broken in bogotá.

life, solotravel, travel

Before heading to Bogotá a few weeks ago, I’d heard nothing good. In fact, I heard much of the opposite. Stories of about how wayward and conniving the taxi drivers there could be. Warnings to not ever hail a taxi from the street lest you be overcharged and swindled. How dreary, cold and overcast the weather generally is there. The high altitude which can assault those not accustomed to it with migraines, aches, pains, nausea and fatigue.

I wasn’t exactly excited about going there. Although I was excited about eating my way through Colombia at the up and coming Bogotá Wine and Food Festival. It was, after all, why I was there instead of continuing to hang around Medellín , where I had spent a magical few days prior to exchanging a city with “eternal spring” for one where I’d need to consciously layer.

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Brrrrrr.

And its coldness, the wind and the clouds hanging low in the sky, drifting beneath the golden green mountain peaks assuredly met me, a mere two days into the total five days total I planned on spending there. I was at El Chato surrounded by food writers and chefs. We were passing shared plates around the shared table, with the sound of a chorus of oohs, aahs and pleased food moans.

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Towards the end of the lunch, I finally connected my phone to WiFi after being disconnected and offline for most of the day. As I often do, I pressed my thumb against the Gmail icon and did a cursory scan of the subject lines. The name of a friend popped out to me most. The name of my dear friend along with the words “killed in a fatal auto accident.” My breath left my body. Then I froze.

A heavy plate teetered in my hands and eyes darted back at me. I wasn’t sitting alone at the table and those around me, the strangers around me, wondered why I was acting so strangely, why it looked as if I was practicing a balancing act with the plate in my hands motionless. A nudge and gentle laugh from the person sitting next to me jolted me back to the present, to which I shared robotically, ignoring the compassion I received. I excused myself to the restroom. I didn’t have to pee.

Instead I sat on the commode, blinking ferociously, feeling nothing and everything at the same time. I held my phone in my hand, reading the subject title of the email over and over again, willing to believe the truth. I had a friend who was dead. A friend of mine, one who I had vulnerably shared bits and pieces of my life and heart for the past seven years, was dead.


 

The first time I met my dear friend, Precious was her name, it was the fall of 2010. I was 24-years-old in the first semester of my graduate writing program. She sat next to me and seemed to be scribbling on her notepad notes from our professor who rambled in circles for the entire three hours of class. I didn’t speak to her for months. And later when we became friends, she admitted she thought I was unapproachable, although we often caught each other’s eyes as two of the few Black women in our class.

Turns out, she wasn’t scribbling notes on her notepad. She showed me some months in the semester her sketches she spent her class time creating. She was a gifted artist aside from being a brilliant, fluid writer and poet. She was a year younger than me and wiser than me in so many ways. Her quiet strength moved me as she talked from her eyes and her heart.

She was and still remains the most extraordinary person I have ever met. Her friendship healed me after years of losing friends due to people telling me I was too exhausting, required too much and was too sensitive and feeling to keep people in my corner. I never gained that sense from her from the moment we became friends. She was open and honest, friendly and warm. We talked about our lives, our families, our joys and passions, our deep-seated and hidden pains.

Even after I graduated a year early and no longer saw her on campus during the week, we still kept in touch. Our friendship wasn’t predicated on frequency. Often we went weeks or months without seeing each other before we reconnected. But when we did? It was like no time had passed at all. It was as if, once again, I could pause all the tunnels, noise and distractions and be heard, be loved, be affirmed, be enough.

I never told her this and now, I wish I had but she was my shining star. I looked to her with seedy admiration because of how she channeled all her pain and past hurts into moving forward. Her shining example enabled me to do so again and again. After breakups, after disappointments. After moving to Spain, leaving Spain, moving to Washington, D.C. and leaving Washington, D.C. She remained my friend through all the changes and ups and downs, all the drama-filled phone calls and texts about my latest meltdown. And she never let any of lapses in judgments lessen the strength of our friendship.

The funny thing? She once told me she thought I was braver than her. I never agreed. I still don’t now.


