On Happiness

Friends at beach

With friends at Baker Beach

It hit me on a rare, fogless San Francisco Sunday. The kind so singular that you could enter the water at Baker Beach without involuntarily cursing, and last longer than 30 seconds. The kind of day where, as you hop on one foot to avoid burning both in the scorching sand, you remember that San Francisco borders the ocean and does, in fact, have beaches—you’ve just never had reason to use them before. Global warming does wonders on a freezing microclimate.

I was slathered in sunscreen, face down on my towel, supporting a clandestine mimosa. I was flanked on both sides by high school and college friends. There were some new acquaintances as well, who had the foresight to share their champagne so we’d more readily accept them into the group. Earlier that morning we had had a potluck brunch; later that afternoon, we’d be hitting up a 1950’s style ice cream parlor. For now, just strong sun, even stronger company.

It hit me then, that this weekend, these past couple weeks, were the most consistently happy I’d been in two years.

And in a certain way, such overwhelming happiness makes me sad. It makes me conscious of the fact that I hadn’t felt this way in a while. The extreme highs have been there, fueled by new experiences and adrenaline—it’s just that I’d been missing out on the level ones. The even plain of regular, uneventful, unperturbed joy.

The time frame is not coincidental. Two years is how long I’d been living in Spain. I’ve visited handfuls of countries, made lasting friendships, ridden camels, camped in deserts, froze my ass off in Eastern European winters, soaked in natural hot springs, dated foreign men, danced in small-town Spanish festivals, learned to cook exotic dishes, bathed in the Mediterranean, supported myself financially straight out of college, cracked jokes in Spanish and learned basic Catalan, solo traveled, and grew as a writer.

And only now, lying on a beach just 16 miles from where I grew up, only now am I claiming true happiness?!?

Part of it feels like failure. I thought it was supposed to be the other way around. I thought moving to Spain, being the envy of everyone I knew, would mark the epitome of happiness. I’d imagine they’d have to tear Spain from my bleeding hands when it came time for my visa to expire. And certainly, there were many happy times scattered throughout; enough of them, clearly, to warrant a second year abroad. Just not enough to leave me with a desperate, aching feeling now that I’m back home.

ATT park

Getting to step out on center field at the Giants’ Stadium

The thing is, you don’t always read about the lows. Blogs and Instagram and Buzzfeed articles are designed to incite your wanderlust, not cautiously warn you about the harsher realities plaguing life abroad. And with good reason; nothing should stifle adventure. Nothing should deter you from expanding your world views by hopping on planes, busses, your own two feet and doing what it takes to see a new way of life. So we tend to only expose the positives. It’s not lying; it’s editing.

I didn’t completely avoid talking about the ups and downs of expat life; it’s just that my mom and dad got the brunt of it through Skype, and you readers were generally spared. Once in a while I alluded to some hardships: seasonal affect disorder, the difficulty of making friends, and the mental taxation of working at a daycare. But I always did it with humor, because I want this blog to be an upbeat place where people can enjoy a light read, and also partly because humor is a defense mechanism, as my dear therapist mother might point out.

Santa Catalina

Visiting Catalina Island over Labor Day Weekend

On July 4th, I flew home from Spain. My contract at the daycare ended in June, I traveled around Eastern Europe for a bit, I said goodbye to close ones in Barcelona, and I left. Of course I felt a pang of regret. It was eerie to have no idea when I’d return to this country I’d now called home, on and off, for three years. It had become a part of me.

It wasn’t until I landed in San Francisco, weighed down by oversized luggage but feeling inexplicably lighter, that I knew for sure that home was where I had to be.

When I returned home, all the pieces fell into place. I landed a job within a week. The next week, I scored a a great room in a rent-controlled (read: still outrageously expensive) apartment, half a block from Golden Gate Park. I instantly reconnected with friends I hadn’t seen in a year or more, and felt like no time had past. I launched myself into a new city, all the while knowing that my childhood home, parents and sister were not a $800 plane ticket but a $5 bridge toll away. One day I begged my mom to come in to the city to take me grocery shopping. The stock pile of hummus was nice, but what it represented—they are now close enough to me to transport perishables when I feel the need to regress to age 12 instead of 24—tasted even better.

