Winter 2023 Blog Update (Part 2 of 6) ~ Reflections About Living Abroad

In November 2019, I moved from the U.S.—in San Diego, California—to Spain in order to teach English as a foreign language. I worked for two years as a cultural and language assistant in Murcia—in the southern heart of Spain—while surviving primarily off of a government living stipend. After relocating to the U.S. in September 2021, I want to take a moment to reflect upon my experiences of living in a foreign country.

Several months after I arrived, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world and eventually reached Spain. Despite the unfortunate global crisis, I decided to remain in Spain and make the best of it.

Traveling internationally takes courage, not to mention patience, persistence, and humility. Living abroad is certainly not the same as vacationing abroad. If that sounds like an overstatement, it’s hard to convey how revolutionary an active encounter with a foreign culture can be. If one approaches the experience with an open mind and heart, the influences of travel may linger long after one returns home: challenging one’s life preconceptions while inspiring a greater awareness of oneself and the wider world.

If you haven’t yet crossed a border into a different culture, The Portable Wife offers a generous sampling of quotes about traveling that might—hopefully—inspire you to apply for your first passport. Reflecting my experiences in Spain, the following quotes illustrate the intricate dance between risk and reward, confrontation and celebration, that colors the spirit of a traveler.

“Splendid to arrive alone in a foreign country and feel the assault of difference. Here they are all along, busy with living; they don’t talk or look like me. The rhythm of their day is entirely different; I am foreign.”

—Frances Mayes

What I found appealing in life abroad was the inevitable sense of helplessness it would inspire. Equally exciting would be the work involved in overcoming that helplessness.

—David Sedaris

If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.

—Anthony Bourdain

When it comes to crossing a body of water to walk in someone else’s shoes, I owe a debt of gratitude to travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain who embodied such active curiosity and compassion in his world-wide adventures. In my own humble way, I endeavored to channel Bourdain’s spirit during my two years in Spain. As I wrote about in my winter 2021 blog update, I remain privileged to have indulged my culinary curiosity, visited such beautiful places, and met so many wonderful people. But while the majority of my expat teacher colleagues were charmed by Spanish culture, many of them looking for a way to live in Spain permanently, my experiences, in contrast, were different. 

To start with, weathering Spain’s administrative processes thoroughly taxed my prized patience. In contrast to the easy-going nature of daily Spanish culture, I experienced Spanish bureaucracy, at times, as calloused and temperamental.

In 2021 I made six trips to the local immigration office to renew my Spanish visa. Each time I received inconsistent instructions from different staff about which documents and taxes were required. After paying the wrong tax initially, my request for a reimbursement was rejected due to failing to file the proper paperwork.

Before I decided to return to the U.S., I also had problems re-applying for a third year in the English teaching program in Spain. After submitting my teaching application online, I was informed that I had checked a wrong option within the application system, an error that couldn’t simply be amended, thus requiring that I repeat the entire process anew. 

Dangerous conjecture alert! I can’t help wondering if the bureaucratic undertow systemic to 21st-century Spain may be a carryover from the nation’s former glory days as a reigning world sea power. Perhaps the battle-ready swords brandished by the Spanish armada in the 16th century have been buried under mountains of administrative paperwork: the hunger for new global conquests replaced by the zealous control of its own governmental functions. 

My questionable humor excused, when I wasn’t wrapped up in administrative red tape, I tangled with Spanish culture in other ways. Although the people I encountered in Spain certainly face their own struggles, in my experiences, their carefree lifestyle—for better and worse—seems to be carefully programmed for dissolving all obstacles to immersion with the present moment. The trouble is that sometimes people differ about how to live in the present. And sometimes our differences become the source of our conflicts. As the Frances Mayes and David Sedaris quotes from above relate so movingly, the challenge then is adapting to the resulting sense of helplessness that the assault of differences inspire.

Living in a foreign country is a stimulating reminder that we are all influenced by differing personal and national histories. Our histories program us to identify with particular behaviors and beliefs, preferences and priorities. We further identify ourselves by our attachment to cultural and psychological narratives, only some of which we are conscious of and have chosen. By nature we tend to take our programming for granted, if we’re aware of it at all, until certain experiences—like trekking through Northern Spain with strangers during a global pandemic; like waiting in the immigration line a sixth time to reconcile missing paperwork—shock us into a deeper state of self-awareness.

