realities of repatriation.

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Life is different now.

Life is radically different than, say, a year ago, when I was navigating the streets of Madrid, juggling an exhausting freelance English teaching schedule, on the verge of giving up and throwing in the towel.

On the verge of saying goodbye to what was a fairytale, a journey away from normal, a journey towards the rest of my life, towards the rest of myself, away from all the things that ailed my aching heart and my clouded psyche.

I needed a reprieve. So, I ran. I ran 5,000 miles away with some sort of courage, with the hope I could start over, that I could forget all the trauma, letdowns, disappointments, ill treatment. I thought if I went somewhere where no one knew my name I could be a different person, a new me, a new woman, a renewed spirit.

And, that was the truth, for a while. When I moved more than a year ago to Madrid, my mind was drowning with the negative voices which I had become accustomed to, the voices of bosses and supervisors who didn’t see my brilliance or value, friends who thought I was unpredictable, aloof and uncommunicative, family who didn’t see me at all. And lovers who projected their shadows of defeat on me, leaving me to feel I was too much. I was always too much, which made me instinctually shrink in hopes of being accepted and deemed more appealing.

But then all the things I had tried to outrun caught up with me. I was drowning in reoccurring bouts of victimhood, perpetual negativity. I was woefully unhappy with English teaching and the direction things had began to take career-wise yet again— rather I saw not writing anymore was not the key to feeling fulfilled and happy. I was also really lonely and in dire need of true companionship, something I had been sorely lacking in the nine months I had been in Madrid.

So, I packed up all my shit, again, in those same two suitcases I fled from the States in, and headed back home, only to Washington, DC. I ran again, hoping I could outpace myself, hoping a change in scenery, new challenges could aliven me, make me feel whole, inspire a genuine smile for the first time in months.

There’s this funny thing that happened when I moved six months ago today, though. This repatriation and culture shock thing that many former expats or current expats or those adept with frequently changing their addresses and swapping them with cities all over the world won’t share with you. It slapped me in the face after my first four weeks filled with bliss. It slammed me to ground and left me in a foreboding sense of weeping and melancholia.

And it was unexpected. Because no one talks about how doubly difficult it is to navigate coming back “home” after you trade and sacrifice everything and everyone you’ve known for an abroad adventure. You spend all your time building up the expectation of leaving that no premeditation is lent to returning, which makes returning that much harder, that much more isolating, that much more lonely, that much more hopeless.

Because you are alone.

You are alone in this emotional navigation. Your near and dear expat community you bonded with when you first landed in another country aren’t there. They’re still out there living out their adventure. And you’re here, grasping at straws, trying to rediscover a glimmer of something exciting, something to look forward to, something to figure out that will inspire that same feeling of being on a journey to discovery like you did when you were abroad. You’ll attempt to find resources to turn something nonsensical and arduous to put into words to family, friends, those you might be dating — websites, blogs, books, guides — and will come up empty-handed. Because in some sort of sense, no one wants to talk about returning, the end of the journey, because it’s hard. It’s harder. It’s a bit more real and less filled with adrenaline. Instead the only feeling you keep rounding up to again is feeling like a failure.

Feeling like a failure was the feeling I grappled with the most. I couldn’t reconcile how the same woman who had on her own traveled to 11 countries and 27 cities was struggling to get out of bed each morning. How I had little to no desire to try to make friends or talk to people. How I felt like a listless, less inspiring, less courageous, less interesting version of myself.

I felt like no one cared about the transformative period that living abroad for almost a year had impacted and changed me, how humbling it was to chronically figure out how to make 10 euros last a week or longer because I only got paid once a month. How after a while, speaking another language that wasn’t my native tongue became easier, more expected and something I craved. How I got used to the distance, being far away with the familiarity of being close to friends and family, my favorite restaurants, foods, TV shows and stores.

Being an expat is truly an exercise in becoming accustomed to distance — emotional, mental, and physical distance — and forging forward in discomfort, alienation and unfamiliarity. Being uncomfortable becomes like a game, something to look forward to, something you crouch in in the low moments. Sitting too still, things becoming too familiar becomes boring and belittling.

But after the past six months of being rejected from job lead after job lead, trying English teaching again and hating it, again, defeat in redefining my relationships with old friends and family members, trying to make myself understood and not feeling like a sparkly, fun ball of enthusiasm and child-like wonderment, I knew how I was feeling was not normal. I knew that perhaps I had been in a dark abyss for too long. I knew not wanting to leave my bed or my room for days at a time, or not showering for days at a time and exploding in emotional episodes the few times that I did venture out into the world, how those things became my new challenges, that I was sinking into a period I had identified, a feeling that was familiar during different periods of my life.

I felt it my senior year of high school when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt it the summer before I went to college when the relationship with my father barely hung on by threads and I grappled with my mother’s illness. I felt it the first three months in college as I was plagued with guilt for leaving my mother to start my own journey. I felt it for most of the eight-month duration of my last relationship as I was verbally and emotionally abused by my ex-partner. I felt it the summer before I moved to Madrid as I drowned in misery over the life of mine which no longer made me happy.

