Like most people, I am pretty good at making my life look a lot better on social media than it actually is. So, when I do really off-the-wall things (like move to another country by myself) and then suddenly change my plans (like come home five months earlier than expected), it usually comes with some sort of social consequence. In this case, I feel compelled to offer an explanation regarding what exactly happened that caused me to quit my Spain adventure.
I guess I should start by telling you why I went there in the first place. Last summer, my best friend, Julia went to Portugal for two months and had the time of her life. Every time we talked, she raved about the culture, the weather, and the food. She was always happy while she was there, and I admired that. It made me want to have a similar experience.
So, in June, I began looking into programs that would allow me to go overseas, too. Within a few hours, I found one that seemed like a good fit. It was five and a half months long and involved me teaching high school level English in the beautiful country of Spain. The associated costs weren’t too ridiculous, and I felt confident about my ability to get into the program. So, I went through the application process and was offered the job a week later.
At that point, I was forced to decide whether this was something I actually wanted to do or not. I had a lot of factors to take into consideration. While I was nervous about being a first time foreign traveler, I was optimistic about how much fun it would be to do something so crazy. At the time, I was also in an unhealthy relationship, and I was desperately looking for an escape from that — what better way than to move to another country (ha)! As I weighed the pros and cons, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try something that scared the heck out of me, while doing some soul-searching and personal development at the same time.
So, I committed. I told my parents, friends, and teachers. The only person who wasn’t happy for me was the one I called my boyfriend. But I didn’t care. I was too pumped to care about that. I knew I had something bigger and better to look forward to every day for the rest of the year.
The deal got even sweeter when I found out I was going to be placed in a town on the southern coast of Spain, just minutes from the beach. Expectedly, I enthusiastically shared my news on social media. It didn’t take long for everyone – and I mean everyone – to catch wind of my next great venture. For months, people gave me advice on what to do and what not to do in Europe. Before I even moved there, I felt like I was practically an expert, prepared to tackle anything.
When December came around, I still didn’t feel incredibly nervous. This was a bit concerning to me, but I tried to justify my lack of anxiety by telling myself that maybe this was something I was meant to do.
I graduated in the 13th, and two weeks later, I began packing my bags for the big move. I was set to leave on Monday, December 31st. Although it wasn’t ideal to travel on New Years Eve, I got a great deal on a flight that I just couldn’t pass up.
On the Saturday before I left, I spent the day feeling very uneasy. I was mostly worried about packing strategically and not forgetting anything. Sunday was a bit more emotional for me; I cried several times that day. As I visited the most important people to say my final goodbye, I couldn’t help but to feel sad. I also felt overwhelmed because – just 24 hours before it was time to head out – everything started feeling real, very real. And I didn’t really know how to handle that realization.
On Monday morning, my parents dropped me off at the airport. I was fully prepared for lots of hugs and tears, but it didn’t go that way. Instead, my parents hugged me and sent me off with a smile. I was slightly relieved, given that I anticipated my departure being the most difficult part of the journey. Later, I’d find out that I was far from correct about that.
My first flight left from St. Louis in the morning and arrived in Miami in the afternoon. Shortly after, I left the States on a redeye – an overnight flight – and arrived in Portugal early in the morning on January 1st. When I got there, the lines for customs and security were so long that I nearly missed my connecting flight to Spain. I literally had to run through the airport to catch a bus, which wheeled me out to the runway so I could get on the plane. Talk about a nerve-wracking start.
Around 9am, I arrived in Sevilla, Spain. This was the city in which orientation was held. When I got off the airplane, I connected with two other American women who were also part of the program. Together, we caught a taxi and found a hotel room to share in the city. After dropping our bags at the check-in desk, we spent the day exploring, which meant visiting a beautiful park, shops, and a restaurant. It was like a fairytale!
My first Spanish hospital visit
Having been severely sleep deprived from all the travelling, we went to bed early that night. I, however, woke up around 3:00am feeling extremely sick. I rushed to the bathroom, where I stayed for a few hours. My stomach hurt, and I couldn’t keep anything down. I felt terribly sick, but more than that, I felt embarrassed because I was experiencing all of this while sharing a hotel room and bathroom with two girls I didn’t know. Awful.
