On Our Way
By: Robin Graham - Also see author's expat blog listingThe Mirador de San Nicolas will settle in the memory of many visitors to Spain as the emblematic moment of their stay here. At whatever time of day, but especially as night falls on the fortified citadel opposite, you can stand here and take in an exquisite view that hasn’t changed all that much for many hundreds of years; the Alhambra, that treasure of Islamic architecture, an ornate complex of homes and state rooms for the Nasrid dynasty of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, stands red and dusty at the top of a steep and forested slope. Behind it the Sierra Nevada are crowned with snow. In Autumn, the woods on the higher slopes ripple with changing colour.
The fortress looks back at you as you stand in this high part of the Albayzin – the maze of winding, white-washed streets that occupies the opposite slope and that constitutes Granada’s old, Moorish city quarter. These lanes are still home to souks and teterias – Moroccan style tea houses – but also these days to some of the best tapas bars in Spain.
This is where we fell in love with this country. It was easy – in our minds we’d already withdrawn a little from our life in Ireland. The financial crisis had had an effect on my work - in the financial sector - and sparked a bout of fairly tormented soul-searching on my part. I’d become one of those people: the ones that don’t want to be where they are, or to be doing what they’re doing. The miserable ones.
I’d been crawling towards this little break in Spain’s southern city, spending my supposedly working hours on Google Earth and any number of Granada related websites, soaking up its history and building a mental map of its best restaurants. By the time we arrived I was able to give some fellow tourists accurate directions and a recommendation for somewhere to have lunch, despite never having set foot in the place. I suppose I could have been accused of having been a little over-the-top in my preparations. Anyway, I hope they enjoyed their meal.
The truth is, though, that I’d never been on a more important journey. As I stood here with K, I felt myself fall in love with her again too. It was crunch time for us. She was also unhappy – with her job, her life in Ireland. She’s Bavarian and was less attached to the place than I am with my family connections in Dublin. On the other hand I’d spent more of my life outside Ireland than in it. We had no children. No mortgage. This was our now-or-never moment.
Over the next few months the dream fermented. We could have let it slip away – people say all sorts of things on holiday that they don’t really mean – but because K is who she is, our wishes left the space of our imaginations and found new homes on spreadsheets and to-do lists, as concrete deadlines and targets. The project assumed a reality. We reached the point where it became our declared goal. Friends and family knew what we were up to, and began the inevitable process of dividing themselves into well-wishers and naysayers.
When we thought of Spain during this time, it looked a lot like Granada. Exactly like Granada, in fact. Reality intruded at the point where K realized she would not get to pursue her own work there until she was fluent in advanced Spanish. Even given our commitment from the start to master the language, that is some years away. Gibraltar gradually asserted itself as the shrewd place for her to look for a job – a British enclave at the southern tip of Spain, her qualifications would mean something there and the language spoken in its offices is English.
It could serve as a foothold for us on the peninsula, while we learned the language and I worked as an English teacher in the local area, so she concentrated her efforts on The Rock, which meant it was back to Google Earth to find a place to live. I can’t recommend the spreadsheets and lists strongly enough – they give a veneer of rationality to what is in essence a form of madness: remotely searching an unknown corner of a foreign country for a home, using proprietary software based largely on aerial photography.
We dismissed the obvious choice - the Costa del Sol, a conurbation of coastal resorts and developments that stretches from Málaga to Marbella and beyond. It held no romance for us, and while we had adjusted our plans to include Gibraltar on the basis of practicality, we were clear on one point – this was to be a romance. An adventure, not some litany of sensible decisions. So we looked west, along the wilder Atlantic coast of Cádiz province, and became intrigued with the photos and street level imaging of the little town which sits right at Spain’s southern tip – Tarifa.
Tarifa ticked a few boxes – it certainly didn’t hurt that the cobbled lanes of its old town reminded us of the Albayzin. It is surrounded by National Park and the skies above it are filled with kestrels, vultures and eagles. The same strong winds that attract the kite-surfers keep the hordes of package holiday makers away, so for most of the year it’s a quiet place.
The following summer, I moved here, having secured a teaching job in nearby Algeciras. I was alone: K was still trawling the Gibraltar job market. We had to separate to make the thing happen. It was terrifying, of course, but I arrived equipped with my trusty to-do list and plenty to keep me occupied: starting work, house hunting, registering with the police (mandatory), social security, health services and so on. It was just as well to be busy, with the uncertainty of K’s situation hanging over us.
It was the most difficult time. For us at any rate, doing something like this had required months of winding ourselves up with military grade planning and strategizing, as well as a thousand breathless, wishy conversations – on the day that my feet touched Spanish soil as an immigrant for the first time, I was running on autopilot, mercifully unable to stop and actually think about what I was doing; if I had, I probably wouldn’t have done it. For the following couple of months I got things wrong and I got things right. Mostly right, but even so the spectre of K’s failing to find work hung over everything.
