Visiting the USA (after 17 years abroad)
Well, there’s no avoiding it.
I’ve spent years – decades, almost – making excuses.
But it’s time for me to visit the US.
When I came to Spain in 2004 , I didn’t think I was going to make a life out of it.
I was only 21, just having an adventure.
I didn’t have a plan at all, or even the ability to envision my life a few years later on. When I’d meet people who were 26 or 27, back then, I’d think “Shit, that’s OLD! I’ll probably never make it to that age…”
After several months in Madrid, in summer 2005, I went to visit the US – my only time back stateside – and quickly decided it wasn’t for me.
So I ended up back in Spain. I didn’t plan to stay for 17 more years. I didn’t have a plan at all.
It just sort of happened. Like a lot of things in life. The days just pass, and so do the years.
Anyway, about those excuses…
Why haven’t I been back to the US?
I had my reasons, of course.
For the first several years, I was hanging around without a residence or work permit, so I didn’t want to travel much and risk deportation.
My plan, as it was, in my early 20s:
- Overstay tourist visa.
- Live happily ever after.
Eventually, the question marks worked out to 7 years of struggle with bureaucracy, after which I became a fully legal taxpaying resident of the Kingdom of Spain.
My next excuse for not visiting the US is that I was, quite simply, broke.
Those jobs teaching English for 11€ an hour, in offices and industrial parks around Madrid, from sunrise till late at night – those jobs just didn’t pay enough for me to fly back across the pond on a whim.
People with regular jobs envied my 3 months of “vacation” every year. But as I watched the roll of 50s in my “secret money sock” dwindle with every passing week of summer, I’d secretly envy their salary being paid monthly – including July to September.
Eventually, I quit my teaching job(s) to dedicate my time to online business.
But that didn’t get me out of summertime poverty.
Far from it!
Sometimes I’d make a lot of money one month, but the next month would be even worse than when I was running all over the city for chump change.
For years, I was only one crushing tax bill away from spending another hot summer drinking 25-cent beers from Lidl, unable to afford travel that was further than the mountains outside town.
And as a freelance business owner, the tax bills arrive 5 times a year – or 17 times a year if we’re counting social security.
However, with much hard work, I managed to reach a place where periodic expenses weren’t so crushing. At which point I moved to Barcelona with Morena and developed a few some new crushing lifestyle expenses – Barcelona rents, deposits on flats, generally pretending to be middle class.
It all costs money. So, no trips to the US.
After that, there were visa problems, legal fees, and a trip to Asia so Morena could apply for her new work permit from her embassy back home… I got back to Barcelona in early 2020 thinking, “Okay, now that everything’s going smoothly, I should be able to visit the US one of these days.”
Then you know what happened – we all spent a couple of years sliding down that slippery slope towards healthcare-themed fascism, and that didn’t really make international travel seem easier or more fun.
Then another visa renewal. Then my passport was expiring.
Finally, last Wednesday, I went to the consulate to pick up my new US passport, and walked out knowing I had no more excuses.
There will always be a crushing tax bill just over the horizon. There’s never a perfect moment to do anything. So I got a ticket to the US. And I’m going.
Seventeen years later.
I wonder if anything’s changed.
My love / hate relationship with “America”
I should mention, at this point, that I didn’t actually enjoy growing up in the US.
Your experience may vary, but I spent most of my formative years in the desert outside Phoenix, with nowhere to go, just bored out of my skull ALL THE TIME.
The common pastimes ’round those parts were mindless consumerism and being a judgemental puritan asshat – neither of which really appealed to me.
Eventually, I was almost thrown out of every school I ever attended – except college, which I dropped out of when my family’s financial situation changed.
Late at night, in the library, I sat down to do the math, and when I figured out how many loans I’d need to finish my degree in English lit, I decided to “take a year off”.
(I didn’t have much of a life plan, as I said earlier, but I was never so fucking stupid as to imagine going into $50,000 debt for a liberal arts degree was a sound financial decision.)
After that, there were a few years of getting and losing low-end jobs, riding my bike around in the blistering heat, and generally scraping by on the edge of poverty.
Eventually, the love of my life dumped me (which is a whole ‘nother story) and I found myself jobless, with no prospects, sleeping on a friend’s couch. I had some savings – thanks, extreme Protestant frugality! – but I’d already been rejected by every place that might plausibly hire me.