And it was back again. It had made a reappearance. It was like a deep, darkening fog with zero visibility. It swallowed me whole, left me choking, gasping waves of emotions, of tears, heaves of despair, shards of silence. I was sinking, I was drowning, I needed a way out. I needed hope again. I needed for hope to not feel so out of reach. I needed to not feel like depression wasn’t overtaking my life, engulfing my entire existence, yet again.

I started therapy two weeks ago.

I walked into that office, my knuckles a ghastly white, my nails digging into my palms from nervousness, from clinching my hands as tightly as I could. This was a new level of vulnerability I’d never experienced. I was there to admit that I needed help. I was there to admit that I couldn’t do this — I couldn’t saunter around in this beautiful world only seeing black and white and not the varying shades of gray and the bursts of color — alone.

I was there to admit that trying to do it alone, and failing, was no longer heroic.

Life is different now.

Life will be different now.

Because I can imagine hope and what it might feel like, again.

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african ATLien.

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Drizzles of rain tickled my nose, tapped on my checks and bled into my clothes. My glasses were also speckled with the precipitation, enlarging the small dots into blurry radials. I could see very little, but the bass thumping in my chest and the music waves whizzing by my ears as I listened to Andre 3000 and Big Boi perform “Bombs over Baghdad” enlivened me.

I was surrounded by thousands in Centennial Olympic Park, the heart of downtown Atlanta, my hometown, the city which tugs and pulls at my emotional strings. We were all gathered in a space that in 1996, was the sight of a horrific bombing during our only time hosting the Summer Olympic Games.

During the last weekend of September this year, we reclaimed the space. We gave it a host of dear, heartfelt, intangible, unforgettable memories. We flooded our psyche with melodies of songs we hadn’t heard in years which conjured up thoughts of old friends, new relationships, going away to college, partying recklessly as a 20-something or teenager without a care in the world. We lavished in the revelry, our own Southern Coachella, a homecoming for many of us, of remembering the deposits that the south and everything it encompasses to the totality of a person. Our traditions, our sounds, our people, our essence.

And yet, this was in Atlanta, the city which I have an complicated, intricate and distanced relationship with. The city which I abruptly severed my 28 year long affair and entanglement of emotional, mental and spiritual frustration a year prior to dance into the sunset of Madrid. This was the same city where I was experiencing a music high of a lifetime, a set of hours which I will one day candidly and fondly tell my offspring about. It was the same city.

It was the same city I longed for in low moments while in Madrid those nine months. The city which when I closed my eyes while overcome with tears in my shoebox sized room in my flat, the window pouring in sunlight which stung my eyes when I peered out of it, I could see the familiar places, people and things I sordidly missed. I could smell the fried chicken, yeast and cinnamon rolls from Mary Mac’s wafting near my nose. I could taste a vanilla milkshake from The Varsity, red velvet cupcakes from Camicakes or a slice of pizza from Fellini’s Pizza.

It was the same city whose traffic on 285, 75, 85, 78 and 20 could cause even the calmest, namaste person to have an episode filled with rage. The same city where Blackness became equated with success, affluence, higher education, entrepreneurship. The same city where I went to elementary, middle and high school, college and grad school. The same city where I learned how to drive, first fell in love, made and lost a numerous amount of what I thought were forever friends. My spirit was first formed and vitalized and born in this city, in the same city.

As precious as all these stakes of nostalgia bear to mind, it’s the same city where I ravaged with the duality and double consciousness of being both an African and American, where I struggled to discern which side I most identified with, my father’s Nigerian roots or my mother’s Southern roots by way of Alabama.

It’s the same city where all during my years of schooling, I was teased and stigmatized as a dirty, ignorant African, an African booty scratcher. Less than because I had a name which was unpronounceable and commonly misspelled. It’s the same city where I internalized the shame of being different and disassociated, tried to pretend that I wasn’t just American because of my name, the marker, one of the few tangible ties to my culture and heritage followed me everywhere I went.

It’s the same city where I learned from a young age what it encompasses to be a Black southern woman and how in many ways, there was a direct incongruence to what it meant to be an African woman. I was both, I always was both, but how do you reconcile feeling confused when both sides are critical of each other? When both sides sorely need to inject some understanding and a meeting of minds with each other but instead pit themselves against each other at the hands of White supremacy and anti-Blackness, unbeknownst to them?

It’s the same city where I listened to my Dad speak in Igbo to his friends on the phone or at Nigerian parties yet didn’t bother to teach myself or my sisters even one word. It’s the same city where I learned none of my Nigerian history and instead had to take pouring over old, musty encyclopedia during library visits at school to grasp even an inkling of my heritage and even still, only knowing very little because I never traveled there, never seen Nigerian soil with my own eyes.

Atlanta, Georgia, the new South, the home of the Georgia red clay, where Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up and where Major General William Sherman lit a torch to the city during his infamous March to the Sea. The Midnight Train to Georgia, Georgia On My mind. Yes, this city.

The same city standing on the shoulders of years of mounting racism, which you can still see the glimmers of if you look in Cobb and north Fulton counties. Yes, this city. The same city where I chronically felt a gaping hole for knowing the other side of myself, knowing intimately what it meant being African on more than one level. It’s the same city where I wondered what it would feel like to mix and mingle with my Dad’s side of the family, the Nigerian side, but the burden of being separated by the Atlantic Ocean became all too real quite often. It’s the same city where I had to default with being a Southerner became just enough because it was the only culture I had access to through lived experience.

