the area by the time I moved to Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has no such dry spots. It matters not where you live, though, because a train or a bus or a car will deposit you into some form of nightlife within minutes.
In terms of bars, Manhattan is overrun with the flashy, expensive joints (meh), Irish pubs, and dives that still charge you ten bucks for well whiskey. Brooklyn does hipster and trendy, naturally, but you’ll also find plenty of true dives and neighborhood haunts and whatever else might be to your taste. Of course there are clubs and secret raves and strip clubs and whatever it is that floats your boat. Oh yeah, they have boat parties, too.
The point is, if you come to New York City looking for nightlife, you’d have to be a real twit not to find a scene for you.
Art Scene – When you think of art scenes, New York City is always going to come to mind. Granted, that’s partly due to its history: whether you’re thinking of the writers of the 1920s or Andy Warhol’s Factory, this city has been synonymous with art since the 19th century.
Even now, there’s Broadway, and the Met, and Carnegie Hall, and all the other famous venues, big and small. TV and movie crews are a fairly regular sight, especially in Brooklyn, and every major musical act in the world passes through here for at least one night. If you’re looking for big name performers, they’ll be here.
The real test of a city, though, is how well it fosters the smaller art scenes; do artists still come here to pursue their dream at the cost of everything else? Of course. Does anything come of it? Of course, for some. A lot’s been made of the city’s astronomical rent prices pushing out struggling artists and hampering similar art scenes from growing up here, and there’s unquestionably some truth to that, but frankly, we’re living in a pretty terrible time to be an artist no matter where you’re living. I would know. At least in NYC, you’re likely to find a sympathetic audience. Well, not antagonistic, at least.
In my three years here, I’ve attended massive arena concerts, shows in the park, and intimate venue gigs; I’ve been to an independent movie premiere, an off-off-Broadway play, and burlesque, drag, and fashion shows; I’ve read my terrible poetry to a too-kind audience and watched a woman perform a folk opera; I have been to museums and galleries, passed buskers on the streets and subways, and checked out street dance crews. Oh, and I’ve seen a few dozen movies. If I wasn’t such a lazy bastard, I could have seen a whole lot more, too.
The point is, New York City might not be the most hospitable place for artists, but art lovers really have nothing to complain about.
Grade (Music): A; Grade (Everything else): A
Living – By certain metrics, New York City is the most expensive city in the country (in terms of affordable housing options, San Francisco and Boston are actually less viable), so that is going to affect one’s way of life here. Sure, if you come here to work on Wall Street (or to indulge your fetish for grown men in superhero get-ups), you’re going to be living large. For most of us, though, the astronomical cost of living puts a damper on life.
And yet, for every $34 cocktail, there’s a half dozen free concerts or movie nights. There are always free days at museums and the botanic gardens, and if all you’re looking for is to get drunk, there are cheap options. No, you’re probably not going to find New Orleans’ rock bottom prices (and no Nickel Shot Nights), but a night of drinking doesn’t have to cause you to break your lease (unless you have one of those friends that insists on drinking in the Lower East Side). The point is, moving to the city does not require one become a monk, just savvy.
Then there’s the issue of housing. The stereotype is real: Some NYC apartments really are hamster cages without the views. If you’re deadset on living in the trendiest neighborhoods (did you immediately think Williamsburg? Congratulations, you’re already passé), then sure, expect to squeeze a twin bed into a closet. Otherwise, there are plenty of very good areas in this city that have reasonably affordable, human-sized digs still in walking distance of public transportation (see above for that mixed bag). Who knows how much longer that will be true?
Affordable is, of course, a subjective term. When I’ve told family members back in Kansas what I pay for rent, they balk, and my rent is one of the cheapest in the city. Some people come to this city with lucrative job offers, while many others don’t enjoy that privilege. Like most American cities, New York is basically intentionally pricing out the poor. On the other hand, NYC has embraced the $15 minimum wage (it’s being gradually phased in over a number of years), so that’s small relief.
The bottom line is, this city is expensive – depressingly so – but if your dream is to live here, to make it here, that dream is still within reach. You’ll just have to hustle.
People – Man, what can you say about New Yorkers that hasn’t already been said by every single movie and TV show you’ve ever seen? Well, a lot, actually, because media representations are always incomplete at best, or bullshit at worst.
Are the characters from Girls real? You betcha. Sex and the City? Probably, but I couldn’t afford to hang out with them. Friends? If you mean white people, then yes. Looking for something less Caucasian? Well, Spike Lee’s joints truthfully capture an aspect of the New York (Brooklyn) way of life, but those are more historical documents these days. For every popular depiction of New York City out there, there are still plenty of stones unturned. Some people will never see themselves represented on TV.
Let’s just say it: New Yorkers are loud, impatient, and rude. They wouldn’t argue the point. But I’ve only lived here a few years and I was already two out of three before I got here, so I don’t think you can blame that on the city. Get past the stereotypes and the fear, and the people here are really just a microcosm of all of society. Sure, that’s a cliché of all cities, but more than any other city in the country, NYC truly defies easy generalizations. People from all over the country and the world have traveled to live here. How could only one personality type exist here?
Also, nice people are the worst.
My experience of the people in this city, both locals and my fellow transplants, is that they’re generally friendly, at times confrontational, but usually happy to let live. They get heated about politics and sports, and they can sit in a bar and talk to a stranger for three hours about their favorite bands. They’ll screw you over from time to time, but they’ll also watch your back; their faces will light up when you walk in after a month’s absence. They’re people. This is New York. This is everywhere.
And if you’re wondering, “Do they think they’re better than me?” Yeah, probably. But if you’re worried about that, then aren’t they?