10 Things I Learned From Living Abroad This Year

If you’re newer to this blog, then you may not know that I spent a majority of this past summer living in Europe. I stationed myself in a wonderful southeastern town in Spain, called Alicante, where I had previously studied in 2008. But I also had the opportunity to travel to Edinburgh, Scotland for a week.

During my time away from American culture, allowing myself to be completely immersed in another culture, I learned so much about myself, my worldviews, and people. I experienced life-changing lessons, and as I reflected on the most important, I came up with 10 things to share with my readers.

1. I can live without

Less truly is more, especially when you don’t have to keep track of a lot and/or clean it! For the past 2-3 years, I have committed to simplifying and de-cluttering my life. It hasn’t been an easy task—not because I’m sentimental with my stuff, but because I just had so much, and I really had to ask myself if I could live without something or otherwise. Knowing I was leaving the country for quite some time was like that final push I needed to get rid of more.

I gave away and/or sold about 80% of my stuff this year! Less to worry about, less to clean, less to keep track of. Also, doing so helped me to begin to truly prioritize what was important in my life and my career. I learned that simplicity really is best.

Sunrise I witnessed yesterday morning on Playa Postiguet.

Sunrise at Playa Postiguet.

2. American society has some major problems with gender, sex, and sexual identity issues

Well, no duh, but it was disturbing and shocking to come back to after being out of the country for a few months to witness things firsthand. Here’s an example: When I returned to California, I decided to walk to the mall on a warm August day. It’s about a 15-minute walk from my house. In that short time, a few cars honked at me (or guys catcalled me) because I was a woman walking alone outside.

In Spain, and in Scotland, that NEVER happened. Even dolled up on the street and going out at night with my girlfriends—being accosted the way I have been IN MY OWN COUNTRY never happened in Spain. I felt safer being alone in public overseas than in my own neighborhood. How sad, huh?

Also, people in the States are very extreme when it comes to sexuality and sexual identity. I think the climate of talking about sex and sexual preference is slowing improving, but Americans have quite a ways to go. The fact that we’re still arguing about giving women access to contraceptives, etc., is baffling to me. In Europe (or most of it, anyway), I felt that there was a healthier view about sexuality and people’s bodies in general.

There’s so much more to say on the topic, but I’ll leave it at the few examples above.

A view of the sea from the Castillo de Santa Barbara in Alicante, Spain. Photo cred: Yours truly. :)

A view of the sea from the Castillo de Santa Barbara in Alicante, Spain. Photo cred: Yours truly. 🙂

3. I was able to home in on what really matters to me

As with my “Great Purge” of material goods this year, I also purged a lot of activities in my life. Many of them were really good things, too! Things like volunteering, tutoring, and singing. But those things had become distractions that were taking me away from focusing on my career as a writer and freelancer.

Because I was in a different country, I was able to be awake before my clients in the States, get a lot done, minimize distractions, and stay at home when I needed to rather than worrying about having to run errands or volunteer or tutor somewhere. Until you can walk just about everywhere within minutes, you don’t realize how much time you actually waste driving around town.

Beautiful view of the Alicante coast from the Castillo de Santa Barbara.

Beautiful view of the Alicante coast from the Castillo de Santa Barbara.

4. Sometimes, you need to physically remove yourself from . . . 

 . . . from where you don’t fit.

 . . . from distractions.

 . . . from toxic situations.

I have been unhappy for quite some time in my city. I needed a break—needed to get away so I could refocus, meet some new people, and experience a different way to look at the world. I also needed space to heal from some things in my past, and being in a different place really helped me with that.

Sunrise on the port. Alicante, Spain.

Sunrise on the port. Alicante, Spain.

5. Not having expectations can be the best thing ever

Though I am part Latina, know a fair amount of Spanish, and had been to Alicante before, I just kind of took a giant leap in going across a country and an ocean to live somewhere else for a while. I knew I’d want to stay because I love Spain and the Spanish culture so much, but I also knew that there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to. So, I went with the mindset that anything could happen, and I just had to take one day at a time.

