Making the Choice to Live Abroad (and Stay)

My first steps in Spain landed in a big wipeout.

Armed with two suitcases, a carry-on and my laptop bag, I tried to hoist my backpack onto my bag, using a round, aluminum can as a platform from which to ease my arms into the padded straps.

Yes, I brought all of that with me. Two free pieces of luggage? Those were the days.

 

And I fell, right on my culo. I roared with laughter, falling over on my side and howling. That’s just kind of been my story in Spain.

After five years of living abroad, I’m often asked why I’ve chosen to live a life abroad in sunny Spain. The reasons that have kept me here are quite simple – ask any of my dozen friends who have been here to visit over the last few years, question my parents, read this blog start to finish in one sitting to really swallow the heartbreak of defeat, the uncertainness of a new relationship, crap work experiences. I have slowly made my life in Spain, from the first few shaky steps and the fall on my butt to establishing my version of happiness in my little burbuja in Seville.

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Studying abroad is what made me want to move away from the US in the first place. Perhaps after reading too many of those Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul books, I decided that living abroad was ever going to happen, it needed to be right after graduation.

 

Just days before commencement, the North American Language and Culture Assistant Program offered me  visa and the promise of a job in a high school somewhere in Andalucia. The summer before leaving was full of hurried preparations, tearful goodbyes, and a yo-yo like inner peace with my decision. I kept telling myself it was just eight months, and that no one would be mad at me if I messed up and came home.

My reasons were simple enough: to learn Spanish and travel during a second chance at studying abroad. DJ Yabis, the blogger behind Dream Euro Trip had similar intentions. He writes: I wanted to study and live in Europe so I applied for a prestigious full scholarship (read: tuition, roundtrip flights, insurance and monthly allowance for 2 years) sponsored by the European Commission and GOT IT! Similarly, Mariann Kun-Szabo of tiny girl with a big bag said: I was selected for a scholarship to spend my internship in Spain, with all the costs covered, then I could not stop traveling. Like DJ and Marianne, I had an opportunity fall right in my lap to obtain a visa, work and live in Europe for eight months.

Then suddenly, a week before my plane took off rumbo Madrid, I felt like Spain was where I needed to be. On the plane I went, waving giddily to my parents as I skipped through security at O’Hare and into the International Departures terminal.

My year was not without its ups and downs – I struggled to learn Spanish, had trouble making friends and tried to not think about the life I was putting on hold for a year. Facebook became my enemy, my Skype calls home barely concealed my homesickness. I felt that every label I’d ever used to describe myself had suddenly been stripped away, leaving me fumbling for some sense of self-awareness. But I met the Novio, and he was worth sticking around for. My Spanish Adventure began to take root.

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I have started looking at my life in terms of school years, just as I always have. After all, I’m a teacher and a student, and my worklife is measured in school years. My mother said, “Think of Spain as your super senior year of college.” Poor woman didn’t know I’d be on super senior year número six already, but giving myself a few months’ break in between keeps one foot in each bucket – one in España and the other in America. No one is really making my choose just one yet, but I’m sure that will come.

Seville throws me curveballs every other day it seems. If it’s not dropping my clothes out of the window when hanging them to dry (no tumble dryer), it’s the sting of not knowing if I’m always making the right decision. But the feel of the sunshine on my face, the fresh produce and the andalú that has kept me here. If I had to put it down in 25 words or less, I’d write that the folklore, the daily challenges and the blunders have kept me here, not to mention love.

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When I put the question to my readers, it was clear that moving abroad is a change that many have decided to make. Be it the draw of adventure or to try something new, the promise of fresh love, language learning and running your fingers along walls that have existed far longer than you have. Spain is the romantic realization of sultry Latin dreams and of wild jet-setter nights.

