americanah in arlington.

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My skin was a mass of prickly, raised bumps because of the frigid temperature in the media room with a projector turned into a makeshift classroom. The air was always so icy in that room, able to zap through even the thickest and fluffiest of sweaters, encouraging teeth to chatter.

The year was 2011. I was a graduate student in a pseudo MFA program, a program I applied for and told no one about except for my boyfriend at the time, because I had been yearning to become a better writer after plateauing just two years after leaving J-school. I needed to feel the magic about writing again. I needed to be excited about pieces I was working on, about sitting down to write, even. That excitement had dried up and disappeared it seems, lost in the shuffle in being unable to find a full-time writing position for almost two years after graduating.

I’d survived the first two semesters of grad school, much to my surprise, much to the sacrifice it had been. I was still a full-time reporter, spending eight hours every day calling, emailing and scrounging the internet for newsworthy tidbits in the metro Atlanta area. I somehow found a way to balance both of these worlds — the world of reporting which I’d haphazardly, unexpectedly fallen in love with during my college years and the the new world which seemed to be opening ahead of me, of writing that existed outside of reporting.

But then again, I can’t say I really survived more like fought desperately to remain afloat. My typical day was eight hours of doing reporting followed by four hours in being in class by the evening. Then driving nearly an hour to get how at the end of each day and doing it all over again, three times each week. Looking back, the time and effort I exerted for grad school seems out of reproach. I don’t know how I managed it but reaching for our dreams often seems second nature even if we are embroiled in situations and environments which leech from us.

This course, in the icebox classroom, was one on intercultural communications. It was an entire semester dedicated looking at how we can communicate with each other, internationally, with the cultural cues which often differ. And how to reconcile those differences so communication becomes smoother and reciprocal. Each of us had to pattern an avatar, a person of a certain age, gender and nationality and then choose a book which was representative of the fictional avatar we had created.

I chose Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda’s first novel and the first book of hers I read which touched my heart. When I heard some weeks ago that’d she be in Arlington doing a talk at a local library, my heart sang and fluttered with joy. This would be the moment to soak up the knowledge and prowess of a writer, a woman I admired so deeply.

And while, for a lot people, the admiration and respect they have for her is merely just because of her talent, her eloquence and precision of which she speaks (evident in the many lectures she has given and TED talks which she’s now known for) and how she seems to have effortlessly captured the world’s attention by interweaving her Nigerian heritage into her works, it’s much deeper than that for me.

It’s personal.

I think about when I first started reading Purple Hibiscus back in grad school. I think about how I was in a precarious, fragile state of discerning both my Black American and Nigerian identity. I think about how reading that book gave me the courage to even begin to accept both parts of me as real, tangible and not warring at each other in the most violent of ways.

And it moves me to tears. Just like each work of hers has ended in a pool of tears in my lap, with a few stray tears tapping on the pages, making them wrinkly and noisy.

I read Purple Hibiscus and started to imagine that being Nigerian wasn’t something weird or misunderstood, as I had been led to believe throughout all my childhood and the teasing I had received for my name. And the rampant questions about whether or not my father was a prince or king, commenting on the “smelly” food that Nigerians often ate and calling me cruel names which elicited rounds of giggles from my classmates but a barrage of tears for me in private.

I read The Thing Around Your Neck and felt so intimately how being Nigerian impacts so many things and how Nigerians, Africans, are human, too. We are not some spectacle to be examined underneath the looking glass. There are complexities surrounding our relationships with others which are real, just like everyone else has.

I read Half of a Yellow Sun and ached for my ancestors and the atrocities of the Biafran War. The stolen lives, the stolen sense of peace, the stolen memories marred by a war which shattered families and hope for a better future.

