I can best sum up living abroad with this little anecdote.
After a particularly inspiring Spanish class, I wound down the curvy staircase of my school, bid a fond hasta luego to the indifferent building doorman and floated out. So lit up was I that I began passing out holas as an attention drunk flower girl tosses out fistfuls of rose petals. Hola! Hola. Hola. One for everyone. I am nothing if not generous with my slippery grasp of the Spanish language.
My grip on the handles of my backpack was comforting as my gaze went to the old women walking dogs and the used bookstore which was curiously always closed. Maybe I would stop in there next time, I mused, now the elegant European city dweller. I nodded at the old men drinking coffee outside, as they always seemed to do here.
And in an instant, I was on my back looking up at the mocking blue of the summer sky. What had happened? I winced with the scratch of pain which one allows oneself just before discovering that humiliation is far more potent. I sat up and looked around. I could almost imagine cartoonish birds with “X”es for eyes, circling my head, their dizziness magnified for comedic affect. I had fallen down, this much was clear. But how? How had the beautiful, perfect day turned on me? As I sat up, laughing at myself like this was something I did all the time for fun.I don’t know why but it is always my first instinct.
Then I spotted the pile.
The goopy smeared pile of dog diarrhea which started under my footprint and ended somewhere that was probably directly under me.
Oh my god. Gross. Why? And who? And again, WHY?
Suddenly I hated Spain. This happens more often than I would like to admit. I lash out mentally at the country which has taken me in. I hated people who walked their dumb dogs who pooped on the sidewalk and didn’t clean it up. I hated the men sipping coffees and avoiding my gaze. Didn’t anyone work? Was everyone just getting paid to drink coffee and look attractive while I was busy providing dumb foreigner slapstick entertainment? Why wasn’t that damn bookstore ever open? Was there diarrhea on my person? I had a long train ride home and was not prepared for the looks and disdainful sniffs of my fellow passengers. My god. Is this my life now?
I did a smooth check and found no traces of the disgusting smear on my jeans or boots. I had lucked out, in a manner of speaking.
With the knowledge that I had no feces on me, my wave of anger rolled back into the larger sea of situation. In that crumpled heap of diarrhea and dignity, I began to laugh. One of those rich, full laughs which begins deep in your guts and spreads generously through your throat until it would be a sin to suppress it and you let it go. I laughed for 3 minutes as I picked myself up off the sidewalk and cleaned off my boot on a tree trunk. I did that thing where I looked at the pile and around like who is responsible for this, I want names.
But I was laughing too hard to take it seriously. It was a laugh bred of necessity- I had no other choice.
I half-slunk, half galloped to the Metro station, texting my people at home to let them know what had just happened.
I think this story best sums me up as an American expat living in Madrid now that I’m 10 months in and they honeymoon is most definitely over. I’m in a solid, committed relationship both in reality and in this geographical metaphor. I am dating a Spanish man with whom I parent two kittens. And I am dating a Spanish city with whom I share the least attractive side of myself. Me, late for work. Me, sardined onto the Metro with 3 billion other people. Me, frustrated with my language skills. Madrid sees all of me and like a good partner, allows me my bad days. It keeps me humble with episodes like this.
This is what it’s often like- living full cycles of emotion in a single afternoon.
In a city full of glamorous women with perfectly pressed hair and sky high heels, I will always be the woman one step away from falling down in a pile of shit.
Madrid taught me that.