This past July, for the first time ever, I left Madrid for the summer with a return ticket for September in hand. I knew, for once, that I was definitely heading back to Spain. But I wasn’t entirely sure where.
After two years of constant transition, I had finally hit a stride in Madrid. I had solidified my close friendships, established a community among Spaniards, and had figured out how to bring in extra money by way of my interests. Spring marked such a good moment in Madrid—a Spanish sweet spot– and even though my closest friends’ imminent and definite departures were not up for discussion, I wanted to stay and try to maintain the life I’d built.
With my two-year contract at its end and not renewable, I had to find another way to support myself (and renew my visa) in Madrid. I had a job offer in Galicia—Spain’s rainy northwest autonomous region—but I brushed it off. It was there as an abstract backup plan—if I found nothing else in any other part of the world that interested me– but it wasn’t high on my list of life plans. In fact, three years ago I turned down a job offer in Galicia in favor of going to Chile. Galicia was the underdog, waiting around hopelessly for me to finally take a chance on a place I’d never dreamed about.
So just before I left Madrid for my summer trip to Florida, I had an interview at a language academy. I was offered the position and accepted, but the job was a little sketchy, a little illegal. I looked at it as Plan B: Madrid by Any Means Necessary and planned to look for work in Madrid when I arrived back in September, when most schools would be scrambling to find legal replacements for Auxiliars who dropped out over the summer. With my residency card still within the 90 days from expiration required in order to be renewed, I would be a legal candidate.
I sent resumes from Florida in August and had a Skype interview a couple of days before returning to Madrid. The company I skyped with wanted to hire me, but I had to be interviewed in person by the private school first. So we set up an interview for Monday morning, hours after I’d arrive back in Madrid.
Now with a few possibilities on my plate, I set some parameters to make my decision-making easier: I would give up the illegal job at the Madrid language academy but if I got a legal job in Madrid–say, at the private school- -I would take it. If not, I would head to Galicia and the legal job there. Seemed sensible for a person who is equal parts law-abiding and indecisive.
Monday morning, I rode the train to my interview in a southern suburb of Madrid. I spent the duration of the journey growing increasingly queasy, trying to convince myself I would not throw up. After the 500 hour train ride, I finally hopped off the train in Fuenlabrada–one hand covering my mouth, the other fumbling around in my purse looking for the train ticket I’d need in order to exit the station— and did, in fact, throw up. Then I walked toward the school.
Since I was early as usual, I bought some crackers and sat on a stoop wondering if I should go through with the interview. The thought of getting back on the train immediately didn’t sound appealing, but neither did the possibility of having to reach for the Headmaster’s garbage bin as I tried to catalog my greatest weaknesses as an employee. And then of course there were the subtle yet ominous implications of my sudden illness that I, as a person with OCD and a Jew, couldn’t ignore. My superstition went something like this: Getting sick just before my interview is a clear sign that I should not do this job. But then I considered the powers of the universe–or whatever heaven-dwelling puppeteer that might generously offer to take the wheel and lead me down the right path–and I decided that if I wasn’t meant to do the Madrid job, I simply wouldn’t be offered it. I wouldn’t have a choice, I’d just be relegated to Galicia with the confidence of knowing I had no other options. On the other hand, not going to the interview when I had no others lined up in Madrid would solidify a fate I wasn’t quite sure I wanted. I wanted to keep all my options open for as long as possible, so I bucked up and headed toward the school.
Thanks to my BFF Adrenaline, I did quite well in the Spanish interview and didn’t even need to ask for the baño. On my way out of the school, I passed another girl who was going to interview for the same job. Had I been conscious of things other than the bile rising in my esophagus, I might have felt insecure.
On the train ride back to the city after the interview, I had to jump off at a random stop (luckily above ground, with bushes) in order to accommodate my sickness. As I dry heaved, I received a phone call. I was offered the job at the private school and they wanted me to start tomorrow. “YAY,” I said, “but I might be sick tomorrow.”
The next day, I started work. The other teachers were nice, my co-auxiliar was awesome, the students were sweet and respectful and their level of English was amazing compared to what I’m used to working with. But I still didn’t feel decided. I had gotten what I thought I wanted—a legal way to stay in Madrid, yet I was still wondering about Galicia and couldn’t muster up the certainty to renounce my position at the school in the little coastal village of Boiro. I made plans to visit Santiago de Compostela, the region’s capital, that weekend.
