Sex, Booze and Phrasal Verbs: Part II of my life in Madrid
Well, I’m back.
Did you miss me?
The other day I started a sort of online memoir to celebrate my 13th Spainiversary. An introduction to my life in Madrid.
You can check it out here: Days and nights of love, wine and cholesterol.
After I finshed, I went to Cuenca – one of my favorite Spanish cities – for a little break.
In the meantime, I was shocked at how many people responded positively to my stories of youthful heartbreak and debauchery.
So many people wanted to know more… More about my life in Madrid, about how I became a pro blogger and especially about all my Marias (god bless them).
I thought I had written a sort of neutral piece about what life was like a million years ago back in ’04.
But people just latched onto the fact of my amazing sex life, and – apparently – loved it.
So I’m back for part two.
In any case – this time, I promise…
There will be much less sex.
The not-so-glorious year of 2009 is when the excitement of living in Spain started to wear off.
The economic crisis seemed to be grinding on and on – little did we know at the time that it was just beginning.
I was as sick as anyone else of being broke, and had an easy solution in mind: just raise my prices.
I put a classified ad in the newspaper (remember classified ads? remember newspapers?) offering my private lessons for 25€ an hour and got exactly one taker – a countess or something who lived in Barrio Salamanca.
Yeah, Spain has real countesses.
It’s a thing.
While her white-gloved servant brought me glass after glass of mineral water on a real silver platter, she’d tell me about the problems facing the titled nobility in the 21st century.
I’d cry a silent tear for the countesses and duchesses and their hardscrabble lives, then take the metro back to Vallecas to count the contents of my secret money sock.
Our classes lasted about 6 weeks, if I recall. She had way too much going on. (Lunch with the Queen? Riding lessons in La Moraleja? I seem to have forgotten.)
Anyway, I guess countesses can be kinda flaky too.
Nobody else took me up on the 25€ an hour thing…
So it was on to Plan B.
Ha! Who am I kidding?
There was no plan B.
I had my money sock. That would keep me alive for a while.
Soon it was June and all my students were too busy going to the pool or the beach to be bothered with English class.
My girlfriend at the time, Mariglia (silent GL, remember) wanted to go home to Italy for the summer.
“Why not?” I thought.
It was a disaster. But learned a lot.
I learned how to speak (or at least understand) her bizarre central Italian dialect – imagine Yogi Bear suddenly coming down with Tourette’s syndrome and screaming obscenities while flailing his arms menacingly… but in Italy.
That’s about what it sounded like.
Pretty far from “standard Italian” in any case.
I also learned how to have (very occasional) extra-quiet sex while la Mamma was in the next room making ravioli. No sharing bedrooms until you’re married, apparently, in the deeply Catholic Mediterranean.
It was just like being a teenager again.
And just like when I was a teenager, I once again had to deal with mind-numbing levels of boredom. Boredom like I hadn’t experienced since years before, back in Arizona.
Small town life. Oh well.
It wasn’t all bad.
I had some great meals, drank some bad wine, and discovered that there are rednecks in Europe too.
Anyway, back in Madrid that autumn I started teaching at a large media company.
It was also around that time that I got my first computer.
And when I say “got” I mean that a friend abandoned it at my place when she left Spain – it was too broken to be worth taking with her, but usable enough for me.
(I was still dead broke, remember, and computer ownership was something I could barely contemplate affording on my own.)
That autumn, I realized the sad truth – I was 27 years old and basically a total failure at everything I had ever tried.
In any case, I had an internet connection.
Smart kid that I was, I googled “how to improve your life” or some such and suddenly…
Down the rabbit hole of self help I went.
I sat in my creaky chair all that autumn and went through every pirated Tony Robbins cassette tape I could find on eMule. (Remember eMule?)
At this point I remember very little of the actual content – what I do remember is that Tony told me to set bigger goals.
You can go through your whole life thinking “All I want is to pay my stupid bills.” But if you do that, guess what?
That’s all you’ll ever achieve.
On the other hand, if you set your mind on something bigger, and dedicate yourself to improving things just a little bit every day, eventually the results will astonish you.
That last point seems obvious, but nobody had ever told me that growing up.
The education system, my parents, and all the “reasonable adults” back on the ranch seemed to be suffering from a serious case of Fixed Mindset – I was told at age 8 that I sucked at art, told at age 10 not to even bother being a writer.
