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”

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.


playing tour guide in the city of “irrepressible fizz”

Photo courtesy o Jose Maria Cuellar, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Jose Maria Cuellar, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

“Madrid’s main selling point is the friendly, anarchic energy of its urban culture. Compared to Rome, its history is short and its monuments modest. The city also lacks the grand planning of Vienna or Berlin’s sense of space. What Madrid does have is an irrepressible fizz, with an eclectic architecture that includes medieval alleys and renaissance squares but also art deco skyscrapers and slightly hysterical buildings that resemble Belle Époque Paris on steroids. While its main street is often said to recall New York’s Broadway in all its pre-2000s grungy energy, around the corner there are quiet, village-like corners apparently populated only by old women walking toy dogs. And although it has one of the grandest royal palaces in all Europe, it’s always been a fairly scruffy place and none the worse for it. Nowhere else in Europe quite matches its contradictory mix of big city bustle and quiet provincialism, its combination of old guard Spanish tradition and punkish vibrancy.”

Feargus O’Sullivan

In each of the last three months, I have played the role of tour-guide-extraordinaire to three combinations of visitors from the motherland.  Each set of guests, made up of both friends and family, relied on me to design and execute their itineraries–from sunrise ’til sunset, from sightseeing to dining, from transportation to communication.  All of these visitors combined their trips to Madrid with visits to other Spanish cities, including Barcelona, Seville and Toledo, but I made it my personal responsibility to prove to them that Madrid is número uno, embodying the best that many of the others have to offer.

The thing about the Spanish capital is that, like a fine wine that gets better with age, Madrid gets better with familiarity.  It doesn’t hit you over the head with charm like other European cities, but it drips with quirkiness and regality and magic as long as you know where to look.  Remembering how not-won-over I was during my first visit here as a tourist almost four years ago, I did everything in my power to give my visitors the express version of the Madrid that one knows and loves after living here for some time.  The task of putting together 3-, 5- and 6-day itineraries that capture the city’s essence forced me to think critically about what makes it so special, and what experiences one must have here to be truly aware of its greatness.  I raved to my guests about Madrid’s liveliness, gastronomy and people; its traditions, openness and public transportation; its compactness, diverse neighborhoods, and sense of history.  As they meandered through the bustling avenues of Gran Vía and calle Alcalá, the winding streets of La Latina, the hipster vibe of Malasaña, and the historical heft of Madrid de los Austrias, it appears I was successful in converting them to Team Madrid.

And who could blame them?  What more could one ask for than a city described as possessing an “irrepressible fizz” with a “contradictory mix of big city bustle and quiet provincialism” and a “combination of old guard Spanish tradition and punkish vibrancy?”  Very little, I tell you.  Very little.

tourist, traveler or voyager?: reflections on a week in Prague and Berlin

Following three days in Prague and four in Berlin, I found myself back home in Madrid, unpacked, freshly showered, a load of laundry completed, and ready to catch up on a week of The Internet — emails, Google Reader, Twitter and beyond.  During this media frenzy, I came across a documentary called “Bye Bye Barcelona,” which chronicles the ways in which rapidly-expanding mass-produced tourism is turning the city into a theme park for tourists rather than a place for people to live.

(If you wish to be spared my reflections on tourism and travel and simply want to check out photos from my trip, scroll to the bottom of the post).

The problem, it says, is that we are creating touristic habits that are “iterative and no longer connected to the essence” of a particular city, which in turn changes “the notion, essence and idiosyncrasies of the city itself.”  Barcelona, they say, has lost all of its charm.  Tourists no longer travel, they add.  They “consume destinations.”

The documentary is fascinating, and can be seen here (English subtitles are available).  Its goal is to explore mass tourism’s impact on locals, an extremely important discussion to be had, though one I will not explicitly pursue in this post.  Instead, my viewing of the documentary on the heels of my recent jaunt through the Czech and German capitals accelerated my existing reflections on my priorities and degree of authenticity achieved when I travel.