I felt like a diver with an ever diminishing supply of oxygen, and only God knows how she felt back in Ireland, packing up for a new life she hadn’t yet secured – a houseful of things, the amassed clutter of a life to be wrapped up and packed in boxes. Again, very important to avoid thinking about what we were up to, at this stage. The decisions had been taken, the commitments made. It was a doing time. If you’re planning something similar and don’t have a ready supply of either faith or optimism, get one.
I write this on the morning after the second anniversary of K’s arrival in Spain. She got her job in the end. Two months after I got here, she did, having driven the length of the country in a battered old Fiat Seicento and a bootful of bedding, bits and assorted bobs. She had driven a thousand kilometres outside her comfort zone. Now I had her back. I could breath again. We could begin.
We went for an Italian last night – we’ve been here long enough now to leave the delicious Spanish cuisine aside from time to time and enjoy some foreign food. Tarifa has an excellent Italian and we’re known there. It was important for us to celebrate the occasion; every sip of wine was a toast. To us. To two years. To making it this far. But, much more importantly, to the future. To continued success. To reaching new goals.
The conversation might have been about any number of moments along the way. Down at the water on a moonlit night, stepping across the silver sand to take her by the hand. Sitting up on the dune and watching the night fishermen. Stepping through the candy striped columns of Córdoba’s great mosque. Our numerous returns to that city of pomegranates, plazuelas and patios, our beloved Granada.
We might have congratulated ourselves on our little triumphs: unpacking our things in a new home, the little steps forward we’ve taken with the language, the people we’ve met, the things we’ve seen, the lessons we’ve learned
But we didn’t. Both of us have already set our sights on the next round. We are voracious wanting machines. We want life writ large, we want to be unemployed (in a nice way), we want more. We want children, and imagine dragging them up by the scruff of their hopefully cultured necks in Granada. I have a bad case of anxiety about getting my act together for such an eventuality; I can feel the hard stare of mortality between my shoulder blades. One day, unless I’m run over, I will have to navigate old age. My thoughts turn towards it now. I feel time poor – I’ve only just decided what I want to do when I grow up, and I’m not doing it yet, so I’m in a hurry.
The truth is that moving out here was never going to be the end. It was the beginning. We took on more than another country, another culture. We took on a commitment to live. To try. We embraced an uncertain future because we wanted a wonderful life. The mechanics of achieving a major relocation are important, of course, but they were never the point. It’s a mistake to make the practical the focus of your attention. If you were a practical person you wouldn’t be doing this.
As we were preparing for the move, people lined up to discourage us. Ironically, this included people who had done the same thing themselves, lambasting us with negatives via internet forums. You don’t speak Spanish. Spain is a mess. You don’t have an exit strategy. It’s the wrong time. You don’t have enough money. It’s foolhardy. It isn’t sensible. It isn’t realistic.
It was all true of course, and yet here we are - alive and kicking, a decent level of Spanish, a small number of emerging and hard-earned friendships. An utterly transformed outlook. A totally new sense of what can be achieved, of what we can do. An incredible sense of accomplishment and a newfound hunger for more. If the whole thing went wrong tomorrow we’d be glad we did it, and if we’d never tried it would always, always be a regret.
So, on the practical front, I have nothing for you. Chances are there’s a forum out there for the country you have your eyes on. Just make sure you don’t listen to the negativity. Get the information you need but with a view to following your heart, not your head. You’re a grown-up, presumably. You know what a practicality looks like. When one comes along, deal with it. Better still, do your homework - see it coming. But never, ever be put off by opinions – the only one that counts, is yours.
Don’t move anywhere you’re not in love with, if you can help it. If you have to, try to fall in love with it when you get there. It will be one of the great romances of your life. Take an interest in your new home. Learn the language. I’m going to say that again. Learn the language.
And don’t expect to be fulfilled if you make it. The experience will just activate you; you’ll want more. There is no we-did-it moment – it’s better than that: you get a whole series of we-did-it moments. It’s called the rest of your life.
This isn’t about a goal, it’s about a process. After all, when we set out on our journey two years ago, our destination was the place where we stood when the idea was born – Granada.
And we’re still on our way.
About the author:Robin Graham is a writer based in Tarifa in the south of Spain. He writes regularly for The Spain Scoop and his stories have been featured by the Matador network, The Expeditioner and In Madrid, amongst others. His photography has been featured in Lonely Planet magazine and the Telegraph online. He runs an award winning blog at www.alotofwind.com.
