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Where they will be good to me

Posted on 09 December 2016 by American expat!

In my early years of living here, the smallest acceptance or kindness would mean so much. Before I arrived, I took certain (OK many) things for granted. After arriving, and even still today, it’s quite simple to make me happy: Good customer service (so rare…), a helpful bank teller, a compliment from a stranger (wait, the last one has never happened–literally never–though I still dole them out as I much as I please, much to the surprise of strangers).

I cherished these rare acts of kindness directed at a foreigner. It definitely opened my eyes to the struggles faced by foreigners living in my own country and how locals treat non-native English speaking immigrants, visitors and expats. It certainly changed my behavior when I visit.

A lot of where I shopped and did business–and still do–has to do with where people are nice to me. I frequent the Chinese and Pakistani owned shops because they speak more clearly and do not get impatient when  you stumble over words. The Indian restaurant owners fall over themselves to please you. There is an understanding with these shop and restaurant owners: we are all outsiders here.

I’ll admit, I am trying much harder to integrate now, in fact it is a particular goal of mine: To belong to this city. But when something bad happens or I am feeling especially lonely or isolated, these are the places I return to.

 

 

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A late August day

Posted on 23 September 2016 by American expat!

1 PM on a late August day.

Walking through the old part of the city on a hot and still day. You can feel it will rain soon, the air has that quiet weight to it and you can smell the rain. It’s hot, but the sun is no longer beating down, the sky has just filled with clouds.

While the city is crowded with visitors, in this part of town the streets are so small and close it feels intimate. You catch snatches of conversations in doorways, rub shoulders with passersby and dogs brush past you. Finally, the heat and Mediterranean humidity give way to rain and soft thunder.

Through the ancient streets will their high, close walls you can hear each raindrop among the sounds of conversations and footsteps and rolling bike tires, squeaking brakes, the ubiquitous sound of rolling luggage through the narrow street. The walls offer balconies every meter or so, just enough cover to duck under when the rain falls faster than the heat can dry your hair.

The old stones let loose their smell of old earth and time as you pass tiny shop doorways and artist studios and micro restaurants. People speak more quietly, move more deliberately, duck into cafes with soft music. You stay out, dampened by the drops of rain that reach you.

And the beauty of the city is more evident in the slowed pace

 

 

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Evening stroll

Posted on 11 June 2016 by American expat!

 

I frequently take a twilight stroll through my neighborhood in summer. This twilight hour is between 8:30 and 9:30PM, and it’s when everyone comes out. Last night was a typical walk and it went like this:

I go down my street toward the Arc de Triomf monument. There are people on benches under the trees psantjalong the wide sidewalks, where near the half toward the street, the kind of pavement with gridded openings for grass to grow through is installed. The walkways are larger than the street lanes, and the shrubs, trees, grass and sheer width of the sidewalks calm traffic and dampen noise. There are dogs and runners at the 100+ year old water fountains, people having little glasses of beer at the metal tables that all the cafes set out daily. A group of tourists on orange bikes follows their young guide down the grass framed bicycle lane in the middle of the street.fountain

I cross under the Arc to the wide promenade behind it, passing breakdancers with their old school fade haircuts, dancing to music from a modern boom box. They take turns sweating out their moves, surrounded in a half circle by other dancers. Some make exclamations in English as one young dancer finishes his display. He pulls at the shoulders of his loose tank top and runs a hand across the fuzz on his upper lip, smiling at his group but well aware that there are plenty of other onlookers watching him.

Skateboards and bikes and rollerblades pass as I continue down the promenade. Dogs play on the grassy strips that run along the open paseo. At the bottom, near a monument of the 1880s mayor of Barcelona, are the ever present BMX riders.  They do their tricks perpendicular to the direction of the general foot traffic, timing each jump off of the sloped surface of the concrete to fall in between the passers by. They are good at this timing. I’ve never seen even a near miss.

I stop at the end of the long promenade and move from the middle to one outer edge, where the low wall that runs along the length of the public space props up elaborate iron planters. Some hold plants, others are empty, and those at the entrances are held up by dragons and have cat sized snails forever frozen at the lips of the planters.

I stroll under the trees on this sid1e of the square, passing a group of Spanish gentleman playing Petanque and bickering amiably. Some hipsters on bicycles are stopped to watch them, presumably to learn how to play since hipsters seem to be picking up this traditional retiree sport. Old couples sit in the public chairs (the chairs are like benches–solid, affixed to the ground–but chair size and situated side by side) and watch the evening pass.

Back near the arc, a Capoeira group practices beside a group of older Chinese ladies who are stiffly dancing in unison to traditional music. I think these ladies practice every night of the week. This part of town has many Chinese residents and businesses, and this is one of the rare occasions I see people of this community doing something other than working.

The evening light is so soft and beautiful. The delicate hue enhances the modernist architecture, and the lack of shadows makes objects and people appear softer and almost flat. The air is cooler and less humid than in the burning hard heat of the day, and people look comfortable and relaxed. These are the evenings where you want to stay out until it is completely dark, and then move onto meet some friends for tapas or a drink, because the air still feels soft and perfect. Which is what most people do, and just one more thing that makes this place so special.

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The Repatriating Question

Posted on 21 November 2015 by American expat!

“So when are you coming home?”

As an expat, this is a question you will hear a lot. Out of all the expats I know, there is just a small handful who actually have an answer to this question. And for most of that very small group the answer is “never”. Everyone else just doesn’t know. Oh, they might have vague ideas, like “if I don’t get my shit together in a year, I’m going back home,” or, “Maybe I will move to  (another city, another country) in the next few years,” or, “My plan was always live here, then move to France/Italy/UK/Czech Republic…But I’m still here”.