Hours before I departed for Galicia for what I assumed would be a weekend trip meant to confirm that I could not see myself living there, I found myself truly excited about it. In fact, I didn’t sleep at all that night imagining all the great new things I’d do in this region of Spain I’d heard such an array of things about.
The next afternoon, I did not find myself in love with Galicia. The train ride up was beautiful—mountainous and green—and vomit-free. Santiago’s a pretty, medieval city but I was not as enchanted by it as I am Madrid. The sky was white, as I’d heard it constantly is, shrouded in clouds, and it was perpetually drizzling. It’s small. There will not always be previously unwandered streets to discover in this town, I thought. There will not always be entertainment or cultural events. One girl I met told me her friend goes to Portugal to see movies. The humidity makes me look terrible. Where is the sun? I need you, sun.
Even though it wasn’t love at first sight, I really wanted to keep an open mind. So I talked to people. I talked to bartenders and waitresses, to former auxiliars and hostel workers, to people I shared benches with. If nothing else, my trip to Santiago was teaching me a new way to travel. I was investigating this town not as a traveler but as a potential resident, and that somehow made a difference. My goal wasn’t to experience as much as possible in a short period of time but to know what life was like there.
On my first full day in Santiago, I met Ellyze, a new Auxiliar in Santiago who had just arrived the week before. We had coffee and walked around and as we navigated the streets of Santiago, we ran into Ross, a friend she’d made the previous week. A few hours later, we were at his house with a couple other English teachers and Ross’s Spanish roommate Eugenio who cooked us all paella. This doesn’t happen in Madrid. You’re not invited to peoples’ homes the day you meet. You don’t run into friends on the street (except maaaybe in Malasaña). The willingness of people in Galicia to accept strangers as part of their community was something I liked, but could it compensate for my lack of enthusiasm about the city and the weather? As Eugenio, an Alicante native who had lived in both Madrid and Santiago for years, put it: Madrid offered anonymity while Santiago offered community. Community was something I could get on board with.
With my pro and con list perfectly balanced and my gut still murky, I decided I needed to see the pueblo where the school was. My school placement in Galicia is in Escarabote, a small village near the slightly bigger village of Boiro on the coast. The area, I’m told by my Spanish mom Pilar, is known for its conservas (preserved food like sardines and anchovies, in this case) and its canneries (where said foods are shoved into tins, I guess). Google map’s Street View tells me that there are views of the sea from the school.
On Sunday afternoon, I took the hour and fifteen minute bus ride to Boiro. Riding over hills and along the jagged coast, I found myself getting queasy again. If getting motion sickness is a sign I’m not supposed to live in a certain place, there might be no place in this world I belong.
The scenery lent itself to meditation and I began to wonder: Why am I taking this–and every–decision so seriously? Moving to Galicia wouldn’t mean I can never go back to Madrid. And conversely, deciding against moving to Galicia wouldn’t mean that I’ll never be able to leave Madrid or I’ll never find another city I love and want to live in. It would just mean I said no to moving at this particular time. This indecisiveness of mine is a huge character flaw, and one I’m consistently trying to fix. When every decision is, in your mind, a pivotal one, the pressure to choose wisely is paralyzing.
When I stepped off the bus in Boiro, my only real goal was to see the coast. I knew that there wasn’t much to the town itself, yet I wandered through the streets like Tracy Chapman, looking for a reason to stay.
Of all the faraway places I’ve been, this—by far—felt the farthest. I followed the salty humid air and sensed my way toward the sea and as I took my first steps on the beach in Boiro, I began to cry. I had no idea why, and it was fucking weird. I felt absolutely nothing, but “nothing” doesn’t make you cry, so I assigned it this feeling: sadness for what could never be. In that moment, I didn’t think I could stay in Galicia. I just knew I needed to go back to Madrid, to push the reset button on everything I’d been thinking; to make the official decision to stay in Madrid in what, nonsensically, felt like the only neutral ground I could reach. I started to collect rocks and shells—souvenirs from a place I’d barely been that I would probably never return to.
When I arrived back to Pilar’s house in Madrid, I told her I simply couldn’t live in Galicia. I cited the weather, the isolation, the quality of life. Even if I had four free days a week, I wouldn’t be able to travel as much with the extra leg it’d take to get to a decent airport. Plus, the wage was technically lower. Better hourly pay, but a lower salary. In my furious Googling of the precipitation rates of various European cities I might one day want to live in, I found out that Santiago de Compostela is about as rainy as London, Prague, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Budapest. With 300 days of some rain and clouds and 155 days of measurable rain per year, Santiago de Compostela did not seem like the ideal home for a girl like me who’s negatively affected by poor weather. I had struggled through four long winters in Chicago and vowed I’d never put myself through that again. Though Santiago wouldn’t be nearly as frigid as Chicago and had about an extra hour or two of daylight in the winter, the climate was my least abstract reason for deciding against Galicia.
