People back home are often saying to me something along the lines of “Oh! Your life must be like a vacation!” or “Have you gone to [insert European country, city, place of interest or restaurant here] yet?” And I get it. If you’ve never lived abroad, it’s hard to imagine the experience as anything other than a nonstop vacation filled with cultural exploration and touristic revelry. Whenever most of us experience a different country, we’re usually on vacation ourselves, so of course that’s the lens through which we’d see living abroad.
It follows that every day must start by shopping in your local green market and popping into the bakery for fresh bread, followed by afternoons in art galleries and museums, a leisurely lunch and siesta, lively debates over espresso or drinks with your neighbors in a sunny plaza, and then fabulous Michelin-starred dinners or romantic meals in teeny bistros on quiet terrazas. Then you splash your face with Cava, gaze over the rooftops through your garret window and head to bed, only to start the whole wonderful reverie the next day.
I wasn’t quite that naïve when we were getting ready to move here — I’d read enough expat blogs and memoirs to know that we were in for a world of immigration paperwork and renewals. Plus, I’d moved around enough in the States to know that making friends and carving out your niche in a new city always takes longer than you think it will. Doing that in a language I didn’t speak certainly wasn’t going to make any of it easier.
But now, one year and change into this experience, I’m floored by how much better this expat thing is from what I’d been expecting — in all but one way. To be honest, a lot of that silly nonsense a few paragraphs above is part of my life now—there are amazing markets and little food shops, there are sunny plazas for copas and really good coffee. There are more museums than I can count, and the Cava (and all other types of vino) is so ridiculously inexpensive that you probably could use it to wash your face if you wanted to waste great wine that way. But strangely, none of that easily takes the place of having a simple, ready answer to, “And what do you do?” Over this past year, I’ve spent a startling amount of time grieving for something I never thought I’d miss for one second: a traditional job.
I had no idea how not going to work every day — to a traditional office with traditional hours — would impact my mood and the way I see myself, and that’s not something anybody talks about when they talk about living abroad. (Or at least, no one talked to me about it.) When you move abroad for someone else’s job, you are necessarily leaving your own job behind. Sometimes, you might not even be allowed to work in your new country due to visa restrictions. Or maybe you don’t speak the language well enough to do your old job in your new home, or whatever certifications/degrees you had back home don’t translate to the new place. And sure, this is the 21st century, so there are a whole slew of remote-working possibilities that didn’t exist just a few years ago, but still. If you want to really feel like you’re part of the place in which you live, spending all your time attached to a laptop interacting with people nine hours behind you is not going to help.
People in Spain often ask me if I ever feel homesick, and the answer to that one is always an easy, “No, not at all.” I find that surprising even now — but the truth is that I don’t miss living in the US. Of course I miss people there, and I miss little things that I never thought about before we left. (See: tarragon; Comet cleanser; Americans’ unyielding commitment to convenience; spicy food of all kinds; not having to interact with salespeople in a store if I’m not feeling it that day #imjustlooking).
These days, Mr. Natalie and I are caught off guard when people ask when we plan to move back home, as if that’s a given. But I can’t even think of where “home” would be in the US. In the short time we’ve been here, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Spain, warts and all. (Seriously guys, where are the vegetables?) This is a welcoming, fun-loving culture with a complicated history and even more complicated politics that I’ve barely even begun to understand. But now when we travel, “coming home” means Madrid. I crave this city when we’ve been away too long, and I’m constantly comparing it to other places, wondering why things There can’t be more like they are Here. (See: café cortado; Atlético de Madrid and its fans; impossibly long days; outstanding parks; the headscratcher of how, in a culture where everyone is always at least 10 minutes late to anything, the national train system always manages to run on time.*)
And here’s the thing about vacation: it’s only a temporary break from your everyday routine. But moving abroad is a permanent break with what was your life. It requires you to build a new life almost from scratch. You literally start over with some (if not all) of the following: a new language; a new career after completing any necessary training for it; figuring out the minutiae of daily life; navigating new bureaucracy; learning new customs; making a fool out of yourself nearly every day; and really thinking about who you are and what you do when you aren’t defined by a traditional job. No joke, it’s to-the-bones exhausting.
So who’s ready for a vacation now? 😉
*I hope I didn’t just doom myself to a lifetime of late trains.