What can happen in six months? As it turns out, for us, six months has meant visiting over twenty cities in six countries, having hosted about six friends in Barcelona, and having relished in six local holiday celebrations and festivals.
As a special treat for this momentous occasion, I’m featuring a Q&A with Grant so you can hear his perspective at this milestone. At the end of this post, I’ve shared some of my own reflections since having left U.S. soil in April.
M: Tell us about the funniest memory you have so far from our time in Europe.
G: I thought it was funny that time when we went to the Mexican restaurant, and you ordered a tamale. Then it came, and they put it down in front of you, and it looked like a quesadilla. We were very confused. I’m pretty sure this is a quesadilla. We asked the waiter, “She ordered the tamales. I think this is the quesadilla.” He’s like, “No, no, no, that’s right,” and he walks away. We start to question everything. We’re just like, you know maybe in Spain a quesadilla is actually a tamale, they just call them different things. We were convinced. It’s funny how being in a new place can make you question things that you know really well.
M: What’s been your favorite place to visit?
G: Portugal, I would say. Specifically, I really liked the Quinta da Regaleira that was outside of Sintra. I went with you and Kelly, and I lost you guys at one point. And…I’m going to be honest, it did not bother me at all. I just ran around that entire place until well after it closed, because it was just so cool, and I loved exploring it.
M: Tell us about the most embarrassing cultural fauxpaux moment that has happened.
G: I was at the climbing gym a couple weeks ago, and after I climbed, I was going to leave. There was this little girl standing in front of the only door. She’s like maybe four or five, really small, just standing there in front of the door. I walk up to her, and I kind of look at her, and she looks back at me. Then I try to pantomime that I want to get out of the door, but she’s not getting it. She’s just staring at me. I realize I have no idea how to speak to this girl in Catalan or Spanish to ask her if I can get by. So I’m just standing there, completely blocked by this four year old. What am I going to do? Do I just go back in and climb some more? How am I going to escape? Then I realized that her mom was standing in line, and she saw what was going on. Then she sort of stood there and laughed at me a little bit. Then she called her daughter over, and she left, and I got out. It was funny how something that was so simple could completely foil me.
M: What’s the best food or dish you have tasted so far (and you can’t say dinner tonight just to flatter me)?
G: I would say patatas bravas. I’ve gone whole hog for patatas bravas. I’ll order it basically at all the places in Barcelona, and they all have them, even if it’s not on the menu. You just say, “I would like some patatas bravas,” and they’re like “Sure.” One time we were hiking and we went to this pizza place after we were done, and all they had on the menu was pizza and beer. We were like, “We’d like some patatas bravas,” and he doesn’t even bat an eye. He’s like, “Ok, vale, vale, vale, vale, bravas.” So I really enjoy that. Also nata. I enjoyed nata in Portugal – that was delicious.
M: …and we have a nata place here in Barcelona.
G: We do, but we haven’t been yet, because it closes way too early. An after-dinner nata sounds like the most amazing thing, but basically it would have to be open until midnight for that to work in Spain.
M: What is the worst food or dish you have tasted so far?
G: I had this paella once that had pig ear in it. I tried some, but it was just rubbery and gross. The entire time I’m eating it I’m thinking, pig ear is basically the chew toy we would give to our dogs growing up. Now I’m eating it. I honestly don’t know what they saw in it. It’s not great.
M: How have you adjusted to life without full-time work?
G: Shockingly quickly. It’s funny because I worked at Meraki for like four or five years, and over time you accumulate all these things in the back of your head of like oh, I’d really like to work on this some day or we could fix this and make it better. I think after a week, they were gone. I had one time when I had a dream of some library that was going to solve some problem we had, and that was it. It’s sort of surprising to have spent so long on something, and all of a sudden, to have it just be completely gone from your brain.
All of that energy, when you’re working at a place, if you enjoy what you’re doing, goes into, “How can I make this thing that I’m working on better?” All your new ideas are in the context of this one thing that you’re trying to solve or provide or do. A lot of that energy now is directed at, “What are the things in my life now that I wish were different? How will the Internet solve this for me?”
M: What has been the best day in the last 6 months?
G: I would say when we went to Switzerland, and we did the Cheese-Chocolate hike. I really enjoyed that. The countryside was beautiful. We were walking next to cows, and we got to be like, “Hi cows.” There were castles, and fondue, and more chocolate – I really enjoyed that day of hiking around Switzerland.
M: What has been the worst day so far?
G: Going to Cinque Terre was the worst nightmare trip ever, because it was a series of unfortunate events. Well, for starters, we thought we were going to catch the 6am train from Milan to Cinque Terre because we wanted to get an early start and it’s a three hour train ride. But that was totally unrealistic. We made it to the train station just barely, through some combination of running and jumping on random buses that we hoped went in the right direction. We just barely made it, but we didn’t have time to buy our tickets. So I bought a different ticket online that was the same price and an hour and half later. We got on the train. Then the guy comes by, and he’s like, “This ticket isn’t valid. If it was within an hour, then you could change it for €5, but because it’s more than an hour, you have to pay like €200″, or something ridiculous. So that was annoying. Then we got there and it was like 50°; it was so hot.
