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.
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.
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.
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.