Archive for January, 2019

The Cathedral in Granada, Spain

When I arrived in Madrid, it took about 16 hours for me to realize that I was in an environment where I had lost my persistent sense of isolation and anxiety. I was suddenly in tune with myself and my surroundings and moved freely through the maze of streets as if I had been there forever. I knew where everything was (I have a mental map of the city from when I lived there in my 20s), and if I didn’t, it was no more than a 20 minute walk and a map to track it down. People were everywhere; it was noisy, rather polluted, chaotic, and generally intense; and I loved it. I felt like a fish that had been returned to water. I knew how to swim there, how to move with crowds and traffic, how to find the right tienda ecologica, which tapa to order, and how to speak Castilian with just enough edge and confidence to throw people for a loop concerning my national origins.

We arrived in Granada a few days later. Once again, I experienced that odd sensation of well-being, that intimate familiarity with a place I hadn’t seen for more than a day when I was 15 years old. My husband and I moved in to our ancient apartment near the old Moorish walls of the city, and we set up our lives in short order: bought a throw rug, filled the fridge with jamon serrano, eggs, Spanish tortilla, olives, olive oil, butter, baguettes, black teas, spices, Manchego cheese, dark chocolate with coconut and cinnamon, and vine-ripened tomatoes. Whatever we needed for our new home was easy to find on Elvira Street, the oldest and longest Moorish street in the city. There were cafes, multiple kebab joints and traditional Spanish restaurants, bazaars, tea and spice shops, pastry places, bars, tabernas, hotels, hostels, spas, flamenco bars, hole-in-the-wall clothing shops with brightly patterned yoga pants and exotic incense, and places that sold tiles and assorted gadgets. Within days, we had traversed the entire city and figured out where all the churches, convents, monasteries, mosques, and historic buildings were located. We experienced them all between masses and other religious rituals. We lingered at the Alhambra twice, savoring the sacred geometry and avoiding the selfie-stick tourists. We visited San Juan de Dios’s official museum and found the Arabic baths. We saw a flamenco show that brought tears to our eyes. Every day was filled with wonder and discovery, and we never drove anywhere. Ever. For any reason. In fact, we were unable to leave Granada. There was no reason to leave.

The first day back home in California, I found myself in the car, alone, driving from one errand to the next. It felt like I had been driving forever that day, yet it was a typical day in my life here. The number of miles I log on a daily basis is like driving to Sevilla from Granada every day. I didn’t speak to anyone at all the first two days that I was back, not until my husband came home from work. Nobody was walking around the streets, the distances stretched out for miles, there was no plaza, no old shops, no ancient church where bald priests read the paper in the confessionals. It was Starbucks, then Sprouts, then the gym, then Vons, then home for a nap; later, the car made more rounds around Chatsworth in search of the right Spanish ham (never found it), and lastly, I ended up at Rite Aid looking for hand cream and hair mousse. For the last several days, it’s so quiet and I’m so alone, that I end up talking to myself in Spanish just to hear a human voice. People are very nice at Vons and Starbucks and Rite Aid, but nobody engages in long conversations with me on, say, the relative merits of jamon serrano versus jamon iberico.

I have friends. I meet them for lunch sometimes, driving, always driving, to meet them at some far-flung restaurant in Camarillo or Buena Park. I go to Meetups, driving, always driving, to places like Santa Monica where I’m in company for an hour or two, and then back in the car to drive home. I drive to work today, and I spend a few hours alone in my office before going to a meeting. I hear that the Administration has cut our class offerings–again–for the Fall. I hear depressing news about our enrollment, retention, drop rates, success rates, and so on. It all seems surreal. Everything the last few days back home feels odd and fuzzy, somehow unreal. The three weeks in Spain felt like I had returned to myself; there were no missing pieces, no grief, no ongoing, pervasive sense that something was wrong. It felt like finding your family, your community, after years and years of inhabiting a foreign land where nobody really spoke your language.

The United States is a famously lonely country. The latest survey discovered that 52% of us feel isolated and lonely, by far the highest percentage in the Western world. I have never much felt at home in the U.S., and not for lack of trying. Sometimes, you figure something out about yourself that you almost with weren’t true because it’s going to force you to confront your own compromises, excuses, and justifications: I didn’t travel for 14 years because I was afraid to fly and afraid, more than anything, of what would happen to me if I discovered I was happier somewhere else.

So yes; I discovered that I’m happier in Spain. Nobody is really surprised, actually. I guess I’m not, either. But that means that I have to think about rearranging my life and perhaps admitting to myself that the root cause of so much of my unhappiness might be the fact that I feel like a stranger in a strange land here in the U.S. and always have. The solution to loneliness? Simply this: figure out its cause. Then, make some decisions.

–Kirsten A. Thorne

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