remembrance and reflection.

life, spirit

By nature I am a reflective person. I’m constantly looking back for lessons I might’ve gleamed over for things which were once nonsensical, to have some sort of clarity deriding from them. It just so happens that Monday’s date, August 24, inspired a sort of wholeness as I look back.

Two years ago I was just a week out from starting a new chapter in my life — relocating to Madrid, Spain. It was a decision which I ran from initially but then once I fully entertained the idea of moving abroad, something I’d always wanted to do, it seamlessly worked itself out. By Thanksgiving of 2012, I scarily held an acceptance letter for the intensive TEFL certification program I was in my first four weeks in Madrid. I told my mother first, who reacted strongly and was quite unsupportive. Some weeks later after I’d graduated from grad school and gathered at a Persian restaurant in Buckhead among friends for a celebration dinner, I shyly told all my friends the news I’d been holding to myself.

The almost year that followed my declaration was a palpable doubt and anxiety as I weathered through the visa process blindly. I quit my first and only reporter job completely fearful despite knowing quitting had to be done almost a year prior. And those fears never completely melted away. I only traded them with the hope and optimism for the international journey I was embarking on. I had so many thoughts about what the new chapter of my life would look and feel like but instead…life happened.

This space has allowed me to step into writing my most authentic thoughts, of exploring how transformative travel has been for me already and will continue to be for the rest of my life. Because really who would I be if I hadn’t started traveling back in 2009 once I got my passport?

When I posted my first blog here two years ago, I was doing my due diligence in terms of the blogosphere. Whenever you move to another country, you start a blog. That’s just what you do. I’ve had countless blogs since I was a teenager (Xanga and LiveJournal anyone?), most of which were either forgotten, deleted or abandoned. I had no expectations that this blog would be any different. I had no expectations I would feel the need to keep writing in this space. But here we are.

Expectations are often weighty, naive silly things to cling to. They are a way of looking at the life ahead of you in an idealized manner, without taking stock that sometimes life experiences are meant to happen in other ways. To live is to expect the unexpected and to know the unexpected often is the best way for things to unfold.

A week ago, after doing training for a new gig I picked up, I was astonished to discover where I was sat on the bank of the Potomac River. That day I’d brought that familiar brand of anxiety with me, tailing behind my otherwise sunny disposition, worried about one of those things outside of my control. I knew I had to find peace with it and as I sat on a bench by the water, the whispers of conversations from lovers and friends brushing past my ears and the wind brushing past my face as my eyes slowly closed, I could let it go. I could own I had done my part and it was up to the Universe to do what it would.

river3

Then I got up and drove home and started stewing in anxiety again.

My body writhed in anxiety for hours — a racing heartbeat, quickened shallow breaths, my face warming as the anger rose. The air went out in my apartment. I was sweating. I was furious. I was uncomfortable.

And it dawned on me all this was pointless. Why was I choosing to be so angry over something I literally could not do anything further about? I knew I was being called to wait and trust it would be all worked out.

Hours later it was and I wasn’t even aware at that point because I had detached from it all, texting with friends, tweeting and drinking brandy in that night’s cup of earl grey. I was oblivious and distracted when my resolution to my issue came. It was as if the Universe was waiting for me (with bated breath) to just relax and let things be before a seamless turn of events resulted. And things were okay.

In today’s reflective state about what the past two years of my life has been and how it has taken so many unexpected turns, this instance speaks volumes to me now. The timing of our lives is not something we can control. We can push and fuss and fight and clamor and try to escape when we don’t have the answers in an attempt for our life to feel less tenuous and groundless. We can waste precious energy on being enraged on why things aren’t different.

Or we can simply detach. Trust that everything is unfolding in exactly the way it has intended to. And be present enough to see the gifts instead of being bogged down in frustration from things not presenting to us in the way we would like.

I’m not sure what the timing of my life is up to now. I don’t have this blissful state of clarity radiating from my being. I don’t have a froufrou response about how now I feel enlightened and sure and everything has worked out.

