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.

levels to love.

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There are some people who refer to themselves as undercover lovers, those people who shy away from openly professing their adulation of a star-crossed lover, but there are whole ‘nother category of folks, like me, who are undercover emos.

The people who shy away from openly showing their many shades of emotions and just how many times they plunge into a deep blue sea of feels.

I’m a hopeless romantic. I chronically wear my rose-colored glasses when I should toss them carelessly over my shoulder and see people for who and what they really are, but in my hearts of hearts, I love love.

And so, this year, especially, I silently vowed I would find the love I so desired, the love I had been yearning for and relentlessly searching for. The real love. The ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love Carrie Bradshaw mused about on Sex and the City.

Instead I was met with tumultuous bouts of heartbreak. Over and over and over again. I never knew my heart could take such a pounding as it did this year. And around late June, early July, I told myself enough was enough. The search was off. I stopped hoping for companionship, stopped expecting it even. I tuned in all my frustration with my lackluster results from such a deep desire into preparing for moving across the Atlantic to the beautiful country of Spain.

Because I was so hyper-focused on my impending new expat journey, I spurned many attempts from potential suitors, men who looked at me googly-eyed with lust lingering in their longing glances. What was the point anyway? In a mere amount of weeks, I’d be far, far, far away, with a six-hour time difference to boot.

But somewhere in the crosshairs, somewhere whilst I wasn’t paying attention, I tripped into adoration. It happened so fast, as blithely as a blink of an eye. He swept in while I wasn’t looking. Sprinkled joy, admiration, attention and beautiful prose into my life. We conversed about life’s philosophies for hours on end, delicately discussed classic literature like Walden as date activities and laughed about silly YouTube humor.

As just as quickly as I’d become comfortable in his arms, he swept away, sneakily backing away from me and this forbidden romance, disappearing into the mist, carried away with dust in the wind.

He was gone.

And I was devastated.

Or should I say, I have been miserably devastated for the past five days. The past three days especially, it’s been a battle to convince myself to untangle my woes from my bed sheets dripping with whispers of regret and despair.

My tears haven’t dried yet. And I’m sure they won’t dry for some time. You don’t easily stop grieving for someone who became part of your everyday routine. At least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself. I’m impatient. I’d much rather be able to say I was over it in a day’s time.

The heart doesn’t heal that easily though.

Last night before I fell asleep, I stared at the ceiling fan whooshing cold air over my body and realized this year, I had gone searching for something and I had found it, but it wasn’t what I naively thought I would be seeking this year.

I crashed, collided, somersaulted, back-flipped and smashed right into myself. I needed love this year—I needed to radically love myself. I needed to stop judging and hating myself for my actions, my thoughts, my feelings. I discarded the notions, the conditions. Stopped believing the lie that if I were skinnier, had better clothes, a cushy job, a flashy car or more money, I’d think more of myself. That then, and only then, love would come rushing in. I just freely loved. I loved myself. Without ceasing. Desperately. Like my life indeed depended on it and I’d perish if I didn’t.

And now, when I’m still, when I sit still, when I’m one with myself, I feel that love coursing through my veins.

Because I love her. Intensely. She’s a weepy person in general. She cries too much. She knows that, too, but she’s accepted her emotions as beauty instead of a defect. She laughs too loud when something’s really funny (like, reaaaaally funny). She curses like a sailor in everyday conversation because she’s passionate about her words and expressing how she feels. She loves food and cooking, especially if she can share them with people she loves. She’s extremely giving and always gives from the heart, never expecting anything in return. And she’s courageous, always has been, but it took a while for her to see what everyone else around her saw.

She’s an amazing woman, through and through, and I’m so glad, that this year, I found her and loved her.

Loving her has made all the difference.

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.

the expat existential crisis.

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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.