As I sit atop a massive hill in an urban park overlooking train rails and much of the less glamorous, tourist-filled parts of the city, I am forced to reflect upon my last nine months here. Well, let’s be real: no one is forcing me to reflect. It’s something I want to do and I’ve brought my composition book to give me the extra push I need.
Nine months ago, I wrote in a park less than three miles from here, where it was far less elevated and green and people were even less likely to pick up their dog crap (it’s not much better here; I nearly stepped in some twice as I worked my way up to this hilltop). I was petrified by my unfamiliar surroundings, oblivious to the memories and people I was yet to make and meet in the coming months.
I’ve felt myself flower as a person, with no choice but to grow up even though the soil in which I found myself planted was dry and resistant to supporting life. No one there to water me, to sing me songs to help me grow. I hit days and weeks where my leaves wilted, not sure if they’d ever stand upright again. At the end, I found a way to flourish and even thrive, rooted more deeply than I’ve ever been before.
This stupid plant analogy aside, I’ve learned a lot in these last nine months: about another culture, other people, and myself. I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned; some of them are informative, some might be common sense, some silly, but all help tell my story.
- America really isn’t the center of the world. Sure, its TV shows are pretty popular no matter where you go and people love a good cheeseburger no matter what language they speak, but other cultures will always claim their own food and culture is vastly superior.
- How people outside suburbs live. Hundreds of thousands of people cramming themselves into apartments the size of some people’s basements; these are the lucky ones. I often found myself coming home late at night to homeless people camped outside my apartment in cardboard boxes and blankets. It made me feel incredibly grateful to have a key into my own piso, despite its own dingy and cramped atmosphere.
- Public transport is a drag. Having to stand six inches from people chattering away in a language you can’t understand and who smell like they’ve never stepped within six feet of a bathtub was enough to make me want to hurl myself out of the metro car some days. Never again will I take my car for granted again; it’s astounding the amount of time it’s saved me getting from place to place and the amount of stinky air it’s prevented me from smelling.
- How to order coffee in Spanish. In case you were curious, it’s “café con leche para llevar, por favor.” (coffee with milk for takeaway, please.) Being a coffee addict and without a way to make it for myself for most of this year, I basically learned how to say this phrase in my sleep.
- Small talk with strangers can be wonderful. Being an introvert, before I moved I usually found it unnecessary and annoying. Having my ability to communicate with others suddenly severed due to my poor Spanish skills was more isolating than I possibly imagined. I longed to be able to respond to the old Spanish woman on the bus who asked me a question I could only reply to with, “Lo siento, no hablo Espanol bien.” Being able to understand and communicate with those around me is another aspect of everyday life I will never again take for granted.
- You have to put yourself out there. I never made any friends just sitting in my room watching Netflix. (When I first began writing this list of things I learned this year I was sitting in my living room doing just that on a Friday night. Oh, well…) When I started going to language exchanges and increasing the amount of travel I did, I gradually began making more friends and feeling a little less lonely.
- The privilege that comes with speaking English as your native language. As native English speakers, we don’t realize how highly valued our English-speaking ability is. The fact that we can move across the world and find work just because of a language we speak without a second thought will never become less remarkable to me.
- People are fucking insane (no matter where you live). This isn’t a new realization, but living in a capital city in another country really brought this fact to light. I can’t think of a better example than when I left my friend’s apartment at 6 am after a night out to catch the first metro running. Huddled on a bench, exhausted with the early stages of a hangover beginning to creep in, the sound of animal-like grunting caught my attention. Directly across from me on the opposite metro platform, a man rhythmically paced to a chant he created. “I.HATE.HUMAN.BEINGS.” Although lacking in lyrical creativity, the man made up for it with sheer enthusiasm and commitment to his message. He chanted this over and over again, with pause between each word, just in case I or the two other people in the platform didn’t understand him the first time. All I could remember thinking while I gazed at him was, ‘Me too, you crazy bastard. Me too.’
So there you have it. The eight most important things I took away from this experience. It still feels surreal that this year even was. That I made it here all by myself—me. With my chewed up nails and my scattered thoughts, my black hole mind. I’m still curious what prompted me to make this leap in the first place. Was it some quarter life crisis? If I was trying to prove a point to myself, I’m still not sure what that point was. But I survived this, and I did way more than just get by like I hoped I would back in August—I soared with flying colors at the end. This is only just the beginning.
For now, I’m signing off. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ramblings of my black hole mind.