And you know what? I had the BEST TIME of my life. I met so many cool people, learned a lot by myself, figured out a lot of things that were challenging, and re-learned how to live in the moment. Before I flew to Alicante, all I knew was that I had an apartment booked for the time I’d be there, but that’s pretty much it. I knew I wanted to go to Scotland as well, but I actually didn’t book my flight until I was in Spain. Without expectations, I was able to live and let live . . . and be content with my life every day.

My bedroom windows in my Spanish apartment.

My bedroom windows in my Spanish apartment.

6. Self-acceptance is one of the most important things to have

When you are on your own, you are stuck with yourself. You must face the most vulnerable and ugly things that you’ve been pushing down for far too long. I journaled almost every day while in Spain. I went to the beach often and took long walks, working through some really tough things. I had to face all my flaws and things I didn’t like about myself, in order to eventually accept it all and realize that I’m not perfect—or anywhere close to it. I think this is something I will grapple with for the rest of my life, but this year, I can honestly say that I have come to accept so much more of myself than ever before.

Making friends with a starfish in Alicante, Spain. (From 2008.)

Making friends with a starfish in Alicante, Spain. (From 2008.)

7. The best way to learn a language and culture is by complete immersion

As I stated previously, I knew enough Spanish to get by, but I was nowhere near fluent. I had experienced Spanish culture before, but never for longer than a few weeks. This time, I was IN it—all the way. I had roommates who didn’t speak a lot of English, so in order to get things done and communicated, guess who was trying her hardest to learn more Spanish? *raises hand* 🙂

I also met many people who wanted to learn English from me. (I actually have a TESOL certificate from Oxford Seminars and used to teach ESL in California.) Funnily enough, most people I met with ended up speaking more Spanish than English with me. I didn’t mind; I was learning from the natives, after all. My Spanish improved tenfold, and I learned all the things they don’t teach you in high school Spanish—including the most important thing: curse words. Ha!

Still not at this level! Maybe one day...

Still not at this level! Maybe one day…

8. Being present in the moment

In June, my friends took me to a Spanish rock concert. It was there, sipping on a beer and swaying to the music, that I realized I was finally living again. Like . . . really living. I felt free—I felt alive. I wasn’t worried about the next day or even the next hour. I was there with my friends, listening to great music, and enjoying the energy of the crowd. Why was that such a profound moment for me? I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt that way, and I didn’t want it to end.

At the concert with friends :)

At the concert with friends 🙂

9. People can really be amazing—if you let them

Many of us grew up with the “stranger danger” thing. And that is a very valuable and viable thing to learn. However, especially in the US, many of us look at people weird if they wish us a good morning and we don’t know them. In Spain, people say good morning, good afternoon, and good evening to one another. We greet one another with a kiss on each cheek—even when we meet for the first time. There’s something about the physical contact that breaks the ice, I think.

Because of this connectedness, I met the most amazing people who I am still in contact with. One of my new friends gave me his old printer because I needed to print some documents. My landlady took me out to lunch the second day I was in Alicante, just to make sure I was feeling good about being there. My roommate and I became close, and she painted my nails, and I taught her how to knit. A total stranger in Edinburgh let me shadow him an entire afternoon and we ended up climbing to King Arthur’s Seat together.

I have street smarts. I think I’m pretty good at reading people. I usually know a shady person when I see one. But I had an open heart while traveling and living abroad. I said yes to people more than no. I agreed to meet total strangers who wanted to learn English. Some guy played guitar while I sang two songs in a Scottish bar at an open mic and got a free pint. I went out on dates. I let people amaze me. I never met anyone who wished me ill will. And I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

View from King Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland.

View from King Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland.

10. I am capable of everything I thought I was

Though I had no expectations of the experience itself, I did have expectations of myself. I had specific goals in mind, like finding more clarity and having more time to work on what was important to me. But I also knew that things would be challenging at times—that I would feel lonely. I prepared myself for all of that, even if I didn’t know what the final outcome would be. I wasn’t surprised because I had already told myself I was capable and would find a way—no matter what. I honored my commitment to myself, and I think that’s one of the great achievements I gained from living abroad. And that important commitment told me that I could apply the same tactics to my dreams and goals and plans. That I’m the only one who holds myself back. I have a choice, and I choose to keep moving forward, the way I did in Spain.

One of my faves from Edinburgh.

One of my faves from Edinburgh.