Fortunately, there are tools other than traveling abroad that can provide us insight into who we are as people and, perhaps, why we are the way we are. Character assessment tests, for example, help measure how we interpret the world, including how the particular patterning of our thoughts, emotions, and motivations influences our interactions with the environment. Out of all the existing personality systems, I’m particularly fond of the Enneagram. The American Journal of Psychiatry defines the Enneagram as, “… a personality theory describing nine strategies by which the psyche develops a worldview and relates to self and others. Each of the nine “types” has a basic fear, basic desire, and predictable behavior pattern in times of stress and security—all of which shape motivations underlying behavior.” 

Within the Enneagram, the nine character types each have their own strengths and weaknesses, perspective values and oversights. No character type is better or worse than any other; each type grows by learning to develop the potentials unique to its range within the character spectrum while also exploring the potentials unique to other types. This strategic growth process persists, unresolved, throughout our lifetime.

Although it’s highly inadvisable to characterize a national culture as a whole, I believe Spain’s worldview and coping strategies share many qualities common to an Enneagram Type Seven character type. The Enneagram Institute describes Sevens as Enthusiasts, the busy, fun-loving type: “Sevens are extroverted, optimistic, versatile, and spontaneous. Playful, high-spirited, and practical, they can also misapply their many talents, becoming over-extended, scattered, and undisciplined. They constantly seek new and exciting experiences, but can become distracted and exhausted by staying on the go.” 

In contrast to Spain’s party-centric, easy-going nature, I share many qualities common to an Enneagram Type One character type. The Enneagram Institute defines Ones as Reformers, the rational, idealistic type: “Ones are conscientious and ethical, with a strong sense of right and wrong. They are teachers, crusaders, and advocates for change: always striving to improve things, but afraid of making a mistake. Well-organized, orderly, and fastidious, they try to maintain high standards, but can slip into being critical and perfectionistic.” 

In order to balance the energy I exert in pursuit of my ambitions, home has long been important to me as a cherished space for rest and recovery. During the nearly two years I spent in Spain, I lived in six different apartments, averaging one new place per season. I can’t help feeling that the record of my living arrangements reads like a cheeky outtake from a Charles Dickens dramedy. 

I arranged my first living situation before I arrived in Spain; however, my naivete enmeshed me in a sort of indentured servitude to my host family. The mutual arrangement involved a barter: I would provide various household support for free rent. Yet it ended quickly with a disagreement about the terms of our agreement. 

After that initial misjudgment, I avoided prostrating myself to the rule of unwritten contracts, but I had recurring problems finding a peaceful place to live.

My second apartment was wonderful, except my roommate had a daughter, God bless her, with a rare genetic disorder involving uncontrolled bouts of screaming. 

My third apartment was sandwiched between a parking garage below the apartment that was busy by day and an upstairs neighbor who marched restlessly around in her apartment at night—each stiletto-heeled footstep a cold, hard slap on the marble-floored hallway above me. 

My fourth apartment involved living with a young Spanish doctor who worked night shifts along with a party-loving Italian doctoral student who loved to drink and womanize. Additionally, I had neighbors above who hosted loud social events most evenings. 

My fifth apartment featured a rambunctious party-loving family on the attic floor above me who drank and smoked themselves into a stupor routinely after work. Then there was a British next-door neighbor, poor guy, who spent his waking hours in various states of respiratory distress. 

And my sixth apartment was quite ideal on the surface, I lived in an artists’ community on the rural outskirts of the city. However, I struggled, initially, with an unemployed Moroccan roommate who smoked defiantly inside her bedroom; her second-hand smoke traveled through the ceiling between our adjoining wall, leaving various organs of mine burning, throbbing, or dripping throughout the week.

Every time I moved, I had an opportunity to exercise flexibility of spirit along with faith that something better would come along. The struggle, of course, is addressing one’s struggles in the present tense when they loom overhead like a fatal bird of prey. In response, throughout my life, I’ve sometimes dressed my hardships with a compound of stubborn grit and defensive skepticism. But a healthy perspective sets the foundation for a healthy transformation. It’s thanks to my struggles, and not in spite of them, that Spain served me so well as a stage for self-exploration.

