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Missing Madrid: Settling into Life After Living Abroad

Cheering on Spain in this year's World Cup. Justine Hall

What I learned working abroad—and how it's changed me. 

I craved this for months and now I'm here: Sitting in my favourite coffee-shop-turned-hip-social-scene back home in San Diego, sipping my large iced coffee while listening to a mix of old-school Maroon 5 and the Head and the Heart. The vastness of the place, the exposed wood beams, shelves adorned with impossibly green plants, neon signs, and a menu boasting only the hippest third-wave coffee and clientele, to boot.

Basically, it’s Instagram come to life. Yet, as I sit here, I’m acutely aware of this aching I have to be back in one of my favourite tiny Spanish cafes, walls thick with layers of paint giving away the age of the space and the past lives it had lived. I miss the less than ample seating and the elusive coolness my tiny cafe had without even trying, nestled on a street with absolutely no parking.

Now that I’ve been home for about two months, I’ve started to catch myself missing things about my life in Spain.

As soon as the day hit in Madrid where it was warm enough that I no longer needed to wear my puffy green coat outside everyday, I lamented to anyone who would listen about the one thing I wanted. Really, how all I wanted was a large iced coffee. Not an americano over a cup of ice and not hot coffee left out until it became cold, but a cold brew coffee. Why was that such a challenging commodity to find in an otherwise very hip (and very hot) metropolis? I sincerely apologize to any of my friends and/or random strangers who had to bear witness to my caffeine-fuelled diatribe.

But here I am, sipping my second iced coffee of the day thinking about the small, iced americanos I ordered much to the amusement of my non-bearded, non-flannel-wearing Spanish barista. (It probably didn’t help that I once mixed up the words for ice and ice cream in Spanish, accidentally requesting my americano with a glass of ice cream, instead of a glass of ice on the side. Needless to say, I never lived that one down.)

I think I will always miss Madrid. Not because it was the most lovely city filled with magical people, but because it’s the place that taught me more than any book could, in both language and in life.  

I will always miss Madrid. Not because it was the most lovely city filled with magical people, but because it’s the place that taught me more than any book could.

There are more than enough essays and articles that wax poetic about the dreamy life lived abroad. Yes, at times there are those pinch-me moments of “how did I get here?” More often than not, however, I found myself missing little bits and pieces of my life back in the U.S., the familiarity of daily routines and the easy warmth of family and friends. Those are pieces that don’t instantly come with a life abroad. They are parts, I learned, that you have to create for yourself all over again. Of course it can be done, but not without a certain amount of vulnerability and willingness to make a complete fool of yourself. (See my ice cream/ice incident.) 

Activities that seem as mundane as going to the bank or post office were things I had to learn how to do all over again. I was speaking a new language sure, but there was more to it than that. I had to learn the ins and outs of how a different country worked. And in learning those differences, I would sometimes find myself completely exhausted from a seemingly simple task, missing the safe, known rhythms of home. 

Now, here I am, back home, and I long for the little challenges that living in Madrid presented to me.

From navigating conversations with locals and the family I lived with to a random exchange with someone causing me to rethink the way I always thought a thing to be. It’s these experiences, big and small, that made moving to Madrid one of the best, and hardest, things I’ve ever done. 

I gained experiences that I couldn't have replicated any other way: becoming familiar with how it feels to speak a different language almost as frequently as speaking English, reaching a new level of vulnerability, whether I wanted to or not. There were many instances where I would have to remind myself that just because I and every single person I knew did something in a certain way, didn’t necessarily mean it was the only way to do it. Reaffirming time and time again, we are all far more alike than we are unalike.

All these things happened because I had the crazy idea (and privilege) to throw myself, like a fish out of water, into an entirely new culture and environment. At the start of my time in Madrid I could have never predicted how challenging the next year would be, but I also could have never predicted just how fiercely I would miss the life I made for myself there.

I don’t know when the next time will be that I’ll uproot my life and move to a new country, but something tells me Spain won’t be the last time. Until then, I’ll sit here sipping on my second iced coffee of the day, enjoying the life buzzing around me, knowing that I’ll miss this exact scene sometime again soon. 

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Justine Hall

When she’s not immersed in life as an au pair, Justine Hall can be found wandering the streets of Madrid, practicing her Spanish with anyone who lets her and chronicling her experiences as a freelancer.

Website: instagram.com/justinetherese11/

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