Friendships here feel different. They aren’t about getting to know one another. They are about sitting in a park for hours with no plans. They are about the same things: dinner parties, beach days, wine nights, but they are deeper. Closer. They are about belly-aching laughs, the kind you take for granted in the moment but realize how special they are the next day, when your abs hurt from no exercise at all.

At my new job, I’m surrounded by 20 coworkers all my same age, instead of 20 hysterical babies. I go into work Monday morning, on a bus that chugs and sputters over 4 miles of interspersed hills, and the first thing people say to me when I reach the office isn’t, “Can you put on Paul’s smock?” but rather, “How was your weekend?” I go running now, consistently (!), because I’m not falling sick every other week from toddlers’ germs. I meet up with friends for dinner or drinks more nights than not, because I now live in a city where the majority of my high school and college friends do too. I haven’t watched a TV show alone in bed since July because I’d rather hang out with my roommates in the living room. Also, let’s talk about my roommate’s DVD collection.

roommates outsidelands

With the roommates at Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park

It’s been harder to maintain the blog lately, and I just recently realized why. Writing has always been my escape, and now, I have nothing to escape from. Instead, I have everything to dive into. While writing still makes me inexplicably happy, it’s no longer required to lift my spirits. Day to day life now does a pretty fine job sharing that burden.

I’ve avoided writing this post, in part because we’ve been conditioned to never brag about happiness, but also largely because I would never want to deter anyone from moving abroad. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made for myself. I get emails from readers every week asking advice on how they can also move abroad and fulfill their dreams, and I think it’s fantastic that so many people are willing to take such a leap. I’ll always cherish my time in Granada, Bilbao and Barcelona for so many reasons, some of which have filled the pages of this blog, some of which can’t be described.

But now, I’m cherishing the time spent abroad for an entirely different reason. For the happiness it has now allowed me to feel at home. I’ve always been plagued by indecision, by the fear of the what if. A year ago, I was wracked with the decision of whether to stay or leave again. I of course chose to go, and the second year in Spain went much like I had anticipated it would: I fell in love with the city of Barcelona, I grew my blog and freelance writing career, I struggled to start over and make new friends, and I felt entirely unfulfilled working at a daycare.

The outcome of the year is almost irrelevant. What matters is that I went. I am positive that if I hadn’t leapt at one more year in Spain, at the chance to discover one of Europe’s greatest cities, I would have been forever plagued by the what if, unable to fully commit to my present because of the hankering for the fork in the road that I hadn’t explored. I am now able to throw myself so assuredly into life in San Francisco because I’ve done the other route, I saw what it was all about, I loved it and loathed it and everywhere in between. Nothing was left unanswered, and there is no longer a choice to fret over.

Today, I don’t wonder whether or not I’m in the right spot, because I now know the feeling of knowing.

It feels like this. It feels like happiness.

GG bridge

  • Beautifully written Jenny. I love every bit of this post especially- “Today, I don’t wonder whether or not I’m in the right spot, because I now know the feeling of knowing.” Thank you for sharing.

  • Kellie Mogg

    Just this past month, I’ve returned to my home state of Oklahoma after traveling for the past couple years. It was weird, I’m a bit antsy still (I’m actually going on a week trip to San Francisco next week), but it feels so good to be here and to be still. With family, an apartment, some form of routine, a fridge. It’s nice and it’s important to balance the adventures with the time of reflection.

    So glad you have found happiness in your roots. It’s amazing to be a wanderlusting traveler but it’s more impressive when one can appreciate both lifestyles. Cheers!