M: 50°C, you mean.
G: Yeah, Meg, we live in Europe. Use celsius, like the rest of the freakin’ world. Quick, what is 50°C in fahrenheit?
Ahh, I don’t know. 40°C is 100°F, right?
G: Uh, something like that. I thought it was like 42. I could be wrong.
[Editor’s note: We were both wrong. 50°C is 122°F and 37°C is 100°F]
Anyway, it was so hot. There were so many people, because this was in the middle of summer. I think you just need to never go to the touristy spots in Italy in the summer. Then the whole point of going there is that there’s this trail, and you walk between these five towns, that’s why it’s called the Cinque Terre. The trail was closed. So we couldn’t take it; we had to take the train instead. But all these tourists were also forced to take the train. We waited through two trains and could not get on, because it was so crowded. Eventually we got on.
M: We also missed our pesto-making course.
G: Oh yeah, our pesto-making course was in the next town. It should have been easy to get to, because it’s like a 15-minute walk on that trail. But there’s no other way besides the trail between these two towns; you have to take the train. Because we couldn’t get onto those two trains, we missed the class that we had already pre-paid for. Yeah, it was just bad.
On the flip side, we ended up taking the train all the way to the last town, skipped the other three, and then we did wine tasting there, so we recovered pretty well. Except then our train back was horribly delayed. We show up with more than enough time. We were early for this one because we didn’t want to miss it. And then that train was two and a half hours late. But not like oh it’s two and half hours late, go do something and come back – every fifteen minutes it would say it’s coming in fifteen minutes…for two and a half hours. I was so annoyed at the Italian train system that they could penalize me for paying the correct amount for a ticket at a slightly different time and then they could have a train that was two hours late.
M: What do you miss the most about the United States?
G: Umm, burritos. And Papalote salsa. Papalote burritos is the thing that I miss the most. Also, the free water that they give you at restaurants – I miss that. They don’t do that here, and it’s really annoying. You have to buy it, and it costs like €2, which is somehow offensive for water, and it’s the tiniest half-liter thing. I miss free water.
M: Beer is cheaper than the water.
G: That’s true. But sometimes you want water. Just a giant glass of ice water. And you can’t get it – it’s not a thing.
M: What’s the best thing about Spanish culture?
G: I think the thing that I enjoy the most is Gracia, our neighborhood here. I like the way that it’s mostly closed off to cars. The roads are fairly narrow, and there’s lots of restaurants and shops, and people just walk all over. I would have said that San Francisco was a walkable city, because it’s relatively small and you can get around. But it has nothing on Gracia, where you’re just in this tiny little area and you can walk around. It feels almost like I would imagine a village does in the 1800s.
M: What’s the hardest thing about living in a foreign country?
G: I think for me, the hardest thing is probably the language. I feel like in my day to day life, I know enough, and enough people know English, that I’m able to function. But there are times when I run into situations, like with that little girl, where it’s like I am woefully insufficient here. Or anytime we want to go to someplace and order something specific, or call our electricity provider and say that there’s a problem. Those things, they’re difficult because you have to have this vocabulary to be able to do it, and you can’t pantomime over the phone to some guy who works for the Spanish equivalent of PG&E.
M: Any big lessons from traveling so far?
G: I think the big thing that I’ve learned from traveling is that it’s better to not always have a plan. I think we’ve started narrowing in on this balance where, we’ll have a rough idea of what cities we want to go to, and maybe we’ll have some airbnb’s, but we won’t have an itinerary. I really like that. I really like being able to get to a place and then say what do you want to do tomorrow? What looks cool? What’d you see today that you wish you could have seen more of?
It’s interesting, when we were first traveling, I would do so much research about the practical things – when we get to the airport, how do we get to the city center? How do we get to our airbnb? Is there a metro or bus? How much do the tickets cost? How do you buy the tickets? I wanted to have that first little bit figured out. And now, we’ll fly into cities and be like, how do we get to the airbnb? I don’t know! We’ll figure it out. A bunch of people are going that way, we’ll just go that way.
Travel hasn’t made me particularly introspective. When we’re going other places, I’m feeling in the moment. But I have realized that it’s something that I really enjoy. I mean, everybody enjoys going on vacation. But I would be sad if after this year, we went back to real life and only had two weeks of vacation a year for the next 30 years or something. I think I’ve realized that I want to find a way to travel more, to live abroad more, even if it’s for shorter times and in other places.
Oh, and always get a SIM card for your phone. That’s the practical advice.
M: What’s it been like living in a small apartment with your wife and spending more than two hours a day with her?
