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.

What Every Expat in Spain Should Know: Nine Skills to Celebrate Nine Years in Iberia

For me, moving to Spain in September 2007 was a baby step into a life abroad. I had studied abroad here, aced all but one of my college Spanish courses and was open to the experience of living abroad in Sevilla and making it work, no matter how homesick I got for my family, English language TV and Cheez-its.

Baby steps. This would be easy.

Well, “this would be easy” was my mindset before I actually got here and realized I had no idea how to adult, let alone how to adult in another language and country where long lines, 902 numbers and being subject to the mood of whoever was attending you became a daily reality.

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My first year in Spain was equal parts new discoveries and new headaches, learning the language and learning how to cope with, um, Spain in general. The second year was easier, logistics-wise, but I wrestled with whether or not I wanted to stay in Spain any longer or return to the US. The learning curve was still steep and continues to be as I propose new professional goals and look forward to becoming a mamá for the first time. Even as life in Spain gets easier, I sympathize with new expats who are mostly clueless. We are all @GuiriBS.

That was me one balmy September in 2007. While there are loads of small skills you learn after a bit of time (like that those clunky 2€ coins actually are worth something and how to walk right through a wall of unwanted piropos), but some are a bit more savvy and take time time to refine.

To celebrate my ninth Spaniversary of living in Spain, every expat should know these nine hacks:

How to convert to the Metric System

Ojú, 40 grados mañana.

Why even download a weather app when your husband is addicted to the telediario every afternoon at 3:25pm? I don’t know the exact temperature in 40 Celcius is in Farenheit… just really, really warm.

If you’re an American (or, for that matter, from Myanmar or Liberia) abroad, you’re probably clueless about how to convert the Metric System into the other measurement system. I’m still learning and perfecting my memory tricks (my math skills can’t divide and then add any faster than my phone apps), but here’s how I’ve learned:

The temprature. 10 degrees is cold, 30 degrees is uncomfortably hot, and 25 degrees is – Goldilocks style – juuuuust right. I usually remember that 25 degrees is a nice 77°.

Weight and Height. I have snowboarded since I was a kid, and the because the measurements come in centimeters, rather than feet and inches, I simply add 20 centimeters onto the snowboard’s length when asked for my height. As for weight? I oscillate between 60 and 62, and prefer that low number to my weight in pounds.

The problem? Electronics come in inches, called pulgadas. Or, maybe that’s not an issue for you.

Liquids. Still working on this one, especially when the gas prices read 1.02€ for diesel but filling up my car, Pequeño Monty, costs more than I spend on insurance, bike repairs and a metro pass, combined.

Speed and distance. I worked exactly ten miles away from Sevilla during my first years as a language assistant. While I sat on a bus and read, my coworker biked the 16 kilometers to the school. Now that I drive, 120 kilometers on the highway (the speed limit on freeways) means an hour, which has become my marker.

So I round numbers up and down a bit, ok?

How to buy European clothing sizes

Differences in length and height and width means that shopping became an adventure, too. And don’t forget that not all European sizes are different – Italy, the UK and the rest of Europe have slight differences, evident by several numbers on the size tag. My biggest complaint has been that most jeans are far too long for my shrimpy legs, which makes zero sense since Spanish women, on the whole, are shorter than me.

my flamenco dress 2014

Finding your sizes in Europe takes a great deal of trying on, discarding and ignoring the tags. What is a dress or pants size 8 in America could be a M and anywhere between a 38 and 42 in Spain (and that’s not taking length into account), whereas a shirt at Zara that’s a medium may need to be a large at Lefties – and they’re the same company.

En fin.

Shoes are an entirely different story – and an easier one! I wear a size 8 in the US, which is a clavado 39. My only problem is that I am useless in heels.

The only great equalizer in the Spanish fashion world is the traje de gitana. You are a size 40, trust me.

How to travel around Spain

I inherited my dad’s love of beer, healthy doses of adventure and his nose. He also passed along his intrinsic skill of budget travel, and even though I’ve moved out of the phase in my life where overnight buses and questionable hostel beds are acceptable, so long as they’re in the sake of traveling further, and I’ve seen a good chunk of Europe thanks to it.

Spain is full of cool things to see, do and experience, from tomato slinging festivals to jaw-dropping road trips to hidden beaches and charming small towns. Unless you have a car (and enough money to cover the liters of gas… see above), you’re got to stick to public transportation or ride shares.

Thankfully, traveling around Spain can be done on the cheap. To fully take advantage, check out Bla Bla Car for ride sharing (or share your trip – I took three others to Valencia for Fallas and had the gas paid for), sign up for budget airline newsletters for special offers and loyalty programs and buy your RENFE train tickets three months in advance or share a table of four.

You can also take advantage of long weekends – nearly one a month! – and local holidays to maximize your time to be desconectado. And don’t shrug off places that are a bit tougher to get to, as those are usually the places with encanto.

How to speak a bit of Spanish

When my parents first came to visit me over the Christmas holidays, they begged me to order food for them. I’d been pinching the euros of my measly paycheck by subsiding off of frozen pizzas and spaghetti and could barely recommend a nice place to eat, let alone dissect a menu. It was a lot of, “I think that’s fish” and, “It’s a pig part that you probably won’t like” to a family that eats with their eyes.

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That was the turning point for me – I told my new boyfriend that he’d have to start speaking to me in Spanish, and despite the frustrations and tears and utter confusion with andalú, I consider learning Spanish to be one of my proudest achievements.

There’s no need to be fluent after nine years, but I firmly believe that knowing Spanish makes life in Spain richer. It’s easier to interact with locals, particularly outside of cities, and there’s a wealth of cultural nuances that I’ve learned and come to love because of it.

