“All I want now is to be happy”: Culture shock and echoes from the past

[Warning: Brief offensive language]

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.

Culture Shock

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.




New Orleans to Boston: The Road Trip

On September 1st, I will arrive in Boston and begin my 9th year of the 10 Cities Project. It’s been a long time coming, but with this move I come closer to this project’s fruition and the realization of a dream that’s been stirring in my mind for well over a decade.

To get to Boston, though, I’ve settled on a slightly different moving strategy. For the previous four moves, I’ve flown to my destination and mailed the majority of my possessions, what little I have, as I also did when I moved from Philadelphia to Costa Mesa. From Charlotte to Philly, I took a Greyhound bus that turned into an arduous day-and-a-half journey. And when I moved from Costa Mesa to San Francisco I drove up with my girlfriend of the time, just as similarly, I rode in a moving truck from Kansas to Charlotte with a different girlfriend and her father.

For this move, I’m renting a car, throwing my boxes in the back and driving up the coast by myself. If I were making it a straight strip, I could do the whole cross-country road trip in 2 days.

But what fun would that be?

Once I move to Boston, the Northeast will be my semi-permanent home. Before that happens, though, I have an ideal opportunity to revisit my old homes.

New Orleans to Boston

6 Cities/6 Days

The plan is to leave on the morning of the 26th of August and arrive in Boston on the 1st. En route, I’ll visit 5 cities, 4 of which are former cities in which I resided: Nashville, Charlotte, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia (for those keeping count at home, D.C. is not one of the 10 Cities, but I did live there for a summer). New York City will be the 5th. Obviously, NYC is the 10th city and I haven’t lived there yet, but it is my favorite metropolis and I can’t see passing up an opportunity to visit.

Hopefully in each city I’ll find time (and an internet connection) to write up a brief blog post about my latest cross-country trek.

That’s right, for 1 week only, I’m going to be an honest to dog travel blogger. Well, I’ll try at least.

In Nashville and D.C. I already have places lined up to stay. My stays in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New York are still up in the air. I’m sure I’ll figure that out soon enough. And if I don’t, well, I can always sleep in my backseat. Any kind strangers out there in cyberspace who have a couch they want to offer me would be rewarded with whiskey or some other lesser alcohol.

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a solo road trip across the United States. Let’s hope it goes better than my last one.

I’m looking forward to seeing old friends, meeting new ones, exploring former haunts and maybe even catching up with an ex or two (I could regret that). More than anything, I’m excited to grow reacquainted with the open road.

I should get packing.

Odd. For some reason, this song’s stuck in my head…

One Box Packed

That makes one box down, hopefully two to go (though probably three).

The ritual of packing is a familiar one, though one I still manage to screw up in the silly ways:  Writing the address on the clear tape instead of under it; overpacking some boxes, underpacking others; those sorts of things that you’d think, by now, I’d have down to a science.

The problem is that I get distracted when I pack.

I don’t own much anymore, after 6 years of unloading possessions and unnecessary ephemera that I accumulate thinking that one day I’ll want to remember this concert or that art exhibit.  Inevitably, I remember it all the way to the trashcan.

Yet, every year, I get to this stage and shake my head at how much stuff I still have to pack.  Thankfully, this year, I don’t need to bring any kitchen materials, so those are being left by the wayside, along with most of my bedroom sheets/blankets and a couple bags worth of clothes that, hopefully, I’ll have the funds to replace.

But there are certain things I never get rid of:  My notebooks.  I imagine by the time I’m moving to NYC, the only possessions I’ll have left will be my notebooks, laptop and clothing.

And just like every year, when it comes time to pack up my pages and pages of scribbles, I can’t help but stop and read them (which is why packing one box took two hours tonight).  Mostly I read the poems to see if there is anything salvageable in the emo or completely unauthentic rubbish I wrote three, five or seven years ago (nope).  But there are also snippets of longform writing in these notebooks, portions of novels or short stories, occasional notes I’ve written over the years as writing prompts.

Most of the stuff I’ve read a half dozen times by now, holding onto it merely because I figure there should remain some documentation of my literary evolution (it’s embarrassing, so let’s hope none of it surfaces until after I kick it).  But tonight I came across something I don’t think I’ve read since I wrote it, seven years ago.

