Model: Eriana Lawrence
Location: Parque del Retiro de Madrid
Model: Eriana Lawrence
Location: Parque del Retiro de Madrid
Months have roared passed – September, October, November, December, January, February – and I have arrived at the sixth month mark. This moment has traditionally represented a pivotal moment, the halfway point to something new, the vantage point off a mountain’s peak from which I could see where I’ve been and where I was headed next.
In this moment, though, I do not feel like I’m on higher ground.
It has been half a year since I moved to Madrid. I have no idea what point on the timeline that represents. At the very least, I expect (hope) to be here in Madrid through next September, which means this isn’t even my halfway point. It is possible that I will stay in Madrid another year or two, or maybe I’ll move to Valencia or some other Spanish city. My intention is to spend at least two years in this country, but my intentions are subject to whims and laws (moreso the former than the latter).
I don’t have any great desire to return to the United States – though, I miss New York City terribly, in ways both obvious yet also unexpected – but that’s about all I know. There’s no denying that America is my home, and I know I will be back there, someday. Just, not yet.
Six months in, I am adrift.
Of my time in Spain, three of those months are three of my favorites of the year, and the other three are my absolute least favorite. My apologies to T.S. Eliot, but December through February are, in fact, the cruelest months.
On this blog, I’ve discussed quite openly my mental health: I am Bipolar II (severe depression, hypomanic episodes) with seasonal affective disorder. There is a regularity to my cycles that is simultaneously calming and infuriating. To know that a prolonged period of mental desolation is inevitable, to know it but be unable to preempt or mitigate it, is, in a word, cruel.
We all have our medications. Mine is moving.
I travel because I am alive, and I am alive because I travel. To explore somewhere you’ve never been, to begin over again in a new home, that’s to allow oneself to feel both small and enormous: a lonely stranger, yet member of a nearly eight billion-strong club. I’ve been traveling long enough to know that new scenery isn’t a magic elixir for mental illness. It is, however, a reprieve.
I talk about such matters on this blog because it’s something I so rarely see discussed in this arena. Travel blogs and Instagrams are all shimmering vistas and words of infinite optimism, inspirational quotes etched over mountain ranges; people proclaiming that they quit their jobs without looking back and they have never been happier. I suppose some of them could be telling the truth. I know some of them are full of shit.
This is a hard life. Sorry to break the illusion. I don’t aim to inspire.
To travel, to step out on the wing, is to feel lost and out of control far more often than you feel certain. The doubts, the anxiety, the depression: they are companions of a constancy far greater than any friend. They travel for free and are already unpacked before you arrive at your destination
Like life itself, traveling is a solitary endeavor, so I’m thankful for the friends who stick around, and for those who allow themselves to be vulnerable and admit their own struggles. They make the road less lonely. It is not weakness to admit you feel weak. I’ll type that up in Helvetica and plaster that on a photo, for sale in the gift shop.
Six months down another road. It’s still true, I don’t know where this one leads. The more I think about my future, the harder it is to see an endgame. When I was 22, I had a picture of what my life would look like; I knew it was just a dream, but at least I could envision it. Now, all I can see are all the things might life will never be. The future is unwritten.
If the past is any indication, it doesn’t really matter. All I can do is hope that I don’t run out of a fuel before I run out of time.
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.
C’est la vie.
Visiting Spain was a life changing experience.
That sentence has launched a thousand sorority sisters’ stories. Traveling abroad is a rite of passage for a certain, shall we say, privileged segment of the population and has long been an indication that your buddy is going to spend the next three weeks speaking in a vaguely European accent.
How much do our lives really change after such travels? It depends a great deal on how much you immerse yourself in the culture of your destination. I’ve had opportunities to backpack through Europe and I’ve never taken them. In fact, the very suggestion of such a journey was part of why a girlfriend and I broke up. There are many ways to travel, and none inherently better than others. For me, though, slow travel is best.
