how (and why) I moved to spain.

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Since repatriating back to the States, the question that I am asked the most other than why I left beautiful, stunning Spain to live in lackluster Washington, DC (I wonder now, too), is how, aside from gathering the gumption to move 5,000 miles away, I even executed an international move. For instance, how did I secure work to make money? How did I find somewhere to live? How was I legally able to stay in another country for nearly a year and earn legitimate money?

Well, trust me, it certainly wasn’t a walk in the park. It was nearly ten months of frustration, stress, confusion, patience and hundreds of dollars, before I even set foot in Madrid. And quite honestly, when I look back on that journey I took before the transformative journey of being an expat, I wonder how I managed to do it all, mostly on my own.

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Rather than having this lengthy conversation with innumerous facets repeatedly with different people, I thought I’d write a comprehensive, full frontal and gut-wrenchingly honest (because more is needed of that in terms of becoming an expat, especially an expat of color in Spain) post highlighting just how I was able to pull this shit off.

I decided I wanted to go. I decided that I most definitely was going to go and stopped entertaining that it was an outlandish idea.

Talking myself out the self-doubt was probably the hugest thing in terms of starting the preparation to moving abroad. I decided in November of the previous year (November 2012) that I was going to move to Spain and stuck to my guns. This isn’t the say that I didn’t entertain tons of self-doubt in the ten months leading up to my actual departure to Madrid. I did. After I decided I was going to for sure move, I told my parents, followed by close friends. This was done partially because I was excited about it and partially because I needed to speak it aloud for it be more real rather than some abstract concept I was concocting absently in my mind.

I contemplated how I would get to live in Spain.

If you’re in the least bit familiar with the state of Spain’s economy at the moment, you know that unemployment is quite high, so any thought of casually waltzing into the country with a work visa — without the prior backing of a company based in the States with offices abroad — is nearly impossible.

The vast majority of Americans who reside in Spain are either study abroad students or people like me who decided to teach English. I knew the only option for me to get to Spain was a student visa, so it really came down to me researching my options. And there are two: going through credentialed, established programs solely for placing native English speakers in teaching positions, such as the North American Language and Culture Assistant program backed by the Spanish Ministry of Education, CIEE, UCETAM, BEDA or do it solo dolo through an established language academy.

The latter typically have programs who offer intensive TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate programs who might offer assistance with things such as getting your TIE once the student visa you obtain lapses after the first 90 days, finding housing and helping you get teaching jobs to build your own daily schedule. Both routes will get you a student visa but the process will vary, slightly.

I actually did both. I started out as a freelancer after getting my TEFL Certification and then switched to the North American Language and Culture Assistant program (also known as Auxiliaries de Conversación). The unpredictably (and bullshit) of freelancing teaching became too stressful, and I needed to know that I had a set amount of money coming to me monthly which is why I switched.

I applied for a student visa.

A moment of silence for the most horrific process I have ever endured.

Okay.

Maybe I’m being a tad dramatic, but I’m not exaggerating on how confusing and frustrating the process is. When I applied for a student visa for Spain, as a Georgia resident, in 2013, there were 14 things total I needed: a completed national visa form, two recent passport size pictures, drivers license, original school certificate of admission, information about the study program, proof of health insurance coverage, proof of means of support, proof of accommodation, local health certificate, original certificate of good conduct and the visa fee (~$150 at the time I believe).

Whew! Each of the originals of those and a copy were needed. Yes, copies of everything. I still remember running around the corner to a nearby Publix the day of my visa appointment to make copies last minute because I didn’t realize how literal that request was.

Now, these requirements might have changed because this was now two years ago when I applied and they vary based on the state you live in. I pulled the checklist with extremely detailed instructions from the Consulate website I had to go to. Because I lived in Georgia at the time, I had to go to Miami to turn in my application in person after making an appointment months in advance, to give me time to get everything together, namely to get the original certificate of good conduct (fancy way of saying an official FBI background check clearance). That document alone took weeks and once it was received had to be sent back to the Department of State for Apostil Certification (a fancy way of saying notarized basically). You’ll also need fingerprints to send in along with the paperwork for the certificate of good conduct, which was a clusterfuck to figure out in Georgia cause only certain places would do it, contrary to what the Consulate told me would be the case.

I figured this all out on my own through trial and error and mindless Googling for insight because the Consulate of Miami would not answer (or return) my phone calls. I got really desperate at one point and sent an email which they eventually “answered” in one line, still not helping me in any way. I say this to say that depending on Consulate you have to go to you may or may not have this same experience. Just be prepared to have to just figure things out if it comes down to it.