I sort of mourned the decision. Saying no to Galicia for the weather (allegedly) felt like saying no to all those other cities I’d always been curious about. And really, it felt like a cop out. A cheap excuse holding the place of the deeper reasons I didn’t want to leave Madrid: First, a little thing called FOMO. Fear of Missing Out. Madrid is so well connected and a number of people I met this summer and old friends from the States said they wanted to come visit me in Madrid, and I really wanted to be able to receive them. Moving to Santiago would mean I’m not just isolating myself from Madrid, but from the ease to travel and receive travelers that Madrid provides. I wondered how many of my non-Spain-based friends would come visit me in Santiago de Compostela.
And then there was this: I was scared that if I left Madrid, I’d never come back.
So, it boiled down to fear. I was afraid that I’d struggle in the gloomy weather; that the school wouldn’t be as welcoming as I imagined; that it’d be harder to make friends than it was during my weekend visit; that I’ll have left Madrid in vain. Galicia represents the best and worst of living abroad: The fantasy of immersion, the fear of isolation.
In the days that preceded and followed my trip to Galicia, I talked many a friend and family member’s ears off about my dilemma. As a truly and thoroughly indecisive person, I could argue both sides of the decision endlessly, and each point I made was met with valid retorts by my patient friends: “If you love Madrid, why would you leave?” “If you know you’re going to be unhappy with the weather, why would you put yourself through that?” “Every Auxiliar who has lived in Galicia has loved it.” “You can always fly out of Porto Airport…” “You’re a traveler, so it makes sense for you to keep on moving.” “Madrid will always be there.” But what stuck out most to me was when my friend Danielle told me that while she’d never again repeat the year she spent working in Korea, she’d also never regret it. The worst that could happen is I don’t like Galicia and I leave and I’ll never wonder what could have been.
Even as I returned to work the next week after tentatively deciding “no” on Galicia, I didn’t feel decided. It wasn’t until Thursday morning as I stood in front of a bunch of sweet, innocuous third graders that I realized I was doing exactly what I didn’t want—that I was a prisoner to Madrid. I realized that the life I’d been so set on maintaining wasn’t actually the one I wanted. That I was standing still, or even going backwards. In June, I had resolved not to teach English again unless it was to be able to experience a new place. That is, I never wanted to teach English in Madrid again. For two years, it was an experience, but if I stayed in Madrid past the limits of the program I’d signed up for, it would be for “real life.” So I could stay in Madrid, a place I love, and build a life here out of a career I don’t want, or I could let teaching English be the tool I originally sought out to let it be—I could let it take me to a new place and see what there is for me there.
I couldn’t quite imagine regretting leaving my teaching job in Madrid, but I could imagine regretting never having turned over a new stone. Would I be crazy not to head to a corner of Spain that has twice beckoned me? Or have I twice been placed in Galicia because there aren’t enough people there and they’re desperately looking for unwitting expats to fill it up? Maybe Galicia will always be there, summoning me from the great unknown. But do I want to live a life where I let Galicia keep tapping me on my shoulder as I, all the while, refuse to even look up from my Madrid life ahead of me. In the words of a fellow [probably superstitious] Jew named Hillel, “If not now, when?”
I could postpone change and growth, holding tightly to a place I know I love while fantasizing about the rest of the world abstractly, or I could let go of Madrid and go see it.
So I came, I saw, and finally I decided. I left my job in Madrid—which will promptly be filled by another eager native English speaker—and I agreed to an apartment in Santiago. I have signed up for bad hair days for the forseeable future, for laundry that won’t dry, for a perpetual tickle in my throat. I’m signing up for discovery, for (dare I say it?) adventure—for learning about a new culture, a new language, and new things about myself in this new place. I’m signing up for a different environment, both socially and geologically. I’m signing up for a chance to be a part of a smaller community both at the school and in town, to talk to strangers, to find out what daily life is like in Santiago de Compostela and in a small coastal village, to have cozy meals with new friends at home. This is my least calculated move yet and even if things don’t go as I hope—if I vomit on the train and discover this isn’t where I’m meant to be—I will never have to wonder what could have been.
And if my dear Madrid and I decide to find our way back to one another in the future, I’ll be glad, but I’ll never regret leaving it now in favor of finding out what else there is.