 ***

Whew! I know this post is long-winded, so thanks for making it this far. I will never forget my amazing experience in Spain and Scotland. I will always remember the wonderful people I met while on my journey, and I can’t wait for what’s ahead in 2015. I have already been making plans, so when I have news to share, it’ll be on this blog.

One more post coming tomorrow to finish out 2014, so stay tuned. xx

The Habit of People Watching

Sunrise I witnessed yesterday morning on Playa Postiguet.

Sunrise I witnessed yesterday morning on Playa Postiguet. Just some eye candy for you readers. 🙂

I can understand why the Spanish have siesta time. It’s not very hot here in Alicante, Spain, but even in the mild weather, walking for two hours has made me super tired! In fact, my roomies are all taking advantage of siesta time right now, while I’m being lame and writing this blog post. I enjoy the quiet though, so that’s why I’m up and working.

Already, there are so many things I’m learning about myself while living abroad. The biggest thing I’m trying to figure out is just how to find rhythm with all this “free time”–which, if you’re a freelancer like I am, is not really free time. I’m learning how to create a schedule that isn’t too rigid but still allows me to be productive and meet client deadlines.

I’ve been reading Daily Rituals by Mason Currey–which I highly recommend–and it’s about how many famous artists and creative types schedule or scheduled their days. Disturbing but unsurprising, many artists struggled with drug use, alcohol abuse, and self-medication. Many claimed to need the stimulation to either keep their ideas coming, or to maintain enough energy to get all those ideas out of their head and into the final product. I like alcohol and whatnot as much as the next person, but I personally don’t need a slew of amphetamines to write a novel. Nevertheless, studying other people’s habits is very fascinating to me, and I most definitely have indulged in a glass of sangria or two (or three!) while reading Daily Rituals.

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey

This fascination I have in observing others comes into play while traveling. I have ever been an avid people-watcher. In fact, my first essay at 12 years old was about people-watching at Disneyland. So, part of my new routine in living abroad involves vast amounts of observing those around me in the day-to-day. There’s a cafe down the street from my apartment–Cafe Gadea–and I go there nearly every day. When it’s really nice outside, I’ll eat my lunch on the tables outside and watch people walk by, as well as try to listen in on the conversations in Spanish happening at the next table over. I notice the nuances of every interaction between the Spanish versus Americans or other cultures.

For example, in the United States, when we walk on the street, most of us avoid even touching someone else’s arm at all costs. It’s like we think everyone has the plague or something. But here, in Europe, and especially in Spain, it’s almost as if people are drawn to one another without thinking twice about it. Even when I’m walking on a sidewalk with ample room, and someone is walking towards me, he or she seems to be caught in some gravitational pull and will pass very closely to me. It doesn’t matter who it is–a man, woman, child, older person, teenager–they ALL do it. And I just accept it.

I’ve also witnessed more affection in relationships–affection that is shown in public. And it’s not just between lovers, it’s also between friends. Many people here are very affectionate towards one another. I mean, even when you first meet someone, you kiss each other’s cheeks. When I met my roommate last week, we said “hola” and gave the customary greeting of kissing each side cheek. Being half Hispanic myself, that is something I’m used to experiencing from my Latino side of the family. But for most Americans? A simple handshake will do. (Which I actually HATE, by the way. Why can’t we all just be affectionate? Ha!) As a stranger (estranjero) in a strange land, that type of affection makes me feel more connected, even without knowing anyone around me or having someone to talk to all the time.

I’d like to think that many of us creatives are people-watchers to some degree. Even the most introverted among us. For me, watching people is like reading a textbook in school and gathering information–except that the process is more interesting and organic. Life is our teacher, people are the study materials, and we test ourselves by what we produce. So really, there isn’t much opportunity for failure; there’s opportunity to learn. It’s all around us and we only fail if we refuse to learn anything.

Cool filter for a photo I took of my bedroom windows.

Cool filter for a photo I took of my bedroom windows.

But before I continue to think that I’m Socrates or something, I will reiterate that this travel thing has done me good. I’m learning so much and loving every minute–even the lonely and fear-filled ones. I am very glad that I made the decision to step way outside of my comfort zone and try something new. And, of course, I am thoroughly enjoying all the new faces and behaviors to watch. 😉