The Intentional Expat

Living Your Best Life Abroad

Walking the Walk: Why Was It So Life Changing?

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For the past six weeks, each Thursday (in honor of #TBT, “Throw Back Thursday),  I’ve been sharing blog posts that I wrote back in 2013 regarding everything I learned on my week long trip along Spain’s El Camino de Santiago during Spring Break (Semana Santa) 2013.

 In Part 1 of the series, I hinted on the fact that it had been a life changing experience. Today I’d like to explain just why that was. I wrote those posts when I was going through a particularly difficult time in life and in order to get through it I did what I’ve always done during moments of emotional turmoil: I turned to writing to help me to make sense of things. By reflecting on my experience on “El Camino” through my writing, I was able to recall some of the important lessons I learned along that weeklong journey and this ultimately helped me to continue on through the darkness until I arrived at the end of that particular emotional journey:    

 Today I’m concluding the series with part 7, a post I wrote in April 2014 providing a summary of what happened in the year following that trip on El Camino.

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 I’m sitting out on the tiny balcony outside of my bedroom with a cup of tea and enjoying something I rarely get to experience living here in the very center of this capital city: peace and quiet. There is hardly anyone out on the streets on this Thursday morning even though it’s already 11:30am. Now, this could be partially due to Real Madrid’s big win last night and the fact that there was no peace and quiet to be found on the streets until very early in the morning, but it’s more likely due to the fact that it’s Holy Week in Spain and today is the first day of obligatory holidays, which means almost all Spaniards are heading off to their village, or if they’re lucky enough, to the beach. I, however, have opted to stay in Madrid.

And being here at home gives me a chance to reflect on just how much my life has changed in the short year that has passed since spring break 2013. Last year I spent the week leading up to Easter hiking the last 100km of the Camino de Santiago, the once religious pilgrimage that now beckons thousands of tourists each year to see what all the fuss is about. I learned a great deal about perseverance, patience, and my own personal strength during those mere five days that I walked along the muddy trails in Galicia. And when I arrived in Santiago, I took the stone from my pocket that I’d been carrying along the way and whispered my wish/prayer/desire (whatever you’d like to call it) and surprised myself with the words that came into my head. I just want everything to work out. What did that even mean?

Only now, one year later, can I even begin to crack the surface of the weight carried by those words. I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was deeply unhappy with my life at the moment and making Herculean efforts to ignore this fact.  Maybe it was all the moments for reflection on the long walk that week that had finally given my heart the chance to be heard again, even though it was just the tiniest of whispers at first. Maybe it was the fact that after enduring a great deal of physical pain that week thanks to a foot full of blisters, I felt more open to tuning into the psychic pain I was experiencing. Who knows, but I made the wish, left my stone next to a pillar in the plaza in front of the Cathedral of Santiago and went off to do what all good pilgrims do after walking for so long: eat, drink and be merry.

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 And on Monday I headed back to my everyday reality where I once again wondered what in the world I could have possibly thought I was unhappy about. I was pursuing my dreams. Living in the country I’d always wanted to call home. I’d learned another language, had work opportunities, was just about to finish my master’s (in another language!). I had friends, a boyfriend who took such good care of me and his family had adopted me as part of their family. I was preparing to run my first 5K and to present research at my first conference here in Spain. All that walking had obviously given me too much time to think. My life was good and was about to get even better because I had a nine week vacation to Seattle that was fast approaching where I’d be making my way halfway around the world to help out my little sister with last minute wedding prep and enjoy all of the festivities.

And life did get even better. I was a star at the research conference and defended my master’s thesis (with flying colors). For the first time since moving to Spain five years earlier I had the chance to spend the Fourth of July stateside with my closest friends from home. I ran my first 5K with my entire immediate family, and experienced a once in a lifetime event when I saw Paul McCartney in concert and the surviving members of Nirvana made a surprise performance with him. And then a miracle happened. My ex-boyfriend from college called me to meet up for coffee at which point he showered me with compliments and asked me to forgive him for all the pain he’d caused me. And not because he wanted to get back together. What? In what sort of a world does this outpouring of vulnerability, honesty and kindness happen? Not to mention the fact that I was so way over all that pain he’d caused me. C’mon, that was eight years ago. I had moved on, my life was great, I lived in one of the best cities in the world. Life couldn’t get any better.

Well, what I didn’t know at that time was that life could indeed get a whole heck of a lot better. Nor did I know that first, it was going to have to get so much worse. And it took this turn for the worst only two days later when my boyfriend at the time surprised me and so many others by breaking up with me. I will not go into the details here of exactly what happened, just to say that I absolutely did not see this coming at that moment, but that months later I am now able to say that my wisest self (which is probably the part of me who had made such a wish after completing the Camino) was not the least bit surprised. That’s the part of me who can sit here smugly on my balcony one year later and say “told you so.” And I have so much visible proof in my life right now of the fact that this was absolutely the best thing that could have happened to me, that all I can do is put my stubbornness to the side for a moment and acknowledge that “yes, yes, you were absolutely, without a doubt so very right.”