And so, at age 21, I was hopeless and loveless, living in a place I’d always hated, and facing a future of having to sell plasma in order to get by.
In other words, coming to Spain and earning 11€ an hour was a significant step up for me.
At the very least, I’d escaped a lot of the consumerism, and the judgemental puritan asshats had all stayed back home. Plus, as a “native English speaker”, I had no trouble finding work.
In Madrid, I rented a room lit by a bare lightbulb hanging from a wire, got a pre-paid candybar phone, and proceeded to have the time of my life: young, gainfully employed, in Europe, and surrounded by svelte, attractive females who found me both exotic and (occasionally) charming.
Those were, indeed, the days.
Your experience – if you’ve ever lived in the US, or moved to Europe – might be different. But that’s mine.
And so I wasn’t exactly itching, all these years, to go back and mope around in the desert, bored as hell and having spent most of my meagre savings to get there.
Stranger in a Strange Land
When I read what the travel guides have to say about the US, I get the impression that I’m hearing about a foreign country.
Lonely Planet’s USA page starts with “The great American experience is about so many things: bluegrass and beaches…”
And it sorta goes downhill from there.
I guess I walked along a US beach in San Diego, once, when I was a kid.
And I believe bluegrass music makes prominent use of the banjo. However, I can’t recall having ever listened to it, except perhaps as part of the soundtrack to a film.
Later, on the same Lonely Planet page, we learn that “America is the birthplace of LA, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami, Boston and New York City – each a brimming metropolis whose name alone conjures a million different notions of culture, cuisine and entertainment.”
Well, okay. I spent a couple of nights in New York back in ’05. I remember eating a slice of cheese pizza for dinner in Harlem, and a burrito in Greenwich Village. I believe I also visited either the Met, or the Moma. That’s about it for my experience of “culture, cuisine and entertainment” in the Big Apple.
And the rest of those cities? I just haven’t been – although I think I’ve driven through LA.
Other sources suggest that the US is a great place to visit Michelin-starred restaurants and redwood forests, eat deep-fried Twinkies and stroll through “star-saturated Hollywood” – all things so far from my twenty-plus years of life there that they may as well be talking about a distant or imaginary land.
The Steppes of Mongolia, perhaps, or the Isle of Atlantis.
Rough Guides, in their article about things one should know before visiting the US, suggests that “the American Dream” is “still going strong (especially if your last name is Rockefeller).”
I guess the author was too busy to google the names of current rich people, or else she wasn’t aware that the Rockefeller family isn’t quite what it used to be – although I hear Wintrhop P. Rockefeller was a pretty good Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas before his untimely death.
(Incidentally, I’m descended from the Rockefellers myself – from one of the less important branches. I’m still waiting for an invite to a family reunion or something. Maybe a large unexpected inheritance from some uncle I never knew I had? I’ll take it. No hard feelings for y’all ignoring me all these years, fam.)
Anyway, “The USA” as I read about it in travel guides bears virtually no resemblance to the country I know. And I suspect a lot of people feel the same.
In fact, a lot of people probably still have lives much like I did, back in the day: just scraping by in an unglamorous location, without much else going on.
But I guess we’ll find out.
What is “America”, anyway?
Having lived abroad for so long, people sometimes tell me “Oh, seventeen years… You’re Spanish now!”
Which, obviously, I’m not. I have my doubts about the whole idea of fully integrating in a foreign country.
But do I still feel American?
Well, yeah. Whatever that means.
I definitely feel more patriotic than I did when I was in my early 20s.
But largely, that comes from appreciating the opportunities I’ve had because I happened to be born there – as well as visiting enough other countries to see that every place has problems, and the US is (all things considered) doing pretty well for itself.
So I’m excited to be going back.
We’ll see if my new-found patriotism survives contact with actual “America”, though.
I give it about a 50/50 chance.
And with that, I bid you farewell, for now.
See you soon, in America or elsewhere.
Mr Chorizo (AKA Daniel).
P.S. I’m reading J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy, and it’s worth mentioning that he too is describing an America that seems completely foreign to me: Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Anyway, it’s an interesting read. Recommended.
P.P.S. Speaking of unglamorous locations, I’ve got a lot to say about the “real America” and the fact that the media makes it seem like everyone in the US is a rich person in New York or Southern California, but I didn’t manage to fit it into this article. I guess I’ll get to it soon. Sign up to my emails to receive notifications. Thanks!