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.

levels to love.

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There are some people who refer to themselves as undercover lovers, those people who shy away from openly professing their adulation of a star-crossed lover, but there are whole ‘nother category of folks, like me, who are undercover emos.

The people who shy away from openly showing their many shades of emotions and just how many times they plunge into a deep blue sea of feels.

I’m a hopeless romantic. I chronically wear my rose-colored glasses when I should toss them carelessly over my shoulder and see people for who and what they really are, but in my hearts of hearts, I love love.

And so, this year, especially, I silently vowed I would find the love I so desired, the love I had been yearning for and relentlessly searching for. The real love. The ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love Carrie Bradshaw mused about on Sex and the City.

Instead I was met with tumultuous bouts of heartbreak. Over and over and over again. I never knew my heart could take such a pounding as it did this year. And around late June, early July, I told myself enough was enough. The search was off. I stopped hoping for companionship, stopped expecting it even. I tuned in all my frustration with my lackluster results from such a deep desire into preparing for moving across the Atlantic to the beautiful country of Spain.

Because I was so hyper-focused on my impending new expat journey, I spurned many attempts from potential suitors, men who looked at me googly-eyed with lust lingering in their longing glances. What was the point anyway? In a mere amount of weeks, I’d be far, far, far away, with a six-hour time difference to boot.

But somewhere in the crosshairs, somewhere whilst I wasn’t paying attention, I tripped into adoration. It happened so fast, as blithely as a blink of an eye. He swept in while I wasn’t looking. Sprinkled joy, admiration, attention and beautiful prose into my life. We conversed about life’s philosophies for hours on end, delicately discussed classic literature like Walden as date activities and laughed about silly YouTube humor.

As just as quickly as I’d become comfortable in his arms, he swept away, sneakily backing away from me and this forbidden romance, disappearing into the mist, carried away with dust in the wind.

He was gone.

And I was devastated.

Or should I say, I have been miserably devastated for the past five days. The past three days especially, it’s been a battle to convince myself to untangle my woes from my bed sheets dripping with whispers of regret and despair.

My tears haven’t dried yet. And I’m sure they won’t dry for some time. You don’t easily stop grieving for someone who became part of your everyday routine. At least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself. I’m impatient. I’d much rather be able to say I was over it in a day’s time.

The heart doesn’t heal that easily though.

Last night before I fell asleep, I stared at the ceiling fan whooshing cold air over my body and realized this year, I had gone searching for something and I had found it, but it wasn’t what I naively thought I would be seeking this year.

I crashed, collided, somersaulted, back-flipped and smashed right into myself. I needed love this year—I needed to radically love myself. I needed to stop judging and hating myself for my actions, my thoughts, my feelings. I discarded the notions, the conditions. Stopped believing the lie that if I were skinnier, had better clothes, a cushy job, a flashy car or more money, I’d think more of myself. That then, and only then, love would come rushing in. I just freely loved. I loved myself. Without ceasing. Desperately. Like my life indeed depended on it and I’d perish if I didn’t.

And now, when I’m still, when I sit still, when I’m one with myself, I feel that love coursing through my veins.

Because I love her. Intensely. She’s a weepy person in general. She cries too much. She knows that, too, but she’s accepted her emotions as beauty instead of a defect. She laughs too loud when something’s really funny (like, reaaaaally funny). She curses like a sailor in everyday conversation because she’s passionate about her words and expressing how she feels. She loves food and cooking, especially if she can share them with people she loves. She’s extremely giving and always gives from the heart, never expecting anything in return. And she’s courageous, always has been, but it took a while for her to see what everyone else around her saw.

She’s an amazing woman, through and through, and I’m so glad, that this year, I found her and loved her.

Loving her has made all the difference.