Proof of means of support is another one of those things that was mind-boggling. Because I wasn’t going through one of the pre-established programs that feed directly for English teachers and instead went through a language academy (which means they were not providing my means of support or salary like the other programs do), I had to prove I had $1,000 per month that I would be in Spain (12 months x $1,000 = $12,000). Other consulates weren’t as strict and would let you just get a letter from your parents or legal guardian saying they’d be responsible for you. Miami wanted a bank statement printout showing the proof of funds. I hear now this has changed and they want a six month history of funds to meet this qualification. Ouch.

I saved as much as I could.

Because piecing together the various parts of my visa application began to get costly, this was difficult, along with other expenses that popped up unexpectedly (hello life!).

Also, as an aside as far as saving, because I freelance taught my first few months in Madrid, nothing was guaranteed and I knew this (to a degree) before I moved, saving more should’ve been a priority. Freelance teaching is highly unpredictable and there were often moments when I wasn’t paid the exact amount I was promised, if at all or really late. Ranges per hour can vary vastly; the academy I taught in, for instance, paid only 12€ per hour! Getting the heftier rates per hour often involves a mix of experience and reputation and as newbie TEFL teacher, this wasn’t something I could demand right off the bat.This made drawing up a budget based on expected salary to be nearly impossible, although I knew, at the end of every month, I needed to allocate money to rent (~350€), my metro pass (~60€), groceries (~20€ per week) and for fun things.

To be quite frank, I didn’t save as much as I should’ve, and I paid for this mistake in the first few months after my move. I was fortunate to have family who understood and helped me, but if I could do it all over again, I might’ve worked a second job during nights or weekends to create a cushion for myself so I didn’t have to depend on others to finance my dream. I highly suggest you do this, too. Make this journey one that you make happen on your own. It will feel that much more gratifying.

I consolidated all my belongings into two suitcases and a small carry-on.

Per the sage advice of others I stuffed down the desire to bring the slew of six-inch heels into my luggage and everything in my wardrobe. I only brought a fraction of my clothes with me, under the assumption I could shop for things once I was settled there and only five pairs of shoes. Funny thing was, as a curvy, tall woman (I’m 5’10”) I had a lot of trouble finding clothes and shoes for myself as the typical Spanish woman is petite. That’s a story for another day though…

I moved.

Getting comfy on a flight out of Newark in Jersey courtesy of Jet Airways (fly them if you ever get the chance; impeccable customer service and delicious Indian food served on flight) was the easiest part of this journey. Cause all I had to do was check my luggage…and sit.

The other part, which I deem equally important, is the why. Why, would I, a Black and African woman in her late 20s, pretty successful in terms of career strides up and leave everything she knew in exchange for an overwhelming amount of unfamiliarity? Why would being surrounded by a language I barely spoke with people who didn’t look like me and knowing not a soul be alluring?

Sometimes you get so desperate for a change you take gigantic, nonsensical leaps which seem crazy, ill-fitting and illogical to most others. But for me, it was just the leap of bravery I needed to reignite me and set my spirit alive. I hadn’t realized then, even while I was an expat, how much I was changing, how each moment, with each choice, I was consciously changing, morphing more into the spirit I had always been. The spirit I had convinced myself wasn’t good enough, needing fixing, needing to douse her head with tons of self-help books and practice meditation, religiously, to be acceptable, a good person, a good woman, a good daughter, a good sister, a good friend, a good companion.

And that’s what it all boils down to. I didn’t think I was good enough. I thought adding some extra stamps to my passport, traveling to other countries, trying a new career, speaking another language other my native tongue fluently would make me…great. But what I discovered was that I was already and had always been immeasurably great, marvelous, wondrous, amazing, inspiring. That’s what travel and these great intercontinental and international adventures are about— inward journeys.

Maybe you’re reading this post contemplating an international move. Maybe Spain is your destination. Maybe you’re thinking you’re crazy (I know I did when I first considered moving to Spain). Maybe you think your dream is far-fetched, too far from the norm, too off the beaten path to be accepted from your family, friends, your boyfriend or girlfriend.

It’s not.

And you’re not crazy.

Take the leap. Even if you’re scared. Especially if you’re scared. Even if you’re trembling and fearful that everything in the world could go wrong if you left everything you’ve known behind.

But how will you know if you never even try?

Plaza Mayor

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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.

liberation in london.

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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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home and hearts.

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My hair fluttered in the wind behind as I walked, the leather jacket I’d purchased at Zara on a street minutes away from my flat in Madrid briskly brushing past my hips and tailing my body. I rolled my suitcase with my right hand and clung to my black carry-on bag as I exited the Marta train station, where my mother waited for me in the family car–the car I  had driven many a time when my car was in the shop or decided it was having an off day. 

