It is the end of my first week back in London. I am sitting in a local coffee shop feeling the bite of the air conditioning unit blowing cold air over my bald head. After a year of hot weather, what was once mild now feels cold and what was once cold now feels damn freezing. Contrary to my mother’s advice, well, everyone’s advice it seems, I have put my woolly hat on inside to combat the draft even though that means not ‘feeling the benefit’ outside when I leave. I argue the point to myself and accept my decision based on the fact that this time last week I was wearing only shorts while on the sun lounger soaking in the rays on my terrace – December/Sun Lounger/Shorts – three words I shall not be combining for some time to come.
Looking back I don’t think I have taken my woolly hat off this week at all, there is a possibility that I even left it on while I was in the bath. It’s been an emotional week so I can’t remember. I know I had a bath. I know I was cold. I know I like to keep my woolly hat on. I wouldn’t bet against it…but this blog is not going to be so superficial as to focus on the weather. However, saying that, being British I am compelled by ancient law to at least mention it. That being out of the way, I am now going to try and describe why I am so absolutely certain I did the right thing in leaving my job and using up all my savings to live in Spain for a year. It is a selfish self-indulgent task really, I am not writing this because I think anyone wants to read it, I am writing it for me, because I want to make sense of where my life was and where it is now. I want 2015 to be the start of a new chapter in my life and before the memory of this year fades I feel it important to describe my feelings.
To start, let me say thank you to everyone who has kept in touch while I have been away. I have been quiet on most of my social media sites as I wasn’t sure how my internet connection would be and so I chose to take a ‘sabbatical’ on Facebook and elsewhere but it was great to hear from people on Twitter, by email and here on my blog. I was surprised to see so many of you still connecting with me; thanks for keeping connected while I have been so quiet. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer in a more productive 2015.
I have uploaded all of my holiday photos to Flickr. These are purely landscape and picturesque images. I have lots of treasured photos of the friends I made there and the antics we got up to but they are private and except for the few that I have posted on my blog during the year or attached to my tweets they are for me to reminisce over. If you care to see the photos then please feel free to follow me on Flickr over at the following link:
I am not a photographer so they are all novice hobby quality shots taken on my old digital camera (it’s funny how in this era I can so easily dismiss a slightly aged digital product as old) or my iPhone, but they give you an idea of the areas I visited. I have embedded some images throughout this blog.
During my last week I started to play around with Google Photospheres as my attention was turning to the projects I would be kicking off in the New Year. As you can see I need some serious practice but if you are interested in seeing some 360 images and have the ability to ignore horrendously stitched together frames then again, feel free to visit the following link:
I will try my best to improve as I start to take more in and around London on my writing research trips during 2015 and share them with you.
The Life of Riley
First things first: the disclaimer. It’s hard to recall the amount of times I may have said this in my blog posts during the year but for the sake of ensuring as much non-bitterness emanating my way I will repeat. I am not gloating. Yes, I have had a year off work. Yes, I have lived in a nice costal town in Spain where the sun always shined. Yes, I had the freedom to do as I pleased. However, look past that. Think about the reasons why and the consequences of. I had a rough couple of years prior to leaving trying to cope with where I was in my life, it’s nothing out of the ordinary and common to many, but there it is, I was depressed. Now consider the future, aged 35 I have no job, no savings and no home…but I am not depressed! So, something must have worked! Would I do it again? You bet your life I would. It was a fantastic year and I have no regrets. During that carefree time I mentioned above I had the opportunity to do a lot of thinking. Yes, I may have had a can of cerveza in my hand while covered in fifty plus sunscreen staring into the sun, but thinking it was. And believe me when I say, not all those moments felt so carefree. Examining your life, your hopes and dreams, your faults, your problems and your doubts and trying to convince yourself that the world is still for the taking is not the easiest thing to do, but with the gift that is time, more time than I have had ever before as an adult you can work through issues one by one and as anxiety ridden as it can be, opportunities, ideas, plans and motivation take prominence and clear a route through all the negativity. Bearing in mind all this, that on the surface it all seems wonderful but there are problematic undercurrents, let me try to explain why I feel better about myself and confident about the future.