The problem is, for most of us, once we’ve lived abroad the thought of returning home is a paradox.  There are hard parts about living overseas but there are hard parts about living in your home country once you’ve spent a long time away. Yes, feeling like an outsider is hard. It can be challenging just getting the day to day things accomplished, but for most of us, the adventure is worth every bit of the discomfort. And while it is sometimes tempting to throw in the towel and just move home, where everything is familiar and you know how things work, there is always the fear that you will slowly slip back into the person that you were before you left.  The fear that you might get caught back up in the mindless routine of a “normal” life, without the self reflection and sense of wonder living abroad serves you daily. You are afraid you will forget about how you have been changed, and worse, that no one will see that you have been changed. That you are different.

It is a legitimate fear. You feel kind of special living abroad. There, you are very different – you look foreign and have an accent that amazingly some people find charming or have a mother tongue that the opposite sex finds exotic or even sexy. You do things differently and people notice. Then, when you visit home, you are different in another way. The cashier asks if you would like to join their mailing list and you reply with “no thanks, I don’t live here”, and  a conversation starts and you are being called “adventurous” or, god forbid, “lucky”. Sometimes you are asked about your clothes, because they are not the familiar J.Crew or Guess uniform everyone is wearing at the moment, and you admit to buying them in Paris or London or whatever city you live in. Oohs and ahs follow, usually with a cringworthy “you are so lucky!” included in the mix. You feel like a special flower where ever you are – it’s a win-win.

Inside though, you recognize that your world view has changed, that you have grown as a person, your frame of reference is now different. You’ve picked up a language or two, learned and experienced places of history and politics and how other cultures live. Your values have likely changed just through the act of adapting to living in a different way – and you most likely live with less.

The fear is that to return would mean you’ll become typical, that without a daily challenge of a foreign language or finding creative streams of income or navigating an unfamiliar culture you will stop growing. You’ve become a resilient person, and you fear that a world of comfort would take you nowhere and turn you to mush.

Maybe you aren’t even afraid of returning, but you do know that it won’t be easy, right? You’ll spend hours in the supermarket, overwhelmed by the cereal aisle alone; the number of water varieties will bring you to your knees;  you’ll never even find the rice. There will be news bombarding you from every screen in every airport/restaurant/bar/shop/friend’s house/gym/market, you won’t ever get away. You’ll spend countless hours navigating parking lots in your car.

While you’ll no longer have to explain that your state is larger than your entire host country (and have to show supporting images from your phone to get the point across that you cannot drive from New York to Los Angeles in a day…or even a week if you plan on sleeping ), you will have to listen your neighbor in spin class tell you all about their trip to Mexico when you mention Spain, or explain that Gibraltar is not in Switzerland, or that French people actually bathe daily.

So, where does that leave you? Somewhere in limbo, planning to move to the country next door in a year or two, or back home if you don’t get your business off the ground, or just staying here…a little longer.

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Where is the Volume Control Knob?

Posted on 22 July 2015 by American expat!

 

…because I would like to notch it down, just a tad.

Let me explain.

Shouting is literally (and I don’t use that word as a misuse of the word figuratively. I mean Literally with a capital L) considered a normal speaking volume here. The other day I was in a shop selling specialty products from the south of Spain. This guy was helpful, friendly, charming…and (figuratively) blowing my hair back with the force of his voice. I kept creeping backwards to get out of the path of the powerful sound waves, but of course the personal space norm here differs, so he kept creeping forward.

You witness this everywhere. The guy at the end of the bar shouting into the other guy’s face, he isn’t arguing. He is  having a little tête-à-tête after work with his friend.

That dinner group of 6 that just sat down next to you in the restaurant? Be prepared to start leaning close in to hear your own dinner partners. They will all begin talking at once, in ever increasing voices as the wine flows. Oh yes this happens at lunchtime too, make no mistake.

Get a clutch of little old Catalan ladies together and you’ve got the loudest offenders of all. Fortunately, they usually congregate outside for their get-togethers. Though when that happens to be outside your window, it isn’t so lucky.

You’ll hear your neighbors all the time. You’ll hear your neighbors loudly conversing and their children crying in the stairwells, through the walls and ceilings, floors, from the balconies. You’ll hear their televisions. You’ll hear their parties. Consider yourself lucky if they play their musical instruments well, because you are going to hear those too.

Next is the constant noise of construction–nothing gets done quickly here., Construction goes on forever and ever, frequently waking you with all manner of drilling, jack-hammering, shouting and music blaring at the work site at 8:30am. Bewilderingly, this will then cease at 10:00am as they have their breakfast break, and frequently won’t begin again until the next morning. Jack hammering tends to be the favorite task of mornings.

Then there are the children. Please don’t make me go into the offensively loud children again. Suffice it to say that children here are coddled. Parents raise children, they don’t raise adults. I wish parents (this goes for all of them, from the US as well) would raise their children with the end goal of creating a self sufficient, capable adult and not treating their children as if they will never be anything but children. Maybe that’s the reason people live with their parents until they are 35 here? Food for thought.

Finally there are the 500,000 2 stroke scooters zooming through the streets, the blaring televisions out of every bar, and the rumble of buses, trains, tramvias and metros reverberating through the ground and you have got yourself, without a doubt, the loudest European country,

 

 

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