The next morning, my awesome roommates went to the pharmacy and purchased some over-the-counter medications to try to help me feel better. Sweet, right? They also helped me pack my luggage and get to our next destination. Their Spanish was much better than mine, too, which helped a lot when it came to communicating with the natives there.
Upon my arrival to the orientation hotel, I made contact with the program coordinator to inform her about my illness. She encouraged me to go to the local hospital to consult a doctor, and she excused me from the first day of orientation.
When I got to my room, I took a nap and was later woken up by my new roommate, someone who was randomly assigned to my room by the program coordinator. After I introduced myself and told her I was sick, she got her own room, which benefitted both of us; I was happy to have my own privacy.
Later that day, I decided to go to the clinic. I was severely dehydrated and hadn’t eaten in over a day. I felt really bad, and I knew I had a fever, too. When I arrived, I sat in the waiting room for over an hour before being helped by a bilingual caseworker. She helped me fill out paperwork, wrote down some of my symptoms, and then took me to speak to the doctor. In Spanish, he told me I didn’t look dehydrated – even though I totally was – but that I had a high fever (39°C or 102.5°F). He felt my abdomen with his hands, but didn’t take any other vitals. It was weird, but I tried to embrace the experience by reminding myself that Spanish hospitals do things differently than American hospitals. After the consultation, a nurse drew my blood and brought me to a side room to relax until the lab returned my results.
“The doctor believes you have a bacterial infection in your intestines. He’s going to give you a special diet and write scripts for medications that you will need to retrieve tonight,” the caseworker told me. I paid for my services, and then she sent me on my way.
Leaving the hospital, I couldn’t find a taxi, so I decided to walk over a mile back to my hotel. I felt dizzy, like I was going to pass out, but I knew the fresh air would be good for me. On my way back, I found a pharmacy to fill my prescription. I also found a market, but couldn’t seem to locate any of the items listed in this “special” diet that doctor ordered. Instead, I bought water, Powerade, and some rice cakes to last me for a few days.
That night, I broke my fever and instantly felt better. I attended orientation the next morning, but I still felt pretty bad. I explored the city later in the night and then packed my bags again for another day of traveling.
I left for Almeria the next morning. Luckily, I found two more girls to travel with, which turned out to be a blessing because traveling my train/bus in Europe is quite tricky and much different than in the U.S. There are a lot of stops and transfers, which required us to pay close attention the entire time. Despite our limited communication in Spanish, we managed to make it to the city, where my mom and cousin waited to pick us up. That’s right, I have the greatest mom ever! She selflessly put her busy life on pause just to come to Spain to help me find a place to live. I gotta tell you, stepping off the train and seeing familiar faces gave me the BEST feeling in the world.
A decent (but misleading) beginning
My first order of business was finding an apartment. I arranged a viewing and fell in love with it rather quickly. The landlord was an older lady, and she was very sweet and accommodating. The apartment was clean, modern, quaint, and located in a quiet neighborhood, about five minutes from the shore. It had everything I needed, except wifi, but it felt like the right place for me. After negotiating in Spanglish, I signed the lease, got the keys, and moved in within a couple days.
Finding a place so soon was a huge relief, as I had been informed by others in the program that it could take weeks to find an apartment. My mom, cousin, and I quickly stocked my kitchen with food and replenished my toiletries and closet. Everything seemed to be falling into place without trouble.
Then, my mom and cousin left. They walked out the door, and, for the first time, I felt scared and regretful about the decision I made to move to Spain. However, I tried to keep my chin up. I wiped my tears, made some frijoles (beans), and spent the rest of the day preparing for my first day of teaching.
Work gone wrong
I started my new job on a Tuesday. The bilingual coordinator picked me up from my apartment and drove me to school. I had already been in communication with her for months via email and text, so it was nice to finally put a face to a name. She was very warm and friendly, and she welcomed me to Spain with open arms.
Shortly into our car ride, she asked me why I decided to live in Roquetas de Mar. This question confused me, as she is the one who initially recommended I live there given that my school was in La Mojonera, which was only 10 minutes from there. I wanted to live in Almeria, but that would make my commute to and from school about 45 minutes. Given that public transportation was limited in the area, and I didn’t know how I would get to work, I decided to live closer to work at the expense of having less opportunities to socialize. Anyway, I explained to her that I followed her recommendation, and then she told me it would have been better for me to live in Almeria because a lot of teachers live there and could give me a ride to school every day. Knowing it was too late to handle at the point, I shrugged it off.