The horn of the South, the new mecca for Blacks, yes, it’s this same city where I watched my father succumb to the pangs and throes of assimilation, telling every person he met his middle English name instead of his proper, first Nigerian name to be accepted. It’s the same city where I pondered the same and eventually did the same, making sure to tell people to pronounce my name the American, incorrect way and linking it to my middle name which was more common, more acceptable. It’s the same city where I thought loading myself up with degrees, accomplishments, credentials, skills and qualifications would make people forget that I was different once they looked at my name. I though i could forget I was African. I thought they could forget, too, because it brought me too much shame, embarrassment and unprocessed pain.

The same city. Atlanta, yes, this same city.

Whilst I stood amid the drizzles, speeding up as each successive thumping of the bass in my chest and jumped up and down, wildly failing my arms to the beat, I stared at the buildings that glittered behind us. Behind us as we stood, a sea of faces, feelings, emotions, adjectives.

I pondered all these complexities. And I left them at the feet of the stage. I left them there. I left them there as a nod to acceptance, a nod to knowing all I had grappled with in the past, fully knowing they wouldn’t be grapples of the future.

I left them there, where they still lay, unbothered, meddling in the grass, becoming foot fodder for all those who may walk by underneath their feet.

I left them there, I let them go, I separated myself and there, in Atlanta, is where my fears, my insecurities, my doubts, my confusion over both sides of me will forever remain.

nneka in nyc.

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A heavy heart with almost deadened hope wasn’t the only baggage I boarded a nearly full eight-hour Megabus trip to New York with a month ago. Weeks prior to booking my ticket online and packing for my first trip outside of the DMV area since I’d arrived there two months ago, a friend invited me to a brunch amongst other women writers and bloggers. I heartily agreed and was somewhat excited to attend the function, but I didn’t let on to her or myself just how anxious I was for both the brunch and the prospect of being back in a city that both intimidated and frustrated me.

In 2013, I had visited the city that never sleeps twice, once to visit with a friend originally from Atlanta and a second time to get in quality one-on-one time with one of my sisters and a cousin before I jetted off to Madrid. Each time, I couldn’t reconcile the pantings of insecurity, panic and stress surrounding being in a city which was so fast-paced from what I was used to. And I genuinely saw no beauty in a city littered with trash, animated people and pronounced accents and rats the size of domestic cats either strolling the night streets in the ominous shadows or peeking up from the subway tracks, annoyed the subway riders were acting as spectators to their everyday life.

I remember feeling out of place no matter where I went. I remember feeling overwhelmed with the subway transit. I remember leaving each trip knowing the city was a nice place to visit, for a few days, but not somewhere to spend a prolonged period of time, let alone to live.

Knowing intimately these feelings which were strongly attached to NYC, it explained my hesitation to be fully excited about another trip there, especially since I knew I’d have no supervision or a hand to guide me around the city this time. I’d be alone— completely alone, to fend for myself and to navigate the bustling streets steadily teeming with either the quickened strides of NYCers, their voices which carried with enthusiasm or the yellow cabbies aggressively swerving or stopping to pick up their latest customers.

And there was reverse culture shock, the ongoing process of repatriation, which was also humming in the background. I carried that with me on the bus trip— sitting next to a curly-head younger girl who curled up in a ball, her back touching my thighs and her behind every now and then nudging me in the knee — a deep-seated sense of grief and loss. My grief and loss seemed to grow as the days egged on, instead of lessening or subsiding in intensity. Living in Maryland and exploring DC felt futile, forced, disingenuous and certainly wasn’t this new adventure which was exciting.

I felt like a fraud each time I hopped on the Metro or the bus in Maryland or DC. I tried to pretend I was a fiery ball of enthusiasm and sparkles and optimism and courage. But the truth was I felt dead and empty on the inside. I felt lonely, misunderstood, stuck in-between, desperately trying to make sense of the transition I found myself slugged in the middle of. Job leads continued to run dry. Attempts to freelance continually were dead-ends. My sense of purpose felt continually morose and full of melancholy.

I kept hearing no — from prospective employers, from family members to emphasize and listen to the complex feelings I was harboring and trying to process, from not feeling outside of myself and like my efforts even had any sense of purpose. I kept hearing no from people and sources and circumstances outside of myself, so naturally, I took that to mean the Universe and the Holy Spirit were saying no. Perhaps no meant to re-evaluate, to think deeply upon whether my decision to come back Stateside had been an honest and methodical decision, to contemplate why I was here and what I was supposed to do in the meantime until my life was rooted in sense and order, instead of confusion, doubt and frustration.

No had become my mantra. No had become the answer to every attempt to become social, to meet new people, to make new, lasting connections, to not succumb to what felt like depression but was instead the most intense bout of grief and loss I had felt in my entire life. When had I become that person, that woman, who had started telling herself no, instead of yes, instead of belief, instead of hope, instead of faith?

But NYC, oh New York City. I gathered my baggage, including my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual baggage and dragged it behind me at the conclusion of a seven-hour bus ride. I trotted through throngs of people, danced around hot dog stands alluring my nostrils and found the subway. I loaded my Metro card and made it to my sister’s vacant apartment who had graciously agreed to let me stay in her absence. My body was drowning in a pool of sweat once I made it there and my calve muscles felt like apple butter, but I had made it.