The summer before I started the project by moving to Charlotte with my girlfriend, I moved to D.C. with that same girlfriend.  In one notebook was a dozen or so pages of a journal I kept throughout the first month of that summer.  It’s pretty out of character for me to write about my day to day life, especially back then, so I’m not sure what motivated me to do it.  Though, a reoccurring theme within the pages probably explains it:  Loneliness.

I had moved to D.C. by myself, awaiting my girlfriend’s arrival a couple weeks later, once her semester ended.  The pages are filled with my thoughts on the relationship (strained), my life back home (missed it but didn’t miss it, too) and, of course, how lonely I was being in a big city completely on my own, knowing no one.  How ironic that just a year later I would decide to make that my entire existence.  I must have a short memory.

But the other major topic I kept coming back to in those pages was my legacy as a writer.  I was terrified of turning 42 and looking back and realizing I hadn’t written anything of worth.  I thought that I might get married and lose track of the dream.  The 10 Cities Project wasn’t even a glimmer of an idea at that point, so all I was really concerned with was writing the Great American Novel.  I wanted to be published by 25 (Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at 24).

Now I’m 28 and unpublished (in any substantial way), and that urgency isn’t there anymore.  Don’t get me wrong, I still want desperately to publish a novel (and I have a completed, edited one I’m sitting on), but I don’t feel the need to be published by a particular age, I don’t feel the need to compete with Fitzgerald.  It’s funny, at 21 I was more worried about running out of time to make my literary impact than I am now, seven years later.

I suppose that’s largely because I’ve reconfigured what I believe my literary legacy to be.  I still very much want to be an acclaimed novelist (why be any other kind?), with my books read in college classrooms.  But I guess I see my literary output more tied into 10 Cities/10 Years now.

Back then, I didn’t have a plan, so all I had to hang my hat on was that elusive dream of being a Literary Star (despite the fact that our culture will probably never produce another Fitzgerald again).  I still want success as a writer, but I’m more concerned with the overall course of my life, and am trusting if I’m true to my pursuit that everything else will fall into place.  That’s not to say I think I can just sit back and let a writing career fall in my lap.  Quite the contrary, everyday I’m actively pursuing that career.  But I’m doing it by living, not by yearning for it in a journal.

I may never achieve literary success.  The naysayers would say the written word is dying.  I don’t buy it for a second, but book publishing is certainly not as robust an industry as it once was.  I am unquestionably fighting an uphill battle.

But I like where I’m at, and I know it’s miles beyond where I was when I wrote that journal in D.C.

So, I guess if nothing else, those notebooks serve as mile markers for the journey.

Plus, it’s good to be reminded once in awhile just how much of a whiny bitch I was back then.

Thoughts during an illness.

I’m flu-ish and on medicine and I thought of writing this post while I was unable to sleep last night, so let’s hope it manages to stay coherent.  If not, enjoy the ride.

(Some fitting musical accompaniment for this post.)

Ever since I’ve been on my own, starting with my freshmen year of college, there has been one consistent theme in my life:  a lack of money.  Granted, that’s a pretty common theme for most people (like, ninety percent of the world’s population, actually), but we’re focusing on me today.

In college, I dated a girl who went to college in Chicago while I studied in Kansas.  Having to be apart so much, we decided to live together during the summers while she did internships with newspapers.  First, in Washington D.C. and then, the summer after I graduated, in Charlotte (which is where my 10 Cities Project began).

While I only lived in D.C. for 3 months, in many ways it was the practice run for these yearly moves.  I had to find a job within a short period of time while exploring a city I had never been to before.  (For the record, D.C. is an amazing city.)  While saving up money to make the move, there was a constant fear of not being able to make enough, and then, once I was in D.C., there was the concern that I wasn’t going to be able to find a job and be able to pay my half of the rent.  Well, I made it, but just barely.

And then Charlotte:  Wash, rinse and repeat.  All the same concerns, all the same pressure.  In fact, every year since the year I moved to D.C., I have had to deal with the same series of concerns:

Would I have enough money to make my move?
Would I have enough money once I moved to last until I found a job?
Would unexpected expenses sideline the whole endeavor?

Repeat ad nauseum.

It’s that last concern that is particularly stressful, exactly because it’s all about the unknowns.  While I can’t control how good the job market is going to be in any city I move to, it’s my responsibility to get out there and apply over and over again until something comes of it.

And saving money is, if I’m allowed to boast, my one special skill.  Every year, I must hit my savings goal without being such a tightwad that I miss out on opportunities to enjoy the city I live in, and I’ve been fairly successful.

