lovely leaving.

Uncategorized

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. 

DSC01320DSC01319

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. 

DSC01324

Advertisements

teaching and tears.

Uncategorized

Image

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.

the expat existential crisis.

Uncategorized
Image

The Metro stop nearest my flat that I’ll walk to every morning for the next four weeks (or more) to get to my TEFL certification course.

“Calle General Yague, por favor,” I mumbled, barely above a whisper to my cab driver, the man I hastily selected as I exited Barajas Madrid International Airport and filed into the cab line, behind many others who lugged their suitcase or suitcases behind them.

The cab driver drove a beat up Mercedes Benz, the color of pearls gathered from a deep sea diving expedition, with black skid marks to and fro, a sure sign that he either he or other Spaniards weren’t the best drivers.

As he struggled to lift my two suitcases into the small trunk, making a dramatic grunting noise for the biggest of the two, I rolled my eyes and walked over to the right door of the backseat. By the time I had fastened my seatbelt and told him where I needed to go, he had already revved the engine and pulled forward.

My ride to the flat I’m staying in was no more than 15 minutes, just as Google Maps had stated when I checked the night before my 16-hour journey to Madrid, a journey that took me through three airports and ended in me leaving my passport in the slip in front of my seat, causing a momentary second of panic when I went to exchange my last savings, $2,000 U.S. dollars for what amounted to $500 dollars less in Euros.

Nothing is the same anymore.

It’s only been five days and already, I’m not the same person. I no longer wake up each morning with dread rolling around in my stomach, not ready to tackle another workday at a workplace and profession I have fallen out of love with. Each day holds a sense of mystery; I don’t know what I’ll be faced with or what to prepare myself for. This is both exciting and terrifying.

Confusion and frustration steadily trade off on becoming my middle name, and I suppose it’ll be this way for quite some time, until I fully adjust. I realize I had some lofty and unrealistic expectations that it’d be easy as pie (because I had been yearning to move here and start my life in a new direction). Or at least, I didn’t take the time to think about what difficulties and challenges would be mounted up against me.

And believe me, there are plenty.

I don’t feel confident speaking Spanish, although I know the bare minimum to order a meal, ask for a drink or engage in a conversation if I get lost. Before any words fumble from my lips, I’m second guessing myself. I’m running a quick Google translation on my phone to see if what I’m thinking is in the ballpark of what a Spaniard would say. Will I be found out if I say something stupid? Will they look back at me and know that I’m a pathetic American struggling to take on a language that she didn’t grow up speaking? Even things I used to enjoy like grocery shopping are now difficult, as labels I don’t understand stare back at me.

Owning the title of being an adult is daunting as well. I paid rent for the first time five days ago. I folded up several Euro bills and handed them over to the sweet, older Spanish woman who I’m renting a room from. She smiled and took the bills between watching a show on television. She didn’t realize how huge of a step, a moment, that was for me. For her, I was yet another tenant that she has graciously, kindly and warmly taken in, but still, just another person that is helping her meet her own cost of rent to her landlord.

I’ve had to create a budget and determine what I will and will not spend the little money I do have until I finish my TEFL course, find work and start earning money. Each time I Skype or Facetime my mama she tells me, almost in a patronizing tone, to let her know if I end up in a financial bind. I hear her, and I know she worries. I’m her oldest daughter and her only daughter that has ever dared to move to another continent, but I’m determined to make this work, even if that means I’m eating crackers, meat and cheese for a few weeks to say that I remained within budget and took care of myself.

The hardest part, the most disheartening part of all, is that I can see, almost a mile away, that things have already changed with the people who I called close and dear to me before I left the States. I can already see that no matter how many Skype convos, Facetime sessions, stray iMessages or Google Hangouts, that eventually, they’ll stop wondering about my life on the other side of the world. Our conversations and the way we relate will change and fade away in unexpected ways, and I’ll no longer feel home with them in the way I used to. I’ll become a stranger, despite my best intentions to keep in touch and find common ground.

And I hate to admit it, but right now, in this moment, I feel very alone. Because none of the loved ones I’ve left behind truly know how this feels, to be stuck in a weird, awkward  way between two worlds and trying to figure out where you’ll fit in–on one side over the other.

I’m happy.

I love it here.

This move was the right decision, but it has dawned on me, and I realize with such finality that nothing will ever be the same. But, see, no one tells you that. No one tells you that when you decide to become an expat, when you decide to leave everything and everyone you’ve ever known behind, that nothing will ever be the same, in an almost palpable, sobering and earth-shattering way.