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People often ask me how to learn Spanish, and I wish I had an easy answer. Mine was a healthy dose of not caring about making mistakes, talking to anyone who would listen, reading books and noting down new words and expressions and calming my nerves with a few cervecitas. You could also try signing up for classes – I liked my audited classes at Sevilla Habla a lot – or apps, and the Ultimate Spanish Practice and Review was my Bible for months, but nothing beats swapping stories with an abuelito at your corner bar.

How to do a reclamación

You haven’t really lived in Spain until you’ve logged an official complaint. You know all of those signs in restaurants, shops and pharmacies that say “Queda a la disposición un libro de reclamaciones” or something to that effect?

The first time I ever suggested using it was when I felt a friend had been treated poorly at a public hospital. The nurse who had effectively called her an irresponsible harlot was disciplined, and I soon found out that making a formal complaint is often synonymous with getting ‘er done. Bad service at a restaurant means I’ll refuse the offer of a free meal in favor of letting the boss know a waiter has been snide (as if never going back weren’t punishment enough),  and the Novio even once got 12€ from Bricomart after they sold him two faulty ceiling fans.

Cruzcampo Bar Sign

The best I’ve ever done is two in a span of 12 hours – the first over the phone when the energy company Iberdrola decided we had an emergency to fix at midnight and promptly began drilling when I was fast asleep, then the following morning at my health clinic for terrible service after being told here were no doctors in the month of August because babies weren’t born in August (I showed my TIE card as proof that, yes, babies come during the Pan-European vacation month, too).

But I don’t do it to prove a point or because I’m a demanding customer: when my family’s bags were lost last Christmas and ended up in Phoenix instead of Sevilla, I asked them to be sent to my house via courier. I was informed that Iberia didn’t have a courier to take them to my house, and the customer service rep urged me to fill out a reclamación form so that the company would realize the importance of the service. I fill out reclamaciones so that everyone else can benefit from better services.

How to deal with things back home

It’s now easier than ever to stay in touch with loved ones back home, despite the time difference, but what about all of the extras? The money matters, bills, sending packages and prescriptions? Though I’ve gradually let go of many of those things (just not Cheez-its), I can’t bring myself to uproot entirely, even at risk of FACTA sanctions and double taxation.

Spanish potato omelette

The USA seemed even further across the Atlantic than it does now. Thanks to online everything, I can move money or order English language books for cheap; when I came to Spain in 2007, I was barely toeing the line of calling myself a resident of Spain – I saw nine months as a brief foray into expat life, so I got a year’s prescription of my pills, pared down my shoes and sweaters and even traveled northern Europe without a jacket because, why waste valuable suitcase space? My biggest complaints in those early days was not being able to EuroHack or sometimes cope with a lack of American products.

And there were little things – an American style measuring cup, my deodorant and gym shoes that didn’t cost a week’s worth of private class hustle.

Nine years on, I only own a few American-bought appliances and clothing items, and I’ve found ways to just toe the line of American life. But more than that, I’ve had to take many of my “adult” things online, especially credit card payments, sending money abroad cheaply, banking and maintaining our savings accounts in an American bank. Make sure that you especially know how to keep your phone number, deal with money and credit card or mortgage payments, and take care of all of your issues at home.

2008 Elections

And, no matter what a Spaniard says, sending thank you notes or greeting cards never goes out of style (and I always have a stock!).  Plus, Madrid is a mecca of American everything – original version films, American brands and even a Five Guys and a Steak n’ Shake. Our British counterparts have Boots pharmacies and Dealz, a version of Pounds. Globalization isn’t always a bad thing, but when you’re majorly homesick…?

How to deal with red tape

Seville’s Plaza de España is the first place I lusted after in Sevilla. It’s regal and striking, particularly at sunset.

But at sunrise when you’re lining up for a residency card petition? The colonnades and the moat lose their sheen – believe me. Spaniards invented reed tape, and while I’m sure it doesn’t compare to Italy or the US, it’s a necessary headache as an expat in Spain, me temo. It’s inefficient and slow, prompting the famous line, las cosas del palacio van despacio. And if you’re non-EU, the process becomes even further clotted by translations, notarizations and multiple appointments.

By the time this video was passed around expat groups, I’d already formulated my extranjería hack skills and there were significant improvements in the way that many steps, such as an appointment system and online status checking, could be handled. But it’s not just the foreigner’s office that operates on its own scheduled – the Novio is a government worker and often has his paychecks come late, and let’s not forget the first time I applied for unemployment, when a worker was literally napping on her desk. Fear not, fellow guiris – even the locals are victims.

My tips: bring five photocopies of each, arrive after coffee and be extra friendly. I once made friends with a frowny face worker in the Hacienda office by asking about his Betis ashtray. Ever since I stopped rolling my eyes and learned to change my attitude (and bring a book), it’s been easier to deal with the lines, the wait times and the mechanical responses from the civil servants. And Plaza de España is now beautiful again.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

But I still think that the autorización de regreso is a scam to earn 13€ while the extranjería takes its sweet time in issuing your residency card renewal.

How to cope when your friends leave

Back in the days when Spain was but a brief life interlude, I never turned down an invitation out for tapas or a drink, and found myself adding Facebook friends left and right – it was the adult equivalent of leaving your dorm room door open, after all. Even when homesickness threatened to have me retreat to my piso with a box of Magnum Minis, it was easy to give someone a toque and meet them at the corner bar for a coffee.

Feliz Ano Nuevo!!