But there’s no way I can possibly plan for unexpected expenses.  Obviously.

It could be an illness that waylays me for a few days (I’m missing a couple shifts of work because of this current bout).  Maybe it’s the sudden and unforeseen implosion of my laptop.  Maybe it’s the death of someone I know requiring that I fly out for a funeral (thankfully, this hasn’t happened, but it’s conceivable that it could).  Any number of events could pop up out of nowhere and throw a wrench in my plans.  And they have.

For instance:

When I was dating the girl in Chicago, I managed to snag a few pricey speeding tickets while visiting her (in fact, the only speeding tickets I ever received in my life were in route to or from seeing her).  One particular time, while driving home from Chicago late at night, I began feeling woozy and nauseous.  I was zipping down the road, attempting to get home as quickly as possible so I could sleep.  Which is when I passed a cop car that was crawling on the highway.  He nailed my ass going 90 in a 70 (I was actually going faster, but I had managed to hit the brakes).

After that, I was sick for the next couple of weeks.  I assumed it was the flu.

Two weeks later, I was back in Chicago (flying this time) for my girlfriend’s birthday.  I bought her tickets to see a concert (Ben Kweller, with The Unicorns if I remember right, though I was pretty sick so there’s no guarantee I do), at which I spent most of the show in the back hallway, barely able to stay on my feet.  It wasn’t the flu.  It was strep throat.

The next day, having no money and no insurance, the girlfriend and I went to a free clinic in a sketchy part of Chicago (I’m guessing South Chicago, but I can’t honestly remember).  There we waited for approximately 2 hours (maybe longer) before I managed to see someone who confirmed what I already knew, strep.  They gave me a shot of penicillin.  In the ass.

I’m not sure if there is an ideal place to receive a shot of penicillin, but the ass isn’t it.  My right leg went completely numb and I hobbled out of there like Frankenstein’s monster in a cast.

For the next two years, I came down with strep throat at the same time of year, like it was a holiday.  Unlike Chicago, Charlotte and Philly didn’t have free clinics (at least, that I could find).  I had to pay a couple hundred dollars each time for clinic visits and antibiotics.

The point, if I feel like getting to it, is that there are always these kinds of unpredictable costs every year.  I haven’t gotten strep in a few years, but every year there is some random expense that, in the moment, seems like it’s going to ruin everything.

Which makes me wonder, what if those unexpected expenses didn’t pop up?  In a hypothetical world where I didn’t get strep throat, where my computer never crapped out, where any number of financial surprises didn’t appear like a Cheshire Cat, how would my travels have been different?

Would I be sitting on a larger pool of savings right now, or would I just have more stuff?  Assuming I didn’t have to spend that extra couple hundred dollars to have the porcupine removed from my throat, likely I would have bought a few extra CDs, some books and movies,  maybe gotten a few extra drinks with friends.

Would I be better off with more money, more things?

I don’t own much right now.  Other than a little bit of furniture that I’ll leave behind when I move again, all I own are my clothes, a laptop, some kitchen supplies and a couple boxes of books and DVDs.*  I don’t really need any more than that.  Want more?  Sure, but need…

Make no mistake, I’m not grateful for strep throat.  No one who has ever had strep would ever be grateful for that throat holocaust.

But having these extra expenses in my life over the length of my travels has taught me, forcibly, just how minimal a life I can live.

I have a sort of odd fear that someday I’ll achieve enough financial security that I’ll be able to fill my life up with stuff.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to live my whole life stressing over money.  I would love to have a steady enough income that I wouldn’t have to worry about paying my rent or buying groceries.  But, at the same time, I know how security leads to complacency and laziness.

I’d like to think that if I ever get to a place where I’m financially secure, I won’t completely lose the ability to live minimally.  I want to have enough money to take care of myself and my loved ones and to travel and experience the world and art.  But once those basic needs are taken care of (and traveling is a basic need for me), I hope I find better things to do with my money then buying a TV with 3D glasses or sheets with a 500-thread count (both perfectly nice things, I’m sure).

It’s too easy to forget the difference between what we want and what we need.  Sometimes, an unexpected financial crisis helps bring things into focus.

*I realize that in most of the world, owning what I own would practically make me a king.  I have no delusion that I am by any means poor or lacking, not in a global sense.