And through the next two days, I continued to make it. I continued to find my way around. I found the suffocating feelings of isolation and loneliness and despair sliding away from my consciousness and skittering away from its residence in my spirit. It was as if coming to the city I had been so afraid of, the city which terrified me, the city which I had thought was nemesis, had invigorated me. It had reminded me of all the growth, the tears, the difficulty, the fucked situations I had endured in the year since my past visit. It reminded me that yes, I was currently suffering and struggling and felt there was only so much I could further endure, but the period I was entrenched in had purpose. My pain, my discomfort had a purpose. All the no’s I had been hearing had a purpose and a place.

And it reminded me while in Madrid I had these same feelings. How this journey, in some ways, had felt harder, impossible and indefensible, but yet it was the same. It was so the same. I had walked this path before and while that path had been trodden with hard answers and truths, the path had throttled me forward, pushed me further into myself, emphasizing how it had always been a journey of one, a journey of self, a journey towards miracles.

My tendency as both an expat and now as a former expat has been to blame those people and situations and circumstances for not understanding, for not being supportive, for not providing the help and love and compassion I needed. My tendency has been to look outside of myself for consolation, for validation, for truth, for reassurance, to escape an unfathomable amount of insecurity. But this journey I’ve been on the past year, this journey was a solo journey, it was a trip for one. The lessons were for me to grasp and learn and internalize and grow from — alone.

I returned from that trip from NYC renewed. My alone time since then has had a different flavor. I’ve started teaching English again for a small language academy in Virginia, four times a week. I’ve made a few new friends. I joined a writing critique group. I got a Washington, DC library card. I spend less and less time feeling sorry for myself and stuck in the throes of sadness. And although I still have many questions, many wonders, many doubts, many fears, although my life still feels like it is in limbo and rife with chaos and uncertainty, I’m finding it easier, day-by-day, moment-by-moment to attempt detaching from any outcomes, to surrendering to the Universe and the Spirit. I’m finding trust and peace and unbridled hope to be more and more to be a logical intention to steadily make.

I know there are miracles left to be unfolded here, right where I am, and I know, now, that these miracles could only be imparted to me in the space where I’m resting in my solitude.

No more fighting the focus on me, my life, my spirit, my spiritual work, my spiritual practice, I’m being called to, here, in this moment, any more.

wasteland of worry (in washington, dc).

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In my new room, a room easily four times the size of my former room in Madrid, my wake-up time is no later than 6 a.m., 7:05 a.m. if I’m lucky. Each morning, the sun plays peek-a-boo through the plastic blinds sheltering the huge window facing out into the parking lot of the apartment complex I now call home. 

It’s bare bones here, which is why I wake up every morning deathly early, much to my dismay, due to my window sans curtains. And each morning, for the past six weeks, I’ve awakened in tune with the first chirps from the birds, crust still lingering in my eyes, a familiar grogginess settling over my spirit. 

It’s too early. It’s just too early for this shit. 

If I sit up in the queen size bed, much roomier and comfier than the elongated twin sized dorm-style bed I used to sleep in, I see my suitcases, the only belongings I have to my name, lining the wall, as taxis would line the street outside of a bustling and busy airport. My clothes and shoes jut out of the suitcases, since I only have five hangers and no dresser. There’s a makeshift plastic container, the colors of Halloween, with wheels on it I’m using as a nightstand. My bras, underwear, jewelry collection and crumpled receipts lay in tribute in no particular method of organization throughout. 

And although I no longer feel like I’m here on an extended vacation, the best way I can articulate how my first few weeks in Maryland, just outside of DC, felt, I still don’t feel like I’m really…here. I feel like I’m just passing by. Just wasting time until I pass along to the next destination. Waiting to go back “home.” But only, I don’t really know where home is anymore. That definition is in a state of flux and upheaval. 

But every morning, when I wake up at 6 a.m., annoyed and frustrated that I’m up too early yet again, it becomes more real. The reality sinks in a little more each morning. 

I’m consumed with grief. All the things I lost. All the things I told myself to give up to be happier. I fought so hard to make it in Madrid. To be my own woman. To stand up on my own two feet. To hustle to make ends meet. To survive. I made that city, my experience, my own. In many ways, the complicated feelings I have for Madrid are because I found that I really did have the will the survive, to surmount struggle, to try to make it even if I was standing alone. Even if I had no one to lean on. 

I’ve traded the knowing, the longing for more, the deep-seated assurance that I was doing something wrong, going down the wrong path, dedicating myself to being wholly unhappy and unsatisfied for not knowing anything at all. For not having answers. For being chronically unsure. For feeling caught in the crosshairs of confusion. 

I’ve traded the aching of missing my family and friends and other people I adore for being near them, for being able to smell their scents, lavish in their hugs, but feeling thousands of miles of away, mentally  and emotionally. For not being able to coherently communicate this sense of isolation, wrapping my mind around explaining just how changed I feel without coming off as sounding haughty or condescending. For longing to leave just as badly. For wanting to be far away again, because it feels more comfortable, and feeling terribly ravaged with guilt for even thinking or feeling this way. 