But I do have peace. I do have trust. I do have the utmost certainty that right now where I am is where I am supposed to be. I do have the sense that things will start to flow now that I’ve stopped fighting and am choosing to be. And really that’s all I need. That is enough.

river4

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lost (and not found).

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September 2012; Madrid, Spain.

Desert dunes.

Nothing but desert dunes, or what appeared to dunes of sand, were visible ahead of me. I looked behind me at the train station I had just exited to double check and it quickly confirmed one thing: this had to be a massive joke played on me.

The night before, after strolling on Gran Via, one of the bustling streets of Madrid, to shop at H&M, peek into the flagship Zara store and eat one of the most expensive solo dinners of my life, I meticulously charted out both walking and Metro routes for the next day, to avoid what had miraculously become my destiny: being lost.

I couldn’t understand how I could be lost after confirming which direction I would go in on both Google Maps and what was not a crinkled map I had been given from the fine (old) gentleman’s loft I was renting.

But I was. And all I saw were sand dunes.

There are deserts in Spain?

Sweat began to sneakily trickle down the back of my red maxi dress I wore and my feet, clad in gold braided sandals, burned from the ultraviolet rays of the Spanish sol. There was no one around, except for a few stray Spaniards parking their cars alongside the Metro station, and I kept walking. There had to be a store or restaurant nearby where I could hail a cab.

I was walking for the next five minutes.

I passed children playing basketball with a deflated ball, throwing the ball which barely bounced against the headboard, making the sound of a dull thud. The children skittered and stared as I walked past them. I kept walking, with a slight shrug.

Just around the corner I heard music and as my stride neared me closer the music, I discovered it was a restaurant. I squealed on the inside, knowing that I was that much closer to being on my way to my destination.

When I entered, sat down at the bar, smiled and said hello, I expected to be greeted back, but was only met with confusion. Flies interrupted my train of thought as they landed on my fingers and I shooed them away, only then realizing that this restaurant was dingy, dirty and explained precisely why there was no one dining except for the man sitting to the right of me at the bar.

“Can you call me a cab?”

I asked, looking at the man behind the counter, who seemed to be the sole employee in the vicinity. He stared blankly at me, smiled and shrugged, before offering a simple explanation.

“No…speak…English.”

Shit, shit, shit!

I turned to the fellow next to me and he smiled as well. I was the solo American and English speaker, stranded who knows where and didn’t speak enough Spanish to figure out how the hell to get to my destination.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman with her children shuffle into the restaurant, bringing with them a cloud of dust and dirt from just beyond the door.  The children were restless, loud and she yelled, “Vale! Vale! Vale!”  repeatedly to get them settled and sitting at a table.

I sighed and looked up to a futbol game on a 20-inch boxy television suspended on a stand in the corner. From one peer at my phone, I determined I still had plenty of time to figure this out. I closed my eyes and held my head in my hands and exhaled, my entire body distressing with a heavy, shaky breath.

When I opened my eyes, the sun now streaming in through the windows in front of the bar, the man to my left handed me his cell phone. Looking at him strangely, I took the phone after he made a motion that suggested I take it. I looked down at the screen and realized he had pulled up a translation device. I texted that I had gotten lost and needed a cab to come pick me up from here and take me to Calle de Orense. I pressed “traduzco” before handing the Droid over back to him and once he looked at my message he rattled off Spanish at an unintelligible speed. The employee picked up the phone and within five minutes, I was on my way with a “Ciao” and smile from him.

———

In a couple months, it will be two years since I uprooted my life from Stone Mountain, Georgia to thousands of miles away, across and oceans and several timezones to begin a new journey in Madrid, Spain. It will also be two years since I began my journey on this blog, one intended to share alongside the journey of my life that was spiraling out into this beautiful direction.

I think back often to that trip in September of 2012 to Madrid often. I think about what if I had not taken that leap to even go. What if I had not dared to silence the negative voices telling me I was crazy for going to Europe, for the first time, alone. I think about how much of my life would still be in a standstill. Would I be the person I am today? Would I be the woman I am today?

