When my family picked me up at Miami International Airport, we hugged, kissed and laughed as I entertained them with stories of the many mini disasters I ran into on my long journey home from Spain. After what was an almost 15-hour trip, my parents figured I would want to go home, see our dog and just relax, but I had something else in mind. All I wanted to do was eat at Chipotle (that’s a much tastier Mexican version of Subway in case you didn’t know) and go to the store to get myself a new, upgraded phone to replace the almost broken one I had been using for the last four years.
Prioritizing fast food and a cell phone… It was the most American thing I had done in months! And while certain habits came back to me quickly just like riding a bike, I still felt the hints of awkwardness that come from the very real phenomenon known as reverse culture shock.
It felt weird being in a public place where everyone around me was speaking in English. It felt weird being in such a diverse place too. For the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t the only black girl in almost every room I walked into. I found myself wanting to say “vale” instead of “ok,” and I started my sentences with “bueno” instead of “well.” Luckily, Spanglish is the unofficial second language of south Florida so no one even bats an eyelash at that, but still it was clear that Spain had left its mark on me.
A couple of weeks after being home, I got to speak with Rayanne, one of my closest friends in Spain. We reminisced about all the good memories we had and laughed about the hilarious mess we got ourselves into the first night we went out together. Let’s just say it involved a bottle of tequila, and well… the rest is history. When we caught our breath from all the laughter, she said something that still sticks out in my mind today. “You found friendship, adventure and love here,” she told me. “You lived a full life in Spain.”
And she was absolutely right. Now that I’ve been home for about a month, it’s finally sinking in that at least as far as I know, this isn’t temporary. This isn’t just a quick summer visit before going back to Spain like last year. I have to start basically from scratch and make the U.S. my home again, and all this has me thinking about is the home I left behind in Spain and all the things I found while living there: friendship, adventure and love.
I consider myself very lucky when I say that my first friend in Spain became my very best friend there. I met Katie through a Facebook group for people in my teaching program, and when we realized that we would be living in the same small town, we decided to room together.
The first time I met Katie face to face was at the airport in Madrid. Although we had both bought our plane tickets before virtually meeting via Facebook, not only did we happen to buy tickets for the same day, but we were also on the same connecting flight from Madrid to Malaga and had seats right next to each other on the plane! It was fate. Our friendship was meant to be, and it grew at full speed right from the very beginning.
You take a redheaded girl and a black girl, which are already rare sights on their own in most parts of Spain, and put them together and you’ll get the dynamic duo that was me and my awesome roommate Katie. Her personality was bubbly and outgoing, AND she liked to dance just as much me. It was a done deal. We tore up quite a few dance floors in our little town called Antequera, and together we found a way to make friends in a place that at first had us honestly thinking we would die of boredom.
We started the crazy expat journey together, and I’ve seen us both grow through this experience. I couldn’t ask for a better person to be by my side during that first year in Spain.
In Antequera, we had our own little tribe of friends, and I was so grateful. It was a very random and assorted group of people but we meshed well and even had our little weekly routines. Wednesdays were movie nights, Thursdays were tapas/trivia night at one of our favorite bars and the weekends were a toss up. It was a simple life, but I enjoyed it. Through one of the people in that group, I met Rayanne, and she certainly spiced up my life and made it a lot more interesting (remember the tequila story?). From the moment I met Rayanne we instantly clicked. I feel like I’ve known that girl my whole life even though it’s only been two years. She’s the most nonjudgmental person I’ve ever met, and I know I can tell her anything. She’s the fun, good kind of crazy, but what I love most about her is her huge heart and open mind.
When I moved to Seville, the capital city of Andalusia, for the second year of the program, I thought that living in a big city would mean having more fun and more friends. Unfortunately that didn’t turn out to be true. I didn’t have my own little tribe in Seville, but I did meet Courtney a.k.a. my long lost twin brother. We were born on the same day in the same year, went to the same university, and even had mutual friends, but somehow we managed to meet each other in Spain instead of in Florida. Courtney was the one who kept me sane and happy on most days in Seville and I can’t thank him enough for it.
I didn’t have many friends in Seville, but Courtney and a couple of other good friends were all I needed. If there is one thing I confirmed about myself in the last two years, it’s that genuine human connection brings me pure joy. Even if it’s just a small exchange with someone at a bus stop, I love connecting and sharing moments with others.
I thought a bigger city would bring me more happiness, but in the end I learned what matters most is who I’m with and not where I am.
