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

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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.

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.