The following year, the Novio was sent abroad to work for two months, right after we’d spent the whole summer apart. I nearly forgot the sound of his voice and was nervous that I’d plunge right back into the Magnum mini binge. So, I forced myself to make new friends, and to try and invert my time into friends who will be sticking around for the long-term. There’s always a cycle – people come and go, and this is a hallmark of expat life.

This doesn’t mean it’s easy.

spanish american girls at the feria de sevilla

Friends leaving is HARD, and my merry little band of guiri girlfriends in Seville went from six to three in the span of two months. Two friends that I made early on left the country – one for the US and the other for Indonesia – right when I was packing up for Madrid. And they’re not the only ones. My Sevilla dream team spans these nine years, from the one who adopted me as her wing woman and promptly introduced me to the Novio, to the one born in the wrong country whose musings on sevillano life, four years after leaving, reach straight to my heart. And who could forget the night we all bought matching underwear from a vending machine after rapping Eminem?

I miss those faces and our antics all the time, and I’m not sure I’ve completely superado this slice of expat life.

What helps me cope is knowing that every single one of them has made the decision that was best in that moment, and that Sevilla will always be ours.

How to grin and bear it

The successful marketing campaign, “Spain is different,” is oft repeated by Spaniards and guiris alike. It’s true – many things in Spain seem to function without any rhyme or reason, and I’m still taken aback by the clash of the vanguard and the antiquated often.

cat gaa at the feria de sevilla

Spain is, indeed, different, and not all places in Spain are created the same. Perhaps that’s why I love it so much, and why my visitors love it on the surface, too. For all of the headaches and eye rolls and “I HATE SPAIN” days, I feel challenged, mostly fulfilled and like I ended up in a country that has welcomed me with dos besos and a squeeze on the shoulders. I have learned to grin and bear it and love it, despite its faults and my desperation, at times.

Nine years ago this September, I got off a plane and stepped into a world where Spanish was my language weapon and every day presented a new desafío, from figuring out how to navigate a bus system to conquering the crippling bureaucratic maze to remembering why and for whom I came in the first place.

Who knows where we’ll be in a few years. With the first of likely several babies on the way and the Novio with ganas to have his own adventure abroad, I may not have many Spaniversaries left. But pase lo que pase, every September 13th is a special day for me when I remember how good Spain has been to me. And it extends far beyond the riqueza of the lifestyle – I sappily believe that this place has shaped me in a positive way. I’m excited to raise a family here and to continue being surprised by what Spain offers.

Spain wins the 2010 World Cup

And if the first nine years is any indication, my 30s is going to be a pretty awesome decade, too!

If you’ve lived abroad before, would you add anything to this list? Please share in the comments below!

I’ve included my affiliate link for Transferwise, a safe way to send money from abroad, in my post. I get a small commission if you use it, but I wouldn’t link it if I didn’t use it and love it myself! The money I earn from this blog helps maintain the site, and I appreciate your collaboration!

Seville, I’m breaking up with you

Querida Sevilla mía,

You know that age-old, “It’s not you, it’s me”? Well, it’s not me. Eres tú. We’ve reached the end of a nine-year relationship, one marked with uncertainty at the beginning, with as much elation as frustration in the years since we became intimate. And más pronto que tarde, I knew we’d end up here.

Te estoy dejando.

giralda sunset1

My friend Stacy maintains that the first Spaniard you fall for is never the one you stay with – it’s always the second. If Spanish lovers were cities, you’d be my second great love, my second Spaniard. Two years before we got to know each other, Valladolid entered my life. Stately and daunting, but a romance that was always a little off. Castilla y León’s capital never did it for me, a bit too cold and a bit too stand-offish to be anything long-term. Neither the castles nor the robust red wine could woo me, but it was a foray into what it meant to truly love a city.

You and I met on a sweltering July day in 2005, your characteristic heat baking midday as I dragged a suitcase towards Calle Gravina. Back then, the Alameda was all albero, you could drive down Constitution and around the roundabout at Puerta Jerez and there was a noticeable lack of skyscrapers, gastrobars and coffee houses. On the surface, you were beautiful, but I pined for Valladolid, not entirely convinced you were boyfriend material.

tapas bodeguita romero typical Spanish tavern

Two years later, we were thrust together again. Still sore from being flat-out rejected by Granada, I set out to try and get to know you on a Sunday evening in late September when everything was shuttered. Walking down Pagés del Coro, I craned my neck to watch the swallows dip between the balconies and around the spire of La Estrella chapel.

Swallows, golondrinas, always return to where they’re from. Even at that moment, exhausted from two weeks traveling and unsure about starting my job the next morning at IES Heliche, I knew I had returned to where I was to be from. In those tender first steps in our relationship, I was smitten. I would soon fall deeply in love with you.

Plaza del Altozano Triana

But today, nine years later, I ripped the band aid off, and HARD. I just up and left it seems, without time for long goodbyes at all of the places I’ve come to haunt in these years together, to the hundreds of caras I’ve come to know in the barrio. No ugly cries, just a few tears pricking my eyes as I locked up my house, rolled one suitcase to the bus stop and headed towards Santa Justa and, later, Madrid.

Like I said, it’s you, not me.

I guess you could say I saw this coming, like that little ball that sits low in your stomach when you know life is going to darte un giro in a big, big way. I needed that giro because you’d simply gotten to easy. I can understand even the oldest abuelo buried deep into one of your old man bars, can no longer get lost in your tangle of streets. You are a comfortable lover, warm and welcoming, familiar and comforting.

But I’m not one to be estancada, stagnant, comfortable. Walking down La Castellana in March, the ball in my stomach dissipated as I skipped from a job interview back towards Atocha. The trees were bare, but the sky was the same bright blue that always welcomes me in Seville. As they say, de Madrid al cielo. Madrid was calling.