Blog address: http://alotofwind.com/ Twitter: @RobinJGraham
Contest Comments » There are 27 comments
Robin may call his blog A Lot of Wind after his adopted home town of Tarifa but his writing style makes that a misnomer: it's a gentle breeze to read and his refreshing take on Spain is a restorative zephyr on an airless summer day.
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to leave such encouraging and even overwhelming comments here - it means a lot!
Even the best laid plans don´t always work out as we hope. Adjusting to a new place can through up unexpected challenges. Great frank piece of writing!
Knowling the author at the time he set of on his voyage makes the story more rewarding to read, knowing that he has and is still achieving his dreams...good luck Robin
Well written and from the heart.This piece is an inspiration to all those wanting to change their lives.
Love this romantic story - and very curious to visit Tarifa now.
As someone who never felt anchored anywhere for too long, I find it stunningly awesome that I've learned to live in a place where I once had limited language knowledge, no friends and no clue what to do next. Still working on the last part, but I loved this poginant story. Nice work, R.
Before I read this, I had little interest in returning to Tarifa - a place I'd stopped by on a brief Andalusian adventure. Sometime last Millennium. But Robin's sold me the place. Intensely passionate about his expat experience, he goes to show that salesmen needn't be loathsome.
An honest and superbly written account of a journey that many expats can relate to and which may inspire others
Utterly delightful Robin, a true masterpiece - full beautiful days to you and K :) Having done a few similar journeys .. UK to Sweden for 3 years, Spain for 3 years, and now my 'somewhat colder Paradise' of Sweden again..I have experienced the highs and lows of 'the international' journeys of life, the romance (and divorce) also.. But the adventures are not regretted in any way, but rememberd with love, for all the wonderful people I have had the good fortune to share some time with-I love you all:) Make every day matter dear friends.... Huge love F
A lovely piece about love and dedication, I found myself relating to this very much. I admire what you guys have done so far, and am sure that a beautiful next chapter is yet to unfold in Granada. Maybe we'll see you there some day!
Robin, your preparations make me feel very small, still wet behind the ears, I hitch-hiked down to Calella, some 50 Km north of Barcelona in April many, many years ago. The intention was to stay for 6 months, taste some of the (in)famous sun, sea and sex and then go back to a "real" job in a "real" place. That was well over 40 years ago and, just to date me a little more, Paco was still alive and kicking and signing death penalties. Your description of Southern Spain, which I did not visit till many years later, must make anybody want to take a trip and try to see things through your, very observant eyes. I thoroughly enjoyed your little piece and will, time permitting, follow your writings. Cheers,
Very, very well put. One of my most favorite parts "And don’t expect to be fulfilled if you make it. The experience will just activate you; you’ll want more. There is no we-did-it moment – it’s better than that: you get a whole series of we-did-it moments. It’s called the rest of your life." Thanks for a great piece!
Sometimes I need a kick in the butt to never give up my dream to move to Southern Spain.Having been an expat several times in the past I do wonder from time to time if it's worth the hassle. Reading your text made me realise that being happy is a priority and all the rest just temporary obstacles on the way.Thank you for making me put that into perspective. ¡Buena suerte!
What a beautiful love story. You have a wonderful way with words Robin. As you say "This isn’t about a goal, it’s about a process." It's about a new life ... one that many of us love. Long may your love affair with Spain continue ...
The Mirador St Nichola certainly has settled in my memory because we got married in the church there and our wedding photos have that amazing view as the backdrop. I didnt want a church wedding but conceded on the condition we got married in that church. My wonderful wife organised it together with a flamenco choir and I tell you it was the best wedding I've ever been too!!
A great insight into your experience, I really enjoyed reading it. At 24 When I moved to the US, it seemed easy. Now, almost 20 years later, the idea of uprooting and moving to new a new country seem like a much more massive undertaking. Well done to you both for following your hearts and believing in your dreams, and good luck for the future!
It shows great strength of character to be able to make it through all of that and come out smiling. We have gone through much the same things too, beautifully written.
Good for you for following your heart!
Such a great story and wonderfully written.
I enjoyed reading your and K's story – I realized I didn't know some of the foundational pieces. Your writing is always such a nice balance of touching, funny and inspirational.
Such a fulfilling read. Open, honest and in parts quite intimidating. Moving is not simply leaving. The idea itself is a journey. Very intuitive and interesting. I can also her your voice Robin, which makes it more personal somehow.
Beautifully written and expressing many anxieties that most expats feel when thinking of moving to another country and way of life. This is a beautiful love story, not just about Robin´s love for K, but also about their love for life. Always remember - some people are so poor, all they have is money :)
A beautiful account of a (continuing) journey. I hope this will be an inspiration to anybody who wants to follow their dream. Thanks, Robin
You're such a great story-teller, Robin! Congrats on making it this far!
Really lovely writing, I MUST venture down that way some day!
Thanks for the reassurance and inspiration :-)