God Bless America?: Reflections on my Third Elections Abroad

The world is having a serious identity crisis.

To say that 2016 has been a weird year is to echo the sentiments of…just about everyone. And it goes far beyond the celebrity deaths, the Cubs winning the World Series and me getting pregnant.

You know that phrase, when pigs fly? As much as I’d love for patas de jamón to be raining from the heavens, there has been more bad juju this years than in the last decade. Race riots, gun violence and the refugee crisis have reached a fever pitch. Everyone is offended by everything. Spain finally voted in a government.

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And to me, the 2016 Election cycle signals the end of the democratic process as I’d been brought up to believe in. Thinking back to Mrs. Entwistle’s seventh grade social studies class – one in which we recited state capitals and the presidents from Washington to Clinton – seems like it was a century ago, not two decades.

And think about it: 100 years ago, American women still couldn’t vote.

There are decries of the electoral college, of unbiased reporting. And sitting in my living room in the northern part of Madrid, listening to Disney music as a coping mechanism since I can’t have a beer or two for my nerves, I’m still shellshocked by the last few weeks and months.

I voted from abroad. I donated to campaign issues that were important to me. I faxed in ballots for people, taking away from my workload because, hell, these kids were excited to vote for the very first time. Did we sit on our hands? Push a broken system? Stick our fingers in our ears when two people screeched at each other on television?

What in the actual hell happened? More importantly, what does it mean going forward?

A voting history of a Democrat abroad

I voted for the first time in 2004, even registering in a swing state because my home state is always – for better or worse – left-leaning. John Kerry passed by my campus for a speech, bringing along Iowa Golden Boy Ashton Kutcher and actor Ron Livingston to stump for him. I got caught up in election fever, not even bothering to read into the platforms of those up for reelection in the state in which I’d decided to attend college. I even went as far as registering as a Democrat, much to the dismay of my crimson-hearted parents.

Kerry lost by half of a percentage point and, with it, his seven electoral votes, but I proudly donned my I VOTED sticker that chilly November morning. AND I made it to class on time.

In 2008, I was the English teacher who had brought a map of the US with me, fished out of the Target $1 bins. That Tuesday afternoon, I diligently filled in the number of electoral votes each state had to throw at a candidate and put together a collection of markers, crayons and colored pencils so that my other expat friends could color in the states as election boards turned in official results. There were close to 50 of us packed into the top bar at the Merchant until nearly 5am.

2008 Elections

We celebrated over nachos and Budweiser beers until I had the pleasure of coloring my state blue with a Crayola marker that was nearly dry. The next morning, I received hugs from my coworkers as if I myself were Barack Obama. It was memorable, to say the least (and I still made it to class on time).

It was then when I heard the phrase that would resonate with me eight years later, “Cuando Estados Unidos estornuda, todo el mundo se resfria.” When America sneezes, the whole world catch a cold. I felt the optimism and a new era hurtling in from across the Atlantic.

Four years later, in 2012, a head cold and working evenings had me sidelined for election party antics, but I woke up at 6am to news of an Obama reelection. Between my Master’s and a new job, I had hastily shot off a vote without looking deeply into the issues, letting political party lines determine my vote. It didn’t feel as great as 2008, but I felt that my views had representation in all areas of government. Checks and Balances for the win.

But 2016. 2016 is different.

I’m in my 30s, no longer the 19-year-old swayed by celebrities and the rhetoric. Someone who has her values defined and tested. Someone who will be bringing a child into the world in the aftermath of an election that can only be described as long, ugly and exhausting. And, frankly, someone who would prefer being pregnant for an entire election cycle. All 600 days of it. And grossly pregnant.

Over the summer, the Pew Research Center survey found that about six in 10 of us were “exhausted” by the elections – which technically began with Marco Rubio announcing his candidacy in March 2015. Sheryl Crow petitioned for a shorter cycle. I lived through, in that time, two presidential elections in Spain – a country which only allows campaigning for two weeks leading up to the election.

I fully expected to feel relief on November 8th, relief that the mud racking and slandering and name-calling was over. Instead, I woke up anxious and looked for ways to distract myself at work, refusing to open news alerts and keeping my phone in my bag or face down on my desk, an arm’s reach away.

On being an American abroad

It’s an odd thing being overseas when big things are happening in your country. You feel one-part ambassador to the messed up things that are splattered across foreign news, defending the actions of a country that is far from homogenous. Like you have to right the wrongs, to make explanations for every policy, law and scandal. That one person can represent a greater good and not what Hollywood or Washington or the media portray. That, even though Spaniards are outspoken about their opinions, I could explain the historical and sociological roots of America’s political system and why a representative democracy is, ultimately, about people having the power.