Was I right to quit my job?
Okay. So here it comes then. The reflection.
It’s not exactly a shock for people to switch jobs these days. Lifelong careers in single companies are less and less common, however I was close to accepting I would be doing exactly that. Having worked in a few different industries I was in my last organization for nearly ten years. Having joined after recently turning twenty five years of age I progressed through a few roles and developed my skill base to focus on one specific role and was enjoying the job. The place was like a second home to me, I had good friends and colleagues and I loved the environment. I was dedicated to the place and started to believe that I would be there for a long time to come. That’s not to say I wasn’t thinking about writing, I was. It was just I always considered that to be a part time hobby and never visualized what I would do with it long term.
Then things change. Sometimes you see change coming and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you can roll with the punches and sometimes you can’t. I was a couple of years into my thirties when change came. I say came, it was more like it snuck up on me and landed a swift uppercut and left hook while I had my jaw sticking out. At a time when I was toying with thoughts on that terrible word, ‘settling’, you know, mortgages, marriage and so on, I found myself in a place I didn’t recognize. The place where you go when all that was once happy and positive turns depressingly sad and pointless. I ‘settled’ in that place pretty well. Made myself quite at home in fact. The practical matters I had been good at, such as ensuring I was paying into a pension, saving money every month for my own place, keeping myself healthy and other similar tasks became totally irrelevant to me. I couldn’t care less. With that, the life I had been so set on before started to become irrelevant too. I got to the point where I had to admit I was having issues with depression and I sought help from my doctor. He was fantastic and the prescribed medication along with therapy really helped. All I will say here by way of a brief digression is that if by chance anyone reading this is feeling down then my advice would be to seek professional help immediately. On the scale of things I was a minor case, but depression at its worst (and I suffered from momentary deep lows) is terrible and can lead to misery and worse, so do not feel hesitant, they are there to help you and whether or not you choose to take their advice, take medication or seek therapy, the act of talking about it can be a relief in itself and hopefully you will feel confident in discussing your problems further and that could be the first step to recovery. Anyway, moving on. I came to the realization that I could no longer work there. I just wasn’t comfortable any longer and no matter what the consequences I understood that I could not allow myself to be in a situation that was not healthy. I can’t remember how quickly it happened but it was only a matter of days, I decided that I needed to get away for a while and I guess, looking back, I dared myself to do something drastic. I was not in a relationship, I didn’t have children or other caring responsibilities so I felt open to a total change. I had two considerations, travelling or moving somewhere else to live. I was torn between going to South America and staying in Europe. I opted for Europe because I felt it was less of a risk with the money I had and also I could find a base from which to write from, integrate into a community and see what it was like to live in another country rather than just roam from town to town. Through advice from friends and a good dose of luck I found a beautiful place on the south east coast of Spain and before I knew it I had packed my suitcase and was sitting on my own in a quiet two bedroom ground floor flat thinking, ‘Blimey, it’s a bit hot here’.
In no time at all, those crushingly important feelings of attachment and conflict I once had towards my career had dissipated. The careful planning of future earnings, training and development, qualifications, promotion, progression and the hard work I had once so fully embraced to make my position successful and meaningful; they all meant nothing. The organization I had once loved so much and put so much of my heart and soul into became simply a building I would never walk into again. The comfort of knowing I would never have to see certain faces again meant that I could finally start to heal and devote my energy to a new future. I feel justified in leaving and giving up a potentially rewarding, interesting and promising job. Not that I think everyone should do it, an individual’s circumstances are always different, but in my case it was the right thing to do. I felt that I had discovered I could work towards a future I had not allowed myself to believe in before.
What is that new future?
I’ll talk more about what this dream is in the next part of this blog, that one focuses on 2015. I’ll stick to the year gone here. But the reason I feel so confident in making that statement is that it took me all this time, practically an entire year, to understand what it is that I want, more than what it was I was afraid to lose. That is what my new future is. Driving towards what I want, not surviving because I am afraid to lose what I currently have. My year in Spain made me realise that I have nothing to fear.
