I've had this post on my mind for months now, ever since I couldn't decide whether or not to engage with people when I knew we only had a few weeks left in Madrid. It came up again with a couple who knew that we were leaving in a few days, and yet had us over for a gorgeous meal, knowing full well that they may never see us again. And then two girls came to our community group right before we left and I thought, "What's the point in talking to them? We're about done with this."
And all these thoughts about living somewhere that you know you won't call home for long but choosing to be invested anyways - and how it's REALLY HARD - started swirling around in my head as I rode escalators down into the ground to take Metros around the city and as I arrived early for classes and sat on benches in the pre-spring air.
So even though right now I'm not living abroad (in fact, I'm very much in the city that I've called home for a few years, with fantastic views of Pikes Peak and family and friends all around), I can recall the thoughts and the feelings without too much trouble.
When you're far away from home, from familiar faces and foods, sometimes it's easier to stay in a comfort bubble. Evenings and weekends can be easily filled with screen time, browsing social media, eating in, and basically pretending like you're in your country of origin, either by your lonesome or with whoever you came with (roommate, spouse, etc). And, to be fair, none of those things are bad! We did those things sometimes, and sometimes quite a lot. We had to fight against some of them sometimes, because we didn't move to Europe to just scroll through Instagram and just keep cooking our favorite recipes. I wanted new experiences, I wanted a change, I wanted to try new foods, and I wanted to meet new people. I wanted to learn and to grow and in some ways, to be a different person. That wasn't going to happen by just doing the same ol' same ol', but in a different location.
That's where the intentionality comes in, because it's so easy for that to happen. It's so easy to go to work, to come home, to make supper, to settle in to a routine and to think, well this isn't so bad. But it's also probably kind of lonely, and before long it's really lonely, and life isn't very rich and vibrant, because where are all the people?
One of our first friends in Madrid outside of our TEFL class came from a train. We were riding home from Avila, and a guy came and sat on the seats across from us and said, "Hey, I heard you speaking English, where are you from?" We chatted the rest of the way back to Madrid, realized we were both going to Porto, Portugal the next weekend, where we met up and toured the city together, and he turned into one of our best friends in Spain! We shared Thanksgiving dinner together, as well as lots of digestives and cups of tea on future catch-up nights. Now we're all back in the States, but sure hope that our paths will cross again.
Sam could have mustered up his courage, said hi to us, and found out we were just on vacation in Spain for a few days. It might have made for some interesting conversation for 15 minutes or less or maybe more, but instead it turned into something great. Or even worse, we could've been unengaging or rude and made for an uncomfortable ride back into the city.
I remember seeing a couple that I'd never seen before at church one Sunday and being so excited - there were no other couples anywhere close to our age attending at the time! I went to talk with them, only to find out that one of them was from Sweden and one of them was from Spain, but they were living in Belgium, and just visiting Madrid for the weekend. They were kind and interesting, though, and I while I was disappointed that they weren't going to be our new BFFs in Madrid, it was worth the effort to make them feel welcome and get to know them on their visit to our church.
I think what I really want to say, though, is that it's easier to stay at home. It's easier to stay in your seat, looking out the window or reading on your Kindle. It's easier to assume that people are visitors or they won't stick around. It will be less painful to not get involved, to stay at a distance, to not be known. It takes a bit of bravery and intentionality to make connections and to realize that you may only get to have this person in your life for one or two weeks or months. Because when people are native English speakers in a non-English speaking land, that's often the reality - you never know who's coming or going or just passing through. It's such a transient community and it's hard for me to want to put myself out there 100% because I know people aren't going to stick around (including, of course, myself).
But believe me - it's better than the alternative. I keep preaching that to myself, that it's better, it's so much better. It's worth it. Those late night laughs over digestives dunked in cups of tea (because who wants to buy mugs when your time abroad is short!), and shared plates of dumplings with our fellow classmates and English teachers, those are some of our best memories of Madrid.
One memory that I briefly mentioned at the beginning, but that I've been reliving for the past two months, is a dinner we had at a couple's apartment the week before we left Madrid. They made a fantastic meal, and even though they found out after they had extended the invitation to have us over that we were leaving just days later, they didn't back out. We stayed till after midnight, till it was questionable whether we'd be able to take the Metro home (they stop running at 1:30am), and we all felt so very Spanish with our late night hang out. Even though we parted by saying/hoping we'd see one another in the fall (they're in Madrid this year from January - December), none of us really knew for sure. It was one of the best nights I'd had in a long time, probably because there was just so much thoughtfulness put into everything and it really felt like they cared and they wanted to know us.
She and I have stayed in touch throughout our time in Scotland and now that we're back in the States, through the news that our church is closing next month we're dreaming a little about what that might look like and how we can keep journeying together. How can we keep on being intentional now that we're not in the same city so that once we're together again it's like no time has passed? How can we keep supporting each other when we're an ocean away? (Okay, that's definitely a post of it's own.)
All this doesn't come easy to me. Being naturally introverted, I like spending time alone or just with Danny or with small groups of people. I don't think anyone has ever called me a "people person," but I do know that connecting with people makes life more meaningful.
Sharing meals together is one of my favorite things, and our community group did it so well this year. Our first three months in Madrid, while full of exploration and wonder and asking ourselves, "Are we seriously living in Europe right now?!" were hard and a little lonely, but not as bad for me, because see above: introverted. Our last three were so different. We found people and a place to belong and every Thursday night we knew where we were going to be. In the big group part, I tend to blend into the background, but in the mingling and the eating, I get to chat with people one-on-one, to share food and to share stories.
If/when we return to Madrid in the fall, we will likely only know a handful of people. Turnover is real and it's constant. Our church will no longer be in existence, nor will our community group, so we'll return a little bit like we first came - pretty much at square one. We'll have to be more intentional than ever since we won't have built-in friends from our TEFL class. We might have to be the ones taking cues from Sam and approaching people on trains.
We saw amazing sights in Spain and Scotland and beyond in the past 7.5 months. Cathedrals, monuments, museums, rivers, lakes, and seas, but some of the best times we had were with people. I don't want to miss out this year, so I want to do my best to intentionally spend time knowing people and investing in relationships. Whether people are around for a few minutes or the whole year, I don't want to be concerned with that, I want to try my best to be all in.