On the first day of October 2015, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning.
I stood in the kitchen of our apartment in Barcelona squinting through the fluorescent lights, thinking about how, in four hours, we’d be boarding a Lufthansa flight that would take us back home to Florida after living abroad for three years. And since then, I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking back on the two places we lived during that stretch. We weren’t affiliated with an organization, per se – no military, no company, no nonprofit. Just us.
For seven months we lived in a fairy-tale German village called Kandern. The town was packed into a valley between rising ridges of evergreen trees and a rogue grove of sequoias planted by Gold Rush John Sutter himself. And for two years and some change, we lived in a pair of residential neighborhoods in Barcelona, miles away from the well-trodden stone streets of the Old City where, on a summer day, all the odors and stories and mistakes come rising up out of the ground in a stomach-churning puff.
Your friends will tell you traveling is what you do when you’re approved for a Chase Sapphire Reserve and you’ve got 100,000 points to cash in. I suppose I’m here say that if you solely travel on points, you're missing out on the splendor and the sacrifice of living abroad as an expat.
I can tell you the first lesson I learned is that truly becoming a part of a new culture is not an easy task. The ones who pass through cities like Barcelona with plans to leave in a few months learn the precursory Spanish phrases, know the metro lines, and might even be able to navigate bus system. But to reside in a place as an expat is to give something up – to sacrifice your own culture and beliefs in order to understand what the world is like in a place totally different from where you feel most comfortable.
I remember the first days we walked the streets of El Carmel, a hyper-local neighborhood about as far away from the city as you can get without actually leaving the limits. Locals downing olives and cold Estrella Damms looked up at us, eyes narrowed, as if to say, “Why are you here?” This is certainly not unique; walk into a new neighborhood or borough in the United States and your liable to get vibed. But there is something odd when you get those stares as an immigrant in another country. It's a feeling of difference, of distance. But it's not a feeling that has to break you – out of that sense of difference I felt a motivation to learn the language and ingrain myself as much as I could.
Your tendency is to want to retreat to those who are like you because there's comfort in that likeness. Fight it. Only by facing the cultural difference head-on will you gain an understanding of what it means to fully be in a new place, and, in understanding that, your world view will evolve.
Along with this lofty talk is the very practical lesson all expats should learn: no matter how friendly you are, comfortable you feel, or well-versed you are in local history, you've got to speak the language. There's no greater sign of respect, in my opinion, than foregoing the language you love – the one that's a part of your identity – for the language of the region or country in which you are a guest. It’s also a tremendous advantage for the everyday matters: getting residency permits, passing Spanish exams, opening bank accounts, and the like.
Amid these realizations about being an immigrant, wanting to belong, and learning the language, I also have one big regret: I wished I would’ve been more of myself while we were in Barcelona. We rarely used the few English speaking friends we had as a safety net, but that meant we were in a constant state of discomfort, even when we shared great moments with our Spanish friends over beer and wine.
My wife and I called this feeling “survival mode;” you aren’t really concerned about letting the world around you know who you are when you’re in a constant struggle to adapt and adjust. It’s a weird feeling, and I can’t say that I’ve felt that way during the 35 years I’ve lived in this country. Even in my most difficult times here in the States, I knew I could go to a coffee shop where everyone spoke English and I didn’t have to rehearse what I was going to say dozens of times before I walked through the doors.
My greatest moment in the nearly three years I spent in Europe was, without question, the birth of my beautiful little daughter Addison Laia. The morning my wife gave birth was, for me, a classic city moment. We called a cab at 5:30 in the morning and rode across town to the hospital. We checked in and were taken to the room where we would stay for four days, and at 7 a.m. a nurse came to our door and walked us to the delivery room. Even now as I write this I remember the feeling of anticipation, nervousness, and, at one point, nausea I felt as I sat on a hospital bed while they gave my wife her epidural. Minutes later, a nurse came in and I walked into the delivery room and sat behind the curtain with my wife. Addison’s first cries came around 8:30, and within minutes she was in my arms. I carried her to my wife and we took a selfie.
Over the next four days, we experienced the joy of being new parents and the difficult loneliness of being foreigners in a faraway country where the friends and family we loved the most were in other places, doing other things. It was both the greatest and most difficult week of my life abroad, and it perfectly captured all of the splendor and the sacrifice – and how necessary it is to embrace both is to truly experience your time abroad.