Being afraid in my new home
It may help you to understand what I mean by that if I talk about the fear I felt in the first few weeks of being alone. So imagine, I have unpacked and settled in, the flat is great, the weather is incredible, the views and the landscape are beautiful…now comes ‘going to the shops’. It sounds so silly now and I’m sure the more travelled of you reading this will laugh but I felt extremely nervous walking into town to visit the supermarket and the neighbourhood social club. I didn’t know any Spanish and I didn’t know a single person in the town other than the person who had rented my apartment and as nervous as I was I wasn’t about to look like a giant wally by asking him to help me buy a bag of rice. It’s this fear I want you to consider. It is this fear that made me understand why I had been so foolish to be worried about my life back in London.
I will start by saying what the fear wasn’t: it wasn’t fear of people being rude or aggressive, it wasn’t fear of people laughing at me, it wasn’t fear of people looking at me and wondering what the hell I am doing wandering around like an idiot…no, the fear was what I was going to tell someone once they asked me who I am and why I am in Spain.
Yes, I was nervous about trying to ask for things in Spanish and that sort of thing, but I’m nervous like that all time. I’d be the same should I be walking into a shop in the town next to mine probably. I was actually excited by that. I knew that was part of the challenge I had set myself for the year. Trying to learn a bit of Spanish and work my way into a community. It’s bound to be tough at first and so it was. But no, that wasn’t the fear.
In my second week I went into the town’s social club and put up an advert on the community notice board asking for a language exchange. If any local wanted to practice their English in return for helping me learn some basic Spanish then could we meet for an hour or so a couple of times a week. I had incredible luck. Two separate people got in touch and I couldn’t have asked for more. A man from the town on one side of me and a woman from the town on the other side. Now I won’t go into personal details here, it is not fair to mention people publicly but they became great friends, introduced me to their friends and families and showed me around the region. I saw places and done things I would never have done without them and I am hugely grateful for their friendship. Maybe another time I will tell you more about them. Anyway, gushing aside, I met these people every day and learnt a lot from them but it is our introductions I want to describe to you so that you may understand what my fear was.
The fear I realised I had to overcome was the embarrassment of admitting I am the person I am trying to be. I know that doesn’t make sense but let me continue. I do not have a job or money or children or any of that so the usual assumption I had worried about in the past was that people would think I am some sort of uneducated idiot unable to hold down a job combined with a malovealent personality disorder that has resulted in me having no friends. Why else would you be on your own in another country? People do tend to cast a presumptuous eye over you when you say you are living alone without a job.
You know it’s coming. The nervous pleasantries, the ‘nice to meet you’ stuff…anyway, it wasn’t that that bothered me. I can quite happily talk about my education, where I come from, previous jobs and my friendship groups. Where I felt the need to defend myself was in the tremendous trepidation I experienced in explaining to people that I am trying to be a writer and not being ashamed of it. It’s a difficult task to convince people that I am more content than ever in having accepted I will be poor for a long time ahead and that even though my writing may never come to anything I will continue with it anyway. People tend to do one of two things in response. Sound supportive but still question me on what I will do to earn money i.e. when will I get a real job. Or, the other thing, which is extremely nice, but embarrassing: ‘When you are famous, I can say I know you!’ It’s great to have people positive and react like that, but then you have to go into self defence mode and explain that they will be waiting a hell of a long time and please don’t expect any miracles. That is what I feared the most, having to play the constant put down on my ability, my potential and my ambition.
I guess what I am trying to say is that I was embarrassed to be the person who was doing all the right moves but had no output. I have never described myself as a writer. I am a novice who is learning yet to anyone looking my life is now that of a writer’s life and trying to explain to people that even though it looks like it, I am not there yet, feels so bloody embarrassing. I even had moments where I felt a fraud even mentioning writing because I am at such an early stage of my development that to call myself a writer is unacceptable yet to anyone looking at me, I was the clichéd image of a nomadic aloof Englishman author and I felt I was cheating them. Does that make sense?
Was I right to move away from home?