As a whole, I believe that Spanish culture is distinguished by its laidback passion. I found Spain to be a country where a soft hedonism rivals the rigors and rituals of Catholicism. In the agricultural region of Murcia, where I lived for nearly two years, there are more lemon trees than weeds. People walk slowly, talk loudly, and eat, drink, and smoke with great frequency.

In Murcia, locals throw around one phrase frequently, no pasa nada, which they conjure like a spell of protection when facing anything that threatens to derail one’s momentum. In practice, the phrase seems to suggest a casually dismissive meaning: don’t worry about it, it’s not a problem. But translated literally, the phrase glitters quite differently, meaning nothing happens, a carefree attitude dismissing actionability: you carry on with your life, and I with mine. (After my initial resistance, I eventually gained a certain respect for this outlook—depending on whether I was on the giving or receiving side of its expression.) 

In Murcia, elderly women shuffle down the street cradling loaves of bread like national treasures. If you get in their way, you may be bludgeoned by a bread crust the size of one’s shin bone. Look out!

In Murcia, grizzled men puff cigarettes idly on sidewalks, speaking with gravelly voices finely tuned by years of tobacco devotion. Rather amusingly, the lead protagonists in English movies imported to Spain are often dubbed using the voices of these alpha males. If you’re ever visiting Spain, check out their version of Singing in the Rain. It’s bizarre.

When not dodging human obstacles in public, I spent the early 2021s nursing a painful knee condition. A freak sporting accident from a decade ago created a meniscus tear that had slowly degenerated over the years. My first encounter with a Spanish physician was a frustration for us both; the man had little patience for my half-articulated questions, my dense cloud of Spanglish eventually leading to an equally dense cloud of cursing from the doctor who briskly escorted me out of his office and into the care of the surgical ward admin. 

Even though I had concerns about the dependability of the system supporting me—case in point: hospital staff would sometimes leave their phones off the hook in order to avoid answering them—I decided to move forward with my much-needed surgical operation in April 2021. Despite my challenged experiences, I’ve been able to recover steadily since my surgery and I’m grateful for the healthcare system that financed my operation. One year after my surgery, my knee continues to show signs of healing.

After living abroad for nearly two years, in light of a global pandemic still raging in 2023, and all of the uncertainty that has normalized in our lives, it’s time to lay to rest my travel muse, for now, while I pursue new personal and professional developments. Yet I returned to the U.S. with mixed feelings. While I returned as a proud U.S. citizen, I also returned with some heated critiques.

I remain critical of the rampant consumerism within U.S. culture. In the U.S., people have grown accustomed to collecting personal belongings with compulsion, if not abandon. We accumulate. Even homeless people lug around shopping carts teeming with their precious cargo. In contrast, people collect experiences in Spain: intangible, fleeting moments that exist only when shared with—and between—people. 

I also remain critical of the divisiveness of the political landscape within U.S. culture. The collective culture is heavy with warring ideologies competing for our allegiance. There is no issue too small to tear families and friendships apart. If you attend a social gathering where some variety of opinions is present, notice the table talk: It will take more than a magic show to clear the air after a deep-dive into controversial topics ranging from vaccinations to gun control. In contrast, disputes in Spain could always be resolved with a little humor and, more than a little, food and drink. 

I’d like to believe that no individual or nation, no culture or philosophy, is untouched by vulnerability and virtue. I tend to think that our angels are wedded to our demons—except our demons are often misused or misunderstood angels. We are equal in design. We are equal, though we hardly recall it.

However we negotiate the divide between what we are by influence of nature versus nature, there are some things in life that can (and should) be changed; there are other things that can (and should) be accepted. It is wise to discern the range and role of our agency. Whoever and wherever we are, how we care to live is vitalized by how we express our attention. John Tarrant, director of the Pacific Zen Institute, instructs us about the life-giving power of attentiveness: “Attention is the most basic form of love. Through it we bless and are blessed.” With attention, life is nourished and sustained; without it: life dwindles in decay.

Life will go on with or without us. In the here-and-now journey of the everyday, no passports are needed. We are all visitors invited to delight in this trembling moment together.

(The featured image is a photo of the painting English Ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588 by an anonymous 16th century painter. The image exists in the public domain by courtesy of Wikimedia.)