Sunshine and Siestas at the Feria de Abril

Sevilla, you’ve been more than good to me, giving me just about everything I’ve ever needed. You’re easy on the eyes, fiery and passionate, deeply sensual and surprising. You’ve shown me the Spain I always wanted to find, even between castles and tintos de Ribera del Duero and my first impression of Spain. You’ve reignited my love for culture, for making strangers my friends, for morning beers and for living in the moment. You changed me for the better.

And you will always be that second great love, te lo prometo. Triana will always be my home.

But you’ve just gotten too small. My dreams and ambitions are too big for your pueblo feel, as much as I’ve come to love it. Your aesthetic beauty continues to enchant me as I ride my bike past the cathedral at twilight or I leave extranjería and am not even mad that my least favorite place in Seville is also one of my favorites. Your manjares are no match for the sleek pubs and international food in Madrid, which I know I’ll grow tired of.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

I admit that it was difficult to reach your core, to understand the way you are and learn to appreciate those nuances. At the beginning, it was all new and fun and boisterous, the out-loud way that you live each day, those directionless afternoons and long, raucous nights. Lunches that stretch into breakfast. Balmy evenings, Cruzcampo in hand. Festival after procession after traffic jam. Unforgettable sunsets. Unannounced rain showers. Biting cold and scalding heat. You are a city of extremes and mood swings, for sure, but you’re at your best that way. You are as passionate as they say you are.

Still, there were frustrations with the language, that lazy way that you “forget” letters and entire syllables. Frustrations with getting around and untangling the back alleys of your deepest barrios. Frustrations navigating the choque between our two cultures and figuring out a way to make it work for nearly a decade. There was a lot of give and take, that’s for sure.

my first feria de abril

And that’s not to say you haven’t changed for the better in these nine years together.

You’re more guiri-friendly, easier to get around and constantly coming up with ways to reinvent yourself without losing what makes you, . Even when I rolled by eyes at the Setas, I found the best views from its waffle-like towers. You always find a way to stay true to yourself, even if that means having to take the long way home when the streets are choked with a procession or if I call the Ayuntamiento and they send my call from office to office without ever getting through to an actual human.

But those same things that I once loved have become annoyances as we’ve gotten more comfortable with one another. Some of it is trivial, lo sé, but in the bigger scheme of things, we need time apart. Room to breathe, to try new things. I can’t get everything I need from you right now, Seville, y ya está. I know the decision was quick and may have its repercussions, but it’s what I have to do right now if we ever want a chance again.

Expat in Seville Cat Gaa

Madrid presents so many new possibilities. I scoffed at the idea of living there and opening myself up to loving it, but it will never be you. In fact, I think it will be like Valladolid, a tough nut to crack and one whose true character I may never know the way that I know you.

I’ll look for you in the bares de viejos, in a sevillano passing by wearing a Betis t-shirt, in the way that the Madrid gatos will laugh at my accent or look puzzled when I ask for a copistería or a cervecita. You’ll probably follow me around, to be honest. You were never one to let go lightly.

I love Seville Heart Necklace

This morning, as I drove over the San Telmo bridge towards Triana, the swallows returned. It was already a warm July morning, maybe even eleven years to the day since I first felt the breeze over the Guadalquivir. Eres un amor para toda la vida, Sevilla. Maybe in three or five years’ time, we’ll find ourselves back together, a bit more mature and ready for a new stage in our relationship. You’ll have changed, I have no doubt, and so will I.

But if the golondrinas are any indication, volveré. It’s the natural course.

Con todo mi cariño,

Cat

Wondering about my absence the past two months? I’ve been back and forth on the AVE, making trips to Madrid for job interviews, spending time alone with Sevilla and even squeezed in a ten-day trip to the US for my sister’s wedding. On July 3rd, 2016 – coincidentally the same day I applied for my visa for Spain in 2007 – the Novio and I officially moved to Madrid. I’ll start a job in a few weeks as an admissions counselor at a prestigious American university with a campus in the heart of La Capi. Adiós, teaching – never thought I’d see the day!!

No time for complatency

Will I like Madrid? I’m positive I will. Will I love it? Not in the same way that I love Seville, but the Novio and I have big plans for the next few years, and Seville was simply too small for our career ambitions. I’m not entirely sure how the scope of Sunshine and Siestas, a blog that has largely been about Andalucía, will change, but you can count on my voice coming through! 

I’m curious to hear your reactions to the news, which I’ve managed to keep surprisingly quiet! Not even sure I believe it myself!

Chasing Don Quixote: a Detour through Castilla-La Mancha

Bueno, Castilla-La Mancha isn’t exactly known for its long, winding highways,” Inmaculada said, dragging her fingertip across the screen of her mobile phone six consecutive times as the car pointed towards Valencia. It had been nearly 100 kilometers since I’d had to even move the steering wheel for anything other than overtaking.

Literally called the scorch or the stain in Spanish, La Mancha may not be famous for its roads, but it is renowned for two things: Don Quixote and Manchego cheese. Resting comfortably on top of Andalucía and cradled between Madrid and Valencia, its size and its small towns have intimidated me. Everything seemed a bit archaic, a bit sleepy and, mostly, a bit unreachable without a car and an extra-long weekend.

windmills and Don Quijote

Stretching out on either side of the highway as I drove Inmaculada and Jaime to Valencia was land. Sand. Barely a glimpse of a small town. Like any other Spanish student, we were made to read Quixote in high school and made a point of paying homage to a fictional knight bound by the ideals of chivalry and true love. But the landscapes I’d read about in Cervantes’s greatest novel were nothing but  flat and brown. A literal scorch of earth, true to the region’s name.

