I still remember the moment my flight touched down on the runway at Madrid-Barajas airport on that blazing afternoon in early September nearly two years ago. I was excited and nervous and just a little bit terrified, although I never would have admitted it then. I’d spent months at a time abroad before, but this was different. This time I had a job, a Spanish visa, and no return ticket home. My entire life fit neatly inside one battered, checked-in suitcase and a backpack in the overhead compartment. Without even a flat to go home to when I arrived, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wondering what exactly I had done as I stared out the window watching the luggage spill out onto the conveyor belt below.
I arrived in Madrid that day with plans to stay for only ten months. And of course, as even the most carefully thought-out plans do, mine changed. I had no idea that my move to Madrid was about to change the entire course of my future. But that’s the most interesting part about life– nothing really ever goes the way you’d expect. One day you’re feeling downright lost as you start your new life in your new home halfway around the world, and before you know it, two years have passed and those city streets are full of so many memories that you can actually feel your heart breaking at the thought of leaving them behind.
That’s where I find myself now. It’s surreal to think that my two years in Madrid have come down to their final two weeks. To be honest, I don’t really know how to say my goodbyes to this city. Saying goodbye to places isn’t like saying it to people. If it’s an important place, it’s more like saying goodbye to a piece of yourself and the particular stage of your life lived there that you know can never be repeated. This isn’t an easy goodbye for me, and I put off writing this personal post as long as I could because I knew that allowing myself to think about it too much would be very painful. Yet I also know that I need to write this for my own closure as a way of processing both the pain of leaving as well as the excitement I’m feeling about the future. I need to say a proper goodbye and formal thank you to city that changed my life.
Becoming a Madrileña (and an adult)
It goes without saying that I’m not the same person I was the day I arrived in Madrid. These two years have thrown countless challenges and surprises at me, and made me a much better and much stronger person in the process. I arrived with no address, no friends, no working cell phone, no bank account, and practically no idea how to navigate the city’s winding streets. And it was really hard. I quickly realized that the expat life isn’t all world travel, adventure, and good times. Choosing to move abroad is a decision that, like any other, requires its own set of sacrifices. It requires sacrificing everything that is familiar and comfortable for a chance to grow and get to know the world and yourself in ways you never imagined possible.
It’s a sacrifice that you can’t really understand until you make it. I still miss home sometimes. I still want to hug my dog so badly it hurts. I still wish I made just a little extra money so I could buy something or other for myself that I want but don’t really need. I still want someone to take care of me when I’m sick. I still get frustrated with the bureaucratic nightmare that inevitably results when trying to get anything done in Spain. And I still believe with all my heart that every obstacle to my comfort that I faced in the past two years was one hundred percent, without a doubt, worth it.
Looking back on my time in Madrid as a whole, I can say with certainty that choosing expat life was the best decision I’ve ever made. It opened my eyes and my heart to an entire universe of new ideas, possibilities, and people. I overcame the challenges I anticipated as well as struggles I never expected to face. In Madrid, I became an adult. I rented my first flat, signed my first contracts in Spanish, paid my first bills, and drew up my first monthly budgets. But that was all the easy part. I was challenged daily with occasional loneliness, frustrations with communicating at times, and exhaustion as I tried to get used to this crazy new world.
But eventually, I got the hang of it. I’m so thankful that I did, too, because it’s not something every expat achieves. The thing is though, if you set aside your fear and stick it out through all the hardest bits, you arrive on the other side and discover that you’ve experienced something with value beyond measure. I had the opportunity to continue practicing my second language daily, get to know Spanish culture, and travel more than I ever thought I would. More importantly, my life abroad taught me everything from thankfulness and appreciation to friendship, courage, acceptance, and forgiveness. I navigated constant language and cultural barriers, experienced heartbreak, and learned how quickly time can pass and plans can change.
I somehow managed to overcome the obstacles of both becoming and adult and doing so in another country, and I can’t say enough about how beneficial this experience has been at this stage of my life. Living in Madrid gave me so much confidence as I got to know myself more and more each day. I began to learn that I am, in fact, stronger than I ever knew I could be. I feel sure that I will look back on these years later in life and be incredibly thankful that I spent this time in my twenties like this.
Now, I navigate the city like a pro, have a list of favorite cafés and bars, and shake hands with the owners of the restaurants on Calle Lavapiés as I pass by. After two years, Madrid seems more like a small town than a major European capital to me. That occasional loneliness has been replaced by an occasional craving for some time to myself (and then choosing to meet my friends anyway because they’re some of the best people in the world). And that’s the hardest part of leaving. I somehow built an entire life here. Madrid became my second home.
Tonight, I sat on the rooftop of El Corte Inglés with my best friend in Madrid looking out over our beloved city below. It was the first time it really felt like the end to me as we leaned back and watched the swifts flying overhead in the late afternoon glow. As much as I know that my decision to leave Madrid is the right one for me right now, the goodbye is so very bittersweet. I’m finishing a hugely important chapter of my life and will begin writing another in a new unfamiliar city. And I couldn’t be more excited. However, I know that I could never have taken this new step into the unknown if it weren’t for the strength I gained here in Madrid. For that, I will be forever grateful.
A Thank You to Madrid
With two weeks left here now, all I can say is thank you, Madrid. Thank you for being my first home in Europe. Thank you for the long, sunny days. Thank you for the people you brought into my life. Thank you for the opportunity to travel. Thank you for teaching me so much about myself and forcing me to grow as I have. Thank you for taking me out of my comfort zone each and every day. More than anything, thank you for giving me the strength to make my next move to Barcelona alone with no fear at all anymore.
A place for you has been permanently carved into my heart, and I know I will leave a part of myself behind here when I leave. I will never forget the time I spent on your city streets and I promise to come back and visit them as soon as I can. Goodbye, Madrid. I’ll love you always.