Spanish Cowboy under Old Glory. Scottsdale, AZ.

There’s been so much backlash about colonialism and a 240-year-old piece of parchment that begins with “We The People…” but I fundamentally believe that our Founding Fathers wrote a document flexible enough to weather social change, an increasingly global world and demographics.

I work for an American university in Spain, so I don’t feel alienated in my views or living this experience alone – and this university is international, drawing 65 nations to a campus of 800 students. I was impressed watching students debate in the cafeteria and coming in exasperated that their absentee ballots never arrived and could-you-please-please-fax-this-so-my-vote-gets-counted?!

Speaking about my love of country – even with Spain as a flamboyant lover – was something I enjoyed doing for the first eight years of my expat life. And it’s a country that instilled values like hard work, acceptance and the beauty of diversity in me. It never felt like a chore nor would I have ever categorized my words as hollow. I am critical of the United States despite recognizing the privilege I was born into – not just by possessing a blue passport, but by being educated, white and from a family who supports me.

But this year, yeah. I am at a total loss for words and saddened for so many groups of minorities. The whole world has gone bonkers, and the ripples and cracks are deepening.

The Aftermath: That’s what you get for waking up in Trump’s America

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I will begin by saying that, even though I’m a registered Democrat, I have a lot of Republican values. My parents have never voted Democrat, too young to fully understand Kennedy’s Camelot and those who were taught to prescribe to my grandmother’s words, “My money is my money.” My mother confessed that she was morally struggling over voting for Trump – something I chalked up to her coming around and seeing that party lines can become blurred when you factor in more than experience and policy.

Still, when my absentee ballot arrived, I took the time to research candidates. I voted Democrat for president and Congress, but also filled in a few red bubbles for local and state elections. I felt more confident in my choices this time around and encouraged people to vote despite the age-old excuses of, “my vote doesn’t matter” or “I hate them both.”

When I went to bed just shy of 5am, Spain time, I’d been at an enormous election party since 11pm. It was almost like watching a European football match in a bar – lots of beers, cheering and jeering and floods of blue. Everyone was on my side for once, and I didn’t feel like my team was the underdog. I didn’t get nervous when the early reports put Trump ahead of Hillary and I watched as Florida flipped flopped more than Trump switched parties in the last 12 years.

But at 4am, things were looking grim, so I said goodbye to my friends, refreshed the NYT one more time just in case the world had collapsed and grabbed a taxi. I wanted to do the same as I did for Game 7 of the World Series – use a rain delay (or a few hours of sleep) to reset and let my team get its shit together.

Nearly 12 hours have passed since an Tang-stained bomb got dropped. I had planned to sleep until my body woke up, but at 9am, I bolted upright (oops, don’t tell my midwife) and called for the Novio. His face said it all, despite the fevered whispering that it actually might happen that we exchanged leading up to November 8th.

I passed through the Seven Stages of Grief pretty quickly, and once I’d denounced the actions of my countrymen (I mean, these exit polls are pretty eye-opening), I erased most of this draft and got to writing again.

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This election was more than about breaking the glass ceiling – it was about voting with head and heart for what I believe in. I put aside scandal and morality to look at the cold, hard facts.

It’s tragic that we have to fear for our friends and neighbors, or to fear our neighbors, or post suicide hotline numbers (but kudos to those of you who recognized that this could start an epidemic). It’s tragic that people can’t afford healthcare or that our education level is sliding as college tuition hikes make it impossible for people to have access to degrees. It’s tragic that democracy is crumbling because there is so much more bubbling beneath the surface.

There’s a disconnect between parties and the People, and this is blatantly honest from the eyes of someone who has been abroad for nearly a decade. When I came here, we didn’t think it could get worse than W. He now seems like the harmless village idiot in just a little over his head.

Time will tell what The Donald brings to the table, or if it’s Mike Pence doing all of the heavy lifting. I’m reminding myself between deep nasal breaths that checks and balances exist, as does a party identity. Maybe we can all just hope for a sitting duck? He’ll quack loudly, but probably just swim around in circles, nipping other ducks just to be cheeky. Ducks aren’t violent, right?