I’ve traded my independence, my space—physically, emotionally and mentally—for being constantly bombarded with proximity to nearly everything I had finally become okay with being far away from. For having to humble myself to ask for nearly everything I need—food, money to be social, somewhere to sleep, somewhere to be able to turn a key into a doorknob. For feeling completely dependent on someone outside of myself for the simplest of things and detesting that I have to rely on the dependence, for now, to survive, to get back on my feet. 

I’ve traded genuine and lasting bonds with women who truly understood me, during a time in my life when I struggled and quite possibly the most vulnerable, a time when I shouldn’t have been open to letting others in, for more loneliness than me, an introvert who relishes in alone time, is comfortable with. For a lack of a social life in all totality. For wanting to be more social but feeling insecure because I’m not sure all that I’m feeling, all the complexities that repatriating can entail, will be understood. For looking at the lack of money I have and immediately feeling discouraged to do more than just hang around my dwelling. For turning down invites pretending I’m busy or not feeling well or stressed but instead I just don’t feel like I measure up, don’t feel like I’ll much to say or that I’ll be at all interesting. Not when I’m consumed with grief. And worry.

How does one cope with knowing they’ve made the right decision whilst juggling the nagging feeling of worry? Of not being sure that things will work out? Of watching money dwindle from the already scant bank account and consumed with how to add more to the account rather than continuing to deplete what little reserve I had? Of coping with leaving behind a life of travel and adventure and constant adjustment in a foreign land? 

I don’t know. 

But if I really did know, then perhaps I wouldn’t have even written…this. 

oasis in oporto.

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Flickers in my mind of my two grey Liz Claiborne suitcases, freckled with black cheetah spots stashed in a corner, of what used to be the beloved Spanish flat I shared with two Colombian roommates, crossed my mind over and over again. I thought about how there were a few things I needed to stash inside of either suitcase and my stuffed zebra striped carry-on I swiped from my mama during Christmas break to bring back shoes, dresses and other clothing because the majority of my clothes were too big.

I thought about how nervous I was about the new roommate moving into my old room. She gave me a weird vibe. She’d been uncommunicative, and I was afraid she’s screw me (or both me and my old roommates) over in terms of rent and the deposit.

I thought about how my Spanish journey was really coming to a close in a matter of days. No more strolling on the sprawling streets in awe of the beautiful buildings and the lull of Spanish I barely understood breezing past my ear. No more being able to grab a fresh baguette for 35 cents after work to go with a heaping bowl of pasta I prepared over the tiny stove in my kitchen. No more mousing over beautiful produce I could grab, as much as my two arms could carry, and paying no more than 3 Euros for it…and it lasting for two weeks. No more 1 Euro cafe con leches as I dashed to the Metro late and needing a quick pick me up because I stayed up late Skyping and Facetiming people from back home.

No more feeling inferior because I was a Black woman and being stared at everywhere. No more having to explain myself, how I look, my name and everything about me because I was a woman of color at every juncture. No more feeling like I couldn’t breathe. No more waiting for a spare minute, second, moment to exhale and let it all out. No more fighting (and pretending) to prove Madrid, as a city, in totality, wasn’t a good fit for me.

But then as I got ceremoniously swept away in the cataclysmic sea of thoughts which tend to rattle in my brain when I’m unsettled. When I’m unsure. When I’m scared. When I’m fearful. When the unknown is creeping around the corner and I don’t know what the hell to expect.

I paused.

I paused and became present. This wasn’t the time for me to overly analytical, making myself sick with all the different iterations of angles and possibilities and crevices and possibilities.

I was here, in Oporto. I was here, sitting on a concrete wall with my back resting on a vibrant yellow house, a man working carefully and quietly just around my neck, dusting and squeaking to clean the antiquated window which looked as if time and consequence had dirtied it and prevented a reflection from gleaming through.

And to my right, the Douro River glittered underneath the overcast sky. The tops of buildings and homes and stack houses and wineries and boats and people walking and sidewalks. And I quit thinking. And my chest started to slow heave, in and out, in and out, just as a needle and thread would slowly weave through soft fabric between the hands of a seamstress creating a new garment or finessing her craft.

And precipitation fell from my tender eyes. My raw eyes. The eyes which were bloodshot red if you dared to look closely into them without trepidation. The eyes which hadn’t seen a good night of sleep in more than a month. The eyes which had seen three new countries and four new cities in only three weeks. The eyes which ached to see American soil yet hated to admit it. Hated to be that girl, that American. That person who put their home country above all the ones they had seen and witnessed and grown enamored with after being there for a short time.

I wasn’t staring at a new landscape before me. I wasn’t that crazy girl sitting on a concrete wall amazed at what was before her and trying to ignore the hoards of noisy children outfitted in fluorescent hats on a field trip who were screaming and skittering and carrying about. I was looking at my future. I was staring into the threshold of a new beginning. The rest of my life. And I was crying because I could tell, despite the fear, the hesitation, the many questions, the process that repatriation could bring that I was doing okay. I was getting there. I was headed in the right direction, and it was more, it felt more, it seemed more, it appeared more, than I could have dreamt for myself.