Three days later, I left the coast, shoes and jacket blackened from Las Fallas, and tilted back towards the heart of Castilla-La Mancha. The great hidalgo‘s “giants” were only a few hours away. I took my old, tired car, an allusion to the old, tired steer, Rocinante, with me.

The drive should have been easy enough: the Autovía de Este until it met the Autovía del Sur and a few minutes’ drive west to Consuegra, where eight or ten windmills stand guard on a jagged crest of mountain, crowned by a medieval castle.

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is nobel, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.

Per Trevor’s suggestion, I wanted to stop first in Alcázar de San Juan, home to a number of beautifully restored windmills that wouldn’t be run over with tourists. Spit out from the Contreras Reservoir that naturally separates La Mancha from the Comunitat Valenciana, the radio frequency suddenly switched to a CD, and soon the Eagles (could there be a more perfect band for a road trip?) were running through my stereo.

I calculated I had enough gas and my bladder could make it the 200 kilometers to San Juan. It was an easy jaunt on the A-3 until Tomelloso, where I’d hop onto the CM-42.

Maybe it was the Eagles or the long, flat, endless journey down the motorway, but I turned onto the wrong highway at Atalaya del Cañavate. As someone who uses landmarks to mark the way, the names of towns, echoing old battlegrounds and ruined castles, began to seem foreign. Stopping in Alamarcha, my phone confirmed what I’d suspected for several dozen kilometers: I’d gotten myself lost.

But the giants were calling, and I wasn’t too far off the path. Monty-nante roared back to life, I turned up the music and rolled down the windows. We set off, a girl and her horsepower, to slay giants. Or, take some pictures of windmills before lunch. The allusions end there for a bit, lo prometo.

Like our Quixotic hero, I blinked hard to make sure I was seeing what lay ahead. As soon as I’d gotten on the CM-420, the long, straight highways became curls around hills, between cherry and almond groves and without a soul or engine in sight. The brown patches of earth were immediately lush and covered in alfalfa, dewey from the previous day’s rain, and full of low, stout grapevines. I pulled over and turned off my GPS, happy to sit in near silence as Monty’s tires shifted effortlessly around curves. After all, this was as adventurous as my Holy Week travels would be.

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

I began climbing a hill at what I believed to be halfway to San Juan. Just below the cusp, I saw the stationary arm of a giant – a set of windmills protect the town of Mota del Cuervo. We nudged our way towards them, standing in a solitary row of six or eight.

Windmills in Castilla

molinos at mota del cuervo, la mancha

Windmill landscape

The tourism office was closed and my car was the only one parked in the ample gravel lot. I had the giants to myself, and I practically squealed. Lately I’ve been feeling jaded as I travel in Spain, as if nothing else can ever impress me the way that laying eyes on the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal did; but feeling the wind whip by my ears as I looked across the scorched Manchego plain reminded me that, yes, there is still plenty of Spain to discover.

But I had to press on, to not let perception or kilometers or a low phone battery squash my dream of seeing Consuegra when I was this close. I drove right past San Juan and its beautiful windmills atop an olive tree grove crawling up the hillside. As soon as I’d crossed the A-4 highway some 40 kilometers later, the giants at Consuegra began to come into view, huddled around a castle.

windmills in my rearview mirror

The town itself was dusty and sleepy, as I’d expected. Streets had no names, rendering my GPS useless. Monty chugged slowly up the steep, barely-meter wide streets as old women swept street porches and clung to their door frames. Images of the old hidalgo became commonplace – bars named Chispa and La Panza de Sancho, souvenir shops touting wooden swords and images of windmills and an old warrior atop a barebones steed.

Rounding the final curve, a man waved his arms up and down, pleading me to stop and flagging me into a full parking lot. “It’s International Poetry Day,” he said, “and the molinos are closed to car traffic.” Closing my eyes and throwing the car into reverse, I consulted the day’s plan. After getting lost twice and being pulled over by a Guardia Civil, I had to make a decision: resign myself to hiking 500 meters up to the windmills as the clouds closed in ahead, or drive back down towards Andalucía for a winery tour in Valdepeñas.

I chose to buy a bottle of wine in the DO and call it a day. I had dreams and bucket list items to chase.

The windmills were barely visible, save a few solitary blades reaching over the rock face. After an entire morning searching for them, it was like they had stopped spinning, as if the proverbial wind had been blown out of my sails. And coupled with a bus full of tourists, they just didn’t have the wonder that the molinos and my moment of silence at Mota del Cuervo had.

Even the clouds overhead looked menacing and about to burst.

Panoramica molinos de Consuegra

Windmills at Consuegra

I hiked to the farthest point from the castle, to windmills bearing less common names and without selfie-stick toting tourists resting on the stoops. These windmills were decidedly less picturesque but somehow more authentic.

A View of Don Quixote's Giants

panorama of Don Quixote's windmills

Maybe it was a pipe dream to think I’d have the windmills all to myself for an hour of reflection. Maybe I thought they’d be bigger, like the giants I’d read about in high school. But like all things in the chronicle of the hidalgo, not everything is always as it seems. Feeling a bit dejected and pressed for time, I climbed back into Monty-nante, a true warrior after 1000 kilometers over four days, and took the autovía south.

“Take my advice and live for a long, long time. Because the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die.”

It’s been over a decade since I’ve studied abroad, and half a lifetime since we read an abridged version of Don Quixote junior year of high school. And it’s been just over four centuries since Miguel de Cervantes penned the closing chapter to a masterpiece that endures time and place.