But here’s my biggest issue, now that I’ve gotten past the 279 votes my party didn’t win: I am shaking my head and wagging my finger at all of those people who say they’re fleeing to Canada or Europe or staying abroad. Now is not the time to put our tails between our legs and concede because the country is divided, and that fracture is deepening. My hope is that activism takes root, that people do their homework when it comes to issues and policies, that you write to the people you have representing you in Washington. There’s a reason we have a representative democracy – you have to show up.

We have four years, but just two until midterm elections and this vicious cycle begins again for 2020. I’m not giving up hope or prosperity because I believe in the country I call home and the values I hope to teach my child.

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My son is scheduled to come into this world on January 1st, 2017. I’m crossing my fingers that he doesn’t make his debut in 2016, a year marred by head scratching moments and an outwardly struggle to figure out who we are and what we stand for.

I know he will come to me one day and ask, “Mommy, who was president when I was born?”

I want to confidently say that he was born while Obama was in the Oval, when people could love who they wanted, be who they wanted and say what they wanted. I want to raise him to believe in himself and the good of others, but to also question morality and social wrongs.

I want him to be a good person, plain and simple. To use the right words instead of hateful speech. To not bully or belittle someone, but instead offer an ear or a hand or a hug.

Maybe I’m just naïve, but I want to believe people are good but sometimes just stubborn, misinformed and insist upon holding grudges. I want to believe that we, as a people, will hold one another accountable to pick up the pieces and trudge on forward, hand in hand. I want to believe that this is the beginning of positive change.

If you’re wondering how to help the environment, minorities or women, check out the Jezebel list of places and organizations to donate.
US Elections Abroad

I have to say, this post has been drafted, deleted and rewritten countless times since November 1st. Then I did it all over again on November 9th. It was a blessing and a curse to have the day after the US Elections off of work, and I’m still processing what happened – both in the last 600 days and the last 240 years to get here. I don’t get political on my blog, but I will say that I have yet to defriend anyone for voting differently. Second Amendment be damned – information and activism are the only weapons we need.

If you’re going to comment, be my guest. Call it being polite or just realizing that there is enough room in the world for everyone’s views. I will not allow attacks on others who join the conversation. Keep it nice and respectful, please.

When Living Abroad Starts Feeling Like Living in America

I could have easily been in a neighborhood pub back home in Chicago. Armed with two guiri friends and a stomach that hadn’t eaten all day, I ordered a cheeseburger meal, piled on the ketchup and sat down on a couch, directly under drapes of spider webs. It was Halloween, and one my friends mentioned that – gasp! – another American friend of ours had had trick-or-treaters the night before in her pueblo.

De verdad? Since when does the oh-so-racio Seville feel just like America?

When

Slowly, Americana has been permeating into a city as Spanish as the tortilla. At first, I embraced the introduction of peanut butter onto supermarket shelves (and willingly forked over 7€ for it) and made special trips to Madrid for international cuisine. Eight years on, I’m feeling like I’m in a parallel universe sometimes as craft beer, Netflix and my favorite holiday are becoming mainstream, albeit jabbered on about in Spanish.

I’ve long been the guiri who drags her heels when it comes to embracing my culture while living in another. I famously chastised my friends for shopping at the American food store and have yet to set foot in Costco. I do not regularly catch baseball or American football games in bars, nor could I tell you the best place to watch one. Yes, I cook Thanksgiving for my in-laws with American products and dress up for Halloween, but those moments were always reserved for special parties with my compatriots. What I love about living in Spain really boils down to the fact that I love living in Spain.

Cue the hate comments: I didn’t really sign up for an American life when I moved to Seville. And in all fairness, I’m letting it happen.

Spanish potato omelette

The line between life abroad and life as I knew it before 22 is blurrier than ever. I conduct a large part of my day in English, have English-speaking friends and watch TV in English. I just picked up a Spanish book for the first time in three years. I consume news in English via my smartphone and had to recently ask the Novio the name of the new mayor in town. 

I knew I needed to make a change when the Novio suggested we get Netflix as a wedding present to ourselves. Wait, you mean I can watch a show on a big screen with no need to let the show buffer for ten minutes? And in my native language? The fun of the TDT system, which allowed shows to be aired in their original language instead of dubbing. Ni de coña – I will binge watch my American television shows on my laptop. Wouldn’t that 8€ a month be better spent on something else?

