One Year Abroad: Making Changes, Finding Happiness, and Drinking Duff

Cafe Bohemia is situated adjacent to Plaza del Lobos, a small square with a fountain in which the bums cool their feet when the weather is hot. The front of the café is so nondescript that were it not for the few posters advertising jazz quartets, you could walk by without realizing that there is anything inside. As the name might betray, the Café Bohemia is a culture-enthusiast’s dream bar—floor to ceiling bookshelves cover the walls, pictures of Louis Armstrong, Paul Newman, and a hundred other great visages are all over the place, and there are several pianos scattered about. And I do mean several. Probably at least six.

As of last night, my girlfriend and I had been living in Granada for exactly one year, and we spent it at Café Bohemia with Eva and Pablo, both of whom are native to the city. After an hour or so of basic pleased-to-meet-you talk (we barely know Eva and we were meeting Pablo for the first time), the conversation shifted rather abruptly to what may be my favorite subject: world literature.

Eva likes Mexican and Latin American poets and does not like Flaubert (whose Salammbo I am currently wading into). Pablo’s favorite novel is Gogol’s Dead Souls. Both profess their appreciation for Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Neither has read Tropic of Cancer, but Eva enjoyed reading a French translation of Sexus (“Ooof! Erotic!”). Both consider Javier Marias a genius, which he is.

At some point a portly Spanish man sat at the piano nearest us and launched into a phantasmagoric rendition of “As Time Goes By”. Soon the song came to an end and the man went on to “Someone to Watch Over Me”. Pablo was listening intently, Ashlee and Eva were discussing American authors, and as I sat there sipping my Manhattan (a rather poor one, admittedly, drowned in sweet vermouth), I felt suddenly as if I had walked into a Woody Allen film.

Right then, in that moment, there wasn’t a thing in my life that wasn’t perfect. Every detail stood out with a razor sharp focus while simultaneously folding into a mottle of overlapping colors and sounds. The notes from the piano became inseparable from the bookshelves, which themselves were bleeding into the conversation which undulated from English to Spanish to French. For a moment I was awash in the pure psychedelia of living, and it required no sugar cube or toadstool to achieve it.

Hide and Seek

As of yesterday I had been in Spain for exactly one year, and as of today I am returning to the US in exactly one week. Looking back over my time in this great country (and it is a great country in the old sense of the word, the way Zanadu or the library of Alexandria were great), it is difficult to ascertain what I’ve learned from the experiences I’ve gathered.

There are, of course, the usual lessons that are derived from travel, but when I came to Granada I wasn’t new to setting out for foreign lands, so we’ll skip over those. Besides, I haven’t spent the past year traveling, really. I’ve basically stayed put in one place and become completely immersed in the local culture. I haven’t been clubbing and sightseeing and living out of a bag; I’ve been working and paying rent and going to friends’ apartments for dinner.

If I’ve learned anything important, it’s this: Life’s best moments are hidden, and they are contradictorily difficult and easy to find.

Just like in a game of hide-and-seek, if the seeker doesn’t look around he’s not going to find anything. Only by searching will he find the other players and stumble upon something that was obscured just a moment earlier.

It is exceedingly easy to stay in one place and build a life there, to surround yourself with the possessions that bring comfort and maintain the habits that build routine. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this form of living, but I think that most people would at least inwardly agree that something isn’t right about it.

There is a reason why so many Americans cope with varying levels of depression or anxiety. Something just isn’t right, but try as we might it’s hard to put our fingers on it. It just seems like things should be better, but we’re not exactly sure how. So instead of looking for what is right (and it’s different for everyone), we stay put, go through the motions, and drown out our disquiet with medication of one sort or another.

If what I’ve just described sounds familiar, let me pose this challenge to you: Do something difficult, something that completely shatters how your day-to-day life is modeled and forces you into unexpected, perhaps even uncomfortable situations. Move someplace that is completely different from where you live now. Change your job. Go back to school. Do whatever it takes to shake things up a bit (or a lot), and seek out the things that make you happiest. It can be difficult, but the hardship is worth the reward.

Over the course of my year in Granada, I’ve encountered many of the most blissful, transcendent experiences of my life. It was difficult to move here, incredibly so. But at the same time, it wasn’t difficult at all. All it took was going for it.

In one week I’ll be moving back to the US, which will be difficult as well. It’s expensive, time consuming, and exhausting. But it will also be easy.

I’m going to miss Granada, but I’m looking forward to shaking things up, to seeking and finding, to the eternal game of hide-and-seek. Playing the game here brought me to an outdoor dance party overlooking a castle, to swimming in the Mediterranean, to great friends, to nights like the one at Café Bohemia. I even got to drink a real Duff beer while watching the Simpsons (talk about goals achieved).

I’m excited to see what my next moves will bring.


7 thoughts on “One Year Abroad: Making Changes, Finding Happiness, and Drinking Duff

  • January 19, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    Its so great when you can do what you love. I’m so happy you have pursued an artistic existence in this chaotic world
    Congratulations 😉 and welcome home.

  • February 6, 2014 at 4:05 am

    Nice article.
    It’s a good lesson to learn, when one understands that the hide-and-seek game is not an obstacle on the road to fulfilment, but it is the very point of it all

    • February 7, 2014 at 11:09 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. The hide-and-seek game certainly is its own means to its own end.

  • February 7, 2014 at 6:15 am

    This is a great article! I love hearing the perspective of an expat experience deeply rooted in a single place and building a new home and community. What a great call to action–to shake things up and try something new, with the combination of difficulty and comforting transformation that accompanies bold action.

    • February 7, 2014 at 10:23 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Katie. Sometimes giving people a little push is all it takes to get them moving!

  • February 7, 2014 at 10:58 am

    It is really nice reading that you hardly travelled around when living in Spain. Becauase, as you mentioned, a place has A LOT to offer to you from having a café in the bar and seeing people passing by to walking down the not so famous streets and finding out how people live in your place.
    I’m glad you enjoyed your life in Spain and I’m sure you left your footprint in our country forever.

    • February 7, 2014 at 11:08 am

      I never understand when people travel and only spend a day or two in each city they visit. They never get to truly appreciate the culture. I spent some time living in Paris years ago, and when tourists would say they only have two days in the city, then ask what the absolutely have to see and do, I would tell them to find a good seat on a cafe terrace, order a drink, and watch people pass by. You’ll get a lot more out of it than you will from racing from tourist site to tourist site!


Leave a Reply