|The Acibecharía façade of the cathedral in Santiago|
I may be back in the very same place where I started over 1,000 days ago, but today I’m a much different, wiser person than the freshly-minted college graduate I was, the young man that would step off of that sleepless trans-Atlantic flight into a crisp, Castilian morning.
Reminiscing on my first 24 hours in SpainAs luck (or fate) would have it, my seatmate for the overnight flight between Philadelphia and Madrid happened to be an American named Annie, a fellow language assistant going to teach in Galicia. It didn’t take long for us to bond over our shared love of all things Spain…and our shared anxieties about dropping everything and moving across the ocean for nine months. I couldn’t have asked for a more encouraging companion to begin this journey with, and while our paths diverged as we left the airport—she hopped on a bus north to Lugo while I had to catch the Cercanías train into town—we’ve stayed in touch ever since and have met up multiple times in Galicia.
The vastness that is the Atocha train station really threw me for a loop. Serving as the rail hub for the entire country, Atocha sends off high-speed trains to all corners of the country, not to mention medium-distance and commuter rail…oh, and there’s two metro stops. And the “old” train station is a huge garden foyer. I literally walked in circles before finally finding the ticket stands. Unfortunately it was already half past nine and I would have to wait until a little after 3pm for the next train south.
|My first…and last breakfast in Spain, three years apart|
Back at the train station, I eventually noticed a large black-and-green sign advertising Consignas—luggage lockers. I was so mad at myself for being stupid enough to push all my earthly belongings around downtown Madrid and back again when I could’ve just left them at the station. There was no time for self-loathing, though, for the Almería-bound Talgo train was soon departing. Naturally, there was no room for my 50-lb. suitcase, but I managed to prop it up in the aisle at the end of the car.
Zero hours of sleep, multiple trips to the bathroom stall, and harsh, Spanish coffee had done a number on me, so I passed out pretty quickly. Fortunately I woke up just as we entered rolling hills speckled with olive groves, a completely different landscape from the flat, bleak plains to the north. Linares-Baeza was my stop, a lonely outpost between two pueblos that was once the gateway to Andalucía before the AVE trains skipped over this mountain pass for Córdoba.
|The olive groves outside Úbeda|
I kept returning to eat here, in fact, because the dishes they served up were comfort food for this road-weary boy. I demanded to know what the local specialty was, and the receptionist/bartender, Luisa, suggested andrajos, a dumpling stew with many of the same ingredients as paella. She paired it with a Cruzcampo and an accompanying free grilled cheese tapa: my first meal in Spain.
Surrounded by old farm implements hanging on the walls, middle-aged men debating the budget cuts being announced on TV, and a fluffy white American Eskimo Dog bouncing about, I stirred the clam shells around in my earthenware dish, making a clinking sound as I tried to scoop up the broth. I took a deep breath and exhaled over the spoonful of stew, trying to cool it down. I had just arrived in a small town in a foreign country where I knew nobody, but things were going to be okay.
Where I’ve been since then
|AVE high-speed trains in Sevilla’s Santa Justa train station|
I quickly became the biggest fan of the province of Jaén, which produces a third of Spain’s olive oil and holds a treasure trove of both Renaissance architecture and medieval castles. Fulfilling longtime dreams of mine, I would end up crossing Jaén’s many mountain ranges to spend Christmas in northern France, Easter in Morocco, and summer vacation walking the last five days of the Camino de Santiago.
Year Two brought me to the other side of the country, to Galicia in the northwest, where culture shock hit me like déjà vu. Olive tree monoculture was replaced with family farms and thick, ancient forests. The spitfire andaluz accent was worlds away from the clear, singsong Galician one—not to mention the completely separate language, galego. And while pork still reigned supreme, it shared the stage with beef, locally-raised mussels, and freshly-caught fish.
|Plaza de Vázquez de Molina, Úbeda|
That school year would take me to Italy and Portugal, but more importantly, it instilled within me a passion for Galicia. This mini-nation within Spain was so great to me (in spite of the rain) that I decided to renew for another year, a “victory lap” of sorts that would let me eat a little more octopus, check out another coastal village, and spend a little more time with the students I had gotten to know.
But when springtime rolled around, there was no special Spaniard I was dating long-term, there weren’t any career prospects for me besides teaching English, and, to put it bluntly, I was tired of being a foreigner in Spain; I was homesick and ready to move back to the States. So I went out with a bang in June, spending a week revisiting old haunts in Andalucía and celebrating the summer solstice in Galicia by eating roasted sardines and hopping over bonfires.
Things I’ve learned along the way
|The Rías Baixas region of Galicia seen from a Ryanair flight|
2) Spain’s urban environment, even in towns as small as 35,000 and 100,000, showed me that there’s another way to live than the freeways, strip malls, and subdivisions we are sold in suburban America. Most Spanish cities were built long before the age of the automobile. Here, dense, walkable neighborhoods are the norm: barrios where you can run errands, buy groceries, sit down for a cup of coffee, work, and live all within a 15-minute radius without ever having to hop in a car. It’s better for the environment and your health, and who could turn down lively plazas full of kids playing soccer and abuelos enjoying the sunshine on benches?
|The city of Jaén, seen from the castle|
I want to have a home where I can retreat to at the end of each day, where I can have friends and family over for dinner, and where I can have quick access to all my books. I want the routine that comes with those 9-5 jobs often maligned in the travel blogging community. I want a community of people where friendships don’t wither away every eight months as the school year winds down. I want to become a local in a city I am passionate about, not merely a visitor drifting through. I want to start dating and, down the road, start a family. As much as my wanderlust might dissuade me, I want to put down roots.
|Transferring passengers in Barcelona’s França train station|
Often in America we get so carried away with searching for the Next Big Thing, be it bubble tea or avocado toast or Holi-ripoff color runs, that we forget about what we’ve always done at home. Living in Spain has shown me how important it is to protect these traditions and local specialties against the homogenizing effects of an increasingly-globalized world.
5) Related to #3 above, I’ve noticed there’s a lot of emphasis on moving and/or traveling to foreign countries in the travel blogosphere; people frequently mock Americans for not having passports and for being afraid of the world at large. Much of what these writers have to say is true, and there’s nothing that can expand your perspective like experiencing another culture, being forced to speak their language and eat their food, and encountering stunning monuments and exciting festivals.
But after roaming around Spain and western Europe for three years, I’ve accepted that it’s okay to travel America, too! What the motherland lacks in crumbling castles and multiple cultures, we make up for with natural wonders, our tradition of roadtripping, and immigrants from all over the world who make our cities so much more interesting. As I “settle down” for the long haul back home, I’m excited to explore more of the national parks of the American West and cities from Savannah to Seattle.
|The Eiffel bridge over the Onyar River, Girona|
I’m also very fortunate to have grown up in the U.S., learned English as my native language, and graduated from college. In hiring me and countless other language assistants, the Spanish government was essentially only looking for young English speakers in possession of a U.S. passport and a diploma. Much of this is due to no effort of my own; simply by virtue of being born in America I have this huge advantage over millions of non-Americans in my generation who would kill to live in Spain and work 12-hour weeks teaching English. I don’t have any delusions about the impact I made (or lack thereof) as a language assistant, but I do hope the program helps Spanish kids get a leg up and become conversant in the lingua franca of the age.
What have you learned and how have you grown as a person after spending time abroad? Tell me about your experiences below in the discussion thread!