While Spain is definitely not America when it comes to lines at the bank, reliable service or a way around 902 toll numbers, I find my adult life becoming more on par with that which my friends are living in the US. I got more than a fair dosage of Americanism this year, spending more than four months of fifteen in the US. Going home is a treat – Target, Portillo’s and endless hours of snuggling with our family dog – but it’s lost a lot of its sheen now that Seville has Americanized itself, be it for tourists or for sevillanos

But at what price? Gone are the decades-old ultramarinos that once peddled canned goods – they’ve made way for trendy bars and clothing chains. While I admit that the Setas – a harsh contrast from the turn-of-the-century buildings that ring Plaza de la Encarnación – have grown on me, they caused a lot of backlash and an entire neighborhood to address itself. Do I really need a fancy coffee bar to do work at, or a gym with the latest in training classes?

Reflections of Study Abroad in Spain

As my world becomes more globalized, I find myself seeking the Spain I fell in love with when I studied abroad in Valladolid and the Seville that existed in 2007. We’re talking pre-Crisis, pre-smartphones and pre-instagram filters, and one where a Frapuccino every now and then helped me combat my homesickness. The Spain that was challenging, new and often frustrating. The Spain in which I relished long siestas, late nights and a voracious desire to learn new slang and new rincones of a new place.

But… how do I get back there? The Sevilla I discovered at age 22 is barely recognizable. Do I love it? Do I deal with it? I mostly stick around Triana, which stills feels as barrio and as authentic as it did when I took up residence on Calle Numancia in 2007.

This sort of rant seems to be a November thing, when rain has me cooped up outside instead of indulging in day drinking and mentally preparing myself to de-feather and de-gut a turkey. Maybe I’m in a slump. Maybe I’m comfortable. Maybe I’m lazy. Or maybe it’s just the fact that Spain doesn’t present the same day-to-day victories as it once did. 

One thing I know for certain is that I’m looking forward to jumping back into the Spanish manera de ser once the Novio arrives back home this week. I can’t wait to head to San Nicolás, sans computer, and search for castañas, to sleep without an alarm and to remember why and how Spain became mi cosa.

Do you ever feel like you’re no longer living abroad? Any pointers to get me back on track?

Let’s Have a Little Talk About Spanish Toilets

The smell hits me like a pata de jamón to the head: a cocktail of bathroom disinfectant, spilled hand soap, ancient pipes and bleach. And that’s only if the person before me hasn’t bothered to flush.

Verdad verdadera: if you drink liquids, you have to pee. If you drink beer, you have to pee twice as much. And if you drink beer in Spain, you have to pee in a filthy, poorly lit bathroom that likely doesn’t have toilet paper (and if it does, you’d better steal what’s left of the roll and stash that contraband in your purse).

In the eight years I’ve lived in Spain, I’ve not been able to get over Spanish bathrooms.I’d do a silent fist pump when I’d find a few scraps of toilet paper, or a toilet seat, or even hand soap (also known as the váter Holy Trifecta) in a public bathroom.

But váter, you and I have to have a talk.

Let's Talk About Bathrooms in Spain

It was on a sweltering July night at an old man bar in my neighborhood that I actually considered shuffling three blocks back to house to use our facilities. But I’d had several vermouths, so I handed the Novio my purse and scuttled to the unisex bathroom.

The space was hardly larger than a broom closet (in fact, it probably once was), and my toes rested right next to the door when I closed it. I was wearing sandals, so the bottoms of my feet became soaked in who knows what. As I squatted, my butt hit the wet pipe attached to the flush, and I struggled to find the light switch in the dark. The pipes creaked as I attempted to flush a running toilet, so I gave up entirely, ran my hands under the faucet obsessively and ordered another vermouth (though grain alcohol to kill any germs might have been a better option).

I won’t call out any names here, but as a rule of thumb, if it’s a brightly-lit cervecería frequented by old men, you shouldn’t expect anything special. A step up might be a restaurant frequented by the same old men. I won’t even get into the toilets at discos – particularly the outdoor terraces in the summer. I mean, even the Parador de Zafra, a luxury hotel owned by the Spanish government, has a problem keeping toilets stocked with toilet paper!

Not all hope is lost – any place that caters to tourists or business travelers has a better shot at possessing the Váter Trifecta. But Andalucía seems to be the worst when it comes to bathrooms. A friend of mine runs food tours and trained her Seville guides to always bring a small pack of tissues for tour guests, lest they be forced to drip dry.

What are toilets like in Spain

My buttload of gripes has grown as I’ve gotten older. I mean, I went to a large Midwestern University where Saturday morning tailgating meant either sneaking into a stranger’s house on Melrose Court, or finding an alternative solution. But a civilized country deserves a civilized sort of outhouse.

First off, women’s restrooms in Spain tend to double as storage closets for empty beverage bottles, stacking crates and even cleaning supplies (so where the cojones do they keep the toilet paper?!). On more than one occasion, I’ve had to crawl over a pile of crap just to get to the toilet.