I read Americanah and understood to a greater degree what my father, an immigrant to this country nearly 40 years ago dealt with. How he must have felt confronting what it meant to be Black in a country predisposed to othering him instead of trying to understand his difference. I understood to an extent that I had never before how difficult that must have been and how assimilation, though detrimental to me and my sisters who went through most of our lives lacking the proper context of what Nigerian culture and tradition is, was a means of bitter, double-edged survival to him. From softening his accent (which after all these years still rings through) to opting that people refer to him by his English, more widely known name instead of his proper Nigerian one.

And while hearing her speak last week, it was comforting. It was this same sense of a gentle understanding, of being made to feel that who I was, Nigerian, is okay.

She was candid in talking about her father’s kidnapping and visibly emotional. She apologized if she at all seemed off but admitted it had been hard to cope for her because her family means so much to her. Instead of just speaking for an hour, she spent her talking time taking questions from the audience. She paced herself as she spoke, being careful to insert the needed pauses, the emphasis on certain words and to laugh where she saw fit. But there was also a sense of ease, grace and calm that ran underneath each of her words.

It was an ease, grace and calm I hope to one day as effortlessly impart to others who come into my space and come into contact with me. It was refreshing and admirable.

There was a point where someone asked Chimamanda what her name meant. And as she explained the meaning of her name, my God will not fail me, there was hushed silence that fell over the room.

A sense of awe.

It was the same sense of awe I felt as I lined up behind many, many others after a thunderous round of applause was given after her answering questions was concluded to get my copy of Half of a Yellow Sun signed, a book signing I didn’t even know would be happening until after I had arrived and found a seat.

Those manning the line  apparently told everyone to write their names down on a slip of paper to expedite getting their name spelled in the front cover of their books. I missed this, completely, although I wondered what the slips of paper everyone was holding were for. I didn’t think to ask because I was so enraptured that she was literally sitting feet in front of me.

Then it was my turn and I was rendered speechless. I silently put my book down in front of her, turned to the cover page where she was signed. She looked up to me as to ask what my name was and I feebly said, “Nneka.”

She looked back up at me and repeated my name, with a smile, “Nneka.” Saying it in the way I’d heard my name pronounced all my life by my father, deep and throaty with the strong, Igbo Nigerian accent which I’d always loved (and wished I had).

And yet again, all the feelings of insecurity surrounding my name and all the pain it had brought, all the teasing, all the declarations about how weird or strange my name was, all the mispronunciations, all those asking me if they could call me something else because pronouncing my name the proper way was too much of an inconvenience for them — were quelled and I was reaffirmed in that moment. There is beauty in my name, there is acceptance, there is a knowing. I am a Nigerian Igbo woman.

And I met Chimamanda Ngozi Adhichie, a fellow Nigerian Igbo woman. She knew my name. She recognized my name. She said my name. She knew how to spell it. There was no hesitation. No head cocked to the side in confusion. There was no awkward pause. There was no attempt to ask me to spell it again and again and again (and still spelling it wrong). She knew how to spell it. She wrote my name in a couple of strokes, one and done.

There is beauty, there is power, there is a resting I can reside in because of that. There is beauty, there is power, there is a resting I can reside in because I am me.

 book_Fotor

traveling while black.

african, discrimination, prejudice, race, travelingwhileblack

Growing up in the predominantly black suburb of Stone Mountain, Georgia perhaps shrouded me from ever feeling like I was different. I grew up submerged in sea of other people who looked like me, spoke like me, listened to the same music as me. There was no clear separation. It wasn’t until I went away to school at Mercer University that I grasped what it meant to be within the minority.

And being in the glaring minority was only amplified, to gross, sweeping levels when I moved to Madrid in the fall of 2013. I had never experienced the phenomena of being the “only one” because I was always one of many, many, many others who were just like me. I had never identified with the isolation, confusion and frustration of constantly having to navigate my (literal) physical space within others who were not like me and clearly did not understand me, nor where they committed to, in the very least, of being tolerant of those like me. I never had to stuff down the constant anguish of doling out explanations of who I was for the sake of sanity or knowing, intimately, how a little bit of you dies and breaks off each time you have to negotiate within yourself to do it.