This entire website is a testament to all the amazing adventures I’ve had since moving to Spain. Whenever the kids at the school where I worked had a vacation, so did I, and I took full advantage of being in Europe to explore as much of the continent as possible. I visited nine countries in the E.U. and threw Dubai in the mix just because I could thanks to the fact that I have a friend living there. I spent Christmas one year with a big Italian family and the next year at the home of someone I met that same day at a train station in Germany. I spent New Years 2014 in Rome and the next year I was camping in a desert outside of Dubai. I saw the running of the bulls in Pamplona and went to one of southern Spain’s most famous traditional festivals where I wore my very own flamenco dress. I saw the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland and a chapel decorated entirely with human bones in the Czech Republic. I went skinny-dipping off the coast of Cinque Terre in Italy, got up close and personal with the Eiffel Tower and traveled alone for a month.
I sought out adventure these last two years, and I found it in heaps and mounds.
I have traveled more in these last two years than I did in all the previous years of my life combined, and I am so thankful for that. My adventures in and out of Spain not only helped me to start She Dreams of Travel, but it also challenged me in multiple areas of my life from my organizational skills to developing my ability to travel alone and enjoy it.
There’s a saying that goes, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer,” and I can attest to that fact. I am richer now in life experience, in knowledge, in friendships with people from all over the world, in my understanding of other cultures, in my sense of independence and most importantly, I would say, in my faith in humanity. Traveling has without a doubt reconfirmed my belief that all humans are good at heart.
I debated for a while about whether or not I wanted to include this here. My love life is probably the only aspect of my life that I don’t broadcast on the Internet, and I just hate girls who unnecessarily and incessantly talk about how fabulous their partner is with not-so-humble “humble brags” all over social media. In the end, though, I realized that not writing about what was such a huge part of my life in Spain would not only be dishonest, but it would also be a great disservice to the therapeutic exercise that writing this post has become, so **deep breath in ** here goes…
I fell in love in Spain in a way that I had never experienced before, and I credit a lot of that to the fact that our love was built on the foundations of an incredible friendship. Yep, I friend zoned this poor guy for a good eight months before anything even remotely romantic happened between us. So many times when people talk about guys making it out of the friend zone (and it does happen guys so keep hope alive), they often describe it as this long process in which the guy made a conscious effort to wear the girl down until she finally just gave up out of pity or exhaustion.
Starting our relationship didn’t feel that way at all for me. Although I resisted and denied my own emotions at first out of fear of ruining our friendship, when I finally did allow myself to open up to those feelings, being in a relationship with him just felt right. It didn’t feel like I was giving up or giving in under pressure. As a matter of fact, he didn’t pressure me at all. I wouldn’t have even known that he liked me if it weren’t so painfully obvious to Katie that he did, and she—like the great roommate she was—helped me connect the dots by just connecting them all for me.
So what did the beginning of our relationship actually feel like? It felt like a seamless transition from something great to something even more wonderful. All of that honesty, candor, openness, trust and acceptance from a genuine friendship in which no one was trying to impress anyone—all of that just transferred into our relationship and made it so beautiful and so strong. Other than with my best friends, never in my life have I felt so comfortable in my own skin with someone. Part of that is because of the personal growth I made in Spain, but a large part of that is because he knew me so well, loved me so deeply for exactly who I am and was not afraid to show it.
Whether we were exploring a new city or just laying on the couch listening to music and talking literally all day, we always had a blast together no matter what we were doing. Even grocery shopping and doing laundry became more tolerable and even fun sometimes by his side. It’s absurd, I know, but true. We have so many incredible memories from my last two years in Spain (luckily, I met him right at the beginning), but just as important as the memories we made are the lessons I learned from him and our relationship.
I learned more about what I do and don’t want in a relationship. I learned how I want and deserve to be treated (like a princess as my parents would always say). I learned what true honesty and openness looks like in a relationship. I learned what it feels like to have someone who makes you a priority in their life, someone who is willing to make sacrifices for you and who just wants to take care of you and be there for you. I learned what it feels like to want to be all that and more for that same person.
But above all that, I learned what selfless love looks like in a time when I had to be selfish.
You see, I loved this man so much that I seriously considered rearranging all of my plans to stay in Spain and give our relationship a real fighting chance. There were many factors that made me reconsider my original plan to leave Spain, but I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t the biggest one. It was a long and agonizing road to a final decision, but all along the way whether I was feeling like my usual Optimistic Olivia self or more like a Negative Nancy, he was always there encouraging me to do what was best for me… even if that meant leaving Spain.