There are choices to be made in each moment, choices which have the capacity to change the course of our lives in either minute or major ways. And we can’t undo any of these choices. We can only reflect on the magnanimity of them in the aftermath, whether our choices have led to good or bad outcomes or a mixed bag.

I’ve been especially thinking back that trip in September of 2012 to Madrid lately in terms of the theme of being lost. What does it mean and what does it feel like to not know where you are headed, even when you’ve planned with your best of intentions? When you embark on a journey with a map in hand, a clear idea of where your destination is and no Plan B? And what happens when Plan A, the only option you pre-determined there was, bottoms out? When it fails and you’re sorely disappointed, beyond in ways which you can express?

Lost in a maze. Life has not made any fucking sense to me as of late. A tailspin. A tidal wave. One of those lame corn mazes you go to with friends in the fall and you have to weave in and out of small, confined spaces in order to try to find your way out. Only, there’s no true exit in this corn maze. It’s just a perpetual, slow, morose, depressing, somber stroll, aimlessly drifting around. Grasping for sense, for reason, for answers.

That’s been me.

I had a plan. My plan was to go to London for grad school. My plan was to become an expat once again. But my plan didn’t work out. My plan didn’t come to pass. My plan fell apart in front of my eyes despite all my efforts to have an outcome of otherwise.

People tell me the timing wasn’t right. It wasn’t meant to be. There’s a season for everything. Everything happens for a reason. But what I can’t reconcile is what this means for the all abiding faith and hope I clutch and cling to as my inner compass. I felt this move with a great deal of certainty it was happening yet— it didn’t. How can I believe and trust in my sense of knowing? How can I trust me again? How can I trust the Universe? How can I trust God? How can I trust any divine order? And what the hell am I supposed to do now?

One of my favorite spiritual teachers Pema Chödron talks a lot in many of books of encountering life as a continuous sense of groundless — that is, accepting life is a series of moments where we realize there is always shaky ground beneath us. Realizing no matter how we may thrust or manipulate our lives to be peaceful and seamless, we ultimately have no control over certain things which may happen. And that many of life’s elements are accepting this and everything that surrounds us being in a state of impermanence, swinging between presently existing and within the throes of falling away. She is also careful to consistently note we try so hard to escape we all chase the unknown, not knowing what is around the corner or sometimes not being able to make sense of the direction our lives take.

Guess I’m starting to grasp this for myself in grave, sweeping ways.

And this is life. This is living. This is knowing the only knowing I have is that I know nothing at all, that I have no clue what is going on, that I have no clue what is next, and that I remain lost, drifting to and fro, hoping at one point or another, the clarity will come.

Hoping the clarity will come.

how (and why) I moved to spain.

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Since repatriating back to the States, the question that I am asked the most other than why I left beautiful, stunning Spain to live in lackluster Washington, DC (I wonder now, too), is how, aside from gathering the gumption to move 5,000 miles away, I even executed an international move. For instance, how did I secure work to make money? How did I find somewhere to live? How was I legally able to stay in another country for nearly a year and earn legitimate money?

Well, trust me, it certainly wasn’t a walk in the park. It was nearly ten months of frustration, stress, confusion, patience and hundreds of dollars, before I even set foot in Madrid. And quite honestly, when I look back on that journey I took before the transformative journey of being an expat, I wonder how I managed to do it all, mostly on my own.

Metropolis

Rather than having this lengthy conversation with innumerous facets repeatedly with different people, I thought I’d write a comprehensive, full frontal and gut-wrenchingly honest (because more is needed of that in terms of becoming an expat, especially an expat of color in Spain) post highlighting just how I was able to pull this shit off.

I decided I wanted to go. I decided that I most definitely was going to go and stopped entertaining that it was an outlandish idea.