I thought about how in the past I was so afraid to think that my thoughts, my feelings, my words meant something. It was far more comfortable for me to hide beneath the shadows of others, to hide in their thoughts, feelings and words. To convince myself theirs were more important, more worthy, more principled.

But I do matter. I matter. I always mattered. My thoughts always mattered. My feelings always mattered. My words always mattered.

And I was always enough. Just me.

I was always.

I was always enough.

lovely leaving.

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As the overpowering scent of chlorine invaded my nasal passages, I held my breath and tiptoed through the locker room at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. My mother had enrolled me in my first, official swimming lessons and although I’d been “swimming” for years, she thought I could use special instruction from those who actually knew what they were doing— lifeguards.

That first summer, I had to be around eight or nine, started a yearly tradition of summers filled with quickly changing in the girls locker room with the slick, sticky and ancient tiled floors, holding my breath so the chlorine and bleach smells didn’t give me a headache, as they always did when I was submerged in the water, panting, blinking furiously and trying not to complain from the burning of my eyes. 

Many, many, many times, although I was being guided by my instructor, I felt out of control, powerless to the depths of the water. Often, even when my instructor explained to myself and my classmates what we’d be doing and demonstrated, it seemed so easy, but when I attempted it was a complete flop. My most vivid memory of such instance is when I was a teenager and almost finished with all the levels of swimming courses. This class was strictly on diving in the deep, twelve feet end. I scrapped my knees on the side of the pool several times, streams of amber trailing behind me as I attempted to touch the pool floor. 

This past weekend when I celebrated my 28th birthday in Palma de Mallorca and spent the bulk of my Saturday sunbathing and frolicking in the Mediterranean Sea at Cala Major beach, I had a deja vu moment. It was one of the few times I ventured out into the water alone and thought I had my footing, but the aggressive waves slapped me back. Once this made my bikini top fly completely off and I was rendered topless. Another time, I was pushed underwater, the salt water burning my pupils and stinging my nose, forcefully shoving frigid, salty water down my throat and causing me to scrape my left knee on a rock on the bottom of the sea. 

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But I fought and laughed through it. Eventually, I was panting and limping back to the shore, collapsed on my towel in the sand and napped for fifteen minutes, completely drained and exhausted. The waves had not certainly not killed or defeated me, but it had zapped me of any energy I had before. 

Which, ironically, is what I can say about my experience living as an expat in Madrid for the past eight months. There have been countless experiences where I was slapped around, forcefully shoved and left drained and depleted as a result of circumstance. Whether it was weathering delicate (and dysfunctional) roommate situations, withstanding teaching jobs which took everything out of me although I showed up everyday determined to make it work, losing friends from back home and realizing newfound friends I’d made here weren’t the best fit, coming into my own as an adult woman and standing on my own two feet. 

And although none of these things have defeated or killed me, they’ve shed so much clarity on life as I know it and the path I want the rest of my life to continue to take, beginning with leaving Madrid, ending this Spanish journey. In nine days.

To be fair, this wasn’t a decision I made with haste or without much deliberation. I knew at the end of February when I was asked whether or not I wanted to renew my current contract with the Spanish Ministry of Education teaching in a high school. I knew, rather, that I wanted to return home, to stop forcing myself to be someone I wasn’t or enjoy a job or country I’m not happy in. 

So, leaving, for me, is two-fold. 

I’ve spoken at great lengths about the racism I’ve been affronted with in Madrid, and it’d be wholly dishonest for me to say it wasn’t a huge factor and not wanting to continue to live here. I’ve expressed at many junctures the frustration of being both a Black American and Black African here. I’ve either received empathy from those who agree with the racist notions which abound in this country or those who are so engrossed in their privilege they don’t even notice it, let alone their participation in the perpetuation of systematic racism and hatred of people of color. 

Privilege is the main thing which irks me about all the micro aggressions and othering I know to be by-product of long-standing ignorance and racism, rather those who just don’t seem to get it, even other people of color, and tell me I should take the respectability route. Those who suggest to me I act as a bridge to cultural understanding and undertake the (unwanted) burden of shattering stereotypes and incorrect, negative cultural and racial assumptions. 

I’ve arrived at such a place of pride about Blackness and my Nigerian heritage, and no, my existence has never and will never be to be an ambassador or tolerant of the ignorance of others. I don’t have to be understanding of White privilege. I don’t have to be understanding of why people think the way they do about Black Americans and Black Africans and give them a pass. I won’t accept being told I’m “overly sensitive” or that I have a “chip on my shoulder” or I should “stop reading into every little thing.” I won’t be told just because I look different and have a different name to expect to be treated differently because of the curiosity of others and to be open to it. And I won’t. I simply won’t. 

 I’m not here to assuage guilt, make myself understood or to constantly explain myself, and I’d much rather not live in a country which I feel is committed to misunderstanding me and people like me.

On the flip side of the coin, my vocation is not to teach. This I know undoubtedly after trying (and failing) to transition to what I Initially thought would be a complete career change before moving. I’ve taught adults, I’ve taught children, I’ve taught really young children and I’ve taught teenagers in my short TEFL teaching stint. The lessons and insights I’ve gained about myself are truly endless, but one thing I know overall is writing is not something I can run away from. To run away from my vocation, my calling, my purpose is akin to running away from myself.

