I flew home from Sevilla on June 8. I’ve been back for just over three weeks, and in that time I’ve already found a job, bought a car and moved.
I’m relieved to be out of Spain. When I think about the past nine months, it’s like they never happened. I can only remember them as a single blurry image. The experience is so far removed from my life in the States, and I took so little from it back with me, that I don’t feel much different now than I was before I left. I’ve lost a little bit of my confidence and my courage, but that’s something I will rebuild.
I’m already feeling better to be back in my element, to have found a job where I will probably be respected and to be around people who aren’t merely fast friends. With the exception of a few important people, there is nothing that I miss about Sevilla.
In the months leading up to my last day in Spain I started writing much more, and much more honestly, on what I thought and felt about the experience (and about why I had abandoned this blog). I wanted to write some kind of epic finale where I would be articulate and clever and say everything I wanted to say in just the right way.
Well, that never happened.
I have over 10,000 words scattered throughout different documents from each time that I tried to write my perfect conclusion. I spent entire afternoons that turned into weeks working on these compositions and then getting so angry at how lousy they were that I’d close my computer and forget about them.
I thought about trying now to write something new and reorganize my thoughts one last time, but it’s clear that I don’t need to—whatever I write, I’ll walk away from it disappointed I missed some crucial point or didn’t explain something just right.
So instead I went back and reread everything I wrote while still in Spain, and I took two sections that are most important to me. I’m posting them here because they’re still important to me, even if I didn’t say everything how I’d hoped to, and even if I’m worried that they’re lacking context. I also wrote a lot of disclaimers that have since been removed. Sometimes I’m so afraid to step on toes that I end up diluting my message into something meaningless.
The first section is mostly my criticism of expat blogging. Oh, and right, I’m publishing this on my expat blog. Take everything I say with a grain of salt; it probably goes down easier that way.
The second section is about everything.
Of the countless fellow language assistants (auxiliares) I met in Spain, I know maybe two that will agree with what I say below. I respect that other people had entirely different experiences than mine, but I’ve spent all year with these thoughts and I’m ready now to spit it out and say my piece. And no worries, because if you hate it, you’ll probably never have to see me again—if you didn’t guess, I chose not to repeat the auxiliar program next year.
Thanks to the people who read this thing for non-self-serving purposes back when I was still updating it, and thanks to the friends who did care. Because none of this babbling has to do with you.
…I am living in Sunny Southern Spain and working a part-time job and living what some people define as “the dream.” Everybody asks: “Are you having so much fun? Are you traveling?” I’m often told: “I’m so jealous of your life!”
But this is not my dream. I am not fulfilled. I want nothing more than to abandon this city, because its appeal starts and ends with its aesthetic charm, and that’s not nearly enough to keep me satisfied. Though it seems to be enough to satisfy all the other Americans here, so I don’t know what my problem is.
If you read the expat blogs, you’d believe that everyone who comes here is worldly and spontaneous and adventurous and living life on the edge and drawing outside the lines and zigging when the rest of the world is zagging, and any other asinine proverb they can come up with.
They’re living for the moment and not for tomorrow and posting Instagrammed photos of the Guadalquivir River on Twitter, writing Facebook statuses about the high temperatures in Andalusia when it’s December and probably negative 20 degrees wherever the rest of their friends are. They’re blogging their “cultural reflections” that, upon deeper analysis, are thinly veiled racist generalizations. They’re telling you that the only way to really learn a second language is in the bedroom (*wink wink*), or the more demure might just blog endlessly about their loving relationships with Spanish boyfriends and husbands, without employing sexual innuendo.
They’re loading up their blogrolls with links to each other’s sites—to the competition’s sites—even though Sara in Segovia doesn’t really want Lexi in Lepe to get more hits than her. It’s proper blog etiquette. They’re linking to each other’s posts in their own blog posts (intertextuality bastardized), and they’re commenting on those posts almost as soon as they go live, buddying up with all their blogging neighbors to hopefully draw more visitors to themselves.
Camaraderie is important in the expat blogosphere. Without it, who would perpetuate the glorification of expat life? Eventually, everyone back at home would get tired of reading expat blogs. Our counterparts—the other 20-somethings with office jobs in Duluth and Cleveland—would grow bored of the way we wax poetic about life in Spain when they, on the other hand, are in Duluth in Cleveland. No expat blogger will say out loud that she feels superior to her friends living in small and mid-sized U.S. towns, but just because she won’t admit it doesn’t mean the superiority complex isn’t there.