Talking myself out the self-doubt was probably the hugest thing in terms of starting the preparation to moving abroad. I decided in November of the previous year (November 2012) that I was going to move to Spain and stuck to my guns. This isn’t the say that I didn’t entertain tons of self-doubt in the ten months leading up to my actual departure to Madrid. I did. After I decided I was going to for sure move, I told my parents, followed by close friends. This was done partially because I was excited about it and partially because I needed to speak it aloud for it be more real rather than some abstract concept I was concocting absently in my mind.

I contemplated how I would get to live in Spain.

If you’re in the least bit familiar with the state of Spain’s economy at the moment, you know that unemployment is quite high, so any thought of casually waltzing into the country with a work visa — without the prior backing of a company based in the States with offices abroad — is nearly impossible.

The vast majority of Americans who reside in Spain are either study abroad students or people like me who decided to teach English. I knew the only option for me to get to Spain was a student visa, so it really came down to me researching my options. And there are two: going through credentialed, established programs solely for placing native English speakers in teaching positions, such as the North American Language and Culture Assistant program backed by the Spanish Ministry of Education, CIEE, UCETAM, BEDA or do it solo dolo through an established language academy.

The latter typically have programs who offer intensive TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate programs who might offer assistance with things such as getting your TIE once the student visa you obtain lapses after the first 90 days, finding housing and helping you get teaching jobs to build your own daily schedule. Both routes will get you a student visa but the process will vary, slightly.

I actually did both. I started out as a freelancer after getting my TEFL Certification and then switched to the North American Language and Culture Assistant program (also known as Auxiliaries de Conversación). The unpredictably (and bullshit) of freelancing teaching became too stressful, and I needed to know that I had a set amount of money coming to me monthly which is why I switched.

I applied for a student visa.

A moment of silence for the most horrific process I have ever endured.

Okay.

Maybe I’m being a tad dramatic, but I’m not exaggerating on how confusing and frustrating the process is. When I applied for a student visa for Spain, as a Georgia resident, in 2013, there were 14 things total I needed: a completed national visa form, two recent passport size pictures, drivers license, original school certificate of admission, information about the study program, proof of health insurance coverage, proof of means of support, proof of accommodation, local health certificate, original certificate of good conduct and the visa fee (~$150 at the time I believe).

Whew! Each of the originals of those and a copy were needed. Yes, copies of everything. I still remember running around the corner to a nearby Publix the day of my visa appointment to make copies last minute because I didn’t realize how literal that request was.

Now, these requirements might have changed because this was now two years ago when I applied and they vary based on the state you live in. I pulled the checklist with extremely detailed instructions from the Consulate website I had to go to. Because I lived in Georgia at the time, I had to go to Miami to turn in my application in person after making an appointment months in advance, to give me time to get everything together, namely to get the original certificate of good conduct (fancy way of saying an official FBI background check clearance). That document alone took weeks and once it was received had to be sent back to the Department of State for Apostil Certification (a fancy way of saying notarized basically). You’ll also need fingerprints to send in along with the paperwork for the certificate of good conduct, which was a clusterfuck to figure out in Georgia cause only certain places would do it, contrary to what the Consulate told me would be the case.

I figured this all out on my own through trial and error and mindless Googling for insight because the Consulate of Miami would not answer (or return) my phone calls. I got really desperate at one point and sent an email which they eventually “answered” in one line, still not helping me in any way. I say this to say that depending on Consulate you have to go to you may or may not have this same experience. Just be prepared to have to just figure things out if it comes down to it.

Proof of means of support is another one of those things that was mind-boggling. Because I wasn’t going through one of the pre-established programs that feed directly for English teachers and instead went through a language academy (which means they were not providing my means of support or salary like the other programs do), I had to prove I had $1,000 per month that I would be in Spain (12 months x $1,000 = $12,000). Other consulates weren’t as strict and would let you just get a letter from your parents or legal guardian saying they’d be responsible for you. Miami wanted a bank statement printout showing the proof of funds. I hear now this has changed and they want a six month history of funds to meet this qualification. Ouch.

I saved as much as I could.

Because piecing together the various parts of my visa application began to get costly, this was difficult, along with other expenses that popped up unexpectedly (hello life!).