And yes, I can admit my move to Madrid was pre-meditated as an escape, a flee, running away as fast as I could. I ran away from a lot: the familiarity (as well as predictability and boringness) of home I had grown tired of, family issues, constant disappointment with friends, a pathetic (and nonexistent) love life, impending doom about the direction (and shape) my writing career was taking, exhaustion from being broke and my talents and passions not being valued and appreciated. 

I thought the magic solution would be to move thousands of miles away to start over from scratch. Of course I had goals. I wanted to finally become fluent in Spanish and relish in the Spanish culture and…la la la la la la. Instead, what I have found is that the things I ran from never disappeared but morphed into a new form. Because you can’t run away from yourself or your problems or your issues. You have to dig deep and conquer them, conquer your demons. 

After going through endless changes with teaching: being fired, dropping classes which weren’t a good fit for me, payment not being on time or the proper amount or not receiving it at all, dealing with shitty language academies who just deemed me yet another native English speaker and treated me with no decency or respect for my time and what I had to offer. 

I found myself after finally getting a coveted position with the Spanish Ministry of Education in a high school, where I was finally getting paid a steady, livable amount and working 16 hours a week in a rather lax working environment, that I was still not happy. 

My coworkers were everything I’d wanted in colleagues: genuine, kindhearted people. They respected me as native English speaker and treated me as such. They valued my knowledge and wisdom about the many idiosyncrasies of the spoken (and written) English language. There was an open door policy where I could express concerns or issues I had with certain classes or students. 

And yet…there was a gaping hole. A longing for more. A decided feeling there had to be more for me to look forward to, to be excited about. 

After a few weeks, mornings became a new routine of dread. I’d sleep later and later to avoid getting up and slugging through teaching classes I didn’t want to teach. Several times the teachers would forget to send the groups of students to me in the library where I held my English classes, and I’d be holed up in a room for hours at a time, with only the birds outside the windows bordering the room and the echo of my own voice to talk to. At the end of each day, I felt drained and dragged myself back to my flat, ate lunch and passed out for siesta. Rinse and repeat for the four days a week I worked. I was living for the weekend…again. This was exactly the kind of pattern and mentality I had wanted to escape in my old life. 

At the end of February when I was asked to renew, I knew the answer would be no, but yet I hesitated. How could I give up this Spanish journey so quickly? I’d told so many people I’d probably be here for years. What would people think if I packed up just shy of a year? They’d think I was failure. That I was rejoining the ranks of everyone else, caught up in the working grind. That’d I’d somehow been wrong about choosing to be an expat in the first place. 

But then I just said no. A still, sure, strong, no. I said no, and felt for the first time a months, a peace I had been longing for. I knew I could put an end to all the fighting, forcing myself to fit the mold of an English teacher when I knew my heart had never been in it, that I’d pursued it for the wrong reasons. And that all this time, the only thing which had given my transformation, this journey, any meaning in the first place were my words. 

My writing. 

I needed to tap into another part of me I hadn’t known existed to write honestly, vividly, vulnerably. Moving thousands of miles away had finally given me the courage to write from the heart.

In nine days, my Spanish journey may be ending, right at the nine-month mark, but this new direction is spiraling out into something uncharted, uncertain, unknown, yet incredibly beautiful. I will be moving to Washington, D.C., a city I fell in love with last summer weeks before I moved to Madrid. I knew it’d be on my short list of places to live in at some point after spending time there and things have worked out amazingly for me to live there post-Madrid. 

I am leaving. But it’s not the messy, storming out because I’m angry, leaving. It’s the walking towards hope, wonder and newer horizons. It’s clean slates. It’s creating an optimum life fit just for me. 

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more in milan.

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Sweaty armpits, visibly dry skin on my legs and calves, a flushed face full of tears and hands shaking with rage.

I was willing myself to walk, each painstaking step, as the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, came into view on my left side. And as much as I wanted to marvel and admire such a beautiful structure, my view of the castle was obstructed with tears which fluttered freely from my eyes and my experience of taking it all in was ruined with the rage I couldn’t shake.

“Please take me to get my things,” I asked, calmly, for probably the tenth time in the past few minutes. When my Couchsurfing host ignored my plea and carelessly continued to rattle off random information about the castle’s history, my rage and panic and hysteria only festered and grew into something big. A big ball, a ball of fury, something which I knew could soon unravel and mount into something messy, frightful, dangerous and unsafe.

“Please…take…me…to…get…my…things,” I repeated this time, with my teeth clenched. When he continued to talk, ignoring my frustration, I flung myself into full conniption mode.

“I’M GOING TO CALL THE POLICE! TAKE ME TO GET MY THINGS! I DON’T WANT TO GO INTO THE CASTLE!”

At this point, onlookers were staring, wondering who this crazed American girl, screaming in English, was. Why she was disturbing the otherwise tranquil mood surrounding the castle. Why I was disturbing the peace with my antics.

But none of them knew what I had endured for the past five hours. I had arrived at Malpensa airport after a 6:25 a.m. flight. I had slept for a total of an hour and half the night before, because I had to get up and take two buses to get to the airport. I had trekked to the city center on another bus once I was in Milan, a bus ride which took 1 hour and 15 minutes, because of traffic, instead of the 50 minutes I was told. I’d waited for two hours soaking up free Wi-Fi while stuffing my face with pizza margherita, a prosciutto, mozzarella and arugula sandwich on focaccia and apple pie while I sipped my first authentic cappuccino.