Towards the end of the film, Santiago Tejedor, co-director of the Masters program in Travel Journalism at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, outlines the differences between tourists, travelers and voyagers.  A tourist, he explains, books a prefabricated itinerary from a travel agent; a traveler allows for some improvisation and freedom when planning a trip; and a voyager seeks genuine, authentic and unique experiences.

There is no doubt in my mind that I am not a tourist.  I occupied this category once, when I went on an all-inclusive trip to Morocco in 2010; I was hesitant to book the trip in the first place, and my experience, although comforting in a third-world country, only confirmed my doubts about the value of such a cookie cutter trip.  Having never gone down that road again, can I say I am all the way on the other end—a voyager?  I’d like to be.  But can one really be a voyager on her first visit to a place, when she only has three or four days to take it all in?

When planning this trip, I sat down with my travel buddy and asked her where she wanted to go.  We both had a few locations on our travel wish lists that were not feasible this trip for various reasons, so when it got down to choosing a destination, anywhere and everywhere in Europe was on the table.  A whirlwind of searches for affordable flights plus map consultations to see which cities could be combined into one trip led us to the selection of Prague and Berlin.

There are two sides to this coin:

On the one hand, there’s the romanticized idea of spinning a globe with your eyes closed and traveling to wherever your finger lands (just technologically updated with Google Maps rather than an actual spinning sphere).  There’s the freedom and sense of adventure that comes with living in Madrid and having Europe at your fingertips.  There’s the beauty of globalization and low-cost airlines that make it all possible.  And there’s the magic of going to a new place with little background knowledge and subsequently learning, first hand, about parts of the world you barely knew existed.

But then there’s the idea of “consuming destinations” — of spending a few days visiting the most famous sites of a new city which you previously harbored no long-standing desire to see.

Tourist, traveler or voyager?

I’ve developed a reliable MO when planning my travels since living in Spain.  Once I choose the destination, I research the different neighborhoods of the city and then search for an AirBnB apartment in the most bohemian-and-centrally-located area, preferably with a host whose reviews note his or her willingness to share insider tips about things to see and places to eat.  I then conduct a Google search to find the most important sites and monuments, and once I have a list of them with basic information about schedules and prices, I go deeper, searching for expat bloggers and other locals who share more authentic experiences and suggestions for ways to enjoy the city.  And of course, if I’m lucky enough to know someone who lives there, has lived there, or has recently traveled there, I suck them dry of any and all tips they can muster.

Tourist, traveler or voyager?

One of the developments that the locals in “Bye Bye Barcelona” lament is the loss of neighborhood spaces that have become “prostituted” due to mass tourism.  La Rambla, Barcelona’s central pedestrian avenue, is no longer a place to buy a newspaper, have a cup of coffee, and chat with neighbors; instead, it is full of tourists, souvenir shops, chain restaurants and street performers.  La Boquería, Barcelona’s famous food market, is no longer a place to go grocery shopping for your family.  The streets around La Sagrada Familia have become impossible to walk down, even for those who live on them.

I am part of that problem.  Just as I did in Barcelona (and Paris, and Rome, and…), I checked all of the key sites off my list in both Prague and Berlin.  I fought with crowds of tourists to snap a photo of Prague’s astronomical clock, and I waited patiently to get a shot of my favorite segments of the Berlin Wall.

I could feel guilty for contributing to the phenomenon of neutralizing a city and stripping it of its true essence and charm.  But can you really take someone seriously who goes to Rome and doesn’t see the Coliseum?  Can you really blame someone who visits Paris for wanting to take a picture of the Eiffel Tower?  No.  You can’t.  I’d imagine that voyagers, too, would want to have these experiences and for this reason, visiting top sites doesn’t automatically strip you of voyager status.