Many of them wrote that they, too, had been lured by Spain’s familiar, yet exotic traditions and the chance to live a new adventure. Jackie’s response that she ended up in her happy place, Shannon remarking “I’d love to live in a place where something centuries old is still considered new. I want the romance of history, culture and new adventures,” and Robin of A Lot of Wind just wanted the adventure: We chose to live abroad because we wanted to reach out and grab a bit of life that wouldn’t have dropped into our laps otherwise! And I just love how Marianne of East of Malaga summed it up: It’s a land of beauty, wine and dance – with always a hint of a little romance ;)

 

And I’m not the only one to follow my heart when it came to sticking around in Seville for more than just the sunshine and siestas. Four readers met their partner while on short-term stays in Spain:

Natalia’s husband danced right into her heart on a week-long trip to la Hispalense: Feria de Sevilla, 2009—I spotted a charismatic Sevillano in a caseta and asked him to dance. Happily married and still dancing sevillanas! while Kaley met hers after a pick-up basketball game in Salamanca while studying abroad: 2009 Salamanca. Basketball win. Hemos quedado. Spilled the wine. Climbed the cathedral. Fell in love. 3 years later: I said yes! And Steph of Discovering Ice uses her boyfriend as the perfect scapegoat for her wanderlust: I was in love with a Colombian who was literally half the world away…we just used travel as an excuse to be together! :)

I sometimes think how different my life in Spain would have been had I not accepted the invitation from Kate to go out the night the Novio and I met. Like Melanie: I met my Spanish husband on a bus traveling from Madrid to Cáceres. One seat away then could have meant a world of difference now.

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Travel Bloggers’s responses interested me, too. As I make connection with like-minded travelers, I find that we have much more in common than the T-word. When it comes down to it, an adventurous spirit and the will to do something about it. When I think back on the times when Spain almost didn’t happen because of my own fears or the unwillingness to miss a Hawkeye Football season, I cringe at being so stupid. Alexandra Kovacova of Crazy Sexy Fun Traveler said: I hate boredom and wanted to learn more about this amazing world out there and different cultures. Raymond Walsh of Man on the Lam confessed: I wanted to cover the earth before it covered me.

Some worldly parents, like Talon Windwalker of 1Dad, 1Kid, 1Crazy Adventures said he “wanted my son to see the world and be raised as a global citizen & I wanted to get more living into our life,” whereas Durant Imboden told me that he “didn’t have a choice” because his parents took him along. My parents encouraged my traveling – even if it was just running from one end of the house to the other when I was a kid – and I feel I owe them for instilling an adventurous spirit and apetite for me, and taking me abroad when I was just old enough to have it stick in my head and put me on a direction for life.

Ash of The Most Alive hit the proverbial clavo on the head: Decided to build my life on the principles of adventure, learning and justice – not the social norms of 9-5 mortgage and retirement…
 
…now there’s something to live and travel up to.
 
Lex of Lex Paradise had the mentality for why I came, seizing a pasing opportunity and fulfilling a dream. He wrote: Well, I am now living in Spain as well ;) never thought but it just happened as it suppose to be ;)” which is why I’ve chosen for him to win the $15 Amazon Gift Card. I loved this project and the responses, so don’t forget that Karen’s book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, full of loads of laughs and sage advice, is available on Amazon for purchase (in paperback and Kindle format).

Seville Snapshots: Focusing on the Future

Alright, alright. I know these are supposed to be pictures of Spain and Seville. I’m on my way there, so cool down!

But today is Labor Day, and I’m in America, enjoying what I love about it: beer, brats and fireworks. I didn’t choose to leave the day after Labor Day; rather, I chose to give myself time to enjoy the Hawkeye football game and a Cubs game with friends and have Monday to recover.

Oops.

Ellis Island, NYC Harbor. August 2012.

But having these five weeks at home has allowed me to put my life under a microscope and examine where I want to go, both next year and long-term. I traveled to three new states. I lost a loved one and found a new canine friend, reconnected with old ones I hadn’t seen in years. Ate without calorie counting (oops) and finally have an answer to the, “How long will you be in Spain?” question.