I was exhausted. And for some deluded reason, I assumed once I’d arrived in Milan and was with my Couchsurfing host, they’d understand that and would let me shower and nap in peace, then take me out for aperitivo in the late evening.

But once I arrived to my couch surfing host’s house, which smelled of musk, dingy, week-old socks, filth and shisha, I knew I’d picked the wrong adventure for my first trip to Italy. Minutes after dropping my bag, I was told to walk with him to a nearby McDonald’s where we picked up four other people from Poland. They came back to the flat with us and also dropped off their things.

We were all rushed to be ready to go, impatiently so. And once we were out the door, the host began talking his shoddy English, which mostly sounded like incoherent mumbling. Most of the time while he talked, I just nodded and smiled. I had no clue what he was saying nor did I care.

We went to the famed Fashion District, then to Plazza Duomo to see the cathedral so massive and beautiful it didn’t look real. We hurriedly sped through these places and countless others, while the host corralled us through at his speed, ignoring we might want to stop and look a little longer, take photos, grab a drink or a snack. Whenever I suggested stopping to do anything off his pre-set itinerary, he vetoed it with a suggestion of his own. It felt like I was on a high school field trip with my chaperone instead of on a weekend jaunt to one of the cities I was crossing off my bucket list.

About four hours in, after walking non-stop at the pace of someone else, not being able to voice my opinions, not being able to leisurely take everything in, I gambled and started searching for somewhere to stay for the weekend on AirBnB. And then the other four people ditched me to do their own thing while leaving me with my lackluster host, and I ended up screaming at him in public because I was delirious, exhausted, hysterical and annoyed with both myself and him for testing and pushing my own limits.

And limits, boundaries, expecting more, expecting less, all these concepts are things I suppose I’ve been subconsciously learning about all my life, although within the past year as I’ve started to come into my own and disassociate from my identity which was constructed for me (versus me constructing it myself), it’s become especially prominent and pressing.

I knew before even confirming my first (and last) Couchsurfing experience it wasn’t really something I wanted to do, but after desperately searching for someone to stay within my budget and finding everywhere feasible booked, I succeeded to my desperation and chose the Free.99 route. It cost me my comfort, the freedom of exploring a new city on my own, doing things at my own pace, steering away from a set plan and instead roaming and being open to what pops up, what comes up, what might seem appealing and rolling with it.

Just as damaging as pushing the limits, your boundaries, the level of comfort you dare not press past, can be, I believe there is delicate balance between what you may think are really your boundaries and personal comfort (and guarding these while listening to your intuition) and what is instead masquerading as fear, fear of the unknown.

I’ve found, repeatedly whenever I thought clinging to my familiarities was the safer or the more “rational” choice, I’ve been astounded by the Universe’s response when I acted in courage whilst trembling in fear. In these cases, choosing the safe option was just an illusion. I was just scared. Scared to fail. Scared to have to deal with the repercussions, the fallback, what people would say when and if I did fail. How I would feel about myself having attempted and not succeeded.

Before I moved abroad, I battled many, many, many doubts and even after I moved, I’ve steadily battled whether or not packing up and relocating my life was a good decision. Each time I got deep in that rabbit hole, the Universe showed me a reminder. Or something amazing happens to alter my perspective, something incredibly beautiful, something beyond what I could have ever imagined. And in those moments, I wonder why I have been rewarded with such a beautiful life.

I had a moment like this as I looked down from my hotel room in Milan late at night, after the wretched couchsurfing experience earlier that day. The streets were dark and the only light bouncing down on the streets below were from antiquated lamps lining every block. There was a soft whisper of a car or two whizzing by, but for the most part it was really quiet. And still. I had to remind myself I was in Italy. How years ago being there, in that moment, was only a mere thought, and how miraculously it had become reality, my reality.

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The Duomo, Milan’s renowned cathedral.

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The Galleria, located in close proximity to the Duomo, adjacent to Plazza Duomo.

Only it wasn’t a miracle. And it should’ve never been something deemed impossible or unreachable. Each of us, it is my belief, are destined to walk a certain path in our lives, before who we are and who we become is even a thought. We might grow up in an environment where we’re not encouraged to dream, to hope, to reach for something larger than ourselves. We internalize this thought process and it follows us into adulthood.

But sometimes, quite often, the Universe has a way of catching up to us, of redirecting us back on track for our life journey. That’s what has happened for me anyway, since I began this expat journey. When I first received my passport five years ago, the flame was ignited for me to be a citizen of the world, but somewhere within me, I know that flame was just waiting for the optimum moment to be set ablaze. I was never meant to stay put in one place forever. I was meant to see the world, moments at a time, and share my insights, my lessons, my struggles, my suffering, my enlightenment as I did, while growing and helping others to grow, too.

This life I am living was meant for me. And your life that you are living, beyond the throes of the 9-to-5 hustle, beyond just living to pay your bills, beyond doing everything right to make everyone but you happy, is yours. It is yours and you only get one. So live it. Without restraint. Without regrets. Without looking back.

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