G: Far worse than you could ever imagine. No, it’s been fine. It is interesting from going to seeing each other a couple hours in the evening to seeing each other all the time.
M: Tell me more about that…
G: Which part? And why did that sound like a threat?
Also I do like the small apartment thing. I feel like my natural tendency is not to have a ton of things. I don’t like a lot of clutter. The small apartment forces that on us. It also puts an upper bound on our messiness. You and I tend to scatter things everywhere until it becomes unbearable… and then clean. Which is roughly a two day cycle in this apartment because it’s so small.
How did you think it was going to be – us spending this much time together? Did you think it was going to be the best thing in the world, did you think our relationship was going to implode?
M: I didn’t think we’d be spending this much time together. I just thought we’d each do our own thing. Or I thought that we were going to start to work on something together. So I thought about us spending time together in that context. I was always worried about how hard it would be to meet people – like friends here. And I think that was an accurate fear, because it’s kind of like you’re asking people to get emotionally involved with you when you know you’re not going to be there forever. Who wants to be someone’s friend for like a year? Mostly we’re friends with other people who are drifters as well.
G: Yeah, fellow gypsies.
M: But I’ve actually really enjoyed the time that we’ve spent together. I feel like I know you even better than I did before. Do you feel like you know me even better?
G: Well, I already felt like I had you pretty much all figured out to begin with. I’m seeing new behaviors and desires that I’m learning.
M: Like what?
G: You’ve always been a little bit more high-strung…in the best way possible, obviously. I always thought that was like this innate thing about Meg, a thing that was just what a Meg was. But it’s been interesting here, because the Spanish culture moves slower, and because we’re unemployed, that I’ve noticed that you’ve slowed down a lot more. You seem less like, “We need to figure out x, y, and z.” It’s moved you more towards being relaxed and winging things…you’re coming over to the dark side, a little bit.
M: Is this time everything you dreamed it would be?
G: It hasn’t gone exactly the way that I would have pictured it, but I have enjoyed myself immensely, so in that sense, yes, it’s been a great lifetime experience.
M: How is it different than you thought it would be?
G: I’ve enjoyed relaxing time a lot more than I thought I would. I thought I would be very restless and wanting to be doing things all the time. I thought I would have the same kind of energy I had when we were working full-time and also doing a bunch of things for fun. I kind of thought that the same level of busyness would carry over, just the subject matter would change. But I think it’s actually slowed down a lot. We still travel and see places, but we also spend a lot of time relaxing, reading, playing DOTA, things like that. I was surprised by that.
M: What is the #1 place on your list to visit next?
G: I really want to go to Ireland. Seems like it’s very pretty, and also it has castles.
M: What do you say to people who ask, “When are you coming back?”
G: I keep telling them that it will be around April/May of next year, because that will be a year, and that’s what we said. Nobody ever believes me though. They fall into one of two camps: 1) You’re never coming back. You’re just going to live in Europe forever. OR… 2) They’re shocked. I know you said a year, but I didn’t think you’d actually do it, as if they thought we were going to become broke and have to come back. Or get tired of the culture and miss home. Challenge accepted.
The next thing is the next big phase in our life. It’s a little bit like when you graduate from college, and you don’t have a job yet. In 6 months, I’m graduating and I don’t know exactly where I’m going to be, where I’m going to be living, what I’m going to be doing. I’m excited, but I’m not really sure what’s coming next, even though I have some thoughts about what would be nice. It feels a little bit like that.
My biggest takeaway from having lived in Spain and taking time off of work has been the realization that I can really design my own life. Before, I felt like I was on a conveyor belt track that was just taking me to the next “stage”. Moving to Spain was like jumping off the conveyor belt. I’ve seen how life can be done differently. As part of that process, my priorities are re-arranging.
I also don’t feel like I have to know everything. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said or thought “I don’t know” since I’ve left the U.S. It is ok to say “I don’t know.” It is ok to not be the best – or want to be the best – at everything. Some things in life are meant to just be savored and enjoyed as they are.
Traveling has kept me in this state of sharp freshness. Every day brings new experiences that keep me raw, keep me feeling alive. There is something about first’s that awaken my soul. I know this won’t last forever – but I am interested to know what the constant tilling of my soul will yield in the future.
I am happy – filled with a joy, freedom, and peace that can only be God-given. I feel like I have shed so many unnecessary layers in my life. I have shined the light on monsters of anxiety, and I know that I will be ok. On one hand I feel like I have more control to have the life I want, and on the other hand, I feel that I have a lot less control than I think – and that’s ok. To not worry about tomorrow – that is truly the gift of this time for me.
When my cousin Mahlon tragically passed away a few years ago, I learned that your world can change in an instant. Nothing is ever guaranteed, not even our next moment. Living in Spain has shown me the positive side of that – you never know where life will take you or what goodness you have yet to discover in the world. It gives me hope for what’s ahead.