Molinos de Consuegra

In high school, I remember thinking Don Quixote was a fool, a haggard old man with pájaros en la cabeza who should have listened to his trusted Sancho Panza. Feeling very much like a pícara myself at this moment, I had a car ride to reflect on things and my somewhat failed mission to fulfill a teenage dream.

After a few weeks that could very well change the Spain game, I couldn’t help thinking that the old man had a few things to remind me: about perspective, about the clarity in insanity and that failure is also a means to a happier ending.

EXHIBITION

Have you ever seen the windmills at Consuegra?

My American Crush on Memphis (Or, How I Realized Just How American I Am)

Our rented Kia Soul’s direction was mainly southwest down I-55 to Saint Louis before we dipped slightly further south and nudged a bit east into the Deep South. As a Yankee and expat overseas, my forays into American life had been limited to power points about Thanksgiving and begging sports bars to show American football.

It wasn’t until Memphis – 570 miles and eight hours southwest of my hometown – that the meaning of being an American abroad hit me by seeing my country from the outside in for once. And it took a Spaniard abroad to point that out.

downtown memphis streets

Lucía was cooking puchero in her olla exprés when we arrived to her condo on Mud Island. Out her kitchen window sat downtown Memphis and the ghastly pyramid. And out her living room window, the Mississippi thundered by, eventually dumping out into the Gulf of Mexico. Her 18-month-old daughter played nearby with a series of books in both Spanish and English.

“Just have to wait until this is done, and we can head out,” she said, handing the Novio and I a bottle of American beer. “Oh! And I took tomorrow off of work to be your guide.”

Lucía and I have known each other since I moved to Spain. Staunchly andaluza with a world view – she’s worked in half a dozen countries as a medic and EMT – she and I have always had a lot in common. And she and the Novio have been friends for well over a decade. As we planned a road trip down to New Orleans, a stop in Bluff City was a non-negotiable pit stop, even if it meant one night fewer in NOLA.

South Main District Memphis

Memphis has been a always been a thread weaved into my formative years, I’ve realized six months later. My father spent most of his working life at Federal Express, whose headquarters is in Memphis. I grew up on Elvis and rock n’ roll. My elementary school was called Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. Ask me what foods I miss most from the US, and pulled pork with baked beans push into the top five.

While reluctant to spend two nights in Memphis, I welcomed the opportunity to see Lu, cross into a new state and stuff myself, post-wedding, on BBQ. Armed with a list of my dad’s list of musts – the Peabody Ducks, blues joints and ribs – we pulled up to the condo as dusk was falling behind us in Arkansas, snaking through a construction-riddled downtown 3rd Street.

Lucía and her husband may be doctors, but they’re also history buffs, rooted in Memphian and American life with one foot firmly planted in the Spanish camp. Sounds familiar. We five piled in the car for a quick trip around Mud Island, where the city’s elite (and my other Noviom Justin Timberlake) live relatively crime-free in what is considered one of America’s most dangerous cities.

Memphis TN and the Mississippi

Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, the Rock River – one of the Mississippi’s tributaries – seemed to separate upper middle class from the lower class as the Mississippi did in Memphis. Downtown gleamed in the twilight against a ruddy river. I brought up the Civil Rights Movement and my afternoon trip to the National Civil Rights Museum museum, housed in the motel where MLK was shot. As I stood in the very room where he died, my mind racing back to my formative years, learning about tolerance and equal rights. The museum was among the best I’ve seen.

It’s a touchy subject, but I wanted an outside perspective on the Black Lives Matter and the race riots. Memphis’s population is predominately black and the city is considered the poorest metropolitan area in the United States. Lucía and Isra looked at each other and she said to wait until the following day, when she’d be our private tour guide through not just downtown Memphis, but the last century or so of its history.

Memphis South Main

The following morning, I woke up to the smell of Spanish coffee. Lu sped us through our morning routine, promising a muggy, hazy August morning outside. We walked south on Mud Island, the toddler holding my hand as I struggled to wade through the heat. Mosquitos buzzed all around my head – here’s the wet, hot American summer I’d been missing.

Mud Island houses an outdoor museum featuring a small-scale Mississippi River at a 2112:1 scale. From the watershed walls that feature my home state to several of the places we stopped in as we traveled south along a portion of the Mighty Mississippi’s 954 miles, I explained how Old Man River (and rivers in general) had been a feature in my entire life – like reading the Adventures of Tom Sawyer hald a dozen times or using the crossing on the I-80 as a marker on my trips to and from Iowa City during college. What brought commerce to Tennessee made it the center of the world for package distribution decades later.

We were promptly chased out at 9:50am, told the River Walk didn’t open until 10.

Our next stop was St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, where both Lucía and Isra work. Having done fundraisers for the hospital as a child and volunteered with families experiencing pediatric cancer throughout college, I couldn’t believe I was finally standing in the temple that Danny Thomas built. I thought of my friend Kelsey, who died from complications with leukemia shortly before her 22nd birthday in 2011 and in whose memory I walked part of the Camino de Santiago. The whole place was magical – the entire staff smiled, despite the troubling nature of their work, and we quickly scratched our plans to donate money to Air Force Orphans. 

Choose 901 Memphis

Isra was in his office, studying for a procedure he’d perform that afternoon. As a highly skilled worker, he’d been invited as a pediatric resident to St. Jude’s – a testament to his brilliance and compassion. Lucía researches cures. And I teach prepositions. Consider me humbled.

Shortly after, we parked downtown on the former Cotton Row. Lucía spends most of her free time reading history books, and her running commentary of Memphis’s history against the backdrop of the brick buildings and blues joints gave the city more context than any museum could have.

