In August of 2018, I left my comfortable life in America behind for a year of teaching English in Spain. I had no idea if my adventure would be everything I ever dreamed, or if I would be left disappointed, still searching for what would set my soul on fire. It's impossible to completely quantify how the past year pushed me and changed me but, spoiler alert:
It was the most incredible year of my life.
Lessons I Learned
1. Sometimes difficult circumstances are unavoidable. The first month in a new country is unbelievably hard. There is no shortcut. No amount of preparation will help you leapfrog it. It's gonna rock your world, and all you can do is lean in and embrace the struggle. I journaled, I prayed, I Googled, I cried to my mom, I ran countless miles through Retiro Park, and I even took a 10-day trip home. It just takes grit, a dogged willpower to stick with it, even when it’s scary and uncomfortable. Somewhere, deep down, the fire remained. The fire that had given me the strength to get rid of 75% of my belongings, to leave behind my family and friends, to book a one-way ticket across the Atlantic Ocean, and just do the dang thing. Don't let fear hold you back from doing something amazing.
2. The experience of travel is truly phenomenal, but it is over-sensationalized on social media. The sheer effort that people put into getting those perfect Instagram photos exhausts me. I really, really tried to keep up. After one year of traveling, I learned a valuable lesson: That ain’t me. I quit. If a picture of me turns out to be phenomenal, that’s great, but I refuse to spend my valuable travel time contouring my makeup to make my cheekbones glow like the fire of a thousand suns or making sure the light hits me so that it completely removes all traces of cellulite.
It is not about the Instagram shot. It’s about seeing things you never would have seen, learning things you never would have learned, and meeting people that you never would have met. You will never be able to put any of that into a social media photo, and that is fine with me.
3. I thought that traveling during the holidays would be just as wonderful as being home for Christmas, but it just isn't. Yes, my family is a little like the Griswolds, and I normally end the night wondering why I was put with these lunatics, but the fact remains: Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas when I'm away from my family. Paris and Budapest were beautiful, and I was surrounded by sweet friends, but I felt like I had simply skipped Christmas.
4. Lunch in Spain is a big deal. Try telling a native Spaniard that you're going to eat a quick lunch by yourself. They will say to you, "Get out of my country, you psychopath." Spain just does it better. Enjoy the tapas, the conversation, a drink, more conversation, the meal, a drink, continued conversation, a dessert and a coffee, and then maybe another drink or six. If your lunch didn't last at least three hours, then you didn't do it right, guiri (Spanish word for “foreigner”). One time, I went to an "early" lunch with friends at 1:00 pm, and then another friend picked me up from the restaurant 7 hours later for dinner plans at another restaurant. Spaniards value quality time, and that is, without a doubt, one of my favorite things about this country.
Goals I Made
1. Travel Europe as much as possible.
38 cities, 11 countries, 17 train rides, 39 flights, and 18 AirBnBs later, I'm going to put a check-mark by this one. By the end of the June, I was exhausted in the most perfect way.
2. Be present. In my life back in the USA, I often found myself looking forward to some future event: an upcoming vacation, a night out with friends, or simply the weekend. My goal for the year was to enjoy each moment for what it was and not constantly be waiting for some future event that would make me happy. Looking over the Greek landscape from the Meteora monasteries; listening to hymns reverberate off the walls of Westminster Abbey; watching waves crash into the Cliffs of Moher; tapping my foot to the local music at Hanafin’s pub in the tiny town of Anascaul, Ireland; being mesmerized by the lights of Budapest reflecting off the Danube River; savoring authentic Italian pizza; crossing the finish line at not one, but two Spartan races; watching the sun sink below the horizon on an isolated Canary Island beach; feeling the wind whipping my face while hiking in Western Ireland; and listening to the steady “clop, clop” of horse hooves on the trails in the mountains north of Madrid- I was fully present for each one of those experiences. There was never a moment when I was looking toward some unnerving, unknown, and distant future. Every experience left me in an awe-inspired “Is this really my life?” state of mind. I could not be more grateful.
3. Become fluent in Spanish. In case you didn’t know this, learning a new language is really, really difficult. I did not become fluent in Spanish this year. Not even close. But I’m better than I was last year. I’m just proud that I can confidently order at a restaurant, tell someone I don't know where the post office is, and articulate that "I have the sniffles" to a pharmacist without getting laughed at. Much.
4. Be a confident solo traveler. I had a very "The Bachelor-esque" thought process before I arrived at my orientation in Madrid: I'm not here to make friends. Those that know me well would laugh at this. I am always here (or anywhere) to make friends. I don't know how I confused independence with strength, but I never could have done it alone.
From new Spanish friends looking over rent contracts, teaching me Spanish, and helping me find a place to live; to new friends from all over the world that traveled with me, laughed with me, and allowed me to vent my struggles with adjusting to a foreign country. This year wouldn't have been what it was without them. People are what truly enrich the travel experience, even the solo trips.
Advice to Aspiring World Travelers
1. Give the local language a try. While Europeans tend to see Americans as friendly individuals, we have a reputation for being fairly ignorant. The last election did not exactly help our reputation, fam. Prove them wrong and brush up on the basics of the local language and culture before visiting a new country. It's impossible for you to master it, but I promise, if you try out "Hello," "Please," and "Thank you" in the country’s native tongue, the locals are much more likely to be nice to you. I even had multiple occasions where the person took the time to teach me a new word or two.
2. Try the food- even the weird stuff. One bite. If you don't like it, that's it; never again. If you do, Yay! You found a new food! I was skeptical about octopus, but it became one of my favorite Spanish specialties. Also, sometimes shrimp is served with the body and eyeballs. Southerners, just imagine you're at a crawfish boil, and you’ll be just fine.
3. Give your all at your job. When I first came to Spain, I was certain that I was mercilessly using this beautiful country as my gateway to travel Europe. Sure, I’d show up to work and do my job well, but I wasn’t going to get attached. I’m here to travel. That’s it. How silly. The kids managed to steal my heart from the very first day, and my fellow assistants and teachers were some of the kindest, warmest people I had ever met. I had no choice but to invest myself fully into my job. To look forward to coming to work- to feel needed and loved- meant the world to me. Not every day was perfect, or even fun, but I truly felt like I belonged.
4. Connect with the locals. I lived with a Spanish family who made me feel at home and accepted. We spent many nights in the kitchen belting out Spanish music at the top of our lungs. I went to the gym with my Spanish friends, and that accountability alone kept me from gaining 30 pounds (because bread and olive oil are consumed like oxygen in this country). The friends I made helped me figure out the outrageously stupid amount of renewal paperwork from the Spanish government. [It. Is. Outrageously. Stupid.] I spent “Reyes Magos” (Spain’s equivalent to our Christmas Day) laughing and exchanging gifts with the very large family of my precious friend, Marisa. I got to celebrate my friend’s daughter’s first communion party with their family and lifelong friends. One weekend, my roommate, Paula, took me out to experience the Spanish nightlife, and at 4:00 am I learned that I do not enjoy the Spanish nightlife.
If I was able to learn and grow this much from one year in Spain, there was really only one thing left to do: Go back for another year and try to outdo myself. So that's what I'm doing.