Expat blogging is masturbatory, at best, and pathetic, at worst. Never have I seen a cohort of so many self-indulgent and self-congratulatory people. Like-minded people encouraging other like-minded people; it probably shouldn’t disgust me, but in a way it does. Plus, blogging from abroad allows us to paint a picture of a beautiful life that may or may not even exist. Some of the most popular Spain bloggers project an image of a lifestyle that seems too good to be true, and that’s often because it is, though most readers could never detect the difference from a world away.
A few examples: Maybe some bloggers’ romantic relationships are doomed and they can’t come to terms with it, but they still write about the top 10 reasons their Spanish skills have improved from being with a personal Don Juan. Maybe they’re underemployed or unemployed, unfulfilled housewives who married five years sooner than they would have if their boyfriend didn’t happen to be Spanish and if they didn’t want so desperately to hold on to that relationship (or, so desperately to stay in this country). Maybe they’re overworked and underpaid at jobs they don’t really enjoy. Maybe they have a college degree from the U.S. that means nothing abroad and did nothing to help procure the job they have now.
But we wouldn’t know that from their blogs, because the blog is a place to project a separate image to far-away family and friends and to convince the world that their daily routine is something pulled straight from an episode of House Hunters International.
I can’t buy into the expat blogging buffoonery any longer. I can’t read another Top (#) List of Why (Spanish City) is (Adjective). I can’t stand to see another sentence with arbitrarily bolded key words, another post with poorly executed headlines and subheads, a weak attempt at search-engine optimization. I will throw my laptop out the window if I read another back-and-forth Twitter conversation between two expat bloggers about how their Spanish boyfriends are actually quite good at English, or how they have the BEST recipe from their suegra (mother-in-law) for patatas bravas or crema catalana or I-don’t-know-what.
I can’t read another shallow blog post about how a girl from Colorado is “livin’ la vida Española!!!!” and loving the shit out of her 12-hour-a-week job as a faux English teacher in some tiny Spanish pueblo. This fulfills you? This is what makes you happy? This is all you want out of your life? I must be on another page, of another book, in another language, with a different fucking alphabet.
I’ll admit something; I wish I could be fulfilled by this. I wish this were all I wanted out of my life. I wish I enjoyed my job, but I’ve tried tirelessly to befriend my coworkers and fit in, to join in on the conversation, only to be rejected every time. I wish I could take it in stride whenever a Spaniard commented on my physical appearance, commented on my accent in Spanish, my accent in English… I wish I could laugh it off when my Spanish coworkers tried to “correct” my pronunciation of English words, because my American English is apparently wrong (despite the fact that I came to them through a program that exclusively provides North American language assistants).
I wish I could just smile every time I arrive for work just to be told, “Oops, we forgot to tell you, you didn’t need to come in today.” I wish I could then just turn around, get back on the bus and enjoy my day off. But instead I feel useless, I feel unappreciated, I feel angry and now, after spending my whole year this way, I feel bitter.
I’m probably breaking myself down with the amount of anger and resentment I’ve been harboring: towards my coworkers, towards Spaniards, towards my “friends” here, towards every expat that perpetuates this false idea of the beautiful life. Because now, because of the beautiful life myth, I have to defend my misery. I have to justify why I’m not living “the dream” in Europe, because everyone else has decided for the rest of us that this is what living “the dream” looks like. However, I repeat: this is not my dream.
Sometimes, people at home see my Facebook persona and they tell me they want what I have. Similarly, I often catch myself clicking longingly through photos of friends who have settled into careers and more stable lives in the U.S. Don’t butcher my words, because I’m not implying that these folks have “settled” in the ugly sense of the word—it’s not “settling” to have consistency.
I’ve argued about this with other American auxiliares here. One girl told me, very matter-of-factly, that she never wants to leave Spain; she hates the American rat race, the emphasis on settling down and the perceived monotony of it all.
She is older than I am but insistent on not growing up. She equates a stable job with being an adult, and being an adult with being boring. She is afraid of becoming uninteresting, because who will read a blog about selling insurance in Boise?