A lot of people close to me were worried. They were excited too, they knew me well enough to know I wasn’t a complete basket case and would have thought things through, yet worried for me because it’s not a typical decision to make when everything on the surface seems to be going okay. A good paying job that I enjoyed, savings that in a couple of years might (a big might) be enough to qualify for a mortgage and the beginnings of a more serious approach to writing with my newly formed company. Why not simply get another job elsewhere away from the issues I had? Or, why not just take a sabbatical and consider my options? Why the need to move to another country? Why the need to spend all my savings?
The basic answer is I wanted an experience. As much as I knew I had a good job, at the end of the day it was just a job, I wasn’t the Prime Minister or anything, people weren’t relying on me, it wasn’t live or die. It was just a bloody job. The real attachments did not exist, mortgage, wife, kids; when those are in your life you cannot simply up and leave. So what was I really risking? My lifelong friends would always be there for me, my family would always be there for me and London wasn’t going anywhere. I needed to challenge myself and I felt I couldn’t do that without something more extreme than simply changing jobs.
On a side note: To people who may be considering doing this sort of thing, maybe travelling or moving to another location to work, etc. I would encourage it. There will be difficult lonely times. There will be times when you wish you were back home in the comfort and security of familiar surroundings. You may feel guilty for having left people behind. You may get a sudden attack of seclusion while eating a meal or watching a film and wish there was someone there to enjoy it with. You may be ill and wish there were sympathetic voices around you. You may spend too long writing essay length emails out of a need to share mundane experiences that wouldn’t warrant a text back home. You may spend too long scrolling through Facebook’s newsfeed hoping to see some photos or gossip. Being along for a long time can do funny things to you but don’t let those moments scare you off. It is worth it in the long run, so do it!
Anyway, moving on again. You know the one main factor in going away was to have the peace and quiet to write. Well, more like I wanted the peace and quiet in order to ‘think’ about writing. I knew staying in London and just having time off would not help me. I wasn’t clear enough in my thinking to start developing the writing projects that were swirling around in my head. All I can say is that I got more out of the year than I had dared hope. It was fantastic. That’s not to say I wrote as much in terms of word count, as I dared hope I would, in fact, quite a lot less really. Yet the sense of ownership of my ideas embedded within me and I gained a lot in confidence and determination. Yes, I was sidetracked by the sun and the sea and I’ve blogged about that while away so I’m not going to claim I was anywhere near disciplined but I did manage to spend time most days thinking about my work and that feels like a great success.
Have I achieved what I wanted to achieve?
I think I have. I find the task of writing this blog post difficult because I want to clarify to myself the way I am feeling, but it’s not coming that easily. It seems a hugely egotistical process, writing publicly about such personal feelings but that is what being a writer is so I just have to keep persevering and trying to be as honest as I can. I set out to find some peace of mind, to have time to think, to spend isolated time writing and to try and figure out what I want to do. I feel I have been successful at all of those and even though the terror of being back and having to see these ideas through – make them real – is more frightening than I ever imagined I still feel hopelessly optimistic. That I think maybe the real success of the year away, having found the sense of optimism that I had for many years growing up but lost some point along the way.
Culture & Language
I am focusing here on my thoughts towards writing as that is the purpose of this blog but let me make it clear. I got so much from living in another culture that I cannot begin to describe the benefits. It deserves a blog of its own but perhaps one day I will write a story about it so I think for now I will keep those thoughts to myself. What I would say is visit a travel blog and have a read from people far more qualified than me in writing about life in another country. It would be a huge disservice to Spain if all I did here was briefly mention highlights of my feelings towards the people, the food, the drink, the landscape, the economy, the traditions, the history, etc. so I won’t. I will keep this blog to writing related thoughts, however, my year away fed my soul as well as my mind and when I feel ready and capable I will share with you my thoughts on the benefits of experiencing life in another country. Saying that, I can’t help myself from throwing in some unqualified and unempirical advice for people reading this who have ever had the idea that they would like to learn another language. I have briefly blogged about this before so I won’t go on too long (hah! As if I have ever been able to stop myself from going on…)
- I can say from my experience that living in another country alone is not enough. You will not just ‘pick it up’ along the way. I may be a inherently untalented person when it comes to languages so perhaps it is just me but it is much harder than that and I’m afraid takes a long time and a lot of practice. It doesn’t help starting in your mid thirties (I was 34 so just writing ‘mid’ made me swallow bile) and it is one of my many regrets that I did not take Spanish more seriously after I left school and continued with it in some fashion so I had a much stronger foundation to build on. It would have made life so much more interesting!