After that, all that was left was hoping to hold down some intensely boring job in a cubicle somewhere… Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, every week until I die.
The only problem was that I was sort of a rebel.
And I was pretty much constantly told that if I couldn’t “straighten up and fly right” – read: eliminate all traces of my actual personality to become better meat for the corporate grinder – I wouldn’t be able to do the cubicle thing either.
Moving to Spain without a work permit removed any possibility of me getting a serious corporate job. And Tony Robbins gave me the push I needed to do something bigger than that, despite all the obstacles.
So thanks Tony – from that day I’ve dedicated myself to constant, never-ending improvement.
It’s worked beyond my wildest dreams. If I could go back to ’09 and tell that Daniel what life would be like a few short years later, he wouldn’t have believed word one.
But those little 1% improvements add up. The snowball gets bigger as it rolls downhill.
And here we are.
(Tony, if you’re in Madrid someday I’ll buy you lunch to pay you back for pirating Unleash the Power Within. We can even freeze our nuts in cryotherapy together if you want.)
Anyway, that year ended too. And finally we made it to the pivotal year of…
“You should have a website”, said my flatmate.
He had several, and I couldn’t argue with his results.
He’d sit on the sofa with his computer from early morning till late at night, swearing under his breath, frantically typing, altering his mood with booze and dark chocolate…
And somehow, he made money. Enough to occasionally pay the rent.
So I started a blog for English students.
Once again, I dreamed of raising my prices. “Having a website” seemed impressive enough to merit giving myself a pay raise.
Some day I hoped to have a four figure bank balance.
Four figures – that’s halfway to 8 figures, right?
For now, though, the recession in Spain was getting deeper and deeper.
Greece seemed to be willing to break up the whole Eurozone if they didn’t get a bailout, and everyone was terrified of what Angela Merkel would or wouldn’t do to the PIGS – the poor-ass countries at the bottom of Europe who’d been living high on the hog with EU subsidies for way too long.
Soon, the brain drain started.
All the smart people were leaving Spain as fast as they could. Then the dumb people started leaving too.
I started wondering, not for the first or last time, what I was still doing here.
Was I even dumber than the dumb ones?
I’m still here. And I still don’t know.
In any case, I had a website. And nobody was hiring me at my new, higher price. I was getting annoyed with self-help.
Turns out that improving your life is hard.
It looked like it was going to be another long, hot, broke summer in Madrid.
And it was.
Around the first week of September I got a call from the company that had hired me for those soul-sucking business classes.
The Director of Studies told me in his polite British way that I was fired – the government was cracking down on work permits and they had to let me go.
There goes half my income.
I had to double down on something, and for some reason I decided to double down on writing.
I was gonna make my humble little blog into something good – so good they’d be beating a path to my door and throwing money at me.
At some point.
I was getting more traffic by then, and decided to enter the wild world of Google Ads.
Yet another failure.
Earning 3 cents a click isn’t really a business model.
In the meantime, I had to do a lot of classes at the language school. My private students at the media company were giving me some good word of mouth, too.
All in all, it wasn’t a bad life.
Just tremendously unsatisfying. I was barreling down on my 30th birthday, and didn’t want to be that guy…
You know the guy. The one who moved abroad in his 20s and then just gave up.
The guy who – now pushing 50 – was still hoofing it all over the city to give classes, eating rice and beans all summer long… or worse, working at a summer camp for teenagers in Campillo de Nabos, Extremadura.
In my mind 30 was the age that most guys just gave up on life and resigned themselves to the fat, boring, sexless sort of quiet desperation that seemed to be considered “normal” in polite society.
And – always a rebel – I was gonna do the opposite.
I spent that New Year’s in Oporto with Mariglia.
The whole city seemed to be collapsing, and virtually nothing was open. The bars and restaurants were shuttered, except for the most touristy areas.
Was it the crisis? Or was everyone on vacation?
Mariglia and I had no way of knowing.
I’d always wanted to be a writer.
But I’d never been very good at it.
It didn’t seem to matter. Writing was the one thing I couldn’t give up on no matter how bad I was. No matter now impractical it was as a career choice.
I’d tried to give up.
I’d written a novel back in ’06 and it had almost killed me. I thought I was done after that, but I wasn’t.
Now, in my shared flat in Vallecas, I put 110% effort into cooking, hoping to find a new outlet for my creativity that would get the idea of being a writer out of my mind forever.