We arrived at school, and I felt extremely overwhelmed. Everyone was speaking to me in Spanish, which I expected, but hardly anyone spoke English. I was informed that there were a lot of “bilingual” teachers in the building, but it didn’t take me long to realize that wasn’t the case. After meeting around 30 different people and forgetting their names, the bilingual coordinator showed me around the school. Then, she took me to the café for a coffee.
Since Spanish high schools don’t serve lunch to students, frequenting this tiny kitchen seemed to be the norm. Both students and teachers could make purchases at the counter, which was cool. I preferred it to the normal cafeteria setting that you find in American high schools. When the noon bell rang, the café became flooded with students, so we left. Shortly after, I did some observations in classrooms, introduced myself, and let the students ask me questions in English and Spanish. I enjoyed interacting with them.
The next day, a younger male teacher picked me up and brought me to school with him. He didn’t speak much English, but he was really nice. When we arrived, he showed me his classroom, and I spoke to his students. He was an art teacher, and he taught several different art and music classes each day.
An hour later, I met with one of the math teachers. Her first interaction with me consisted of introducing herself and saying, “You don’t speak Spanish well. How are you going to survive an entire semester teaching in a country where you don’t speak the language?” How awkward and discouraging. Following that, she asked me to review a textbook in Spanish and prepare a short lesson in English. Although I wasn’t supposed to be teaching any math classes, I was up for the challenge. I wanted to prove to this woman that I was capable of succeeding in any environment. So, I took the book home with me that evening and attempted to read through the material. I was totally in over my head.
The next day, I returned to school and met with the same teacher. I told her I was unsure how to teach the lesson and that I hardly felt comfortable teaching math to English speakers, let alone those who aren’t fluent.
She proceeded, “When is the last time you took algebra?” I explained to her that I had forgotten how to do the types of problems she wanted me to cover because I hadn’t taken a high school algebra class for eight years.
“You mean that you didn’t take advanced math every year at university? How do you have a degree?” I could feel myself getting flustered. Despite that, I explained that I have quite a bit of knowledge in statistics, but not in algebra. Still, she wanted me to take the material home, study it, and prepare a lesson to be taught the next day. Not wanting to give up, that’s exactly what I did.
I spent the rest of the day hoping that other teachers wouldn’t talk to me; I just wanted to be invisible for the rest of the day while I continued observations and question/answer sessions with students. Before I left, though, I also received a copy of my schedule and spoke with my bilingual coordinator. She informed me that most of my teaching would take place in classrooms designed for math, physics, chemistry, and art. It also included teaching English to students with special learning needs.
Talk about feeling overwhelmed.
On Friday, I began my day teaching that horrid math lesson. And that’s exactly what it was – horrid. I taught the lesson half in Spanish and half in English, and I absolutely blew it. Every student in the classroom was frustrated and confused. The teacher was frustrated. Heck, I was frustrated, anxious, nervous, upset, embarrassed…I felt every negative emotion imaginable in that situation. It sucked, and I wanted to cry the entire time.
Later, I expressed my ill feelings about my schedule and job to my coordinators, who didn’t provide much of a response. I felt perplexed and worried about how everything would move forward from there. I knew I was not competent or qualified to work with students with special needs, nor could I teach lessons in math, physics, chemistry, and art courses. It was extremely uncomfortable, and I didn’t know what to do.
A depressing realization
After school that day, I was so relieved to get into my apartment, close the door, change clothes, and unwind. I spent the afternoon napping and trying to wrap my head around what I was going to do next. My work experience certainly wasn’t helping my overall adjustment to living in a foreign country. It made me feel more alone and less comfortable than I did prior to starting my job. I felt helpless, so I coped by sleeping and later confiding in some of my closest friends and mentors. They validated my feelings and affirmed that my concerns were legitimate.
By this point, I was honestly considering quitting everything and returning home. I had only been there for two weeks, but with each passing day I felt more and more like this experience was not for me.
When I wasn’t working, I kept to myself in my apartment. I was constantly bored because my phone had issues connecting to the network, and I had no wifi because I couldn’t find a company that was willing to offer internet services for a short period of time in the area where I lived.