Maybe if I was more deluded, more in denial, more oblivious, I could pretend one of my greatest passions behind writing (ahem) and cooking — travel — bears some affect when my race comes into the picture. And no, I’m not just pulling the “race card,” holding a chip on my shoulder, being overly sensitive or reading too into things. This is something I know firsthand from the several experiences I’ve had over the past year, when me, my Black self, was jetting around the world in search of adventure, and I realized, a sober realization, that doing so was a revolutionary act in itself.

I can reflect on London, strolling the cobblestone streets. My feet, exposed and uncovered frozen solid, my teeth chattering, the layers of clothing I attempted to wear still rendering me frigid. Eating a kabob loaded with pickled red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, succulent lamb juicy and bursting with flavor and a cooling yogurt sauce, dripping onto my the front of shirt, laughing with my cousin and his friends. Staring bright-eyed, in childlike wonder, through the wrought iron gates, speckled with gold leaves which looked as delicate as foil, at Buckingham Palace at the change of the guards, the guards clad in morose, somber grey posts instead of the red pea coats I thought I’d see.

But I only, mostly remember, slapping a vibrant head wrap on my head the wee hours of my departure before heading to London Gatwick airport. I remember, vividly, being asked if my head wrap was donned for religious reasons and when I shrugged in confusion, leading the border control agent to believe I meant no, urging me to remove my headwrap, exposing my nappy natural hair, my TWA, matted to my head. I remember her roughly fingering my hair, attempting to feel my roots but only snagging my kinky coils, and causing me to yelp in pain. And being asked, with vitriol and aggression leaking in her voice, only seconds later, to remove my shoes, although I was originally told I could keep them on.

I can reflect on Brussels, stumbling into Grand Place, where one of the most ornate, beautiful and awe struck cathedrals I’ve seen with my naked eyes — outside of The Duomo in Milan and the Catedral de Sevilla in Sevilla — or pushing my way through the Godiva where the smell of freshly churned chocolate tickled my nostrils and aroused my taste buds. I remember the nine hours I spent there, not knowing a word of French. Eyes being cut at me, like I was a suspicion, a threat, someone to be feared. People bursting my bubble of boundaries, demanding I answer them in French, because of course, I’m Black. My skin is brown. I have to be African which means I most likely speak French. But I didn’t. Not then, not now.

But I only most remember, going through passport control at the Brussels airport and the officer looking at me stunned, blown away and utterly bewildered. After looking at me and down at my passport and up at me and down at my passport and up at me and down at my passport, he cocked his head to side and peered at me and asked, “What happened?”

I squinted back at him and stuttered, not sure what I was supposed to say. And okay, maybe I did look different. In my passport photo, I had honey blonde hair stringy and broken off and in person, I had a dark haired (my natural hair color) nappy coils which were short and low cut. But did I really look that different? My face looked the same. These were the microaggressions. The demands to explain.

I could also go into grave detail about how dozens of times I’ve been “randomly selected” to undergo extra screening before jetting off to a new locale. Asked more questions then necessary. My belongings being rustled through for an indeterminate amount of time, threatening me to miss my flight. Or being stared at like I have three heads when out and about in a foreign city. Or feeling like I was abnormal or strange because of the color of my skin. The whispering, the pointing, the slower than slow service because of my brown face, because of course, I’m not deserving of the customer service that other, White customers, receive.

But I think you get the point. I think you can see that I’m not exaggerating. That these are very real micro aggressions which can wear on someone who is so determined to see as much as the world as possible but when other people are determined to remind you of the global appeal of anti-Blackness. How Black faces being unwanted isn’t just an American construct and how it is a global one, in every truest sense of concept, one bolstered by colonialism and White supremacy coursing through the veins of every living soul.

And yes, many will argue with my passport, my blue passport emblazoned with a gold eagle on the front presents me with a horde of privilege. But let’s also be real — what difference does my blue passport really make, that when whomever flips it open to the photo page, and they see my un-American name? When they look at it, and instantly, know it’s not American? When they know I’m foreign, in some sense of the word, and decide, right then and there, to discriminate?