 

Today marks three weeks since her death. Because we were those types of friends who didn’t depend on seeing or talking often to keep the love and nurturance of our friendship alive, sometimes, most times, most days, most moments, I can busy and distract myself with the lie she’s somewhere distantly still alive. That life hasn’t changed. That she didn’t die alone on the streets at night.

It works most times.

And other times the truths ripples over me and I ruminate. I turn it over and over again in my mind and still can’t come out with any shining truth. She is dead and intellectually I know this. Emotionally I wrestle with despair and disbelief.

The day after I’d learned she died, I opted out of morning outdoors yoga and a group dinner. I stayed buried underneath the crisp, white duvet in my room and ordered room service: a cheeseburger, french fries, tomato soup, a slice of cheesecake, an ice cold coke. My food arrived minutes later and as the TV blared in the background, I sipped the tomato soup spoonful by the spoonful. Then my chest heaved with heavy tears.


 

My last full day in Bogotá I balanced filling grateful with broken as I stuffed my face with at least five different burgers and Colombian artesanal beer. The day was uncharacteristically sunny and cheerful and the sun’s rays bounced off the full, blue sky. I still wanted to cry. I still wanted to ball my hands into two ardent fists and box with the shadows of the Universe until I had answers.

Instead I ate. I sipped beer. I had conversations with the families that sat around me and watched as they looked onto me in amazement when I told them I wrote, that I was there to write about their city and their country.

Then I gathered all my things up and left. I went back to my quiet, dark and lonely hotel room. I packed up all my belongings. I prepared to leave Bogotá and I pledged to never return. To never revisit the site of when I communed with the ghosts of grief and grief fully entered me.

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five reasons why 2016 should be the year you solo travel.

solotravel

If there’s one thing you should know about me from reading this blog for the past (almost) three years, it’s that I’m a one woman show. I don’t wait for anyone to take my travel adventures. It’s been four years since I first started solo traveling and today, I’m at 11 countries and 30 cities traveled solo dolo.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Solo travel is not only an interesting conversation I can count on to dazzle a possible suitor or liven up shaky dialogue at an otherwise stale happy hour, but it’s also the one area of my life where I can directly credit a lot of my personal growth and refinement of my identity. Traveling alone put me directly in tune with my own thoughts, opinions and emotions. It has helped me to discover exactly who I was on my terms and not based on what everyone else has to say about me. And lastly, it has been a space where my penchant for adventure and exploring has been fed and rendered me joyful.

So, of course, I want to encourage each and every one of you to take a solo trip if you haven’t already. And here are my five reasons why 2016 should be the year where you make it happen.

 1.  It’s a leap year. Which means leaps should be taken.

The month of February has 29 days this year and as you all know, the years in which this occurs are referred to as leap years. Leap years occur on average every four years. Which means after this year, we won’t have another year with 366 days until 2020.

(I promise I wasn’t intending to make this a lesson on addition and calendar and years, but sometimes I get really into these kind of things and tunnel into a rabbit hole. And then I get really excited and start rambling and babbling and get really committed to the tangent, whether related or not, I took myself on).

Anyway, my point is, years like this year are extraordinarily rare; let it encourage and inspire you to take a leap of your own, that leap being committing to a solo trip before the year’s end. Make 2016 a year you will (literally) never forget and years from now, look back on fondly because you exercised your courage.

2.  There are places you want to see and you should stop waiting on other people to see them.

One of the main reasons I started solo traveling years ago was because I was tired of waiting on my friends to want to go somewhere with me because the idea of going alone seemed really weird, especially as a single woman with no kids. But after countless times of getting really excited about taking a trip after picking out a destination, starting to put money aside for said trip, booking a hotel on a credit card and then following up friends before booking a flight and being met with countless excuses such as — not having the money after all, not being able to get time off work, not as enthused about the trip overall as originally communicated — I was done. I was done waiting.