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I met many AWE-some people this year who convinced me to step out of my comfort zone and try new things: like skiing and wakeboarding (ok…I only made it to “kneeboarding”)

The past few months have been absolutely amazing. I feel like I had been building this giant, wobbly, fairly ugly lego tower of a life, which I also didn’t like very much, but which I refused to step back and reflect upon to see if there was something I’d like to change, if something I was doing was possibly to blame for the unstable state of the structure. Or, even the possibility that perhaps I would like to knock it all down and start over again. No way was I going to do that!… I had started, dammit, and when I start something I am going to finish it! But, then life came along and kicked my tower over and oh my god, now not only was my tower RUINED but I had a huge mess to clean up and I didn’t even remember which blocks I’d put first and second and…I was absolutely overwhelmed. But in cleaning up this mess of a life, I also learned more than I could have ever imagined. I had so many people come into my life during this time. Some of them had already been there and showed me what great friends they were and others were new people who appeared when I least expected it. Sometimes it was just a perfectly timed conversation that shed a little light on what I was going through and other times it was the first of many conversations that would lead us to the friendships I now share with them months later.

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I fell in love with swing dancing over the past year!

And now that I wasn’t so focused on building this precarious tower, I could step back, take a deep breath and ask “what is important to ME?” And to my surprise I found that what sustains me are the very things I let fall to the wayside during the past two years, and the very things in which I have always, for my entire life, found joy–writing, dancing, finding a balance between good conversation and me-time, and learning. It makes me laugh now to think about it because this is the exact lesson of my favorite book of all time, “The Alchemist,” we can go searching the whole world wide for our treasure, but in the end it is within us all the time.

 I think I was so unhappy because I wasn’t being authentic. I felt like I’d been blessed with an amazing life and I was spending so much energy trying to make it work that I couldn’t even consider the possibility that despite all its goodness– it just wasn’t the life for me. And this has been a lesson that’s been so hard for my stubborn self to accept. It is not failure to admit that something you’ve committed to is not working. If the towers we are building can’t stand up on their own, if we do not find joy in the continued action of creating them, and most of all if they do not allow us to be authentic and honest with ourselves, then kicking them over and starting new is what we have to do. The truly courageous can accept that something is not working and have faith that something even better awaits them.

So here I am, one year after asking that things would work out and I have learned the invaluable lesson that they will. It will all work out. Life is not that difficult when it comes down to it. I don’t know how or why, but I fully believe that if we really listen to our hearts, if we are authentic and true to ourselves, then we will always have the answers we need to take the next step. And when we are on the road that was meant for us, building that tower that we are excited about and which allows us to be US, then it will all work out. And it will probably be even better than our wildest dreams.

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A little over a year after El Camino I went to Santander for the first time with a group of friends I hadn’t known a year earlier. It was an amazing weekend that helped me remember something else about me…I love the water!

I find myself constantly laughing these days at how I felt back in September when I was so full of anxiety, and loneliness and fear. Because now it seems so far away. At that time, I didn’t know where I was headed, or how it was all going to come together, but I knew I had to start letting my heart have a voice again and it whispered to me to go back to Spain. And I did. I got on the plane, got upgraded to first class, which made it hard to deny that I was on the right path, and since then I’ve let my heart take the reins and lead the way. And now,  after 4.5 years of living in Madrid I can finally say that–I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

Yes, I absolutely have moments still where I am sideswiped by homesickness and fear of never living close to my family again. But fear is what kept me in a life that wasn’t working for me, that made me forget about the most important person in my life-ME. So now my heart, my inner wisdom, is the only one who has any authority around here. Fear is still running around, doing cartwheels, screeching…really anything it can to get my attention. And I see it, I do. But I don’t have time for it. Because I’m too busy being in this moment. Having coffee on one of my favorite outdoor cafes. Writing this blog. Smiling with gratitude at the people who have come into my life. We’ve only got one life to live. I’m going to live mine being me.

 Since I wrote this post back in April 2014, things have only continued to get better and I now know that even when they’re hard I’ll get through them, and learn and grow from the experience.

 Thanks to everyone who has been following along the past few Thursdays for these reflections along “El Camino de Santiago.” If you’ve ever considered embarking on this journey yourself, I absolutely encourage you to do it. You don’t need to commit to doing the entire thing, my experience is proof that even 100km can be enough to get you in touch with your wisest self and maybe even change your life.

it's going to be worth it

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Author: Melissa

Born in the rainy, green Northwestern corner of the United States, Melissa relocated to the almost-always-sunny city of Madrid, Spain five years ago. After getting her master's degree, traveling to places her friends at home drooled about, falling in love with a Spaniard, and having her heart broken by said Spaniard, it's safe to say that she's learned firsthand about the less than glamorous side of living abroad. Thankfully, she gets to use this experience, along with her professional expertise, in her work as a mental health therapist in Madrid where she helps other expats learn to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of living abroad. This blog is designed to be informative and is in no way intended to serve as a substitute for therapy.

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