Other than going to the grocery store, I didn’t explore my surroundings much. I was nervous about walking alone in the city. Granted I look Spanish, it was blatant that I was an American the second I opened my mouth to speak. I felt vulnerable and alone, and I hated every second of it. Staying inside was easier and safer for me.
So, having little access to the outside world, I spent my time watching Spanish soaps on TV and binge eating – a habit I thought I had broken a while back. I was constantly stressed and on-edge, and I was either sleeping a lot or not at all. I tried to keep my contact with my parents, family, and friends to a minimum because I feared they would worry about me more if they could hear my sad, lonely voice.
At one point, I also noticed that my hair was beginning to fall out and break off at the ends, which made me feel really ugly and concerned that my health was deteriorating rapidly. On top of that, the highlight of my time in Spain was realizing that I could watch FRIENDS and NCIS in English. You know, I didn’t even like those shows before, but at times I felt that the actors in the shows were the only people who could relate to me as an American.
It was obvious I was depressed, and I didn’t believe the end of my hopeless episode was in sight. So, I reached out to the boy I liked and explained to him that I wanted to come home. It was the first time I had admitted this to anyone, and I feared his criticism. Instead, he was extremely supportive. He was also worried about the state of my mental health, and he encouraged me to follow my gut. That was a sigh of relief for me.
The turning point
I woke up that weekend feeling down, but I was hoping that I would be able to pull myself out of this funk. I knew I had to make a decision to either stay and stick it out, or to give in and go home.
I was torn. I wanted this experience so badly. I spent months yearning for it. I had such high hopes for the turnout.
Yet, I was extremely unhappy.
My parents spent thousands of dollars getting me to this point, and I spent a lot of money, too. We all invested a lot of time and energy into making my “adventure” of a lifetime workable. Everyone back home knew what I was doing, so quitting would be excruciatingly embarrassing.
But I couldn’t shake the misery.
The largest factor that weighed on me was the contract I had signed prior to embarking on this journey. I knew if I quit my job that I would not only forfeit my monthly earnings, but I would also have to pay them back to the Spanish department of education. I also couldn’t be in Spain on a work visa if I wasn’t doing the work I was assigned to do there. Furthermore, I had just signed a lease for five and a half months, and I figured if I left within the first month, maybe I would lose my security deposit, but I wouldn’t necessarily have to pay for the duration of my lease.
Later that night, I was talking on the phone with a friend about the madness that had ensued from the minute I got to Spain up until that point. Ten minutes into the conversation, my phone cut off. I looked at the screen. No signal. WTF? “Maybe the tower is just down or something,” I said to myself.
For the next half hour, I tried to stay busy, so that I wouldn’t think about what was happening on my phone. I couldn’t help but to check for a recovered signal. Nothing.
Another half hour passed. Still nothing.
At this point, I was starting to freak out. I had lost literally the only connection I had to the outside world. I had no other way to contact my family. I had no other way to navigate the streets of southern Spain. I had no other way to access the internet or my colleagues. I had no way to check the weather or my email. In seconds, I began to feel myself spiraling again.
I cried hysterically as I tried to pull myself together. I threw on clothes and put my hair in a pony tail as quickly as I could. By this time, it was 9:30pm, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to find free wifi anywhere if I didn’t hurry up and get out of my apartment.
I had quickly developed two plans…
Option A: Go across the hall and ask my neighbor across the hall for her wifi password
Or, Option B: Walk down the street with my phone in the air, hoping to either regain a network connection or connect to wifi somewhere in the city.
Ultimately, I selected option B. I made my way outside, tears in my eyes, and held my arm in the air, desperate for a signal. About two blocks from my apartment, I got one! I immediately called my phone provider, explained about my situation, and was told that my phone line had been voluntarily suspended. “Excuse me?!” I exclaimed to the operator. Despite being a customer with this provider for a decade, I had never experienced any type of glitch like this. I was dumbfounded. Shocked. Confused about how this could happen. Fortunately, they quickly reinstated my service, and my phone was working within minutes.