I had arrived home, in Atlanta, for an almost three-week stay. Coming home had been a loaded gun and for the most part, I was exuberant and giddy with enthusiasm. The last week before I left Madrid had been one filled with bouts of sorrow and the resolve I would most likely not return to Spain after the Christmas break. In fact, somewhere deep in my mind, I fathomed I would only return, as my roundtrip ticket I had purchased months before was non-refundable, to gather my belongings and shed my woeful attempt to living abroad and starting a life full of travel and adventure. 

Maybe I had not been fit to make it here, I thought over and over again before boarding that 10-hour flight to Atlanta. I looked around at the sights, the long Metro ride to the airport, the nearly two-mile trek to the gate to board my flight and imagined how life would be if I just gave up, if I just said goodbye to a long held dream of mine. 

And so I pondered these possibilities, how giving up must feel and knew it had to be like this, as I rode home and half-way listened to my mother gab about the goings on in the neighborhood, my mind elsewhere. Giving up sometimes doesn’t follow a lack of attempt, but instead a good fight which withers into situations, people and leaps that just don’t work. What I didn’t have the answer to is just how life would feel back in my hometown after having such an intense three-months away from the comfort and sameness which had characterized my entire existence. 

But twenty minutes later, after almost running into the gray stucco home I had grown up in, the house where life as an adult strangely mirrored my growth and development as a child, I stared into the room previously known as mine, my mouth agape. My mother thought my speechlessness equated to my gratitude for what was a complete remodel of my room, but it was the finality of how much had changed, how life had continued to zoom ahead without my presence there felt real, tangible. And it was horrifying. And isolating. And strange. 

Over the next few days, I visited with friends, people who I felt like I used to know but instead only felt an eerie amount of distance from. They talked to me about their jobs, complained about gas prices and the latest drama in Atlanta. They laughed and smiled at me, asked me questions here and there about Madrid, but only, it felt different. I felt like I was just a visiting friend, someone who didn’t belong and an outsider to even the people I knew the most. 

These sights were familiar. The smells were familiar. The people, the faces were familiar. 

But the only difference was I wasn’t the same. Only three months had passed since I was no longer in the United States living my day-to-day, drab, monotonous, predictable and lackluster life. In that short time, I had shifted. I had become more conscious. I had become more in-tune with my spirit, my soul, my emotions, my conscience, what made my inner-being smile. 

My life was no longer about grasping to make ends meet between rising gas prices, the bills that never seemed to end and overpriced nights out in the city, but instead about rushing to the Metro to catch the train before I had to wait another three or four minutes. Or rushing to the bank to deposit my money before they stopped accepting deposits at 2:30. Or shopping for one at the grocery store and separating meals into tupperware containers so I didn’t have to cook during the jam-packed weeks. Or staying up (and out) too late on the weekends and sleeping until three or four in the afternoon, the taste of alcohol lingering on my tongue when I awoke and memories of a fun night out reverberating in my brain along with the slight throb of my head from a hangover. Or lesson planning for all my classes, laughing at my students when they laughed at my shoddy Spanish. 

Life had become about me, about marching to the beat of my drum and doing what felt best, in every moment. Authenticity. My life had authenticity, something I no longer felt the need to prove to anyone, even myself. And reflection. Slowing down. Basking in the moments of silence. Pausing to have a cafe con leche in that extra five minutes versus being glued to status updates on Facebook, new videos or pictures on Instagram or my Twitter timeline during my lunch break. 

In that time, I remembered why I began writing in the first place, why it had become so important to me and I knew leaving behind Journalism was never the answer. The answer was pursuing writing that always meant something. To be true to myself and to remember my words had a higher purpose than scoring me validation, admiration. 

So, I knew, almost instantly that leaving Madrid behind wasn’t the answer. There was still so much to uncover about myself left. Because home isn’t necessarily a geographic location. Home can be within the warm embrace of a person. Home can be a temporary setting away from the norm. Home can be anywhere your mind feels free, where you feel you can best breathe, whether it be a spare closet you escape to in stolen moments or the high rise condo overlooking a metropolis.  

So here I remain, here I will be, here I will live until I know, without a doubt, what makes sense for me, for Nneka and no one else. 

I am home. 

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Sunrise in Conde Casal from my morning commute to work.

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.

awake and anti-assimilation.

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I don’t think I’ve ever really known how to blend in, how to not to stick out from the masses, how to not be less unidentifiable from the next person.

My first mark of differing identify, my name, prevented me from ever really being just like many of my other classmates, neighbors, church members or friends. And when I hit my grow spurt at the tail end of my sixth grade school year and shot up as tall as the oak trees that lined my family’s house and shrouded the sleepy house from the strong, unrelenting summer rays in Georgia during the scorching months of June, July and August, there was yet another reminder that I wasn’t made to blend into the crowd.