I’ve made it abundantly clear that toilet paper is noticeably absent in a high percentage of bathrooms. If you’re a lady, whenever you feel the urge, you either have to rummage around in your purse for kleenex, discreetly ask a friend, or grab a wad of napkins from a table. But Spanish napkins aren’t designed to do anything more than mop up wax, so you’re better off not even trying with them. Note to self: add Kleenex packets to my shopping list.

But don’t throw tissue (or waxy napkins, or really anything non-liquid) into the toilet bowl, because you will cause stress on already overworked pipes and clog the toilet. I once made that mistake and couldn’t show my face in that bar for two months – TWO months! But don’t worry, there will be a NO TIRAR PAPELES AL WC sign affixed somewhere in the room just in case you forget. “We won’t replace the toilet paper for months because we don’t want you to accidentally throw it in the bowl” seems to be every old man bar’s mantra.

bathroom soap in Spain

Soap and paper towels have no place in a  Spanish bathroom either, so even washing your hands can be futile. Alternatives are your jeans, your jacket, or simply walking out of the toilet with wet hands, people moving away from you as if you were covered in blood or leprosy sores. Makes you want to wipe your hands on the bartender’s jeans instead.

And let’s talk briefly about you can only use bathrooms if you’ve had a consumición at the bar? I’ve had to resort to slamming a beer and beelining to the bathroom or ordering a scalding café con leche and have it sit waiting for me as I squatted over yet another shitty (pardon the pun) latrine. Even the holes in the ground in China and Turkey seem more sanitary than the “marvels of modern plumbing” in Iberia.

My first vision of Spain was from a bus that pulled into my study abroad city, Valladolid. I pulled the Iberia blanket off of my head and groggily stared out the window as we stopped at a stoplight. A young mother was holding her child at arm’s length as the little girl let out a steady stream of pis. On the street. In plain daylight. Consumption at a bar be damned, this kid is peeing on a tree.

Pues nada.

This post is a little NSFW, yes, but a constant topic when I’m with my guiri friends. Have any other bathroom gripes to add?

How Billy Madison Memes Perfectly Describe Wedding Planning

Ah, summer. My most favorite season of the year – beach days, sunshine and sleeping in. And sunburns. Always sunburns.

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And then I decided to plan a wedding one summer and get married the next. My leisurely time off of work soon turned into spreadsheets, frantic phone calls and early morning work outs.

On one particularly stressful afternoon, I turned on the TV during a self-mandated wedding time-out. Billy Madison, easily one of the most quotable movies of all time (or else my childhood), was on, and as Billy struggled to make it through Veronica Vaughn’s third grade class, I felt a kinship. He had to stay sane amidst the O’Doyle clan, devious Eric and the penguin, and I have to stay on top of seating charts and meal selections.

As I head into the last stretch of planning and plotting my big day, Billy’s memes are getting me through:

When Dad announces what your wedding budget will be:

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DIY? Please. Caviar taste on a pauper’s budget.

When you find out your date is open at your top-choice venue.

jackpot

The stars align. I’m serious people.

When vendors try and upsell you their confetti machine / ice sculpture of your head / custom cocktails / something else outrageous, and you’re about ready to plug your ears:

stupid answer

Survival of the fittest in wedding land is all about the bottom line, and mine is Nah NO.

When you get too hangry because your wedding diet sucks all of the fun out of lunchtime.

snack pack

Working with small kids and their bounty of delicious snacks is a terrible way to stick to your diet. It’s cruel.

When your wedding “beauty routine” has you second guessing your personal hygiene (and why you should be coloring your grays, getting hydration treatments and going to the gym twice a day):

shampoo is bettter

I hate you knot.com (and myself).

When you find a way to save money and/or time:

smartest man

When you have to address hundreds of save the date postcards, wedding invitations, thank you notes and place cards:

cursive

Shoulda cut down that guest list.

When you get to the “I just don’t care about this anymore” phase:

good great

My thoughts on cake, programs, transportation and all of those details. OVER them.

When you frantically need answers from vendors and no one is answering your calls or emails:

t t t t t t

 

Time zone, people. 

When you’re trying to track down people who haven’t RSVP’d.

guest list

There shall be payback when it’s your turn by way of missing the deadline. Or maybe with your table assignment.

When it’s time for the Bachelorette Party. Bring on the margaritas, y’all:

steve buscemi

I know this is from the Wedding Singer, but Steve Buscemi was in Billy Madison, and it was this or Nudie Magazine Day.