Many others will tell me that yes, as a Black woman, a tall Black woman, I’m warranted the stares and the ogling I get whenever I go somewhere where I’m not in the majority. People will tell me to expect it. That it’s just because I’m tall, as a I stand, statuesque at almost six feet. And in the same breath, they’ll also tell me to extend an olive branch, to be more understanding of their confusion and the subsequent ignorance which arises in their questions and their ignorance. They’ll tell me explain, to be a good example, to be a representative on behalf of countless others.

But dammit. That isn’t me. The me I am, the me I have grown to be, isn’t interested in that. The me I am isn’t interested in extending nary of even a damn twig branch. The me I am isn’t here to be your bridge to cultural understanding. The me I am isn’t here to be representative of what it means to be Black, to be Black American, to be African. The me I am doesn’t want (or ask) to be affronted with the different treatment and surely doesn’t want to be exhausted to have to bother to explain. To me I am understands that Black American and Africans aren’t a monolithic group. That there are differences and wavelengths that vary along gender, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic levels. And to be asked to be a representative is insulting and denounces the vasty amount of diversity that exists within us, among us.

I understand my existence, for most, is audacious. That daring to be a Black American and African woman who is unapologetically proud of who she is…unfathomable. But who I am is who I am. Who I am is proud. Who I am is authentic. And who I am won’t stop daring to see the world, one city, one town, one country, one continent at at time. And the who I am doesn’t ever want to, have to, desire to, have to explain.

paris

solo sojourner: a black woman’s solo travel manifesto

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I am writing this for me.

I am writing this to remind myself on low days, when my mind skitters to that dark, desolate, lonely place deep within the wilderness, when I feel as if I can’t fight to find my way out, that I am enough. That I am powerful. That I am unconquerable. That I am a visionary. That I am brave. That I have the embattled courage of my ancestors coursing through my veins.

Those low days, those days when my life seems to be hanging in the belly, in the underside of the time, in the bitter, unforgiving balance of distance, are plentiful. They chase and swirl around me as I sleep and often are there greeting me as my eyelids flicker and adjust to the bright sunshine sneaking in through my blinds at the head of my bed.

And really there is a clear connection of the low days, the dark periods, leading me to the light and unbridled jubilation. I see it clearly, especially, in the beginning of what has lent itself to being a transformative period of my life.

The fall of 2012 was the last semester of grad school filled with mostly working on my thesis creative nonfiction manuscript. It was also a period where I was struggling to find myself, the bare bones of myself, after being left past devastation in a relationship which armed me with more battle wounds and scars than sad memories of a great love lost.

Do you know how it feels to be caught in a vacuum, not knowing who you are or where you are headed? Not being able to trust your emotions, your thoughts or your instincts? Feeling a vast void because your existence, you realize, was thrust into a malicious stranger who capitalized on your (inner) beauty and strength which was mounted on shaky confidence, too afraid to stand strong and irresolute? This was me then. This was me emerging from a toxic, emotionally abusive relationship with a man I loved deeply who I should’ve never trusted, who never meant me any good from the start.

In retrospect, I thank him endlessly. He has thus far been one of my greatest teachers, one of my greatest lessons. He was the sole person I can credit with making me crouch still enough to dare to look inward and take a discerning look of who I was and who I could become. He saved my life, as much as travel has saved my life.

My first solo trip in September of 2012 was an experience filled with euphoria, confusion and tears. I cried hot tears of frustration on being lost, not knowing my bearings and not being able to communicate (well) what I was thinking/feeling in Spanish to strangers, just as equally as I was astonished, in awe and enraptured by Madrid and its beauty. Taking that trip definitely started stirring my gears to finally make my longtime dream of living abroad a reality but much bigger was this concept of moving more inside of myself.

