nneka in nyc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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obstinate othering.

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Somewhere in-between all the hey day, thousands of adjustments, millions of failures and just plain trying to figure shit out, five months have passed since the green light flashed and I said a resounding, “Yes!” to living my life as an expatriate.

I’ve changed addresses twice. I’ve made fast friends with people only to realize the people I befriended I couldn’t stand. I’ve quit teaching jobs (and of course, been fired, heh)  and re-embraced the philosophy central behind the reason I left my life behind in the States–my comfy lifestyle with my expensive car and driving to a job everyday that I hated–slowing down enough to be present to enjoy the gifts life offers. I’ve started writing more, or should I say consistently, versus going days, weeks and months without trying to make sense of life as it unfolds with my words. I’ve cooked the most amazing meals of my life in a kitchen the size of a pantry and an oven the size of a shoebox. I’ve slept in twin sized beds so little and compact my feet dangle off the edge if I don’t sleep in the fetal position.

While so many things have changed, while various components of life as I know it, my Madrid experience as I refer to it when I’m all by my lonesome, other things have remained static, unchanging and rather, things I’ve not wanted to consciously deal with or think about so most of the time I (try to) ignore them.

The ill-fated r word: race. And it’s dear friend, the ill-fated cousin: racism.

When I was home for Christmas, many people asked me if there were many “Black people” in Madrid. So many people looked at me, doe-eyed, wanting to know if there was an inkling of people of color, people who looked like me or them. Most of them were shocked or confused (or both) when I declared there weren’t and that because I was one of the few and I was quite tall, it made me a spectacle. I found (and still find everyday) stares lingering far past the typical “Spanish stare.”

But the way Spaniards deal with race in particular is quite…interesting. They won’t come out and say really prejudiced and racist things that would shed light on the way they view other races and other people in general that are different from them.  Instead they box those “other people” into these neat little categories. I suppose categories which make it more comfortable to wrap their minds diversity and enable them to distance themselves of the concept of being open to the concept of diversity altogether.

Here’s a relevant example I’ve received from Spaniards as well as fellow expats quite a bit:

There’s this neighborhood in Madrid, which, although I don’t go there often is easily my favorite. It’s called Lavapiés, also known as a vibrant, thriving melting pot of culture.

Image

Buildings lining the street in Lavapiés on a sunny, sultry Sunday evening.

The first few times I ventured to the barrio I was in search of delicious food because the bland and greasy Spanish dishes weren’t quite hitting the spot. I’ve had delicious Indian food on a table lining the streets while languages whooshed past my ears that certainly wasn’t Spanish and enjoyed the tastiest tacos with equally invigorating margaritas in the same barrio as well.

Africans, Jamaicans, Indians and numerous other ethnicities call this barrio home. I love being in that neighborhood because there I feel less like an alien. I can look onto to the faces of people who look like me, who are clearly different, whose heritage is closely aligned like mine and for once, I don’t feel shame. I don’t feel inclined to try to ignore the racist rubs and inclinations I’m faced with almost daily.

When the subject of the neighborhood has arisen naturally in conversation with either my students or others of Spanish descent or fellow expats or even other immigrants here who aren’t those of color, they say the same sort of things. They frown up at the neighborhood. They immediately say the neighborhood is composed of immigrants, as if it is bad thing. They’ll say the area is notorious for crime and to “watch your purse and belongings” if you venture there. They’ll also mention the alleged bed bug infestation and how the buildings look dirty and the area is dirty in general. There’s never a positive nod to the abundance of rich culture there.

And it reminds me of the same notions from back in the States. As an Atlanta native, these are the exact same sentiments I’d hear about people not going to “that part” of Decatur or Stone Mountain or Lithonia on the Eastside or anywhere on the Southside past a certain time because of course “thugs” abound. Because of course, any area where there are a lot of people of color there’s sure to be crime and it’s not safe and it’s not anywhere anyone would want to be. Right?

I used to live in Tetuán, a surburb roughly 20 minutes north of Madrid. I only lived there for three months and moving from there had much more to do with me not liking being compadres with the three cats and dogs (along with three human roommates). I got sick of cat hair being on all my belongings and also being so far from the city center. The commute drained and depleted me. But again, if you ask many people their opinion of this barrio, all negative. They’ll mention, immediately, the number of immigrants. And how the area isn’t pretty to look at. And how there’s nothing to do there. Same things said about Lavapiés.

But these notions, these reactions, these thoughts I’m continually bombarded with has me thinking: is this how I am viewed when I’m just innocently walking around, commuting on the Metro, eating in a restaurant? Are people in Madrid automatically thinking negative things when they see my face or are they already internalizing the type of person they think I am because of the media and other negative interpretations of what it means to be a person of color, to be Black, to be African?

As I’ve stated before, I’m not interested in changing any aspect of me just to fit in or be desirable and to not get the rampant amount of lingering stares. But at one point or another, one has to wonder whether or not it’s truly worth calling yourself a temporary resident of a country, despite its beauty and slower pace of life and many, many, many enjoyable things, that in one way or another is committed to misunderstanding you, to othering you and plain out making you feel like you don’t belong.