Founded by Andrew Jackson for its strategic location on a high bluff, Memphis quickly grew into a commercial capital, thanks to its cotton crop and access to the Mississippi. This brought a large number of African American slaves with it, even post-war, to work as laborers. Changes in demographics would lead to decades of unrest between the affluent Whites – mainly Irish immigrants – and Blacks. We weaved throughout the downtown area, the historically Black neighborhood, and near Victorian Row to see just how different life was for the two.

Crumbling Memphis buildings

Many of Memphis’s storefronts are boarded up and out of business, just steps away from the landmark Peabody Hotel or Orpheum Theatre that once played host to Blues and Rock n’Roll greats. Riots after King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel only marginalized the city’s black population, which resided mostly in the lower middle class district south of downtown, now known as the South Main Arts District.

Lucía recounted the last five decades’ history over beers at the Arcade Diner, an iconic Memphian restaurant that Elvis once frequented. The six blocks that comprised the district had once been home to the booming railway business but fell into disrepair in the 1950s. Iconic Hotel Chisca and its radio station closed. Now, it’s experiencing a revitalization and were filled with craft beer breweries, oyster bars, galleries and pop-up shops. Think exposed brick and old signs and general gentrification- this part of the city came to represent Memphis for me: a city that knows how to bounce back. A city that holds its head high. A city whose past is pushing it into the future.

Beale Street Memphis signs

Later that night, we gorged on ribs at Rendezvous before strolling down Beale Street. Blues tumbled out of bars and the neon lights lit up the night. Over whiskey, our anfitriones told us what we already knew: the Black population in Memphis were feeling the heat. Even in a city that is predominantly Black and that once tried to resist slavery, the Confederacy and even segregated schools, it’s still considered an unsafe city and one that locals decry for censoring the media. We were there just two weeks after Trey Bolton, a Memphis cop, was killed.

And Memphis didn’t riot. In Memphis, acceptance is now preached as the city moves past MLK, the Memphis Riots of 1866 and the slavery that propelled it into one of the South’s most prosperous cities. As Black Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said shortly after the shooting, “All Lives Matter.” 

lorraine motel memphis

Like MLK’s iconic speech the night before his assassination, something is happening.

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” […]

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”

Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

“I have been to the Mountaintop” – Martin Luther King, Jr., April 1968

In a 21st Century frame, it’s still relevant – and call me crazy, but I think I saw the manifestation of that in Memphis. So, yeah. I had a big crush on gtirry Bluff City and what it stands for:

Memphis quality

And in many ways, Memphis was a representation of the values my parents tried teaching me when I was young: acceptance, humility, hard work and compassion for others. When we pulled back onto the I-55 for a long trips towards New Orleans, I grew quiet, thinking of how these lessons had shaped me.

The rest of our post-wedding road trip affirmed that: an eye-opening Civil War Museum in St. Louis and rafting on the Occee River near Chattanooga. Talking to locals over crayfish in New Orleans, nearly 10 years post-Katrina, about why they’d come to NOLA, or why they stayed. Witnessing how the sharing culture is helping millennials like me make ends meet and chase their goals down.

Memphis shook me out of my Spain haze and helped me look at my country for what it is, for better or for worse. Ticking through seven states in one summer road trip passed in a blur of county lines, of truck stop meals, of miles on the odometer. But Memphis was a real, gritty American city that reminded me where I came from, having grown up in “tough” cities like Flint and Rockford.

I am an American, firstly. Someone who knows what it means to work hard and what it means to be free to choose. Someone who trusts in the inherent aims of her country, but isn’t afraid to voice opposition (or cast a vote). Someone who is fiercely loyal to her first land but understands its context in a wider scope.  

And those values haven’t in any way been muted by my years in Spain. My American Dream is far different now than it was when I finished high school or college, but it’s rooted in the way I grew up.

Memphis 

Have you ever been to Memphis? What were your impressions?

Five Realizations I’ve Made About Myself as a Traveler

Staring at my 2015 planner just one year ago, I circled just two dates: August 8th, my wedding day, and August 15th, my 30th birthday. I inhaled sharply, knowing that as a new homeowner, long-term travel was off the table unless I was living with my parents.  

Quotes about Travel

For someone whose mentality was clocked in airline miles and train tickets accumulated, I was crestfallen. In the span of 60 days in 2014, we closed on a house and I signed away the freedoms and money drains I’d previously had.

2015 was not a red-letter year for my passport, but with minimum means to jet off, I began to scrimp and save for different things in my life that mattered: furniture to make myself at home in Triana, better food products for my never-ending battle to learn how to cook, and my wedding. And somehow, I still managed to travel to four countries and drive through six new states, plus visit several new places in Spain in a year in travel that was very bottom-heavy.

CASTLE

I made five key realizations about myself in the process, and began my 30s looking ahead to a different means to travel.

I cannot stick to a budget

I have never claimed to be a budget traveler, and it’s been brought to my attention that I am unable to stick to one, anyway. Oftentimes, my plane or train tickets are far less than what I spend in my destination (much to the dismay of my travel companions).

Case in point: my four days in Copenhagen. I cashed in on a free one-way flight from Vueling, shelling out just 93€ to finally touch down in Scandanavia. Armed with a list of cheap places to eat and things to do, I was ready to make the most of my first visit when I did the conversion and realized my euros had nothing on the sleek Danish kröner, and that even beers at happy hour were three times the cost of one in Seville. 

Nyhavn Denmark views

For the record, I do not like making dinner in my hostel or AirBnB’s kitchen, I rarely use public transportation or buy city passes, and I bring home senseless souvenirs. I’ve tried Couchsurfing and can’t resist a cool food tour. My wallet is defenseless outside of the 954 area code.