It had been a long time since I had heard my inner voice clearly and distinctly and knew I could trust it. It had been a long time since I relied on myself to get from one point to another. It had been a long time since I was at peace, felt like I was no longer warring with the essence of who I am.

This degree of vigor, steadfast dedication to following my heart pushed me to traveled solo to Seville, Milan, Paris, Oporto, London, Brussels, Zurich and Mallorca last year, and is continually the throb and rhythm I use to continuously chart my course going forward. I listen to myself. I listen to myself and I take the leaps, despite how terrified I may be. I’d say being terrified, generally, is the barometer I use to know whether or not I’m making the right decisions.

porto

My (new) therapist recently shared me with me this amazing analogy which put into perspective what type of person I am and why solo traveling, why daring to see the world, one city at a time, with only my own company, has become a defining space for me. She told me I was like that kid, who every day during recess, climbed to the very top of the jungle gym, stood atop the highest point and jumped, arms failing, smiling, without looking, yet still having every shred of hope I’d land on my two feet. And even if I didn’t land on my two feet, I knew I had somewhere, whether it was hidden or exposed, the dignity and strength to recalculate, reevaluate and try again. And again. And again. And again.

But that is me. I leap before I look and I terrify all those around me, namely my parents, who pride themselves on having a plan, staying safe and not charting into the unknown. But I’m learning and know intimately for myself, the unknown, the dark spaces, the nights fumbling around with no viscosity, is where transformation occurs. That’s where life occurs. That’s ground zero. That’s where the meaning we’re all searching for comes in, robs us blind, and inspires us on heights which were before inconceivable.

I know how revolutionary it is to chart this life for myself and to have a vision no one else can tangibly reconcile and therefore not easily believe in. I also know how revolutionary this is for me as a Black woman daring to do so, as an African woman daring to do so. I also know how revolutionary it is to mosey into every corner of the world, looking for a new adventure, looking to uncover new truths about myself (or hidden truths), as a Black woman, as an African woman.  I know this and perhaps, this is what makes traveling alone, traveling with no one to fill the white noise, the silence, the space which should be regulated for companionship and company, so rewarding and fulfilling. And perhaps, that makes this all, this all makes traveling and seeing the world with just my own two eyes, all the more worth it.

brussels

(I am writing this for me.

I am writing this to remind myself on low days, when my mind skitters to that dark, desolate, lonely place deep within the wilderness, when I feel as if I can’t fight to find my way out, that I am enough. That I am powerful. That I am unconquerable. That I am a visionary. That I am brave. That I have the embattled courage of my ancestors coursing through my veins.)

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.

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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feelings and friends.

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She was my best friend. I loved her to the moon and back. I supposed I was drawn to her because she was so different, just like I was. I was the geeky, socially awkward girl who was picked on because I enthusiastically answered all the questions from my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Chelf, and she was the new student all the way from Germany, with the equally strange name and a mass of red, curly, bouncy hair. She wore glasses, too. 

We bonded over story time, giggling in the stray corner in the library, laughing at books far above the reading level we were supposed to be in in the fifth grade. We had our own secret system of communicating, a shorthand we created during the first time we ate lunch together after we discarded the cardboard pizza, rotten chocolate milk and oranges near being spoiled. 

She trusted me, unfailingly so.

One day, after watching one of my favorite childhood movies “Harriet The Spy” I decided to make my own nifty spy book. I wrote down the names of every classmate on a separate page and painstakingly wrote a sentence or two about what I really thought about them, including my best friend. I carelessly left the book on my desk while I went to the restroom and because we had an agreement, one strengthened by a daily pinky swear, strictly forbidding the keeping of secrets from one another, she looked at the journal out of curiosity. 

When I returned from the restroom, she was acting strange, cold even. Recess was next and we all ran like a pack of wolves out of the back door of the classroom onto the playground. During that fifteen minutes, I heard whispers of my name. Before we went back inside, my teacher pulled me aside and questioned me about the journal. Turns out, my friend saw what I had written about her, came to my teacher in tears and then told the rest of the class for revenge. My journal was confiscated and right then I learned a lesson about the cost of honesty within interpersonal relationships. 

