This article is written by Allison McCann as part of the "Leaving America" series on FIVE THOT. Allison and her boyfriend Lucas Bischofberger are currently living in Gijón, Spain after graduating from the University of San Francisco.
I arrived in Madrid on a hot afternoon at the end of September 2011, a five-day stopover on my way to a small town called Caravaca de la Cruz in the south-eastern province of Murcia, Spain, where I had a job lined up to teach English to adults. I came with my boyfriend, Lucas, and although we were working for the same program and in the same province, we would be working in different cities and living apart. We figured this would give us each a chance to have a more individual and authentic experience.
Despite our jetlag, we emerged from our hostel on the first day to wander the streets in search of food and to bask in our new European existence. The narrow cobble stone streets were filled with dark bars, the kind in which I, who had recently graduated with a degree in literature, imagined Hemingway brooding. In fact, it was my first time in Europe and most of my expectations and fantasies about the year to come where largely Hemingway inspired, and, at least for those first few days, I was in awe. I took a hundred pictures of doors, I was obsessed with the skinny balconies and their tall shuttered windows. I imagined myself living in one of these historic buildings, sitting in plazas all day drinking coffee and then wine, meeting interesting people and speaking in Spanish.
I came to Spain a year after graduating college, mostly because I was not sure what else to do and I craved some adventure before it came time to “settle down” and get a “real” job and resign myself to true adulthood. One of my many roommates found information on a program through the Spanish Ministry of Education teaching part time in public schools. It was an easy and practical decision: I would have a job and the time to travel, I would experience new cultures and people and I would improve my Spanish, which I had studied my whole life but with which I had very little practical experience. Also, amongst our friends and acquaintances in San Francisco, there seemed to be a mass exodus so Lucas and I figured we may as well go too.
As I look back on those first awe-filled and optimistic days I realize what I was experiencing was the same thing I have seen all my friends and family go through when they come visit and which I have decided to call “the vacation delusion.” This is the feeling of unchecked possibility one experiences when they have a week or two in a new and exciting place, free from their job, the political or economic issues of home, responsibility, and, quite simply, reality. We all feel the same way and think the same things: Look how much cheaper beer is here; people are so much more laid back, so much happier here; They really know how to party here, this would never be allowed in the States; We should move here and leave it all behind. Of course, what I now know, two years later, is that these feelings have far more to do with being on vacation than whatever place you happen to be in. And when the vacation feeling ends, as it inevitably will if you stay long enough, you end up feeling the same sense of monotony, of discontent, of whatever it is about the day to day reality of life that made you want to leave your home country in the first place.
My small town, Caravaca de la Cruz, was a serious awakening to this reality. It is a medieval town, complete with winding cobble stoned streets, a labyrinthine old quarter and a castle on a hill, and much like in Madrid, I spent the first week wondering around, absorbing the beauty and the possibility and letting my imagination run wild. But I had to find a place to live, and I had to start a new job, and in spite of all the charm of my Spanish town, these things are no easier or more charming in Spain than they were in San Francisco. It is impossible to find an apartment in the old town, since they are owned by families that have been there forever, and the ones that are available are in horrible condition. On top of this, everyone I spoke with was shocked when I mentioned wanting to live in the old town since, for them what holds far more charm is modernity and newness.
I ended up settling for a small room in a brand new apartment on the edge of town. It belonged to the friend of a teacher at my school and her niece who was my age, which made it very convenient and, I figured, at least they were locals so we would all go out, I would meet more people and I would be speaking Spanish like a pro in a matter of weeks. The next four months ended up being some of the loneliest of my life. It quickly became apparent that my roommates and I had almost nothing in common and the younger one had a boyfriend in another town so she was never around during the weekends. I found excuses to stay in my room and eagerly awaited the weekends when I could travel or at least visit Lucas in the city of Murcia. Also in the city were about 50 other American and English students and teachers and we banded together on the basis of being young foreigners who expected much more out of our experiences than reality delivered. However, the little community we formed also created a vicious cycle: because I was a foreigner, I found it difficult to met Spanish people that I felt I had something in common with so I spent more and more time with Americans; the more time I spent with Americans, the more difficult it became to meet Spaniards.
Finally, it was May 2012 and we had reached the end of our eight-month contract in Murcia. As is almost always the case, I felt as though I had only just begun to enjoy my experience in Spain. I had moved into a new apartment in the center of town after Christmas with a girl who I actually enjoyed spending time with and I finally felt confident in my Spanish and my teaching abilities (something I had no experience with before moving to Spain to teach English). So, feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled with our experience so far, Lucas and I signed up for another year and figured we may as well shake it up and move to the opposite end of the country: A city called Gijón in the north-western province of Asturias.
Now it is May again and I have reached the end of my second and final year living abroad in Spain, and while I’m not sure if I am truly satisfied, I do feel fulfilled. A few major things changed this year. First of all, Lucas and I are living together and in a relatively big city, which means I don’t feel nearly as lonely as I often did last year. However, I have had the same problems making real friendships with the added drawback that there aren’t nearly as many Americans here to fall back on. Also, I am teaching in a high school as opposed to a language school and I find that I enjoy the time I spend in the classroom and working with children significantly more than I did last year. I find the city, and perhaps the north in general, far more open to and accepting of foreigners, which allows me to feel less like a novelty and more like an integrated individual, although throughout my time in Spain I have been very aware that I am foreign. Most importantly of all, I feel truly and utterly ready to go home. I miss my friends, my family, Mexican food and asking for directions without thinking twice. I want a real job, a garden and a place to be and to stay for a while and to feel proud of. In short, I want all the things I did not feel ready for when I left two years ago. This experience has undoubtedly been difficult and many times it has fallen short of what I wanted it to be, but I do not hesitate to say that it has been one of the most important things I have done in my life. It has grounded me and made me think deeply and often about the things I want out of life. I feel more connected to the US now than I did for all the years I lived there. When you live abroad, people are always asking you where you are from and I have learned to own being American in a way that I don’t think I ever could have before I left. I have my ticket booked for August 6, almost two full years since I left, and while I truly feel like I am going home, I’m not sure I could define a feeling of home before I lived abroad.