Which brings me to my next very crucial point and perhaps the best aspect of traveling solo…

3. Planning a solo trip is a helluva easier than coordinating for a group one.

There is so much freedom in traveling alone because planning is super easy. Only having to check in with yourself is what makes the difference here. You don’t have to check in about dates, the best day to fly out, where to say, how much you’re willing to pay (or not pay) for where you stay and innumerous other details. When it’s just you, you also don’t have to compromise which means you get the exact travel experience you want without having to bend to what a friend, lover or family member may have personal expectations.

4. Because fear isn’t a good enough reason to not solo travel.

Think of the most inspiring, courageous and brave person you know. It could be your mother, a dear friend, your partner, a coworker or neighbor. This person’s light shines indescribably bright and being around them is always a pleasure. They seem to be really in control of their lives and overall happy, peaceful and authentic to who they are at their core.  And they also seem particularly fearless and unafraid of what life may bring. Because for one reason or another, they are prepared for whatever life may bring and will stand unwavering, unmoved, unaffected, not completely blown over or shattered.

Now, know that this person, whoever they are, is probably always scared and the difference between them just being a person who is ruled by fear, as most people are, they act in spite of it. This is the true mark of a brave, courageous, inspirational person. They’ve made friends with the fear that arises in their lives and consciously work with it, not against it, and use it to propel them forward.

Being afraid to travel alone if you haven’t already is normal. When in your life has a new experience not been scary though? It’s scary because it’s outside of your comfort zone and realm of things you’re used to doing. Honestly, I can’t tell you from personal experience that you won’t feel that fear when you get ready to take that first solo adventure. But what I can say is letting fear paralyze you and keep you from embarking on what will ultimately be a transformative experience is how fear wins. It’s how fear becomes bigger than you. Does fear really deserve that much passionate, unrelenting, high strung dedication?

5.  Solo travel will change your life. Completely.

How could I know that traveling to Madrid, alone, four years ago would completely turn my life upside down, in a good way? Exactly a year after that amazing trip to Spain’s capital city, I moved there and called Madrid my home for nine months as I taught English. I’ve not been the same after living abroad for the time I did.

Saying solo travel will change your life isn’t a statement to be taken lightly. Your life will change. That is a promise. The question is, however, are you ready? Are you ready to shake up your life in all totality? Are you ready to be in touch with the grandest sense of personal freedom you’ve ever experienced? Are you ready to take the leap into the rest of your life?

Affirmations can be used for everything, including solo travel. Join the mailing list for Afros y Paella to get your solo travel affirmations andddddd updates about upcoming digital workbook Solo Sojourness: A Roadmap to Planning and Bravely Taking Your First Solo Adventure.  Click here to join. 

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.

liberation in london.

Uncategorized

Three weeks ago, I hurriedly walked through Heathrow Airport, trying to both push my suitcase and connect my janky iPhone, with the shattered screen, to the complimentary Wi-Fi. My cousins were supposed to be picking me up from the airport, but I didn’t know where they were or where I was going to meet them. After I found a seat in the waiting area and sent my aunt a quick “Where are they?” message on Facebook. I exhaled. I was in the renowned Heathrow airport, the site of one of my most favorite T-Mobile flash mobs and I was gravely unimpressed. it seemed so…regular. But nonetheless, I was happy to be back in London. One, because I fell in love with the city during my first visit in March, and second, because I loved spending time with my Dad’s side of the family and connecting with my Nigerian roots. 

I spent a lovely six days eating Nigerian food (chicken stew and jollof rice) curled up on my family’s couch in the living room, wearing pajamas until late in the afternoon. I took a leisurely afternoon stroll with my cousin through Camden Town and peered at the angry travelers at St Pancras International who were hours delayed en route to Paris and elsewhere in Europe thanks to EuroStar.

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The next day, I went shopping with my Aunt at Westfield Stratford City Shopping Center and spent far too much money at H&M, River Island, Primark and TopShop. On Saturday evening, my not-so-little-anymore younger cousin gathered a group of his friends and took me out for gin and tonics and late-night lamb kebabs, dripping with a fiery chili sauce and cooling yogurt sauce,with a side of crispy, piping hot chips. We talked (mostly laughed) about the differences in American and British English while walking back to my family’s flat, the air so frigid our breath made a large, puffy cloud in front of us. 