As soon as I reconnected to the network, about 20 notifications came across my screen from my parents. Their messages reflected panic and disbelief. I eventually got ahold of my mom and explained what happened. The terror in her voice brought me to tears again. Apparently, my phone carrier texted both of them to inform them that my line had been suspended. Like any parents would, they lost it immediately and assumed the worst. When I tell you they were seconds from calling the US Embassy, I mean it. They were completely terrified that something had gone horribly wrong and that I was kidnapped and hurt in Spain.
After reassuring my parents that I was okay, I immediately called the boy I liked again. As soon as he asked me what was wrong, I became hysterical. I mean, seriously, I couldn’t even find the words to explain what had happened, let alone produce coherent sentences. Regardless, he stayed on the phone with me and helped calm me down.
At that moment, any and all doubts I had about leaving Spain and returning home were gone. I am not a religious person, but if this was the universe’s way of sending me a sign that I needed to leave Spain, that was it. Within an hour, I planned my entire trip home. I booked a taxi, train and bus tickets, a hotel, and flights back to the U.S. I contacted my school coordinator, program coordinator, and landlord. And I told myself that I was getting out of that situation and never returning.
My twisted trip home
The next few days went by so quickly. I felt lighter and like I was starting to return to my baseline level of happiness again. I finalized my arrangements, and I began my trip home on Tuesday, which consisted of an entire day of traveling by train.
I met with my landlord first thing Tuesday morning to do a walkthrough, return the keys, and retrieve my security deposit (yay!). Then, my taxi arrived and transported me back to Almeria, where the bus and train stations were located. I waited about two hours before getting on my first train. Carrying my heavy, oversized luggage around proved to be quite the challenge for me this day. It was such a hassle that, before I stepped on the train, I took a deep breath and hoped for the best.
A young, nice looking Spanish man noticed my dramatic behavior and asked if I needed any help (in Spanish, of course). I told him that I would appreciate the help, and he put my bags on the train and helped me store them properly. He was speaking in Spanish really quickly the entire time he helped me, and I didn’t know what he was saying, so I just smiled.
Then, he laughed and said, “Ah, you don’t speak much Spanish, huh? Where are you from?” It took me a moment to realize he was speaking in English. “You speak English?! I’m from the United States. Where are you from?!” He proceeded to tell me he was a Spanish native, but he learned English formally for his job. He was a military psychologist, which paved the way for a great conversation throughout the trip. We spent the entire day getting to know one another, and he helped me substantially when it came to figuring out which stops I needed to get off at and where I needed to go. For the first time since I had arrived, I finally didn’t feel alone.
We eventually parted when we arrived in Malaga, where I was staying in a hotel for the night. I checked in to my hotel, and everything went smoothly. I was so hungry that I even ordered Pizza Hut. I got a personal pizza and a Caesar salad, which I had to eat with my hands since I didn’t have a fork (ha!). I slept so well that night because I knew the end was near. I was only a day from finally being home.
The next morning, I got an Uber to the airport. You know how your mom always tells you that you need to be at the airport like three hours early? Well, this time I listened to her, and I am so glad I did because we were in dead stopped traffic for nearly an hour on the way there. Because I built in this additional time, I had no issues with check in or security.
The airport was really nice, and everyone who worked there spoke English. Another sigh of relief! I even found a Starbucks and happily enjoyed breakfast there alone. After that, I ran into an American couple in the waiting area at the terminal, and I felt so excited to be getting closer to home.
Then, things started to take a bit of a downward turn.
My flight was over an hour late. As soon as I boarded, I knew I would miss my connecting flight to the U.S. I sat on the plane crying. I called my mom, and she told me that everything would be fine and that I should just deal with it upon my arrival to Portugal.
When I got there, I got off the airplane, and everyone rushed over to an employee who was calling out the names of passengers who missed their flights due to the airline’s delay. He called everyone’s name in the crowd, except mine and that of one other woman. He sent both of us to the transfer desk.
This woman was hysterical. She was hollering about how much of an inconvenience this was, and she was acting like an entitled American jerk. So, I let her go ahead of me to speak to a representative. She got a later flight that day to the U.S., and I was happy for her.
Then, it was my turn to speak to the man at the transfer desk. He informed me that there was nothing available for the rest of the day and that there wouldn’t be any other flight availability until Friday night or Saturday morning. Mind you, it was Wednesday.