A voyager, to me, is then one of two things.  It could be someone who visits small, lesser-known cities or rural locations, where experiences are unique by default because mass tourism has yet to reach them.  Or, it could be someone who has the flexibility to spend a significant amount of time in any of these places.  In the latter scenario, the voyager is first a traveler for a few days, seeing the top sites, and subsequently graduates to voyager status as he steers himself off the beaten path, seeking out the authentic musical, gastronomical, artistic, linguistic, or any other variety of experience to truly gain insight into how life functions in a particular part of the world.  Being a voyager takes the research, time, maybe even a little bit of luck, and the right spirit.  You need to know where, what and who to look for, something that is easier said than done.

So…tourist, traveler or voyager?

If one looks at my 1.5 years in Madrid as a trip, then I am comfortable branding myself with the gold-standard label of “voyager.”  But that’s up for debate, since I live here.  Madrid excluded, I think I fall safely in the traveler category.  Perhaps in the future, with more time, more funding, and experience under my belt, I will be able to graduate.

But for now, as a traveler, I steer clear of prefabricated tours, chain restaurants with photos of each dish posted outside, cheesy souvenirs, and large hotels.  Instead I stay with locals via AirBnB, and I soon hope to use one of the new websites that allows visitors (be they travelers or voyagers) to eat a home-cooked meal at a locals’ house or apartment.  I seek out the neighborhoods and streets that are best for wandering aimlessly, and I take any recommendation any local is willing to give me.

Navigating the delineations between tourist, traveler and voyager is delicate, and it’s different for various stakeholders.  What’s best for a city is not always the same as what’s best for its visitors.  What is scaleable is inauthentic, and what is unique loses its singularity as soon as it is expanded.

It seems, then, that we are left with more questions than answers.  What category do you think you fall into? How and why has travel changed over the years? How can we continue to move about the world without destroying local culture and inconveniencing locals?

Anyway, without further ado, photos from my trip:


Called a “theme park” in “Bye Bye Barcelona,” it was described to me prior to my trip by many friends and coworkers as “a fairy tale.”  Perhaps somewhere in between the two, there was certainly charm remaining in its beautiful architecture and quaint Easter Market.

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Initially put off by cold rain, a blistering wind (strong enough to turn inside out an umbrella that survived three years in Chicago!), and general enormity (in area, street width, building size, and height of locals), I came to enjoy Berlin and wish I had more time to explore it.  The city is brimming with history in a way that is extremely unique when compared to other European metropolises I’ve visited (i.e. the Coliseum wouldn’t have looked much different had my parents visited it when they were my age, but the Berlin Wall would have).  Plus, the abundance of street art and funky clothing, home decor, jewelry and bookstores give the city a distinctively “cool” and inspirational vibe.

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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.

musings on bilingualism

This past summer, I read a blog post that really stuck with me in El País, one of Spain’s largest national newspapers.

Pause.  Before I continue, a quick Spanish lesson:
You’re an asshole = Eres un capullo.

So, back to the blog post I read…

The first graf, translated into English and roles reversed so as to make sense to my audience, says the following: “If you’re a native English speaker, and someone yells at you ‘eres un capullo,’ it won’t offend you as much as if the same person shouts ‘you’re an asshole!'”  Even if you’re bilingual and know exactly what “eres un capullo” means.

The piece, inspired by Albert Costa’s research at the Universidad Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, goes on to explain that regardless of one’s level of proficiency in a second (or third, or fourth…) language, the emotional charge and weight of one’s mother tongue will always be stronger: insults sting more, compliments feel better, and lying is more difficult.  I may know exactly what capullo means, but I did not grow up with the hefty connotation of the word.  Asshole, on the other hand, was, for a long time, a sharp, forbidden term that I only heard adults say when they were angry; only years later, after I observed its use in context in the media and in real life, and watched the reaction it incited in others, did it become a part of my own vernacular.