Those several consecutive afternoons as I sat propped up in the living room on the couch, watching American television I haven’t been able to watch for the past six months, it dawned on me what a good mental, emotional and spiritual space I was finally in. The fatigue of fighting to adjust to European life had finally settled and dropped to a minimal, almost unnoticeable level. And although the micro aggressions and racial tensions still exist everyday around me, I’ve accepted them as is and rest in being proud of being a Black American and African. No ignorance from anyone can shake the pride for my heritage now. 

The past eight months have almost become a blur. Sometimes I can only recall all the memories and challenges and frustrations and nights keeled over sobbing in spurts. I can tangibly separate the different chapters into B.S. (Before Spain) and now, A.S. (After Spain). 

I have truly changed. But not in a dramatic, sweeping ways. I’ve turned inward. I’ve deprogrammed all the clutter and projection and pronouncements from other people telling me the type of person I was, the woman I was. The noise which used to drown out my own voice, my own opinions, the sense of trust I’ve come to (now) rely on has dissipated. I’ve forcefully grabbed my identity by its reins and have taken the agency of defining myself, of determining who I am. I’ve sat in silence and pondered this on many occasions. Reflected on how I dealt with troubling scenarios. How I dared to not to be the reactive, explosive, irrational, impulsive person I thought was me and how instead I respond, with composure, to whatever is thrown my way. 

Is this what liberation feels like? 

And yet, in some ways I still struggle with newfangled bouts of insecurity. They range in intensity and duration, but each time they cause me to question at what cost I’ve obtained this liberation, this overwhelming sensation which cascades and  resounds deeply in the depths of my soul and spirit. I scroll through my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter timelines, and I see how the many people I left behind, folks I either no longer talk to or have very little common with since I’ve moved, and I feel isolated and left out. Everyone is continuing along the trajectory society has plainly laid out for them: college, maybe a Masters or professional degree, first big job, engagement, big wedding (with pictures galore), a baby (or two)…

I often feel like I am not doing enough. That this leap to be an expat, a long held dream of mine, to embrace a life of travel and amazing experiences isn’t good enough. People will comment incessantly on a new baby or an engagement or a graduation, but when it comes to living life off the beaten path? Silence. Or as I’ve experienced, people who are so excited and happy for you initially, but later become so wrapped up in their own lives, that they move on and stop wondering what your life looks like on the other side of the world. And this truly feels terrible when it comes from people you really care about. When you go from communication to sporadic communication to no response from emails, GChat messages or calls. When friends and loved ones turn into strangers who you don’t even bother reaching out to anymore because things have really changed. You’ve changed. And maybe they haven’t. 

It’s really unfair that society, for the most part, can’t celebrate life choices people make that lie outside the traditional, commonly accepted heteronormative ones, especially for women. The straight path, as I’ve described before, isn’t for me. I wanted to create a life I could marvel at, every day. One that fit my dreams, desires, personality and (desired) pace of life overall. But making this choice seems to have cost me everything. 

There are many sacrifices that have to be taken to embrace expat life or one of constant travel. It rubs me the wrong way when people say things like “I’m so jealous!” or “You’re so lucky!” I’m not lucky;  You shouldn’t be jealous. I’m not the chosen one. I made a choice (that you can make too!). I took a huge leap and many smaller leaps after then—and I still continue to make tiny hops everyday.  Many people have tons of savings stocked away for a rainy day. I budget fiercely on necessities and essentials and spend my extra money on trips. Many people own property and a car. All I own fits into two suitcases. 

Liberation, at least mine, as soothing and peaceful and as desirable as it, has come with an incredible cost. I’ve exchanged the normalcy of life as others have deemed it for peace of mind.

But I’m happy. 

I know I’ve made the right choices thus far, and my heart is whole and well each day I continue to make steps in this direction. Because, after all, what’s the point of living if you aren’t wholly listening to the rhythm and pitter-patter and gentle whispers of your heart guiding you exactly where you need to be? 

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obstinate othering.

Uncategorized

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.

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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.