When you leave it up to other people to buy your trosseau:

get it on

I’m sorry, future husband.

When the first meal after taking off your wedding dress is something so terrible for you:

get me a happy meal

Ok, I cheated again, but I also cheated on my wedding diet, so who cares?

This is, of course, all in jest. I’m crazy excited for Saturday and have been trying to take everything in stride. My vendors have been really helpful, my mom has done a bang-up job in my absence, and my Type A personality has disappeared (well, except when it comes to creating schedules!). 

Onto married life!

Kotor Revisited, and How to Deal with a Travel Slump

Kotor was moody and fickle. Storm clouds – dark and heavy – threatened to ruin our hike, but midway up the mountain, the temperature had surged five degrees, leaving me sweaty for a picture proclaiming I’d reached my 30th country.

MEXICO

But, joder, she was worth the wait.

I’ve always traveled with a heightened sense of awareness – most notably, with my five senses. I can nearly savor the fried grasshoppers in Beijing or hear the call to prayer in Marrakesh (maybe those are just the annoying church bells at my local parish). In Kotor, though, I felt nearly numb to anything else but sight.

Emerald water and beet red roofs contrasted the ominous grey mountains that wrapped around the bay and the slate houses. Small boats bobbed as the waters lulled and lapped against the port. The mountains seemed hung from the sky.

picturesque Montenegro

Our road trip around Europe’s newest country had very loose rules. From our base in Herceg-Novi, we spent a few days doing our normal travel thing:  wake up, drive the car around until something pretty caught our eye, gorge on cevapi sandwiches and local beers (and the addictive JOST! snacks). 

The weather turned from bad to worse as we descended on Montenegro via Dubrovnik, including a hail storm and power outage once we reacher Herceg-Novi on empty stomachs. Each day, we’d simply drive out of town on the main road, keeping the Bay of Kotor on the right hand side of the vehicle and tick towns off the map: Perast, Tivat, Budva.

Fog over Kotor Montenegro

The undisputed jewel of the Montenegran Adriatic is Kotor. An unblemished Old Town, traces of Venetian, Ottoman and Napoleanic prowess and a varied population make it a popular destination and UNESCO World Heritage city.

2013 was a red-letter one for me as a professional and as a traveler, but only now, two years after our trip, do I feel like I found Kotor to stir up some weird feelings in me.

Historic Center of Kotor

Arriving in the early morning, we were told to take the stairs out of town that led to the old fortifications and a smattering of old Via Crucis and roadside temples. The 1350 steps were steep and the humidity hung heavy over our heads. Layer by layer, I took off my scarf and blazer as we climbed closer towards the castle and the gradually lightening sky.

Always privy to climb to the highest point of any given city to see it from above, Kotor didn’t disappoint. I probably blinked a few times. Like Dubrovnik, the views were storybook, like something I’d seen on social media and had dreamed up. 

The Bay of Kotor and mountains

The rain held off enough, but the dark clouds of the morning seemed to have cleared up in the sky, but were beginning to cloud my thoughts. I took my obligatory picture at the top, under a red flag emblazoned with a black eagle. Thirty countries, jaw-dropping views…and I was rather blasé about it.

Back in town, we tucked into a cheap local beer and greasy pizza slices before wandering the small but stunning well preserved old town. I can’t recall many details from the afternoon, save the pristine city streets juxtaposed with the jagged rock face of the surrounding mountains, the cats leaping onto café chairs, the domes of the Orthodox churches. My sight prevailed, but I failed to catalogue sounds or smells or even a local taste.

Nothing exciting, nothing unordinary, nothing particularly great or not great describes my day in Kotor, and even the way I’m beginning to feel about travel.

Historic Kotor, Croatia

Kotor marked a beginning and an end, in a way. Since I was 20, I’d longed to travel to world and learn a language or two. I told myself 25 by 25 would suffice, and pulling into an abandoned bus terminal in Prague at the break of dawn before my 25th birthday meant I’d have to rethink my goal.

Afterwards came Romania, Turkey, Andorra, and Montenegro (and then Slovakia and India), and I surpassed that goal before turning 28. A beginning to more mature travel and an end to constant moving.

Boats on the Bay of Kotor

I’ll be 30 in less than two months, with a mortgage and a new husband to boot. Travel hasn’t lost its sheen completely, but my preferred web sites are decidedly devoid of budget airline sites. I still get delight out of pinning places and reading blog posts about travel gear and news apps and far-flung destinations, but I’ve strangely not had much urge to travel.