Also, as an aside as far as saving, because I freelance taught my first few months in Madrid, nothing was guaranteed and I knew this (to a degree) before I moved, saving more should’ve been a priority. Freelance teaching is highly unpredictable and there were often moments when I wasn’t paid the exact amount I was promised, if at all or really late. Ranges per hour can vary vastly; the academy I taught in, for instance, paid only 12€ per hour! Getting the heftier rates per hour often involves a mix of experience and reputation and as newbie TEFL teacher, this wasn’t something I could demand right off the bat.This made drawing up a budget based on expected salary to be nearly impossible, although I knew, at the end of every month, I needed to allocate money to rent (~350€), my metro pass (~60€), groceries (~20€ per week) and for fun things.

To be quite frank, I didn’t save as much as I should’ve, and I paid for this mistake in the first few months after my move. I was fortunate to have family who understood and helped me, but if I could do it all over again, I might’ve worked a second job during nights or weekends to create a cushion for myself so I didn’t have to depend on others to finance my dream. I highly suggest you do this, too. Make this journey one that you make happen on your own. It will feel that much more gratifying.

I consolidated all my belongings into two suitcases and a small carry-on.

Per the sage advice of others I stuffed down the desire to bring the slew of six-inch heels into my luggage and everything in my wardrobe. I only brought a fraction of my clothes with me, under the assumption I could shop for things once I was settled there and only five pairs of shoes. Funny thing was, as a curvy, tall woman (I’m 5’10”) I had a lot of trouble finding clothes and shoes for myself as the typical Spanish woman is petite. That’s a story for another day though…

I moved.

Getting comfy on a flight out of Newark in Jersey courtesy of Jet Airways (fly them if you ever get the chance; impeccable customer service and delicious Indian food served on flight) was the easiest part of this journey. Cause all I had to do was check my luggage…and sit.

The other part, which I deem equally important, is the why. Why, would I, a Black and African woman in her late 20s, pretty successful in terms of career strides up and leave everything she knew in exchange for an overwhelming amount of unfamiliarity? Why would being surrounded by a language I barely spoke with people who didn’t look like me and knowing not a soul be alluring?

Sometimes you get so desperate for a change you take gigantic, nonsensical leaps which seem crazy, ill-fitting and illogical to most others. But for me, it was just the leap of bravery I needed to reignite me and set my spirit alive. I hadn’t realized then, even while I was an expat, how much I was changing, how each moment, with each choice, I was consciously changing, morphing more into the spirit I had always been. The spirit I had convinced myself wasn’t good enough, needing fixing, needing to douse her head with tons of self-help books and practice meditation, religiously, to be acceptable, a good person, a good woman, a good daughter, a good sister, a good friend, a good companion.

And that’s what it all boils down to. I didn’t think I was good enough. I thought adding some extra stamps to my passport, traveling to other countries, trying a new career, speaking another language other my native tongue fluently would make me…great. But what I discovered was that I was already and had always been immeasurably great, marvelous, wondrous, amazing, inspiring. That’s what travel and these great intercontinental and international adventures are about— inward journeys.

Maybe you’re reading this post contemplating an international move. Maybe Spain is your destination. Maybe you’re thinking you’re crazy (I know I did when I first considered moving to Spain). Maybe you think your dream is far-fetched, too far from the norm, too off the beaten path to be accepted from your family, friends, your boyfriend or girlfriend.

It’s not.

And you’re not crazy.

Take the leap. Even if you’re scared. Especially if you’re scared. Even if you’re trembling and fearful that everything in the world could go wrong if you left everything you’ve known behind.

But how will you know if you never even try?

Plaza Mayor

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.

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.

the expat existential crisis.

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The Metro stop nearest my flat that I’ll walk to every morning for the next four weeks (or more) to get to my TEFL certification course.

“Calle General Yague, por favor,” I mumbled, barely above a whisper to my cab driver, the man I hastily selected as I exited Barajas Madrid International Airport and filed into the cab line, behind many others who lugged their suitcase or suitcases behind them.