- Live with a family if you can. I wanted to be alone because I needed that for my own personal development and writing. However, if I had my time again and I was looking at options for learning a language I would put living with a native family as priority number one. Working with textbooks, dvds, music files, internet websites are all fantastic and offer great value but there is simply no replacement for having daily interaction with native speakers. I’ll come back to this after a few more points.
- Meet different people. I had the great fortune to meet with two different people for my lessons and that afforded me the chance to ask about personal style. It is one thing knowing someone uses words in a certain way, but it is another thing knowing why, and if you can understand the choices they make it gives you a wider appreciation of what makes good and bad language. If you know someone uses a lot of slang you can start to judge how much you want to use and where it would and would not be appropriate. You can pick up on different pronunciations and regional dialects but also, importantly, learn about sayings and phrases. We use so many phrases in day to day conversations that do not make sense literally but have significant meaning. I had no idea how much I used them in English until people would ask me what this and that meant. Having people to ask about these phrases makes learning fun and you can get so much more out of a conversation.
- Listen to the radio and watch television. This isn’t advice I would normally offer to someone when it comes to studying but for language it works. Having the sounds of that language in the background helps you to start identifying and picking out words you know. You can see the news headlines and combine the words with the reporter’s speech. Use subtitles! But in the language you are learning. Once you start matching the voice with the words you can appreciate the breaks in speech more, it no longer sounds like one long slur of syllables. You can hear the breaths, the accent rises and falls, the stresses and suddenly you feel like you are listening more and more in real time.
- Listen to normal conversations. The amount of times I had a great meeting thinking I was picking up a few words here and there and possibly even constructing a very basic sentence (combining more than say four words was a true celebration) only to meet friends later in the day and sit there in total perplexment not being able to understand a single word they were saying! The difference between someone saying things slowly and overly-pronounced so you can make the word out distinctly, compared to, chatting away over a beer at their normal pace can seem like an unbridgeable chasm. However, that is the ultimate aim so the sooner you start to get an appreciation of normal speech patterns and speeds the sooner you realise what you have to aim for, and the more you are tested.
- Lastly, don’t be afraid to sound like an idiot. As someone who lives in London I think I forgot about the embarrassment of seeming like an outsider. We are so used to having people from all corners of the globe that if someone comes up to me in London and can’t speak English very well, say tourists asking for directions, it is nothing to be anxious about, we just get on with it and point and wave as best we can. When I put myself in their position however, I suddenly realize how nerve wracking and embarrassing it can be. You feel stupid that you cannot make a simple statement or ask a straightforward question. I felt stupid many many times over the most basic of things. After a while you understand that you just have to get on with it, you have no choice. In order to speak better you need to practice and if it means pronouncing a word wrong time after time and after being corrected for the tenth time, still getting it wrong then so be it, just keep going. There were days at a time when I was constantly red faced from not being able to say a word and I regret not being braver.
So after those points you can see why living with a family is so important. It offers you constant reinforcement of what you learn. They know why you are there and so the embarrassment factor goes quicker, you feel more relaxed amongst friends getting things wrong. It’s better to be laughed at by people you know! You ‘pick up’ the basics, such as everyday terminology but you also learn which verbs are used for what actions (which may not be what you assume to be) and how frequent those verbs are used for different contexts and situations. You can always ask a question (which they will probably be annoyed at but the hell with it, that’s why you’re there so keep bugging them!) and solidify what you have learnt without long breaks of time. We know that memory works best with revision and the more regular the revision, the better. If you are practicing every day you will learn more in a single 24 hours than what I learnt in a week’s worth of two hour lessons. It was absolutely obvious to me that I would rapidly decline in my ability and recall after just a couple of days without interacting with people.
It's just my opinion. I'm not a teacher but if I were to do my year again those are the things that I would want to tell myself.