As I’m now older, I see this honesty of a different flavor. The honesty of not being afraid to tell people when who they are and the friendship they can offer you doesn’t quite work for you anymore, even when before it did, or rather you couldn’t be true to yourself and admit it just was never a complimentary fit. 

Moving thousand of miles away to live out a long-held dream of mine easily demystified the clarity I held about key friendships in my life. I watched people I loved and adored, cackled with over endless glasses of wine, shared my messy truths I dared not tell a soul vanish into streams of silence. Most of the time I spent adjusting to life in Madrid I wondered what type of horrible person, what type of horrible friend, I must have been to feel completely abandoned by almost every friend I had known previously. It was damn near identical to the heartbreak over the loss of a lover, only more painful, more through and through, like an ice pick taken and stabbed to the heart. 

And I hate how even now, months later, I still carry these wounds with me. They are nursed in the hidden pockets of my oversized handbags or the clever slits in the fabric of my favorite skirts. They’re a reminder when I open the Facebook or Gmail apps and know I can no longer count on new messages or silly banter from them. I’ve fallen away from my past and these former friends but it seems their memories, the hurt, the betrayal continues to follow me. 

I used to proudly declare to whomever would listen how difficult it was for me to make new friends, until I realized to those people whom I’m trying to forge new bonds and connections with it’s probably off-putting. 

But it is hard for me to make new friends. It’s hard for me to trust new faces, new spirits. To discern whether or not someone who I perceive initially as being good-natured and someone I mesh with it just showing me their representative. That they won’t be someone who I decide I don’t need to be around any longer. 

And because I’m particularly sensitive, it becomes harder and harder to put myself out there, especially since in general, I’ve found people can be shady, fair-weather, undependable and plain-out clueless on what it takes to be a friend and maintain a friendship.

Finding and making friends is complicated on another level when you relocate to another country, but the expat experience is so eerily precious with friendship. Expats all speak the same language. We know what it feels like to feel isolated and out of place in our former “home.” We get the difficulties which can arise when adjusting to a new place and how being an expat, overall, is akin to becoming quite familiarly acquainted with suffering. Conversing with an expat can become like speaking to a soulmate. You understand each other in ways most others won’t. 

These friendships, these expat connections, can be incredibly fleeting and not tinkered with longevity. You could meet someone who you are sure is a sister-friend but weeks after meeting them, they move. And then you never hear from them again.

From this happening to me at least twice in the past eight months, I’ve learned connections are not necessarily about permanence; they’re about depth. Friendship is not always an entity which you can box into a certain category to be held indefinitely. Sometimes a friend is needed for a week. Or a month. Or a year. The trouble arises when we expect lifetime connections with everyone. This is when (and how) we set ourselves up to be disappointed. We hurt ourselves. 

Seasons can change just as swiftly as the breeze rushing past us on a leisurely stroll. And when these seasons shift, sometimes they take people with them. You’ll wonder why a person’s energy has changed. Why they’re no longer quick to correspond with you. Why they seem lackadaisical with you when you do touch base. It’s nothing personal. There’s nothing you cold have done to change the outcome. Their role (and purpose) in your life has been completed. Let them go. Release your attachment. 

The release part is something I work towards everyday. It’s not easy or simple or even a process which occurs quickly. I’m trying to find the fine balance between letting go of a friendship which really meant something to me and treasuring the beauty and value before it corroded. 

Every now and then I search for her name on Facebook, my former elementary school best friend. Nothing ever comes up. Mutual friends tell me she’s had children now. I wonder what’s she doing. What life means to her. And if she remembers how many, many, many years ago, we had a special friendship. One which showed me pretty early on the beauty of truly being understood and accepted.

The outside of the Renfe station in Aranjuez, Spain, from a recent day-trip with a new friend.

The outside of the Renfe station in Aranjuez, Spain, from a recent day-trip with a new friend.