“Will figure that out this year.”

I’m still unsure as to whether or not Spain is where my future is, even after five years. My feet seem to be firmly planted on both sides of the charca, the proverbial “double life.” How can one be so staunchly sevillana while in the Hispalense, yet a beer-chugging, Chicago sport-loving chick while Stateside? Regardless of where I end up, I want my life to be about the same things it always has: having fun, making friends and doing stuff that scare me as often as possible. I think my last five years in Spain have encapsulated that quite nicely, ¿verdad?

How has travel or life abroad made you examine things? Any advice to share?

Postcards from Chicago

For years, I’ve been searching for a Chicago flag patch for Kike. The white bar in the middle, flanked by two celestial bars and four crimson stars, flies everywhere in the Windy City (so, literally). Every souvenir shop, Etsy boutiques – nowhere – has this token that he collects from the far-flung African countries he works in or the other soldiers he encounters.

So, when he asked me to find one for the fourth summer running, I tried again, hopeful that I’d get lucky. My bags are packed and his birthday gift wrapped up – it’s just not the patch he asked for. Still, Chicago’s most prominent colors are always the Cubbie Blue up in Wrigleyville, the white caps on Lake Michgan and the red of traffic lights lit up all over downtown. Here’s my attempt to get Chicago framed using those colors.

The Way to Really Fly.

The L

[Read more…]

My Chicago Soundtrack

I am a Chicago girl, born and bred. I love my all-beef Kosher hot dogs, had a Chicago Bulls three-peat T-shirt, sport a Jewel-Osco card in my wallet. Leaving the Windy City was a choice that almost never came to be, with a job offer on the table and plenty of young friends convincing me that my life was not in Spain.

But I chose to board the plane and to take my Chicago roots with me to Spain, preaching the Cubbie way of life and claiming that there are lakes the look like oceans in the middle of the Midwest. As Spain became more and more like home, I became increasingly proud of where my parents, grandparents and I come from.

Now that I’m back in Chicago for the month of August, every trip to the City of Broad Shoulders has my heart pumping out the songs that bring me back to the countless summers, bitter cold winter afternoons and rides along the rails of the L. Songs that remind me of seeing punk rock shows at the Metro, of childhood shopping trips on State, of what makes this city so damn great. Wikipedia lists over 400 songs about Chicago, and while “My Kind of Town” and “Sweet Home Chicago” would be obvious choices, mine are a little unexpected (and seriously throwback to my love of punk rock days. Lucky Boys Confusion, Fall Out Boy and The Dog and Everything CDs are still in my car!)

Kanye West – Homecoming

While I can’t say Kanye, like R. Kelly, is a favorite Chicago musician, this song echoes through my brain every time I fly in over Lake Michigan and the skyline, which stretches further than my window can hold.

Allister – Somewhere Down on Fullerton

Why I’ve never taken a madcap dash around Chicago like Allister does, this song was the first I ever crowdsurfed to at a show at House of Blues with my friend Amanda. It was her first visit to Chicago, just after our freshman year of college, and I remember the rush of feeling like I was going to get dropped while getting groped. I still have the shirt I bought that  night to commemorate a Chicago band playing to a Chicago crowd as only a great Chicago venue can allow.

Arranmore – Southside Irish

My family first came to America during the mass wave of immigration that gives America its heritage as the Land of the Free. Settling in Chicago, my Irish great-grandfather, who had owned a still-operational woolen mill in Foxford, County Mayo, worked as a tailor. I feel most proud of my Irish heritage, even though I’ve got Scottish, Welsh and German roots. As a kid, I participated in Irish parades around Chicagoland, so this Saint Paddy’s Day anthem reminds me of those mornings, the wind biting my pink cheeks, as we marched through the streets in the name of the Emerald Isle.

Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah – Lake Shore Drive

There have been countless times where I’ve speed down one of Chicago’s grandest avenues, Lake Shore Drive, as twilight was falling. Window open, wind on my face and the lights of the Loop in the rear-view mirror, those are the nights where summer is at its peak and I remember how fun being young is. This song, from the time when my parents were young, brings back summer memories of the Oak Street beach, drinks at Castaways and belting out whatever’s one the radio with girlfriends.

Alkaline Trio – I’m Dying Tomorrow 

I can’t say I remember who introduced me to the local band Alkaline Trio, but I love him for it. Among my favorites is “I’m Dying Tomorrow,” which ask the age-old question: Do I have any regrets?

The Loving Spoonful – Hot Town, Summer in the City

Now that I’ve made living in Spain a reality, I usually only get summers in Chicago. Fine by me, as the city is replete with festivals, concerts and events that play to its patchwork heritage – and one of the things I love best about it. What I love about this song is that it talks about the balance between night and day in Chicago, no unlike a summer in Seville: the days are long and scorching, while the nighttime relief is when everyone comes out to play. This city feels young.

Fall Out Boy – Chicago is So Two Years Ago

The first time I ever heard this song, I was packing up my dorm room freshman year to go home for the summer. “There’s a Light on in Chicago, and I know I should be home,” still rings true whenever I arrive home after a Spanish sojourn. Being able to come back to the place where I grew up helps keep me grounded when I’m away, knowing that there’s always a Portillo’s around the corner and that the Cubbies have still not won the World Series. Ahhh, home.

Hey, Chicago, whaddya say (Go, Cubs, Go was not in my list; too obvious)! What would be on your Chicago soundtrack? Leave me a message in the comments, or leave me a birthday note since I turn 27 today!

The Hardest Goodbye

Morgan almost never became our family dog. Nancy had her heart set on a black and brown furball that kept running into the sides of the cardboard box the half a dozen shih tzu puppies had been placed in. It was a dark evening outside of Rockford, Illinois, and my sister and I had finally convinced my parents to do the unthinkable: buy us a dog.

Nancy’s heart melted when we presented the puppy who would become a fifth member of our family: a floppy runt we would call Morgan.

Nearly 17 years later, my mom is sitting on the bed, staring off into space. I popped my head into her bedroom and ask if she’s ok. “Yeah…” she replies, voice wavering. “I’m just going to miss the sound of her little paws on the linoleum.”

Three hours later, we carried Morgan’s old lady body on her death march towards the car. Our first family dog was going to the Puppy Heaven in the sky, where she could run with all of her doggie buddies on a Cheerio-filled stomach.

Grow thick anodyne flowers

The anticipation of Christmas has always gotten to my sister, Margaret, and me. We discovered all of Nancy’s hiding places for our American Girl Doll gear before the ages of 10 and 7, respectively, and it didn’t take us long to find the correlation between Santa’s handwriting and our own mother’s. When something was out of stock, we got a Sunday Saver clipping of it in a box, making Christmas a week-long event.

There was no baby puppy waiting under Nancy’s prized Christmas Tree when the clock struck 7a.m. and Don’s bacon was already frying. Morgan would not be delivered until she’d been six weeks with her mother, making her arrival date December 28th, 1995.

Morgie Baby wasn’t the typical dog who chewed on your shoes and ran to greet you at the door: nothing was more important to her than her walks and her naps. She was so small, she could jump up on my dad’s hip while she was still a puppy and stake her claim. We had lots of ups and downs – failing puppy kindergarten, forgetting where to go to the toilet – and my mother even threatened to give her away when we would “forget” to walk her.

—–

“Morgie, I never wanted to give you away, don’t listen to your sister.” My mom’s head was right next to Morgan’s. The vet had just given her the medicine that would put her half to sleep, giving us some time to say goodbye. We’d spent the morning talking about Morgan memories as if we were pulling the machine’s plug on a loved one.

