The Unbearable Lightness of Expat Being – 17 years in Spain
It’s my 17th Spainiversary today.
I don’t know what you were doing on 21 October 2004, but I know exactly what I was doing…
I was getting off the overnight flight from Philadelphia to Madrid, with my duffel bag and backpack, ready to start a new life in Europe – or at least die young in the attempt.
And today, just for the sake of posterity, I’ll mention that I was eating lunch in the town of Aiguafreda, Catalonia, after a 10km hike in the rain, when Facebook sent me a notification that it was my 17th anniversary of life here in Spain.
The lunch was bad wine, dog meat in mushroom sauce and orujo watered down with piss… although that’s now how the menu described it, exactly.
If I’d known I was supposed to be celebrating, I would have picked a better town, with better restaurants, to go hiking in.
Oh well. Hindsight.
The unbearable lightness, etc
In Milan Kundera’s existential novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the female lead Tereza contemplates the series of random coincidences that end up with her starting a relationship with the main character, Tomas.
Tomas is a doctor, and he’s in her town because someone needs an important operation, and the head of his hospital in Prague has sciatica. Tomas is sent instead, and he chooses, from the several hotels in the town, the one where Tereza works as a waitress. They meet in the restaurant. One of her favorite Beethoven quartets is on the radio when he waves her over and orders a cognac. The quartet is about destiny. He’s in room number six, her shift ends at six. He waits for her outside the hotel, at six, and they spend an hour together before his train goes back to Prague.
It’s destiny. Or whatever it is.
Let me just say, it’s a moving passage to read, and a great book overall… but Tereza ain’t got shit on the number of random coincidences that got me to Aiguafreda this morning.
When I look back on my life, I should probably be loading boxes off a truck behind a Walmart somewhere in the Arizona desert… except for a completely arbitrary series of coincidences that got me to Europe.
But is anything really arbitrary?
Kundera says it himself: “Is not an event more significant and noteworthy the greater the number of fortuities necessary to bring it about?”
So just in case you’re wondering, here’s the short list of things that got me eating dog meat and drinking piss in a tiny town in lower Catalonia this morning…
Life: just one goddamn thing after another
When I was 19, during my brief attempt at getting a university education, I found a photocopied pamphlet written by some anonymous anarchist group on a table at the dining hall, late at night. I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but reading that really set my partially-formed teenage brain on fire – it was about, of all things, living intentionally, on your own terms. And nobody, except those anonymous anarchists, had ever before suggested to me that such a thing was possible.
Shortly after that, my parents got divorced, and – long story short – my dad sold the house and decided he wanted to go to Europe. He bought me a ticket. I happened to coincide in not one, or two, but THREE cities with this girl who happened to have the hots for me. She happened to have broken up with some other guy pretty recently, so she was looking for love in all the wrong places, and – even longer story even shorter – she decided that “inside my pants” might have been a wrong enough place.
After a short stint back in Arizona, in which I ended up single, homeless and unemployed, I made the dumbass decision of going back to Madrid to hang out with said girl. I happened to have the funds to do this, through no fault of my own. Otherwise, I might have ended up staying and selling plasma – something I’d been contemplating just a few months before.
I got a job in Madrid, that girl left, and somehow I managed to hang on for 7 years of “undocumented” Spanish life. The story of how I finally got legal with the Spanish government is about as bizarre a series of coincidences as I can imagine, but that’s a story I’m not going to divulge. Trust me: it’s wacky.
Fast forwarding several years, I ended up with Morena because she read one of my articles here on the blog, “accidentally” added me on Facebook, and had time to meet me the next day in Plaza Castilla. She was only in town that weekend, incidentally, because a friend of hers was having health problems and she’d decided to cancel some travel plans and stay close by. If her finger hadn’t slipped onto the “Add Friend” button, or her friend hadn’t gotten sick, I could still be living in Tetuán, swiping on Tinder and falling asleep tipsy and alone on my sofa.
Morena’s job here in Barcelona, as well as her getting the visa to stay in Spain, etc etc… none of this was at all set in stone. Everything easily could have gone very, very differently.
And finally, yesterday I saw a photo of some pile of rocks outside Aiguafreda, and thought “Maybe I’ll go hiking tomorrow.” I’d never heard of Aiguafreda before, and I may never go back. But coincidences.
I even have a letter from the government, dated 2011, telling me to get out of the country in 14 days, or else.
If I’d listened… Well, who knows?
I could be a scuba instructor in Costa Rica by this point. Or working in a bar in Dublin. Or (more likely) selling used pickup trucks by the side of the highway back in Phoenix, or lifting those boxes at Walmart.
And I suspect my life isn’t that different than anyone else’s.
A lot of people have a life plan.
But, as I’ve written elsewhere, your life plan is probably bullshit.
Because, in the end, isn’t everything more or less just a series of coincidences? Arbitrary events that could just as well have NOT happened?
Think about it: your grandparents met somewhere, presumably. And so did your parents. Any one of them could have taken a different bus to work that morning, or picked a different Psych 101 class at university, or whatever the situation was, and never met the love of their life.
(A friend of mine claims that his grandparents met while hiding under a train car while their city was being bombed during World War 2. Their eyes met as things exploded around them, and that was it. How’s that for serendipity?)
The point is, you could have never existed. Your dad could have pulled out in time. Your mom could have said “OMG I’d never date a Gemini” and that would have been that.
They would have gone and done something else.
They might have been happy. Or not. Either way, you would never have been born.
The author Mel Robbins says the chances of you – or anyone else – being born is about one in 400 trillion. Which to me sounds like a completely made-up number. But I can see her point.
You could have just as easily not happened, and anything else that got you here, reading this article, right now, could also have not happened.
Are we just atoms, bouncing off each other, in an unfeeling void?
Maybe. It would be easy to be dismayed by all this, and sit around in existential paralysis.
But we could also be grateful.
(Are we stardust?)
Think about it: we may well be the only intelligent life in the universe.
A million generations had to survive and procreate and and hunt antelope and build fires and fend off the barbarians and smelt metals and invent mathematics and discover the electromagnetic spectrum so that you – today – can read these words on your mobile, while taking a shit, wherever it is you’re shitting.
It’s all a miracle, really. Just living to whatever age you are now is not guaranteed to anyone. I bet you know someone who – randomly – didn’t make it this far. I sure do.
So, with that in mind, let’s be grateful.
For all those coincidences. Even the ones that lead us to eating dog meat in tiny towns in lower Catalonia, on rainy days, as we approach middle age.
Keep it real, y’all.
I’m gonna go get some better food.
P.S. I’ve got a whole article about the meaning of existence too, if you’re into that sort of thing. And a lot more about the story of my life. Have fun!