A close friend asked me recently about my upcoming travel plans and I realized I hadn’t been on a plane sine January, and that was to Barcelona. That my airline miles on AA had expired from disuse. That my rolling suitcase had collected dust. I’m not packing up my passport, but then again, I’m not 100% certain as to its whereabouts.

St Tryphon Cathedral Montenegro

Since money again became a concern after the house (those things cost a lot of money to maintain – who knew?), my trips have been limited to weekends and any place I can reach by car. That’s meant a bachelorette party in Málaga, a solo hike on the Caminito del Rey, scattered weekends in Madrid or San Nicolás. For someone ready to comerse el mundo, it’s a weird – albeit welcome – feeling.

Back in Kotor, we bought and wrote postcards, sipped free beers as we checked our emails and caught up on Facebook, occasionally popping into a shop or craning our necks for a photo. But, as a destination, it garnered a mere, ‘meh.’

Shutters in the center of Kotor

I didn’t have any profound or life-shattering epiphanies upon reaching my 30th country before turning 30, just as I didn’t find enlightenment in India (just a stomach virus and a love for tuk tuks) nor did I figure out the meaning of life on the Camino de Santiago. For the woman who vowed to never feel tied down, I found that I needed a limit, a destination that failed to wow me, a place that made me choose how to spend my money. Kotor was undeniably beautiful, but lacked spark. 

I have no big trips on the horizon, and even our post-wedding road trip to New Orleans is an afterthought for me. Walking back over the Triana bridge on a balmy late spring night, I felt tears fill my eyes as the sun was setting. The gentle buzz of traffic, the smell of churro grease, the cobblestones under my feet.

As it turns out, my senses feel most alert in the very place I live, so I think I’ll be sticking around here for a while.

Have you ever experienced a travel slump? How did you overcome it?

Expat Life Then and Now: My Seven Year Spaniversary

I can’t clearly remember my first days in Spain. Between the jet lag, the whirlwind tour of the Iberian Peninsula with my grandmother and the nagging thoughts and regrets, it didn’t fully hit me that I had up and moved to Spain to teach English until nearly three weeks after my plane touched down on September 13th, 2007.

Cue my Jessie Spano moment once Helen was boarded on a plane back to the Motherland.

I was terrified to start a life in Span alone, barely 22 and not proficient in Spanish. Every challenge – from getting my residency card to remembering how to separate the trash – seemed to come with a mountain of self-doubt. Que Dios bendiga my bilingual Spanish roommate and my bilingual coordinator for helping me through those rough first weeks.

My first year in Spain seems like it was both so far in the past and like it was last year. I met Lucía and Valle, old coworkers from Olivares, last week for dinner, and the piropos rolled in – You look more womanly. You and the Novio seem to be a balanced couple. WAIT you and the Novio are still together? And you’re getting married?! And there’s a HOUSE in the mix!?

My, my you’ve come a long way (proof is below, as far as flamenco dresses are concerned).

Seven years is a long time, leches!

WORK then: auxiliar de conversación // now: director of studies

When I first arrived to Seville, I worked at a high school in nearby Olivares as a language assistant. For the first time, I was deviating from my goal of becoming a magazine journalist, and I’d have to do a job I had no experience in. Actually, in having a teacher for a mother, I swore I’d never run a classroom.

My job in Olivares was fun – I was respected by my coworkers and students, and found I was actually considering teaching as a vocation. After three years, I was given the equivalent of a pink slip and thanked for my participation in the auxiliar program.

Faced with no job prospects, no magic paperwork solutions and no money in my bank account, I thought I’d be done for in Spain, but both a loophole in Spanish law and a school desperate for a native speaker fell into my lap in one week, thus launching my career in teaching.

The longer I do it, the more I love it. In fact, I’ve turned down a few job offers in favor of my current job, directing the academic side of a small academy in town. I still have contact hours and get my kiddie cuddles fix daily, but not enough to leave my voice ragged and my nerves frayed at the end of the week.

SIDE JOBS then: student tour guide and tutor // now: freelance writing and voiceovers + entrepreneur

I came overly optimistic that my money would stretch forever in Spain – and it did, but only because I saved up a ton of green by working two jobs and cashing in a scholarship. But as someone who despises boredom, I needed to find something to do midday other than siesta.