Not a week before, my mom had called me while at camp to tell me that she and my dad had made the decision to let her go. At nearly 17, she was blind, deaf and really confused, spending the entire day next to her food bowl so she wouldn’t get stepped on. My mom gingerly picked her up so I could learn how to properly hold her and pet her, and they’d long given up taking her for walks, instead just cleaning up after her messes in the house.

—–

Morgan always sensed I was leaving when she bumped into my luggage, strategically placed as close to the front door as possible. The pre-flight routine was always the same: “Ok, Morgie, gimme a kiss!” Morgan would sniff my cheek and then readjust on her ratty pillow, something that came with us from Rockford and had a place on the couch where the midmorning sun would reach her. It’s like she knew, and I always had the fear of never seeing her again creep into my heart. Even coaxing from family members never yielded so much as a single puppy kiss.

It’s alright; I’ve always been her least favorite.

—–

As the vet came in to administer the shot that would stop her little puppy heart, I cried. Saying goodbye to Morgan was something I’d become accustomed to during the five years I’d leave on a flight. In a way, I felt like this would put to rest my feelings of anxiety about going away for so long, even as I watch my family get older. Stoic has never been my thing, so we all were teary as the vet let us have ten minutes with her before collecting her little body.

“Morgan, now you’re up running with Teddy and your cousin Scooter and Quinceman in Doggy Heaven,” my mom cooed as she stroked her paws, something Morgan hated. It got me thinking about my own slice of Heaven and what might be on the other side. Red velvet cupcakes, for sure, and my dad’s potato salad.

—–

A week later, we’re still getting used to not having Morgan around. I would normally walk in right away and open the living room door to let her out; there’s no one using the backyard toilet anymore. My mom finally tossed out her ratty pillow that we brought with us from our house in Rockford, not being able to look at it anymore. Her food bowls are packed up and stowed away in the back of a closet.

We went to my grandparent’s house after we put her down. My cousins’ dog, Scooter, had to be put down earlier in the year, too, and my grandma told us that Aunt Doreen was still torn up about it.

“Well, we’re going to get another dog,” my mom affirmed, “Probably another shih tzu.” Having taught English for the last five years, I knew that using “going to” in the future was much more probable than using “will.”

I congratulated her on that usage and added, “She could never be as great as Morgan, but we’ll love her all the same.” Plus, we’ve got a whole lot of cans of wet dog food to go through.

Seville Snapshots: Red line, Jackson station

My heart still thunders every time the L thunders past me. The whoosh throws me off-kilter as it heads south towards the Dan Ryan. People filter in and out, not even aware that we’re all clustered in this rank-smelling station on Jackson together.

The tiles are interesting to me, the worn steps as familiar to me as they were twenty years ago. We’d hop on the Blue Line at Cumberland and get off right in the Marshall Field’s basement to the minty smell of Frango samples, often on our way to shop on Michigan Avenue. I actually got lost one wintery afternoon while walking down the stairs of the Red Line on State, befriending a homeless woman named Magnolia as I waited for my mother to find me.

While Madrid’s metro is far superior, the L was the first public mass transit that I ever learned to use and the one I feel a kinship to. Tipsy rides up the Red to Wrigley, ringing around the Loop like Spiderman between the skyscrapers, disappearing into the underground stations and watching the light of a bright summer day get swallowed up as I descend.

Ok, so this isn’t a shot of Seville, but my life in consumed by a perfect summer in Chicago. It’s honestly my favorite city in this wide, wide world and a place I’m lucky enough to have my roots in. While I stuff my face full of Italian beef and free pop refills, I couldn’t resist testing out Camarón during my long afternoons catching up with friends. Maybe next week I’ll sneak a picture of Seville in, but If you’d like to contribute your photos from Spain and Seville, please send me an email at sunshineandsiestas @ gmail.com with your name, short description of the photo, and any bio or links directing you back to your own blog, Facebook page or twitter. There’s plenty more pictures of gorgeous Seville on Sunshine and Siesta’s new Facebook page!

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