I became the tall, lanky, socially awkward girl with the weird, African name. And I hated everything about myself, too. I rejected each of those sentiments that made me a constant source of crazy questions, condescending looks and stares and an overall sense of discomfort. I would’ve much rather been average height with a “normal” name like Ashley, Brittany or Nicole.

These are thoughts that I had nearly two decades ago, and I never expected to feel even a tinge of those thoughts, to feel in some childish, silly way wishing I didn’t have to stand out, that I didn’t have to get the more than usual amount of stares.

But isn’t thinking like this, in a way, a bit natural, especially when I walk around in this city that inspires me and takes my breath away in both big and small ways each day and there are no faces that don’t look like mine?

Perhaps, and perhaps the months leading up to moving to Madrid, a period when I slowly began to realize that I was rejecting every notion that told me that it was wrong for me to revel in being both a Black American and African, served a greater purpose than even I considered.

Because the racial affronts I’ve faced here in just my past three weeks have blown my mind, partly because I’ve never had to take into account how Blacks (and Africans) are viewed outside of the States. And to be honest, living in Atlanta can have one thinking one way about how race and race relations are.

In my 27 years in Atlanta, there weren’t many moments where I had to consciously confront the pain, isolation and feeling of being othered that being Black and/or African brings because I was constantly interacting with those who were just like me and looked just like me. I wasn’t one of a few within a sea of a majority.

I’ve had people ask me bluntly to my face if I’m African or Latino, and yes, in that, “What are you?” tone of voice accompanied by a quizzical expression. I’ve been asked hair questions and had unwarranted hands mingling in my hair. I’ve been called “morena” which is supposedly a term of endearment for women of color. I’ve been referred to as “my sister” by other Africans as I pass them by on the street. This makes me smile.

Went I went out on a Friday night two weeks ago, an older Venezuelan man who was drinking solo in the corner a young, hip bar in the city center, approaches me, after noticing me dance as I waited for my food and asked where I was from. After I told him I was from the States, he matter of factly states that I have “skin like Obama.” I nodded and smiled unsure of how else to respond. I shared the story with many people who thought it was hilarious. I just thought the entire interaction was weird.

Last week I was asked if I spoke Nigerian. I responded kindly, with a smile, that Nigerians speak English and ended it there. When I got back to my flat later that day, my feet planted firmly on the floor as I sat on the edge of my unmade twin bed, I sobbed because it was yet another stark reminder how many people here and period just don’t “get it” and how I don’t feel like it’s my role or responsibility to forge that bridge of understanding and lack of ignorance.

Being outrightly othered can wear you down.

I’ve had several conversations with people about racism and race relations in Spain because I needed an outlet to vent my frustration. One person told me that it wasn’t really an issue, and that if I was confronted with being called “negrita,” supposedly the slang word used to refer to Black people that I should shrug it off and not take it personally.

But wait.

Shouldn’t I be able to determine what or what shouldn’t offend me as a woman of color? How is it anyone else’s role outside of people of color what or what shouldn’t offend us in these cases?

And that’s when I knew that it “not being an issue” was code language for covert notions  lurking in the shadows or—If it doesn’t affect you personally in your day-to-day life then of course it’s not a big deal and can surely be ignored.

Especially when already, in terms of other minorities here I’ve seen small shreds of oppression that bother me. For instance, there is a huge Chinese population in Madrid, many of whom are business owners of shops in the barrios throughout the city.  These shops offer everything you could imagine in one place for an affordable price. Many Spaniards refer to their businesses as the, “Chino,” which literally translates to The Chinese in English.

Does anyone else see the glaring issue with this?

But I hear it often: in casual mentions of where people will pick up items they need on the weekend or after a long day at work. And although, once again, I was told that the term was not offensive and was okay to say, I can’t help but put myself in those shoes.

What if there were shops with everything imaginable under one roof called the “Africano” which literally translates to “The African” in English? How is that not offensive? On what universe is it not offensive to refer to a store solely as the nationality that owns it and not what is actually sold there?

I digress.

Before I moved to Spain, I made a silent vow to each day, be proud of who I am, my heritage, where I came from. One way I’ve consciously done this is insisting that people refer to me with the true, proper Nigerian pronunciation of my name, versus the Amercanized pronounciation I have gone with for years, to coax myself out of my previous heritage insecurity. Often I slip up and default back to the latter pronunciation because it’s comfortable and familiar, for others, but not me. In those instances, I feel silly, because people wonder why I say my own name differently. No one knows how much of a personal struggle that has been for me all my life though, so I can’t become too fixated on what others think.

Although being “me” here, being one of the few brown faces, is down right uncomfortable, unnerving and clearly establishes me as different, I won’t tone it down or adjust or code-switch or attempt to blend in solely for the sake of not having to bother with answering the many questions that continue to flood in.

I’d much rather deal with the anguish of being authentic versus the anguish of being a fraud.