You’ll step onto the concourse at Madrid Barajas exhausted and disoriented after spending the past seven hours suspended in a flying metal tube over the Atlantic. Even though you’ve most likely been sitting for the majority of those seven hours, you’ll still be inexplicably tired, more so after noticing the vast endlessness of Terminal 4 (international arrivals) stretched out before you. You have to walk what seems like at least
a mile 1.6 kilometers (gotta start thinking in metric units) to get to passport control and baggage claim. You’ll want to do nothing less.
All around you, people are speaking in Spanish. Well, duh. Thing is, you couldn’t feel less prepared to interact in your second language despite having studied said language for the past eight years. At some point you need to ask someone directions and you start to feel like a walking manifestation of what Eminem was rapping about in the first verse of “Lose Yourself”: Palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy…
After a few debilitating seconds of standing there mentally rehearsing what you need to say, you swallow your pride and approach a vaguely friendly-looking person. It’s the first time you’ve had to speak en español outside a classroom or conversation group (both of which have usually been populated with fellow guiris who are also learning, so you know you won’t be judged). It takes all your willpower not to cringe when you hear the obvious foreign accent tainting your words, but luckily this friendly Spaniard is patient as you fumble your way through the question. They send you off in the right direction with a warm smile and you start to feel a little less ill at ease.
You settle in. You find an apartment, set up a bank account, and learn your way around the local Mercadona. Eventually you start your job. You’re introduced to a roomful of coworkers who are mostly named some combination of Ana and/or María and/or Juan and/or Antonio. You extend your hand for the customary handshake in a gesture that now seems stiffly formal as all of these virtual strangers are pulling you into hugs and giving you the traditional dos besitos (one kiss on each cheek). It’s different than what you’re used to, but you quickly start to love how friendly and just genuinely happy everyone seems to have you there.
The next few weeks are a learning process. True to your habit of showing up early to being early, you show up to things fifteen mintues before the scheduled start time and find yourself sitting there for the entire fifteen minutes before the other person rolls in at Whatever O’Clock on the dot. You wonder if everyone in the sala de profesores can hear your stomach growling near the end of the work day before the final bell rings at 2:30 – how in the world can these people subsist on nothing but a tostada and coffee all morning and not eat lunch until they get home?!? Maybe that’s why they’re so thin. After eating seemingly everything in your kitchen cabinets when you get home from work, you head out to buy more food, only to realize that everything is closed for the afternoon and will remain so until about 5 or 5:30. (And you thought the siesta was just a rumor.)
Eventually, the shiny new novelty of Living in Spain wears off as your life settles into a comfortable routine. You apply for your fancy schmancy TIE at the not-so-fancy schmancy immigration office and start to see going there as a necessary evil, emphasis on the “evil” (so many people. So many people who don’t know what deodorant is. So many people who refuse to do anything about their seven toddlers who are running around screaming). You’ll all but skip out the door when you leave for the last time
for several months until it’s time to renew FOR THE LAST TIME, TIE in hand. You’re an official card-carrying guiri now.
It’s not always easy. Even after your TIE is tucked securely into your wallet, you’ll live in perpetual, mild fear of doing anything even slightly wrong (oh, look, a police car in front of my apartment. Probably about to deport me because of that time earlier this week when I forgot to pay my gym membership on time and had to be gently reminded). Your face will burn red as you fumble around at store checkouts, the only place in Spain where things happen in a hurry, attempting to simultaneously bag your own groceries and search for the exact change that every single cashier seems to request. (At least one of these times, you’ll drop your wallet onto the floor and have to do the dreaded Crawl of Shame as you pick up your scattered euro coins while the line behind you gets longer and longer.) You’ll be more aware than ever of how you’re perceived, even in a situation as innocuous as going out to eat with new friends (slow down, Yankee the Hutt. No need to prove the “fat American” stereotypes true). Try as you might, you’ll still joder the Spanish language from time to time, like the time you accidentally cross the precarious linguistic line between telling somebody something (enterar, to inform) and putting them
six feet 1.8 meters under (enterrar, to bury).
But you’ll learn to laugh at yourself. You’ll find your people and maybe even your person. Your accent will disappear little by little, but you won’t even notice it until you’re waiting in line to talk to someone with another American friend (the person at the desk will speak in Spanish with you, but switch to English for your friend when he notices her unmistakeable accent). You’ll find yourself waiting until 9:30 p.m. to eat dinner even if you’re just staying home and cooking for yourself and technically nobody could stop you from eating at 7 if that’s what you wanted to do.
You can do this. You can start to make a life for yourself in a foreign country. And everything will be okay.