Doing research for an article about volunteering abroad brought me to We Love Spain, a then baby student tourism company. I began asking questions about what the company did and where the trips took them, and was offered an internship as a PR rep. Let’s be clear – PR like you learn in journalism school doesn’t prepare you for Spanish PR. I spent time passing out flyers and making phone calls, but got to know my city and a lot of people through WLS. We amicably went our separate ways when I realized I wasn’t making enough money to support my travel and tapas habits.

I tutored up until last year as a way to make some quick money, but as my professional network grows, it’s hard to find time to commit to biking around Seville and giving homework help.

Nowadays, I fill my mornings with more than sleeping until a late hour and lazing around the house (me and lazy can only be used together if it’s post-work week, and even then, it’s a stretch). I do freelance work in both writing and translating, record children’s stories for iPads and tablets, and am getting a business up and running, COMO Consulting Spain.

Even during my ‘summer vacation’ I found time to plan half a wedding and co-author an eBook about Moving to Spain.

Hustlers gonna hustle, after all.

LIVING SITUATION then: shared flat in Triana // now: homeowner in Triana

The 631€ I earned as a language assistant my first year didn’t go too far each month, and paying rent was my first order of business with every paycheck I got. Turning down a room with a balcony right under the shadow of the Giralda when I first arrived, I ended up in a shared flat in Triana with two other girls – a Spaniard and a German.

 

Living in shared accommodation is one thing, but when you add in another couple of languages and cultures, things can get complicated. I thankfully escaped to the Novio’s nearly every night before moving all of my stuff and my padrón to his house. Four years later, I moved back to Triana with my name on the deed and way poorer. 

SOCIAL LIFE then: bars, discos and botellón // now: bottles of wine and the occasional gin tonic

Working twelve hours a week allowed me to explore other interests, like a flamenco class and loads of travel, as well as left me with two new hobbies: drinking beer and eating tapas. But that didn’t come easily – I actually had many lonely weeks where I’d do little more but work, sleep and walk around the city to stave off boredom.

Once I did make friends, though, life become a non-stop, tinto-de-verano-infused party. My first few years in Spain may have been chaotic, but they were a lot of fun!

Alcohol – particularly beer and wine – is present at meals, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have beer with lunch before returning to work. When I studied abroad at 19, I’d have to beg my host family not to top off my glass with wine every night at dinner, or remind them that I didn’t want Bailey’s in my coffee. But as soon as I met the Novio, he’d order me a beer with lunch and dinner, despite my request for water. 

Now, most of my social plans are earlier in the evening, involve far less botellóns and garrafón, and leave me feeling better the next day. I sometimes get nostalgic for those nights that ended with churros at 7am, and then remember that I have bills and can’t drink like a college kid anymore. I still maintain my love for beer, but hearty reds or a crisp gin and tonic are my drinks of choice when I go out with friends.

SPANISH SKILLS then: poquísimo // now: C1+

To think that I considered myself proficient in Spanish when I moved to Seville. I couldn’t understand the Andalusian accent, which is riddled with idioms and missing several syllables, despite studying abroad in the cradle of modern Spanish. My roommates and I only spoke to one another in English, and I was so overcome by the Novio’s ability to speak three foreign languages, that I sheepishly admitted to my parents that I’d let myself down on the Spanish front when they came to visit at Christmas.

I buckled down and began working towards fluency. I made all of the mistakes a novice language learning makes, including have to put my foot in my mouth on numerous occasions, but it has stuck. In November 2011, I sat the DELE Spanish exam, passing the C1, or Advanced, exam. I then one-upped myself by doing a master’s entirely in Spanish the following year.

I’d say I now speak an even amount of English and Spanish because of my line of work and my choice to have English-speaking friends.

FUTURE PLANS then: learn Spanish and travel a whole bunch // get married, decorate a house and start a bilingual family

A college friend put it best this summer when the Novio and I celebrated our engagement. He told me all of our friends thought I was insane for passing up a job at a news radio station in Chicago to go to Spain to teach, and that I’d made it work.  I can clearly remember the stab of regret that I had when I boarded the plane, the moments of confusion as I navigated being an adult and doing so in Spanish, of missing home and friends and hot dogs and baseball.

But here I am, seven years later, grinning as I remember how different my life was, but that I grabbed life by the horns and made Seville my own. I’d say I’d surprised myself, but I would expect nothing less.

Now that I’m planning a bilingual wedding, dealing with the woes of homeownership and starting a company, I realize my goals are still in line with those I had long before I decided to move to Spain. In the end, my life isn’t so radically different from 2007, just more polished and mature.

Reflections of My Years in Spain – Año Cuatro / Cinco / Seis / Making the choice to live abroad

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