Recently, I took a Spanish placement exam that confirmed I have a C1 level (on a scale, lowest to highest, of: A1-A2-B1-B2-C1-C2).  Even so, during my time in Sevilla and Madrid, I have had countless experiences in which it has been much easier to share personal information with others in Spanish, while it has been much more impactful to hear important news and receive compliments in English — not because of a lack of necessary vocabulary, but rather due to the weight each word and phrase carried.  At some level, pushed back behind more and more layers the more proficient you are, your second language will always be a translated code of your mother tongue, the words and phrases simply the output of a mental equation that originates in your nuanced native language (yes, even if you’ve reached the point at which you’re beyond proficient and thinking in language #2).  Sharing intimate information seems less scary when the words don’t have years of life experience hanging from them, while receiving a compliment seems less meaningful without said heft.  Bonita is a lovely word in Spanish, the syllables themselves more lyrical and attractive to the ear than the English ‘beautiful.’  But I know what ‘beautiful’ means.

When asked how much longer I plan to stay in Spain, I usually say that this school year will likely be my last.  Because, I say, even though it will break my heart to leave Madrid, home is always home, and I feel a pull to go back and start my “real life.”  Of course, my life here is “real:” I have a job, a bank account and a gym membership; I have friendships and joy and disappointment.  But there’s always that element of dreaminess when I think about living here.  No matter how much I adopt Spanish traditions and lifestyle, I have no familial roots nor history to tie me down to the land or the culture.  At times, don’t get me wrong, the flexibility this provides is liberating.  But it’s also usually the reason I cite as to why Madrid will never feel quite like home in the same way that the US does.

But maybe it goes beyond that — beyond the cultural artifacts of having lunch at 3pm and watching Semana Santa processions and eating jamón, to a lack of history that ties me to the language, in a way diluting the words that leave my mouth and enter my ears daily, cloaking this entire experience in a thinly-veiled fog…a fog that at times feels like the frustrating haze felt by someone with *almost* perfect vision before putting on their glasses in the morning, and at other times mirrors the magical mist of an enchanted forest.

The inspiration for this post, filled with additional findings from the Costa study, can be found here (en español).

an extended #tbt

Destiny isn’t really my thing.  I’m not religious, and I don’t look to a higher power for my life’s grand plan.  But every once in a while, I can’t help but take a step back and observe how different experiences and decisions have connected the dots during my first 23+ years on this crazy planet.

In my hometown, students begin foreign language study in middle school and are given the option of French or Spanish.  At age 12, I chose Spanish, partially because it seemed more practical and partially because it’s what my older brother had chosen four years earlier.

In seventh grade, my first year as a Spanish student, my experienced yet energetic teacher, Mrs. Noyes, asked us to choose Spanish names, and I selected Esperanza—hope.  Spanish came easily to me, and I did well in the subject in middle and high school, but I was never particularly excited about it.  When senior year rolled around, I had the choice of taking AP (Advanced Placement) Spanish or Spanish 5, a culture-based class with little grammar.  My lack of passion for the language and already AP-heavy schedule encouraged me to choose the latter.

A note from my first Spanish teacher, Mrs. Noyes, in my seventh grade yearbook -- "Good luck in your long happy life.  Speak Spanish!"

A note from my first Spanish teacher, Mrs. Noyes, in my seventh grade yearbook — “Good luck in your long happy life. Speak Spanish!”

The following summer, in preparation for my impending entrance as a freshman Communication Studies major (my, how things change) at Northwestern University, I had to take an online placement test to determine my progress toward the “equivalent of two years of university-level language classes”-requirement.  I vividly remember sitting in my family room with my laptop, watching a Red Sox game and absent-mindedly choosing between ser and estar and conjugating verbs in various tenses.  I had studied Spanish for six years, but I was placed in second-year university Spanish.  Oops.  I probably could’ve passed out of the requirement completely if I had put in a little effort.

But thank goodness I didn’t.