Again, my eyes filled with tears. I begged him to find a flight to put me on so I wouldn’t have to wait that long to get home. Somehow, he made it happen. He booked a ticket for me to be on a flight first thing in the morning with all of my overnight accommodations provided by the airline. He also went out of his way to arrange my luggage retrieval. Since the airline had a policy that disallowed passengers with less than a 24 hour layover from retrieving their luggage, I got extremely lucky to be able to get mine.
After that, I was taken by taxi to a hotel in the heart of Lisbon. Everyone at the hotel was extremely friendly, spoke English, and made me feel right at home. The hotel provided me with dinner, free wifi, and comfortable sleeping arrangements. I stayed there for a night before returning to the airport the next morning.
I made it there without any issues. I had to pay again to check my luggage, but in the grand scheme of things, that was a minor inconvenience compared to everything else I had dealt with. I boarded a tiny aircraft and spent the next eight hours flying back to the United States. I sat next to a middle age couple and bonded with the wife over chocolate and discussing differences between the Spanish and American cultures. It was a wonderful experience.
When the plane touched down in the New Jersey that afternoon, I had never felt happier to be on the east coast. This was in the heart of the government shutdown, so the TSA workers were not very kind, but I didn’t care. I was grateful to breathe American air. To see American ground. To be surrounded by American people.
I had a brief layover before boarding my final flight to St. Louis, which was only about an hour in duration. When I landed, I was tired but also ecstatic to see my mom again. She picked me up from the airport and took me home. That night, I laid in bed and cried. This time, however, I was crying tears of joy.
What an experience.
The next morning, I woke up and began reflecting on this crazy journey. While it seems quite negative – and truthfully it was – there is a lot of good that came from this, too.
First of all, it taught me A LOT about the value of emotional vulnerability. Generally, I’m a tough person. I focus all of my energy into working, and it is rare that I really allow myself to lean into my emotions and actually feel and experience them completely. I used to suppress my emotions because expressing them felt like a distraction to me. However, after going through this bout of depression due to repetitive conflict and social isolation in Spain, I realized something significant: it is OKAY and HEALTHY to allow yourself to feel negative emotions. Not all the time, but sometimes it is okay to cry. It is okay to feel sad. It is okay to lay in bed all day. It is okay to feel regretful or uncertain about your decisions. The key to this is using emotional intelligence to manage each situation carefully. For me, that meant a lot of crying. When I felt angry and helpless, I cried. When I was sick and frustrated, I cried. When I was lonely, I cried. Although I wasn’t used to this before I went to Europe, I often felt I needed to cry in order to cope with all the stress, and nothing is wrong with that. Since coming home, I haven’t cried much, and that’s also okay because at least now I know that I can do it when I need to.
That brings me to my next point: I’m more adaptable than I thought. Patience and flexibility are two attributes I have struggled to maintain for my entire life. While I’m not totally rigid, I like things to go my way (then again, who doesn’t?). I learned the hard way in Spain that sometimes there are circumstances that force you to give up control. Sometimes, it is impossible to overcome a situation with success, and instead, all you can do is manage it and hope for the best. I did a lot of managing and hoping for the best while I was overseas, and it forced me to view myself and my ways in a different light. It taught me that I need to work on being more understanding and rolling with the punches without losing my mind every time it happens. I know that, inevitably, there will be times when plans change and something doesn’t work out the way it is supposed to – that pretty much describes my entire Spain experience, you know – and now I feel I am better equipped to handle those moments with grace and dignity.
Finally, I learned that there is a very fine line between doing something exciting and scary and doing something terrifying and stressful. Sure, I could’ve forced myself to stay in Spain. I could’ve forced myself to endure all of the negative emotions, hard situations, and my deteriorating mental health.
While acute fear and stress can be positive and necessary for building resilience, chronic fear and stress are bad for your health. Period. I knew five months was way too long to force myself to be unhappy, so I adapted and reworked my plan to make it more suitable for my needs in that moment.
And I don’t regret it one bit.
If you want to call that a failure, that’s fine. If you think I’m a quitter, that’s okay, too. One reason I’ve taken so long to write this post is that I was incredibly worried about what people would think, but I’m over that because I know that I did something and overcame a lot of situations that most people will never have the chance to experience.
Personally, I don’t think I failed. I made a mistake that taught me a lot of important lessons about myself. In my eyes, that’s the best victory one can achieve.