I couldn’t give it up, even when I wanted to.
So with time, I got better.
In the first months of 2011 I heard rumors that Amazon might be opening in Spain, so I decided to write a book for Kindle.
A few sucky weeks later, it was done: my first book about phrasal verbs.
I was a published author – just like that.
Why phrasal verbs?
Certainly not because I felt passionate about them.
I just saw an unexploited market niche and went for it.
By this time, I wasn’t nearly naive enough to think that the world owed me a living just for “following my passion”.
(Full disclosure: I now make a living by sitting on my sofa. But what I do on my sofa is actually useful to society. Don’t forget – whatever you do, you gotta be useful to someone.)
So – in an attempt to be sorta useful – phrasal verbs it was.
In case you don’t know, we’re talking about those silly combinations like get up, set off, stand out that you’ve been using your whole life without thinking about it. They seem easy to us, but drive foreigners crazy.
Amazon finally opened their store in Spain, and I sold several dozen copies of the Kindle ebook before a student at the big media company told me “Daniel, you’ve found what’s going to make you rich… now work harder!”
This was possibly the first time any sort of adult had encouraged my unreasonable dreams. I owe a lot to that guy.
Anyway, that Christmas it was back to ravioli, separate bedrooms and linguistic immersion in small town Italy.
Mariglia slept with La Mamma, dad slept on the couch, I got to share a room with my (somewhat annoying) brother-in-law.
It was pretty boring. And as always, there was a lot of shouting.
(Must be a cultural thing.)
The high point of that trip was midnight mass on Christmas Eve – yeah, that’s how boring it was.
For a guy like me to stay up past midnight is one thing… doing it to go to mass is quite another.
The night was freezing, with a biting wind, but inside the church – the thousand year old church on top of the hill – it was warmer.
There was a huge, glistening gold-leaf sunburst behind the altar… and Christmas is, after all, a celebration of the winter solstice.
The end of the darkness, the rebirth of the light.
It was cold and dark that night – and I knew that back in Madrid I had a number of impossible obstacles waiting for me.
For one, I was still illegal.
Did I want to be an unwelcome guest in a country in crisis forever?
For another, I was broke as a joke. Being broke when you’re 20 is fun. At (almost) 30 it starts weighing on you.
Sometimes it seems like it can never get better. If I was going to do something with my life, I certainly would have proven it by now.
The lights in the church glinted off the huge golden sunburst, and the priest gave a speech about salvation.
Just when the darkness is at its worst, that’s when things tend to turn around.
We sang. In Italian.
In my mind, it’s like it was yesterday. La Mamma to my left, Mariglia to my right, the girl in front of me with the miniskirt and the black tights and the Doc Martens. The worm-eaten pews and the lyrics to the songs printed on cream-colored paper. I still remember the chorus to one song.
Oggi… è nato per noi… il salvatore del mondo.
The light and the warmth and the singing did something to me. Something I can’t explain.
Suddenly, in my little failure of a heart, burned black by years of rejection and misery and semi-poverty, I felt a blossoming of hope.
Everything was going to be okay.
Eventually, but not now.
In conclusion, if we must still use that trite phrase
All of this is factually and chronologically correct as far as I can remember.
But I could be wrong.
It’s pretty hard to think back to Christmas 6 years ago and figure out what I was doing. And it’s even harder to determine why – and what among all those experiences really mattered.
What brought me to this point and made me the guy I am today.
“You still have a sense of continuous memory and experience. The details are missing, but the big picture of your own life persists. But the big picture is a lie…
“You can’t be sure how you came to be reading these words at this moment rather than languishing on a streetcorner or sailing around the world.
“What is the truth about who you are and why you are here?”
That’s from the latest book I’m reading.
You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney.
Among other things, he talks about how most of your memory is a fiction, and most of your reality a self-delusion.
And it’s pretty good.
That’s what I’ve got.
Let me know what you think, right here in the comments.
Mr Chorizo AKA Mr Daniel.
P.S. I’m still sort of toying with the idea of writing a memoir about my life in Madrid called “Sex, Booze and Phrasal Verbs”. The only problem is that nobody except EFL teachers knows what phrasal verbs even are. So I changed part I to “love, wine and cholesterol”. Anyway…
P.P.S. If you like hearing stories from my life as a blogger, you’ll love my book The Zen of Blogging. It’s got all the brutal truth about what it takes to go pro. Enjoy!