What I will miss
If I start describing this list in more detail I think I may start weeping so for my own sake I will keep this as bullet points. I had such a great time that the thought of these things not being in my life anymore is still tough to acknowledge, it will get better with time of course, but for the sake of clarity it is best to write this now while it is all fresh in my mind.
- First and foremost, the friends I made. I had such luck meeting the generous people I did and there is no doubt at all my year would have been far less rewarding without them. This is not the place to name them however, it is not fair to mention people on a personal blog so I will just say that I am immensely grateful to them, I miss them a lot and I look forward to seeing them in the future. It goes without saying they are friends for life.
- Cheap cervezas.
- Not bothering with social media and going offline
- The wonderful sun and heat
- Wearing sunglasses and a hat every day because I could
- Saying hello to the locals and feeling part of a community
- Cooling sea breezes
- Knowing that life continues even when you step out of it
- Reading my kindle by the sea under setting suns
- The quiet, peace, calm and tranquility
- Clean, fresh air
- Learning about a different culture, histories and traditions
- Great food (tapas!)
- Visiting new towns and cities
What I will not miss
- Feeling stupid when I make terrible language blunders
- The oppressive August heat and 24 hour sweating
- The sound of dominoes being smashed against table tops
- Constantly barking dogs
- Being told the correct way to say something three different ways by three different people.
- Hearing of news from home and not being able to get involved (either to help or hinder)
- The inability to go for a walk in my favourite parks when the urge hit me
- Trying something new and not having someone there to share it with
What’s the next adventure to be?
I don’t think there are any big adventures on the horizon right now. I mean that in the travelling away to foreign climes type way. For me, the next adventure is surviving 2015. It is going to be a tough year but I am ready for it. In the future I hope to do a lot more travelling, I would like to see more of Spain and journey through the whole country, I would like to visit South America but that is someway off. For now, I am content to settle back in London and write my damn hands off trying to accomplish some of the projects I have in mind and improve myself as a writer. I will discuss in the second part of this blog my hopes for 2015.
I can look back and say I found comfort in my journey. I overcame most of the issues I wanted to face and if given the choice, I would do it all over again. There are countless regrets at not being more successful at some of them, the hard work I should have put in with the language, with my writing, for example, but at least I can say I gave it a damn good go. I worked incredibly hard at times and at other times I was devastatingly lazily. I tried to be part of the town and made great friends. I experienced all the things I hoped I would so in all honestly, and as smug as this may sound, it really was the year I hoped it would be. I do not regret a thing and when now people ask about the fear of hitting reality, I say I haven’t got any. I am happy with the decisions I have made and I will work hard to make a life for myself now I am back. Looking back, that is what this year gave me, more than anything else, it gave me confidence to do what I want to do.
So where do I go from here?
If you have made it this far then you should by now have guessed that this blog is my self help outlet. I never had any idea people would read it and I for the most part, keep it to writing related issues, however this post is quite personal and reflective. I have, for the most part spoken fairly generally. I felt the need to write this because I see myself as being transparent with my life now. I have made the decision to share my writing life with whoever cares to know about it and I thought it would be more therapeutic to me than writing a private journal entry. That probably doesn’t appeal to most people, I’m sure it has been like listening to the drunken tales of a stranger you are forced to sit next to on a long flight, but nevertheless it has helped me to reflect. As I mentioned before, you have to write for yourself but if people want to join the journey then that’s great.
See you in part two if you can take more punishment.
|Now I'm not saying conversations by the Mediterranean are nicer than in the office but...|
|Friend's children enjoying the sun set|
|Enjoying the outdoors after midnight and it still being warm was lovely|
|Open top roof terraces :) :) :)|
|My friend's dog taking a dip (those fish better watch out...)|
|A wonderful mixture of historic and modern within easy reach|
|When you are not in a rush why not drink everything|
|When I went to certain familiar celebrations, for instance Halloween, it was great fun, but also sad to be reminded of home|
|Cap and sunglasses were not always for protection...sometimes to hide the burns!|
|The sense of calm and reflection a peaceful walk on an empty beach gives you is one of the most powerful emotions I have felt|
|Sometimes you just have to forget about all that reflection stuff and give in to the allure of the bright lights and large g'n'ts...|
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