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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teaching and tears.

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Three weeks ago, this was my view. I sat crouched over on a bench on Calle Jose Ortega y Gasset, staring blankly through at the glass, the moving bodies, the sounds of blowdryers and water running at each sink station.

I was blithely trying to pretend that with each glance I was fighting back the sea of tears I had unleashed just minutes before. Spain or not, crying in public was not something I wanted to do.

But I lost that battle mere seconds later. And as Spaniards passed me on their way to the market, the Metro some blocks down the road or just a leisure stroll, they saw a girl, staring into space at a hair salon, crying.

And no, I wasn’t embittered at an endless love gone sour. I wasn’t homesick.

I was crushed.

Mortified, shamed, engulfed with trepidation because I genuinely felt that I was a horrible teacher and would never amount to becoming a great one. All at the hands of my third teaching practice gone horribly, horribly wrong. Imagine teaching suffixes to non-native English speakers. And imagine their confusion as you poorly explained how to form them as well as offering instructions on the exercises which weren’t clear and confused them further. Can you imagine receiving blank stares and dancing with an awkward silence while you figured out what the hell to do salvage a failing lesson?

I digress.

My TEFL (Teaching English as a First Language) course began on September 9, and I brashly and naively assumed nothing could be any harder than what I had endured at the hands of a Masters degree in a writing program, especially after working on (and completing) a 150-page thesis within a six-month period, all while continuing to work a full-time job. Add in my continued unhappiness with said job, my coworkers, dissatisfaction with my hometown and my life there and two thesis committee members who suggested I needed to hold off on graduating two months before graduation and to me, there was no way, no Earthly way this course could be harder.

But it was. And then some.

Within a four-week period, I watched, as if I was having an out of body experience, my sleep dwindle along with my self-confidence. I’d attend classes everyday from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., work late at the school and come home, eat dinner and continue working until 1:30 a.m. There was constantly something to do, items to be checked off, corners to turn and not nearly enough time or hours in a day to complete them. Along with individual assignments and preparing for six teaching practices (that were observed and graded), we had to collaborate on an extensive group project, involving meeting and coordinating with a non-native English speaker (and actual student) on three occasions.

The most overwhelming aspect of my entire TEFL experience was the aforementioned aspect of self-confidence. A small crumb that was slowly chided away, step-by-step.

Going from having an extensive career where you are sure of yourself, confident in your talents and passionate about your work (at least as I was with getting to freelance and write pieces for myself), it was incredibly daunting and intimidating to think about teaching on a professional level, because it was completely new. Uncharted territory. There was absolutely no guarantee whatsoever that I’d even be a competent teacher, which scared me the most.

I suffered from addiction to comparison and methodically, my own way of pacing myself or checking the time, measured my progress to my peers, many of whom were really young and seemed to be thriving in the course and their progression through the teaching practices.

There was never a question of whether or not I was smart. Most of my peers assumed as much after a short conversation, but it never felt like I was. I felt like I was on the bottom rung of the ladder. Barely scraping by, doing a miserable job, especially after that third teaching practice which landed in the school’s bathroom sobbing, before I escaped from the school to stare at the hair salon and cry in solace.

That was indeed the lowest point of this move for me, even below my first week in Madrid which was the hardest. But after medicating myself with wine, a sob fest cuddled in my sheets in bed and everything from Burger King’s menu, I decided I had to learn from this. I had to take this blunder and improve. And do better.

I decided to go in that classroom for my next practice and to not focus on getting everything right, but to be authentic. To be myself. To be an inspiration. To be the woman who makes people comfortable and at ease, like I had done so many times before as a journalist interviewing subjects who were uneasy at the overall idea of conversing with someone from the media. Because, isn’t that the same way any student feels when they’re learning a new language? They may not be confident. They may second guess every syllable that falls from their lips. And each lesson they sit through may be a trial to their level of self-patience.

I’m now in my second week of teaching in Madrid. I teach children, teens, young adults and adults who work within huge businesses in Madrid and although I still have to quell the insecurity that pops up because this is still something new, I know lessons are to be learned and mistakes are inevitable, I know that just like writing, once I decided to let my heart bleed onto the pages I wrote, once I decided to teach from the heart, to teach and treat each of my students as a fellow spirit in need of compassion and love, embarking on this new journey became a hell of a lot easier.