When I needed to talk about my problems making a decision, he listened. When I needed time to just think on my own, he gave it to me. He voiced his opinions but didn’t try to sway my decision one way or another. And when I realized that I’m still at a point in my life when it’s not only ok but also even necessary sometimes to be a little selfish in order to keep my career moving forward, he comforted me through the feelings of guilt that brought on.
I felt guilty about essentially giving up on us. I felt guilty about breaking his heart. I looked at so many of my American friends who decided to stay in Spain mostly because they found love too, and I felt guilty. Guilty because I couldn’t do the same. Guilty because I was afraid that he would look at those same Americans, see the sacrifices they made and wonder if I just didn’t love him enough to do that. I hope with every ounce of my being that he never thinks that. I did, and honestly still do, love him so very much. I could go on for pages about my love for him, but in the end, I needed to love myself more so I could do what was right for me.
Even though we didn’t get a fairytale ending to our story, I have no regrets for opening up my heart to that relationship. I know that years from now I will look back fondly on the time we spent together, and I will feel exactly what I feel today: a heart so full to the brim with happiness and gratitude for having experienced such a great love and connection with someone. Not everyone is so fortunate to know what that feels like.
P.S. Sorry for no names and limited pictures in this section. My darling doesn’t like putting his business out there online (surprising considering that he dated me), so I gotta respect that, and you just have to take my word for it when I say we were absolutely adorable together.
The only thing missing from my friend’s summary of my time in Spain is the new level of self-confidence I developed and am so proud to have today.
I remember the exact moment when I realized how much I had grown during my time in Spain. It was a few months before I was set to leave, and I was at my spinning class at the gym. I was zoning out a little, trying not to focus on the fact that my legs were about to collapse, and for some odd reason, I had an epiphany: Damn. I’ve been living in Spain for almost two years. I made a life here.
It was a weird moment. It was as if it suddenly dawned upon me all that I had done in the last two years, and I was proud of how this experience had made me a more independent adult. I came to Spain with only a job, and I made a life. I hunted for apartments, negotiated with landlords, set up my phone line and wifi and then fought with the phone company when they tried to rip me off. I went grocery shopping and tried new foods and recipes. I went to work and taught English but usually disciplined the kids in Spanish. I met people, made friends and went out to dinner and the movies with them. I did all these things that seem pretty ordinary and even trivial, but when I think about the fact that I did them in a different country while using a language that I worked so hard to learn, I feel proud. Knowing that I was able to pick up my stuff, move to a new country and live a happy life makes me think I can do anything I set my mind to.
My sense of self-confidence comes not only from feeling more independent, but also from knowing and loving who I am. I’ve always had a healthy dose of love for myself. Between my mom and her sisters, I’ve had strong women in my life instill that in me, but a new, adult Jessica was blossoming in Spain, and I had to get to know her.
I arrived in Spain with unrealistically high standards of what I needed to do and how I needed to act in order to be a “perfect” young woman. Little by little I let go of those ridiculous standards and the pressure they put on me, and just like that I gained my freedom. Freedom to do what I want, when I want and how I want without a care in the world. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not reckless or inconsiderate of others now. That would be the opposite of maturing. But what I have now is the incredibly liberating feeling of being so comfortable in my own skin that I don’t give a damn what people think when I’m being unapologetically me. Love me or leave me, people! I only have room in my life for people who bring me up, not down.
This new attitude of mine also allowed me to grow in so many other aspects of my life. From the little things like the decision to stop chemically straightening my hair and lovingly accept all of its natural, curly, poofy glory to the bigger things like developing my views on spirituality and feminism, I changed for the better in Spain. The seeds of this transformation had been planted long ago, but they were watered and eventually sprouted up in Spain. They were watered by the experiences I had, this new culture I embraced and all the amazing people in my life from Spain to the States.
I don’t claim to have everything in my life figured out. That would be a bold faced lie, but for a 25-year-old, I know I’m in a good place along my life’s journey. I’ve grown so much these last two years, and if I continue to approach life with an open heart and mind, I know I’ll continue to use every experience as an opportunity to learn and grow even more.
I miss Spain A LOT. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about this place that I now refer to as my second home country. They say that time heals all wounds of the heart so that is what I’m waiting for because as of right now, my heart still aches a little for my beloved, España. And when the day comes that I can miraculously go an entire 24 hours or even more without thinking about Spain, that won’t mean that I care any less about that gorgeous country and the remarkable people I met there.
Spain has had such a huge impact on my life ever since the first time I stepped foot there when I was only 15-years-old. That’s just not something that can be easily forgotten, even if I wanted it to be.