I’m not sure it gets much slower than living a year in each city. It was a thorough way to experience the United States, but it also meant that I was in my 30s before I left the country for the first time (Tijuana doesn’t count). By contrast, there is a 27-year-old woman on the verge of traveling to every country in the world and setting a world record in the process. It takes all types.
Visiting Spain was my second European trip this year, and the one that has, brace yourself, changed my life.
One evening last spring, feeling claustrophobic and aimless, I opened Google and typed “Cheap ways to travel Europe.” A few clicks later, I came across a blog with a list of 15 ways to travel cheap. Some I’d heard of, such as WWOOF and couchsurfing, but one suggestion was new to me and stuck out: Pueblo Ingles.
Pueblo Ingles is a language immersion program run by Diverbo. It helps native Spanish speakers strengthen their conversational and professional English speaking skills with the help of English-speaking volunteers. The week-long program runs throughout the year and is free for volunteers. If you can pay for your plane ticket, they take care of the rest. (There’s also a Pueblo Español program for those wishing to improve their Spanish.)
My initial reaction upon seeing this program was skepticism. It seemed too good to be true, so I did some research, finding a number of blog write-ups from program volunteers. Figuring, “What have I got to lose?” I signed up.
Just having the plan to travel again reenergized me. The come down after the conclusion of 10 Cities/10 Years was brutal, and the feeling of being stuck – even in a city as invigorating as New York – had started to sink in.
A few months before my trip, I was speaking with my best friend who lives in California and she admitted to feeling similarly mired in her own life. I suggested Pueblo Ingles, figuring with her schedule it was a long shot. A couple months later, she was officially onboard.
In the months since we returned, the two of us have chatted often about how our time in Spain has stuck with us. Just last night, she texted me, “It’s hard to put into words just how amazing it really was.”
She’s right. But I’m a writer, so that’s kind of my job.
From Friday to Friday, a group of roughly 25 Anglos and 25 Spaniards stayed at Abadia de Los Templarios on the outskirts of the tiny village of La Alberca in the Sierra de Francia mountain range. Picturesque is an understatement.
My perception of Pueblo Ingles is, at least partially, the product of luck. For eight days in the mountains, we had perfect weather, with warm days, cool nights, and no rain, only white fluffy clouds breaking up the brilliant, blue skies. Our group, a mix of young travelers, professionals, students, and retirees, was uncharacteristically chummy. Rarely does a group of 50 people click so seamlessly, and some of the program regulars would attest to that. It’s quite possible, if I had gone the week before or the week after, I would’ve had a very different experience.
But the fact that there were program regulars – people who had volunteered five, or 17, or, in one case, 100 times – tells me that overall, this is a positive experience regardless of circumstances.
So what did we do? Talked, mainly. Oh, and ate. And drank. But mostly talked. (And ate and drank).
The week has a highly structured schedule, which at times can feel a bit like a mix of school and camp. There are hours set aside for one-on-one conversations, group discussions, and presentations. Even the meals are organized so that Spaniards and Anglos are always sitting together. At no point did you forget that your role there was as a teacher and tutor.
Yet, it never felt like work. Every conversation, every interaction was a learning opportunity, an exchange of ideas, and a friendly chat, rolled up into one.
Oh, also, there was dancing (I did mention drinking, right?).
There are dozens of small aspects of the week – walking the streets of La Alberca, tasting fresh chorizo, shooting orujo – that helped create the atmosphere, but what each person takes away from Pueblo Ingles is going to be unique to the week and the individual. Playing the card game Werewolf or taking photos of the wilting mementos of a previous day’s wedding ceremony will certainly live in my memory for as long as I still have one, but if one moment will forever cement my (first) week at Pueblo Ingles, it will be our group singalong to Queen. (I trust all video evidence of this has been destroyed.)
I don’t know if Pueblo Ingles is the ideal travel experience for everyone, but for me, for someone who likes to set their feet on the ground and dig in with the locals, it was an incomparable opportunity.
But was it life changing?
Well, next September, I’ll be moving to Spain to begin working as an ESL teacher, so hard to say.
And hell, I didn’t even mention Barcelona or Madrid. Another time…