  • Finally catching up on blog posts and happy to see you’re having a great transition! It always feels good to know you made the right choice.
    I’m feeling the opposite really, like leaving spain was the wrong choice and now I’m trying to go back. I came home to regroup after deciding grad school wasn’t it for me. Jobs have been impossible to find and I think spain is where I’m at my best.

  • I was just thinking about you the other day and how it’s been awhile since you’ve posted, and I thought to myself: Jenny must be having way too much fun in SF to blog. And sure enough! :D

    Also, I feel like this is the right time to come clean: remember a year ago when you were begging for advice on whether to stay in Spain or move to SF and only one person voted that you move to SF? THAT WAS ME! It’s like I KNEW! :P

    This post makes me happy. I’m so glad you’re loving life! Also makes me wonder what it’ll be like when I eventually return to the US.

    • Hahahah ya girl this once-a-week posting schedule is really falling by the wayside–to many after-work happy hours :)
      You totally were the one who said that. Such a wise woman. BUT like I said, if I hadn’t gone, I probably couldn’t appreciate SF as much as I do now….
      I’m so curious to hear about your transition if/when you do make the leap back to the U.S. Clearly one coast is calling your name. I’ll save a rent-controlled closet for you :)

  • Jenn

    Jenny, thank you so much for sharing your happiness in such eloquent writing. Loving your writing more and more. Glad you are home and yes, I am green with envy. I LOVE and MISS San Frans! Home of happiness and true friendship, and most of all, family. Stay happy and keep in touch! :)

    “The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.”
    ~Ashley Montagu

    • Such a beautiful and fitting quote, Jenn!! And thank you for such kind words. Let me know if and when you make a visit out to SF!

  • yes yes YES YES YES!!! This post encapsulates exactly how I feel right now…or at least hope to feel eventually. Don’t get me wrong—I have zero regrets about moving to Spain, and I loved getting to travel to a new city (sometimes country!) every month, speak in a foreign language (or two!) every day, and understand the how another culture works. But I do not miss living paycheck-to-meager-paycheck, making friendships that I know will ultimately drift apart at the end of the school year, and being wracked with anxiety over WHAT DO I DO WITH THE REST OF MY LIFE?

    Back home now, I feel comfortable doing life in my home country and in my native tongue, surrounded by longtime friends and family. Looking forward to seeing where you go in the next few years, Jenny!

    • Yayyyyyy so glad you can relate!! I thought you might be able to, seems like we were always pretty much on the same page when it came to life in Spain. Love it, but ready for the next phase. I’m so glad we got to meet in Barcelona and now can virtually blog stalk each other until we meet again :)

  • This is so amazing and raw and, in the few vermouths we shared, you. So glad you’re finding yourself again – it’s rare and special to feel at your best somewhere. Mine seems to be in Sevilla, but I’m open to finding it somewhere else!

    • Thanks so much, Cat!! Maybe there’s more than one place we can all find ourselves. You’re lucky to have both Sevilla and Chicago!!

  • Maya Martinez

    Dagger. To. The. Mother-effing. Heart.

    Beautifully written though, I’ve never agreed with you more.

    • Hahah Maya. Come baaaack!
      Just kidding, your Instas right now are giving me FOMO. I’m so happy you can relate to the post, but also wishing you all the best this coming year.

  • lorriegoldin

    This is so thoughtful and true. I especially love, “So we tend to expose only the positive. It’s not lying, it’s editing.” I hope your roommate’s DVD collection includes “The Wizard of Oz.” Welcome home, Dorothy!

  • Braxton Hynes

    So grateful for this post. On a similar note, it can be overwhelming to constantly read the “edited” projections of people on the internet. You start to feel guilty that your life or experiences don’t compare to people’s filtered photos. Thank you for your authenticity.

    • I absolutely agree! I’ve actually stopped reading a lot of articles lately that just constantly seem to brag about life abroad. It’s exhausting. And social media is a blessing and a curse as well! But I know how much I appreciate when people show glimpses into the “darker” side, so I wanted to pass on my experiences as well :) Thanks for reading!