Having an easy breezy Spanish 121 class in my schedule for all three quarters of freshman year was a welcome sigh of relief among all of the other stressors of the first year of college.  During that time, I started to hear buzz around campus about the magical experience known as “study abroad.”  So it was only then, after finishing my requirement (and then promptly changing to a different major with no language requirement at all), that I continued taking Spanish classes voluntarily.  I almost transferred to a different university, where credit transfer red tape most certainly would have prompted me to stop studying the language altogether.  Instead, however, I stayed at Northwestern and started connecting with some excellent native professors and dreaming about a semester spent in another country on the other side of the world.

On September 1, 2010, that dream came true, as I hugged my parents goodbye and got on my first ever international flight, landing in Sevilla hours later, jetlagged, overheated, and confused as hell as to why the heavily-accented syllables that my host family spoke to me sounded nothing like the Spanish I had studied for the previous eight years.  However, a little serendipity and a lot of linguistic trial and error changed everything quickly, as I was lucky to make some wonderful Spanish friends and connect intimately with locals.

Had it not been for any of those twists and turns along the way, starting at age 12, I probably wouldn’t be writing right now in a blog about my life in Madrid.  This journey could have been different if I had chosen to study French rather than Spanish.  Or if I had taken AP Spanish and/or paid more attention while taking the placement exam and thus passed out of the language requirement at Northwestern altogether.  Or if I had stopped studying it at NU after freshman year.  Or if circumstances were different and I had a less magnificent study abroad experience.

But no.  The path I followed gave me the desire and confidence to return to Spain to work as an English teacher for not one, but now two years.

Where will these little connected dots take me next?  Only time will tell.


Photo by rkramer62, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Photo by rkramer62, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Just over a year ago, in this blog’s inaugural post, I wrote:

“While I have previously resided in Spain for three-and-a-half months, and although I anticipate achieving a certain level of comfort and routine as I settle into my new life, I will work to take nothing for granted and embrace extrañeza every day.”

With one year in Madrid under my belt, I can look back and say I’ve done a pretty decent job of following my own advice.  This year, comfort with the logistics of daily life plus a new apartment located much closer to the action will allow me to focus even more of my time and energy on taking advantage of everything this city has to offer.  These last few weeks, living in Sevilla with study abroad students who are experiencing life in Spain for the first time, I’ve been reminded again of the extrañeza around me, as the students gush to me about their first bite of tortilla, their heartbreak upon realizing iced coffee is not part of this culture, their first night out until sunrise, their amusement by funny menu translations and the random use of English on t-shirts, and their memorable linguistic mishaps.

I’ve moved past a lot of that, but not all of it.  I still walk by Sevilla’s cathedral and Madrid’s Palacio de Cibeles and stop to gawk (though I now try to do so without anyone noticing).  I still feel giddy when I enjoy delicious tapas or express a particularly complex thought in Spanish without hesitation.  There are still many corners of this country I’ve yet to see.

The protagonist in Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station eloquently describes a similar thought process to mine when deciding whether or not he should stay in Madrid upon the completion of a poetry fellowship:

“But in certain moments, I was convinced I should go home…that this life wasn’t real, wasn’t my own, that nearly a year of being a tourist, which is what I indubitably was, was enough, and that I needed to return to the U.S. to be present for my family, and begin an earnest search for a mate, career, etc.  Prolonging my stay was postponing the inevitable… 

In other moments, however, the discourse of the real would seem to fall on the same side of Spain; this, I would say to myself…this is experience, not because things in Iberia were inherently more immediate, but because the landscape and my relation to it had not been entirely standardized.  There would of course come a point when I would be familiar enough with the language and terrain that it would lose its unfamiliar aspect, a point at which I would no longer see a stone in Spain and think of it as, in some essential sense, stonier than the sedimentary rocks of Kansas, and what applied to stones applies to bodies, light, weather, whatever.

But that moment of familiarization had not yet arrived; why not stay until it was imminent?

(Lerner, 162-163)

Couldn’t have said it better myself.  I’ll get back to you in a year about my take on the relative stoniness of Spanish and American stones.  Until then, a aprovechar