I am a slave to thinking that this may be my one chance to experience a culture and its cuisine, and I end up twice as far in the hole as I expect to be on the majority of my trips. Did I need one more pastry or that quick trip to Sweden when in Scandanavia? Probably not, nor could I resist the hot dogs or gløgg.

European Euros money

In Turkey, this meant a massage at a bath house. In Greece, I carted back an extra suitcase of gifts. My wallet is often empty, but what difference does it make if I’m not a long-term traveler and have a salary?

I know what it means – no new shoes when another pair falls apart.

Long-term travel is not for me

In all of the years I have blogged, I’ve let the idea of saving up and cashing in on a year-long trip play bumperpool in my head. Back when I was an auxiliar de conversación, I figured I’d spend a few years in Spain, then make bank as an EFL teacher in Korea or Japan and backpack around SE Asia for six months before getting a “real” job.

cobblestone road Europe

But when you’ve dealt with bedbugs, missed connections and lonliness, suddenly hitting the road for an extended period of time doesn’t seem like the best option.

For me, having a home base and possessions and a partner has been more fulflling, and the rest of Europe isn’t that far off. Yes, this means limited vacation days at times when prices spike, but thanks to Spain’s low cost of living, I feel it’s more justified to splurge (see? Not a budget traveler). 

I’m not into long roadtrips

Unable to afford a traditional honeymoon to Japan as we’d always planned, the Novio and I rented a car and drove to New Orleans, stopping in St. Louis and Memphis on the way down, Chatanooga, Nashville and Louisville on the way up.

Here’s the thing – I like driving. I believe that cars can take you where tours can’t. I find getting lost a lot of fun, once I’ve let out the requisite swear words. But I’m not into long distances – blame my commute to university for that one.

best hamburger in arkansas

The Novio and I had loads of fun on our trip, visiting a friend in Memphis and drinking down Bourbon Street in the lovely bubble of post-wedding bliss. We rafted down the Occoe River near Chatanooga, visited the Jim Beam distillery and stuffed ourselves with barbequed ribs and pulled pork. And we spent so.much.time. in the car, most of which had me either searching for radio stations in the middle of nowhere or writing wedding Thank You cards. Knowing we had a flight to catch meant missing a lot of things that we would have liked to see for sake of time.

I’ve discovered I’m more of a pound-the-pavement type of person, and sitting in the passenger seat of a Kia for hundreds of miles of cornfields wasn’t my idea of fun.

Best road trip car

That said, my parents are planning a 2016 summer roadtrip to the National Parks. Yaay?

I love showing visitors MY Spain

As someone living in Europe, I am often given the burden of planning itineraries. For me, it’s (more than) half the fun to read up on a destination, devour a book set in a new country and search for things to do, but when the trip actually hits, there are snags. My own parents went six days without luggage over Christmas, and it meant skipping some of our plans to wait at home for missing suitcases. 

Mirador de Graça Lisboa

But my favorite part about living in Spain is that I have a leg up on guide books and travel forums. I live here and consider myself fairly immersed in Spanish culture, and it’s most pleasurable to see my visitors dive right in to Spanish life.

When my best male friend finally made good on his promise to come see us, I had little else on the itinerary but eat, drink and head to the beach for a day. He’d come from South Africa, where he’d done all of those magical travel things like swim with sharks and bike through wineries. I couldn’t promise him much more than a taste of la vida española and took him to my favorite rincones of the city.

Calle del Infierno Feria de Abril

He claims to be satisfied with the experience. Who else would tell jetlag to go to hell when it’s the last night of the Feria?

That’s another big reason why my blog is so Spain-based. It’s my safe zone, my muse and the reason why most of you read it!

I don’t need to go far to be happy

There were times when my version of getting high was scouring flight search engines for good deals. That’s how I ended up with round-trip tickets to Marrakesh for 30€, to Brussels for 26€ and 102€ to Croatia, how my geographic knowledge of Europe improved…and how I drained my meager savings. I lived to spend my long weekends traipsing around Europe. And this was before Instagram and pinterest, so I traveled for the story and not the perception (although, I admit, at warp speed).

Don’t get me wrong – I still use all of those tactics nowadays and love hearing the ping in my mailbox with my reservations, but a year of limited resources meant Spain was my go-to destination. In fact, from my trip to the US over the 2014 holidays until my trip home for summer the following year, the only flight I took was to Barcelona! 

Portuguese National Beer Super Bock

I’ve long adopted the, “have car, will adventure” outlook, and having my own set of wheels has allowed me to delve into Spain and Portugal more.

One long weekend with rain on the horizon, I found my plans to go hiking in the Sierra de Grazalema foiled, so Kelly and I hopped in the car and drove north, away from the storm clouds. We stopped wherever we felt like it. “I hear there’s a castle in Real de la Jara.” We saw a castle. “Zafra has a parador.” Detour (complete with convent cookies!). “Oh look, a random monastery!” Nearly ran ourselves off the road trying to reach the top on a blustery day.

With itchy feet, anywhere but home will do, even if for a day.

View from the Hancock Tower

I have just one trip on the horizon – back to Chicago for my sister’s June wedding – and tons of ideas for quick trips, some to new cities and some to my favorite places. It’s almost just as liberating to know I am wide open to whatever adventure pops up as to having every long weekend in 2016 scribbled with travel plans in my agenda.

And after clicking out this post, I’ve realized that I don’t take nearly enough pictures of myself when traveling. Noted.

I didn’t do an annual travel round up, but went to Sicily, Denmark, Sweden and Portugal towards the end of the year. Where are you headed in 2016? What are your favorite destinations in and around Spain? I’m talking culinary travel, rowdy festivals and things to do in the great outdoors!

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