The cab driver drove a beat up Mercedes Benz, the color of pearls gathered from a deep sea diving expedition, with black skid marks to and fro, a sure sign that he either he or other Spaniards weren’t the best drivers.

As he struggled to lift my two suitcases into the small trunk, making a dramatic grunting noise for the biggest of the two, I rolled my eyes and walked over to the right door of the backseat. By the time I had fastened my seatbelt and told him where I needed to go, he had already revved the engine and pulled forward.

My ride to the flat I’m staying in was no more than 15 minutes, just as Google Maps had stated when I checked the night before my 16-hour journey to Madrid, a journey that took me through three airports and ended in me leaving my passport in the slip in front of my seat, causing a momentary second of panic when I went to exchange my last savings, $2,000 U.S. dollars for what amounted to $500 dollars less in Euros.

Nothing is the same anymore.

It’s only been five days and already, I’m not the same person. I no longer wake up each morning with dread rolling around in my stomach, not ready to tackle another workday at a workplace and profession I have fallen out of love with. Each day holds a sense of mystery; I don’t know what I’ll be faced with or what to prepare myself for. This is both exciting and terrifying.

Confusion and frustration steadily trade off on becoming my middle name, and I suppose it’ll be this way for quite some time, until I fully adjust. I realize I had some lofty and unrealistic expectations that it’d be easy as pie (because I had been yearning to move here and start my life in a new direction). Or at least, I didn’t take the time to think about what difficulties and challenges would be mounted up against me.

And believe me, there are plenty.

I don’t feel confident speaking Spanish, although I know the bare minimum to order a meal, ask for a drink or engage in a conversation if I get lost. Before any words fumble from my lips, I’m second guessing myself. I’m running a quick Google translation on my phone to see if what I’m thinking is in the ballpark of what a Spaniard would say. Will I be found out if I say something stupid? Will they look back at me and know that I’m a pathetic American struggling to take on a language that she didn’t grow up speaking? Even things I used to enjoy like grocery shopping are now difficult, as labels I don’t understand stare back at me.

Owning the title of being an adult is daunting as well. I paid rent for the first time five days ago. I folded up several Euro bills and handed them over to the sweet, older Spanish woman who I’m renting a room from. She smiled and took the bills between watching a show on television. She didn’t realize how huge of a step, a moment, that was for me. For her, I was yet another tenant that she has graciously, kindly and warmly taken in, but still, just another person that is helping her meet her own cost of rent to her landlord.

I’ve had to create a budget and determine what I will and will not spend the little money I do have until I finish my TEFL course, find work and start earning money. Each time I Skype or Facetime my mama she tells me, almost in a patronizing tone, to let her know if I end up in a financial bind. I hear her, and I know she worries. I’m her oldest daughter and her only daughter that has ever dared to move to another continent, but I’m determined to make this work, even if that means I’m eating crackers, meat and cheese for a few weeks to say that I remained within budget and took care of myself.

The hardest part, the most disheartening part of all, is that I can see, almost a mile away, that things have already changed with the people who I called close and dear to me before I left the States. I can already see that no matter how many Skype convos, Facetime sessions, stray iMessages or Google Hangouts, that eventually, they’ll stop wondering about my life on the other side of the world. Our conversations and the way we relate will change and fade away in unexpected ways, and I’ll no longer feel home with them in the way I used to. I’ll become a stranger, despite my best intentions to keep in touch and find common ground.

And I hate to admit it, but right now, in this moment, I feel very alone. Because none of the loved ones I’ve left behind truly know how this feels, to be stuck in a weird, awkward  way between two worlds and trying to figure out where you’ll fit in–on one side over the other.

I’m happy.

I love it here.

This move was the right decision, but it has dawned on me, and I realize with such finality that nothing will ever be the same. But, see, no one tells you that. No one tells you that when you decide to become an expat, when you decide to leave everything and everyone you’ve ever known behind, that nothing will ever be the same, in an almost palpable, sobering and earth-shattering way.