But how long, I wonder, will she want to have this life abroad—the inconsistency, the lack of professional opportunities in a country with little to offer (unmarried) Americans other than meagerly paid, under-the-table work teaching English? If she says that’s not what she wants now, how long will she keep at it in the name of living in Spain? Or for the sake of proving a point (to herself, her parents, her friends back home) that she’s more adventurous and gutsy than the rest of us—that she’s sacrificing a familiar, comfortable life in her home country to live an exciting, superior one abroad?
I grew up convinced that one day I’d leave my hometown and never go back. There wasn’t anything wrong with where I came from, but it was the principle of the thing. Staying in Naperville, or even in the Midwest, would be settling, which was an ugly, antiquated concept. Settling was something girls did in the 19th and early 20th centuries, girls who didn’t go to college. Certainly it was not in the cards for a girl like me. It was below me.
I won’t necessarily spend the rest of my days in Naperville, but living in Spain has helped me understand where I come from on a new plane. Instead of running from home, vilifying it or even glorifying it, I can now see it for what it is: A place with its beautiful and ugly faces. Just like every place I’ve lived. To be in the United States is not a death sentence, and to be in Europe is not a dream come true—no matter what anyone says on her blog.
I’m inching closer to the end of my tenure as an auxiliar and I’m starting to write again, slowly. Looking back on this year as a whole—not on the individual pieces of it like, “the month I was depressed” or “the month I moved to a new apartment”—has made me want to write about it. I sift through old blog posts and journal entries, and all of them point to the same crisis and the same conclusion: I haven’t been happy this year and I haven’t accomplished whatever it was I thought I came back to do. My perception of Seville was clouded by the mental portrait I painted of the past, despite how many times I insisted I would return without expectations.
“The past isn’t quaint when you’re in it,” Margaret Atwood says in Cat’s Eye. “Only at a safe distance, later, when you see it as décor, not as the shape your life’s been squeezed into.”
I wish I had read that when I was 21 and finishing college, when I was spending every waking moment applying for grants to bring me back to Spain. I wish I had realized how all the aspects of Spain that I worshiped were also intrinsically connected to the negative experiences, too; but those recollections were inconvenient, so after distancing myself from them, they came to occupy space in my memory as décor.
I blindly loved this country from far away because I thought it loved me back. I believed this even when all signs pointed to “no”—signs like the difficulty finding legal work in Spain as an American, or the older Spanish man with a girlfriend who kept me on the side when I studied here, who reveled in my foreignness and my youth and, most importantly, my impermanence in this country and in his life. What I mistook as me being special for snagging a mature, European man was in fact a prime example of my youthful—and American—naïveté. Regardless, the memory of that relationship became romantic décor embedded into my perception of Seville.
But this moves beyond my own experience. American students have flocked here en masse for years, and most claim they fall in love with this beautiful city, this fascinating country, this living piece of history. But, ojo: Spain never needed us the way we needed it. There could be one million Americans here in search of the proverbial dream or there could be none, and Spain will prosper, Spain will crumble, Spain will carry on or it will fail without any regard for its ephemeral expats (or our blogs).
Spain isn’t going to cure our depression. It’s not going to make hard decisions for us. It’s not going to offer us an effortlessly exhilarating life, brimming with adventure. It’s not going to find us a boyfriend. It’s not excited to have us here the way we’re excited to be here. Worst of all, Spain isn’t sympathetic when we arrive in search of the proverbial dream and leave empty-handed. Besides, it isn’t Spain’s fault. Our visas will expire and we’ll go home and the world won’t explode, even if we feel it exploding in our own self-centered universes.
I fought where I came from since the minute I decided as a child that I would leave Naperville behind and never return. I fought until finally I had to swallow my pride and admit defeat: admit I was wrong.
Living in Spain is not superior to living in my home country by the sole virtue of it being Spain, or Europe. Before I came here, living in Spain was the end, but now I see that Spain was only the means to some painful learning and growth. I’m going home with a sense of relief, a sense of finally being able to breathe after suffocating under the implication that “going home is failing.”
I don’t believe I’m failing—no, sir; as far as I’m concerned, I’m diving off the side of the Titanic and swimming to shore before this country capsizes or I capsize in it, whichever comes first. The girl who refuses to go home, the one I mentioned before—I know she thinks I’m a failure. I am weak, she believes, because I could only last here a year, and she plans to stay indefinitely. It’s okay though; finally, I’m at peace with other peoples’ judgments (at least with regard to my decision to leave Spain). I’m going to go home and fail, on the auxiliar scale of success—so here’s to jumping into failure wholeheartedly.