I have a confession…
Expat life is not as glamorous or romantic as it may seem.
Ok, I said it.
Us bloggers can make it appear pretty romantic and alluring- dashing off to faraway lands, eating delicious food, sipping wine and taking gorgeous photos. Now, I won’t deny these are definitely highlights and there are plenty of them to be had living abroad. I’ve had my share and will have many more this academic teaching year.
But living abroad is still living life. I still face challenges. I still go grocery shopping, cook meals, do laundry (without a dryer and constant rain), and spend time with new friends. I still have the same emotions. Their just amplified and more intense when I’m living in another country.
It’s life just in a different country. Living with a slightly different set of rules.
I also still have to earn a living, though I know I’m very lucky to have an easy job thanks to the Spanish Ministry of Education grant. I also have, what seems to be endless, opportunities to teach English as long as the desire for native teachers to teach English stays de moda, the style of Language Academies.
I have to learn the ropes of a new city, meet new folks and make new friends, which can be a challenge wherever you are, even when you speak the same language. I have to navigate bureaucracy, which I seem to encounter less in my own country but I know the USA offers lots of bureaucracy to immigrants. As a foreigner, you get to stare bureaucracy in the face and curse the air for why you have to deal with it; endure paperwork and processes that should be easy but never are. You have to talk with government folks in their native language who often don’t care, and/or don’t seem to understand their own countries processes, and no matter how much effort and questions you ask, you feel like you don’t get anywhere. There’s no escaping bureaucracy. And to top it off, I have to speak in a language that’s not my own. On the daily. Because that’s the only way I’m going to improve and that’s what I have to do if I want to communicate with people here.
I’ll admit, life abroad can seem easier than at home. And sometimes it is, I live comfortably here, don’t have a 40 hour work week or commute and have a nice bedroom in a shared apartment. In San Francisco, finding an apartment can be an ordeal, especially if you don’t want to give your entire paycheck to your landlord every month. Life abroad can feel like an opportunity to play hooky from “real life”; fitting into society, knowing what you want to do, having a career, but life still happens. Travel writer and journalist Michael Kohn’s sums it up well, “Don’t be fooled by the notion of the ‘real world’. When you’re on the road or living in a different country, you’re in the real world, and there’s no rush to go back.” For many, there isn’t any rush to move back to the USA or wherever they’re from and I get where they’re coming from. Living abroad gives me perspective about what I want for myself.
Realizing what I want or rather, what I don’t want:
I’m nearly three months into my 2nd year as an expat, starting from scratch in a new city and it feels like I’ve been here for ages. Time seems to pass differently or maybe it’s what happens when you’re in a new city. I’ve grown tremendously since I hopped back on the plane and made a commitment to myself to start anew in Vitoria- Gasteiz. I’m so grateful I made the leap.
Things I thought I wanted a few months ago (travel in Latin America for undefined amount of time) or a year ago (living abroad in another country) have shifted. I’m looking at life through a different window. In April, I remember my mind raced with possibilities of what I could do because I didn’t feel ready to jump back in the fast lane of the California lifestyle. I didn’t think I’d return to Spain (I had a bf I had to consider) but I pondered other adventures we could take and ways I could keep improving my Spansih and how we could make it possible.
Flashback to the first weekend of January 2012, after ringing in the New Year in San Francisco, I joined a friend in Lisbon, Portugal to seize our winter holiday vacation. Lisbon enchanted me and within a day of roaming the city, I had visions of living there to learn the language. My mind spun as I walked through Rua Agusta street into a big plaza, pondering possibilities of how I could combine my career interests and continue living abroad.
Twelve months later, these grand ideas of living in Portugal, as well as living in the South of France, to learn French, have slipped away. Knowing how much effort it takes to learn a language and what living abroad entails has given me much needed perspective. Being immersed in a language and country is key to learning but it doesn’t guarantee fluency after 9 months, or three years, it requires constant effort. I’m improving daily but I still feel far from the “fluency finish line.” Those don’t exactly exist because learning a language is a journey, not a destination. Heck, I’m still learning new vocabulary in English.
My goals and wants have changed. Some folks are destined to be long–term expats, serial expats (move countries often) or long-term travelers. I can see the charm but I know it’s not what I want, since I’ve had my share of long term backpacking in Africa, and what will be almost two years of living in the Iberia Peninsula come May. I don’t think the travel bug will ever leave me (it’s just goes dormant after I satisfy the itch) but now I’m craving roots and community, having a place of my own and being surrounded by friends and family.
An expiration date:
Knowing my job and time in Basque Country is temporary can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it helps me push past the challenging times; I can always see the light at the end of the tunnel. And a time limit motivates me to fully aprovechar, take advantage of opportunities, knowing that putting it off, could easily mean it’s never going to happen.
A curse because I know that I’m here for a short period, I’ll make friends, create a temporary life here and then move home.
Before I arrived in Andalucia, it seemed everyone and their mother encouraged me to date a Spaniard, “It’s the best way to learn the language,” they said. Sure, it’s enticing- it’s a good way to “master” Castellano, get to know and understand the culture faster, have insider tips on where to go, plus all the benefits that come along with being in a relationship. Sometimes I wonder if I’m limiting myself- sure I like the notion of meeting someone and attempting a bilingual relationship to experience what it’s like, though I know it’s not as easy as it sounds. But there is a big part of me that equally doesn’t want a relationship- I don’t want to fall for someone and be forced to make choices that involve bridging two different worlds, and cultures, especially knowing that I don’t’ want to be an expat for the long term. It seems it only would complicate my life right now. I know being near my family and living in California is where I’d want to stay for a long while once I return. Or so that’s my plan.
I have a friend who is married to Spaniard and I know the challenges they face and I follow plenty of expat blogs to know the difficulties that are involved. Sometimes it’s easy to “envy” them and think they’ve got it all but nothing is ever black and white; I can read between their words.
Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that no one is knocking on my door.
I’m focusing on myself and enjoying the ride. I’m happy just where I am.
And I remind myself this is just where I’m suppose to be.