Living in Mexico has completed the slow shift we’ve been making from traveler to expat. When I started traveling I just wanted to see new places. I was collecting experiences and it didn’t matter that I was traveling quickly and perhaps missing out on other things, as long as I kept going somewhere new. It was fantastic, actually, I’m really lucky to have gotten to see so many corners of the globe. Having kids changed that, but not for the reasons you might think. Certainly we travel much slower now because of the kids, but really it was the way the world reacted to our children that changed us more than anything.
Suddenly with our first child, we weren’t invisible travelers, we were a couple with a kid. In that first year we quickly got used to people looking at us, getting into our personal space, and starting conversations with us. It felt weird at first, I had always been a quiet traveler, there just to see, to observe. People weren’t supposed to stop us on the street and get up close, putting their head almost on my shoulder to get a peek at my child in his sling.
It made us interact with people more, and it opened a lot of doors. I don’t know, maybe it’s just us, but it seems like since we’ve had kids, getting to know people locally has been so much easier. It has led us to wanting to slow down, to not miss that part of travel, to get to know people better, before we go to the next stop. It has changed the way we travel but I love it.
The Big Move
This year we decided to settle down in Barcelona in 2014. We’re going from travelers to expats to immigrants. There’s a distinction there, and I have started thinking of it as immigration because it captures an important shift in perspective. An expat is rooted in the fact that they are not home. An immigrant is chosing a new one. Or at least that’s how I think about it for me. I know everyone has their own relationship with the place they live… sometimes it changes over time. I think of this as an immigration because this time, for the first time, we’re making a home.
Expatriate: One who has taken up residence in a foreign country.
Immigrant: A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.
This is such a huge difference and I’m lucky because my children will make it so much easier. We’ll be part of the community through their school and the other parents. They pull people into our lives, they adapt to everything, they jump in and splash around and as their parent, I need to jump in too.
This year, I want to jump.
This is my biggest adventure, and it’s oh so domestic and normal: rent an apartment, find a pediatrician, register with the local government, enroll Cole in school, get internet installed, furnish our apartment and make some friends with families who live nearby and have kids the same age. Maybe go to the zoo on the weekend.
It sounds almost exactly like what my friends back home are all doing, they even have a school lottery system (joy!) like they do in Boston, where we’d be if we didn’t leave all those years ago.
Except one thing: Barcelona is in Catalonia, a bilingual part of Spain that uses either Spanish or Catalan on the street and ONLY Catalan in the schools and government.
It’s daunting but I’ve always wanted an adventure like the one in the book (I know many of you have read this one): Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain, about Chris Stewart’s move to Andalucia, where he buys a small farm and is completely in over his head, figuring out his way through the paperwork and culture, dealing with crazy locals and helpful neighbors, wrong-headedly trying to do this his own way, and slowly but surely figuring it all out.
I want my memoir year. The one where I just dive right in and do it. I march into the city hall and get my residency papers boldly using whatever Catalan I can stitch together. I want to cook however the local moms cook and buy my produce from the weekend markets. I want to wear knee-high boots in the winter and scarves artfully tied around my neck all-year-round. Will our kids play in the plaza until midnight while we nosh on tapas? Will we live in Barcelona proper or the more family friendly Sant Cugat? Will I find my Catalan BFF and we’ll watch trashy telenovelas while drinking wine? Are these all clichés? Will we love it? Will the kids learn Catalan? Will Drew and I? I think so, I hope, I mean I really don’t know.
I feel like Barcelona is my chance to re-do all the times I hesitated when I traveled. When I didn’t learn Thai in Thailand or I skipped seeing parts of India. It’s my chance to travel in the way I thought travel would be in 2008 when we moved to Madrid but we were too shell-shocked to truly appreciate it. Moving somewhere and committing to that culture, embracing it and letting go of your own way of doing this. There’s a certain travel-purity to doing it right — to be that person who strikes up conversations wherever they go, to try new things without missing a beat, to be almost child-like in their curiosity and openness.
I thought my word for 2014 would be JUMP. But I changed my mind. It’s OPEN.
Luckily I have Cole and Stella: two small guides to lead the way.