the end

“The journey is sorry for being the cause of distance.”
-Atahualpa Yupanqui; and graffiti on the building next to my apartment

Today, for the first time in more than two years, I woke up in my parents’ house in Massachusetts, knowing that I didn’t have a flight to Madrid awaiting me in the upcoming weeks.

No one can deny the comforts of coming home…the exclamation point-laiden texts from friends upon receiving a message from your “normal” number, the familiarity of the same coffee mugs you’ve caffeinated from for years, the family photos adorning the walls, reminding you that no place, no matter how “right” it feels, will ever replace your roots.

But there’s also that sense of dreamlike fantasy, as if, upon returning to the place of constancy, all of the experiences and growth and changes you’ve undergone since the previous time you lived there, disappear.

While the future is always uncertain, in all likelihood, I will not return to live in Spain. Yes, as a dear friend reminded me via song lyrics, “one always returns to the places where they loved life.”  But there’s a stark difference between living somewhere and returning as a visitor.

“Because Madrid isn’t special at all.  It doesn’t have a great river.  It barely has skyscrapers.  It doesn’t have ruins, nor a beach, nor the sea.  But it has its people, unexpected corners, constant liveliness, and variety.  It’s worth it to get up early—even just once—to live a day in Madrid”
-Anonymous

Yesterday, I walked Madrid’s streets for the last time as a resident (when the customs agent in Barajas asked me if I resided there, it pained me to say no, because although I don’t according to the legal definition of the word residir, I certainly feel like I did).  When I go back to visit, be it in a year or two or five, the guy who works at the corner fruit stand probably won’t be there anymore.  Or maybe the fruit stand won’t be there at all, having been replaced in the interim by a pharmacy or clothing store.  The menus at my favorite restaurants will probably have changed.  My friends will live in different apartments, or different cities altogether.  Those who were dating will be single, those who were single will have children.  The graffiti will be painted over and new words of wisdom will take its place.  Pot holes whose locations I had memorized and could step over with my eyes closed will be fixed, and new ones will catch me by surprise.

But more important than losing familiarity with the employees at neighborhood establishments and the terrain of the local streets, is the fear of losing the intangible things that Madrid gave me: linguistic flexibility, cultural competence, appreciation for spontaneity, comfort in my own skin, life-altering friendships, and confidence in my ability to conquer the world.

Now comes the real challenge.  Not adapting to a new culture across the pond, but rather readapting to my own culture, embracing my own extrañeza and that of those in my own backyard, delicately weaving together the experiences, lessons, smells and sensations that the past two years have given me, with the roots of the previous 22 and the future that awaits.

***

After two years of documenting my life, including trips to foreign lands, adventures in the classroom, Spanish history as seen through food, musings on bilingualism, and love for my adoptive city, it is with this final post that I lay this blog to rest.  I hope that it has served you well, be it as a way to follow my life across the pond, or as inspiration to pack things up and see the world.  If you’re anything like me, doing so will serve as the best tool possible to truly see yourself.

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the expat ego boost

Being a foreigner in a foreign land has the potential to be isolating and disorienting, as you run the risk of stripping yourself of the emotional and/or physical resources needed to maintain your identity.

Or, it can give you that ego boost you need, making you feel just that much more interesting, more special, and more confident to take social risks that you may not have taken at home.

Recently, I found myself at a birthday party where I knew only a few of the attendees, not even the birthday girl.  As I began chatting with another guest (who, for what it’s worth, only knew one attendee: more logically, the cumpleañera), not surprisingly, the topic of being in an unfamiliar place and meeting new people cropped up.  My conversation partner, an admittedly-shy Spaniard who has lived all over the peninsula, mentioned that it must be even more difficult for me, since I have to be outgoing, a task that can already be challenging, and on top of it all, I must do it in a foreign language!  The look on her face said it all: oh, the horror!

Surprisingly, I told her, it’s actually the contrary — it actually works to my advantage: I have an automatic conversation starter.  Yes, I’m from the States.  Yeah, it’s pretty cool!  You’ve visited?  What part are you from?  Boston.  How long have you been here?  A year and a half.  What are you doing here?  Working as an English teacher.  How did you learn your Spanish? And on, and on, and on…

During this conversation, I was immediately reminded of an article I read a few months ago in the New York Times by an American expat living in Paris, Pamela Druckerman.  The piece was chock full of reflections that I could relate to, but this recent experience reminded me of these lines in particular:

“The thought of becoming an ordinary American again scares me. We expatriates don’t like to admit it, but being foreign makes us feel special. Just cooking pancakes on Sunday morning is an intercultural event. I imagine being back in the United States and falling in with a drone army of people who think and talk just like me — the same politics, the same references to summer camp and ’70s television…”

The intercultural event: chocolate hazelnut brownies (post taste-test to avoid any potential poison-induced international conflict)

The intercultural event: chocolate hazelnut brownies (post taste-test to avoid any potential poison-induced international conflicts)

And then, as if to seal the deal, a few days later I gained fame within a group of friends after bringing chocolate hazelnut brownies (a riff on my mom’s friend Jane’s famous congo bars) to a gathering.  The brownies were pretty darn delicious if I do say so myself, but the fact that my making of such a simple recipe was just that, “an intercultural event,” was telling.  Perhaps, had the attendees been American, I wouldn’t have made so many friends that night.

Regardless, soon(ish), I will return stateside, and like Druckerman says: “…the fact is, those drones are my people.”  And nothing can replace my people.