11 Lessons from a Year in a 6,000 Pueblo

I learned a lot this year, almost all of it the hard way.  Stripped of most of the things that make me happy, I learned the value of what we take for granted.

I was alone with very few friends in a stagnating village, unable to change my scholarship, unable to move to another city and unwilling to give up and come home.  The conclusions I have drawn in the last year may seem obvious to most, but I assure you they are all borne from deep experience.  So here they are, in no particular order – except for the first ; )

Mark’s Seemingly Obvious, Painfully Realized Conclusions from One Year in Spain

1) Friends and family are vital – When someone moves abroad, he temporarily gives up his friendships back home because he assumes he will make new friends in his new home.  But I miscalculated this one.  As I’ve previously described, there were only a handful of people my age in the town, all genuinely good people but none able to replace my friends I’d left in California.  Arévalo was a small town with no university, very little economy, and few prospects for ambitious young people so most people between 18-30 years of age left the town.  My four roommates dwindled to one, then none and I suddenly found myself all alone in the middle of rural Spain, praying to be reunited with my friends as soon as possible.

I constantly thought back to my time at UCLA, when I was constantly surrounded by friends and even made Social Chairman of my fraternity.  But because I had 30,000 students around me, each individual person’s significance can be diluted by the sheer number of other people.  You meet a great girl at a party, but lose her in the crowd five minutes later but it doesn’t matter because there are many fish in the sea.  Arévalo was a small pond with few fish.  Living in a 6,000 person town with a half dozen friends showed me how valuable every person is, that we should never treat people like they are disposable or replaceable.  We must bring small-town-style friendships to the crowds of our biggest cities.

2) Your Environment is Everything – I didn’t realize this until I’d moved into a negative environment.  All my life I have lived amongst successful people, from my family to my high school friends to my classmates at UCLA.  Being around successful, motivated and intelligent people encourages you to reach your best and provides you with stimulation.  In Arévalo, my sole roommate was so lazy he could hardly get off the couch to defrost his frozen dinner, the nearest intellectual conversations I could find were at my friends’ apartment an hour away, and, for lack of options I was forced to – eh-hem – stimulate myself.  Intellectually, that is.  I read a lot, studied Spanish a lot, but quickly realized the limitations of self-study in hermit-like reclusion.  That brings me to my next conclusion…

3) Living Alone Strengthens You, Maddens You, and Shows You What a Lazy Slob You Really Are  – At least in my case… In the absence of friends, I grew stronger by reducing my dependency on others for happiness.  A walk through town, smiling and chatting with the local villagers can overcome loneliness better than 2,000 peripheral Facebook friends and a dozen missed calls on your cellphone.  But solitude also maddens you – I talked to myself more than I’d like to admit and often longed for company and conversation, which goes back to conclusion #1.

[On a quick aside, I actually lived next to an insane asylum last year so most of the people walking past my apartment had serious mental issues.  This negatively affected me and a few times I thought I was going to lose it as well, so I conclude that living with crazy people makes you a little crazy as well.]

But above all, living alone forces you to come to terms with your most negative habits.  If the kitchen is dirty, it’s not because your roommate is a slob – it’s because you are lazy.  I have always relied on workout partners for fitness, roommates for cleaning the apartment, a buddy for cooking dinner et cetera.  This year I was forced to do this all on my own.

4) Live in the Moment, Not the Future and Especially Not the Past
For the first time in my life, I disliked the present moment.  All I wanted was to ride out the experience and move onto something else.  I reminisced about my travels in Asia, I dreamt about my future travels, and I lost myself by surfing the internet.  In this way, months slipped by as I distracted myself from my situation – that is, from my life.  The future, the past, the internet – none of these are realities.  The only thing that is real is this very moment, the room you are in the people you are talking to.  Focusing on anything else is mere distraction.

5) Travel Towards Something, Never Away From Anything
Every long-term traveler will eventually have to confront this dilemma.  I left home in search of certain truths, experiences and knowledge I could only find overseas.  I was running towards something.  I came to Spain to learn Spanish, to explore Western Europe, to spend time reading and writing.  But I so disliked my present reality that I began traveling every weekend merely to escape my village.  By mid-February I was burnt out from incessant travel, wondering why I found so little pleasure in something that had previously defined my life.  I took a break from traveling, reassessed my priorities and by the end of the year I resumed running towards my travel goals.

6) Busyness Beats Leisure After One Week
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, not his Decade Off.  Too much play and not enough work makes Jack a dull boy.  Without the toil of work, leisure becomes boring and after a year of working 12 hours a week, I have had more free time than I knew what to do with.  I’d prefer to join sports teams, organize social events, learn how to sail, surf more, sign up for French lessons and continue practicing my Spanish.  I’ll have less time to write, but it will be more compressed and therefore more efficiently utilized time.   

7) You Gotta Run Your Own Race
I was one of the only foreigners in Arévalo and my values and lifestyle differed substantially from my neighbors – especially my love of travel.  My town was not far from the Portuguese border, yet many people had never left Spain and some thought I was crazy for traveling so much.  I saw the proximity of such contrasting cultures made it impossible not to explore Europe, but I began playing down my travel experiences in order not to provoke misunderstanding or jealousy.  I ultimately realized that I could not hide my great adventures, denying their existence was denying a part of my own identity.  I was a nomad amongst sedentary villagers, but I can’t be ashamed of who I am or what I’ve done.

8) Life is Short – You Must Take Control of Your Own Destiny
This one is huge. When I first arrived in Arévalo, I had tried to move to a bigger city but I was unable to commute to work so I abandoned all attempts to improve my situation and resigned myself to a having a somewhat shitty year.  Life is too short to spend even a day living in an unpleasant way.  I realized this only months later, when springtime came and I found that we cannot change the hand we’re dealt, only the way we react to it.  Eventually I simply decided to be happy.  I came up with a list of small things that brought joy to my unpleasant living situation.  Running in the morning, walking in the wheat fields outside of town, dressing up smartly even if no one would see me, making my bed and tidying an apartment that no one would ever see et cetera.  I learned the daily habits that made me feel happy, productive, and worthwhile and I’ve repeated them every day since. 

9) Make Peace with What You Can’t Change 
But there were some things I could not change.  I couldn’t switch towns, I couldn’t become fluent in Spanish overnight, I couldn’t write the Great American Novel at age 23 – but that’s okay.  As the year came to a close, I learned to appreciate the town’s beauty, serenity, and lovely people.  I made peace with my gradual progression towards my goals, finding joy in the process of improving rather than the anxiously demanding the fruits of my labor.  In short, I made the best of my situation and stopped trying to change what’s beyond my control.

10) Experience is the Best Teacher of All
I thought I already knew this, but it wasn’t until I spent a year in Arévalo and read Zorba the Greek that it really hit home.  Zorba, the hero of this excellent 20th century classic, teaches the protagonist how to live life to the fullest.  The protagonist is obsessed with books, studying the Buddhist scriptures for happiness and wisdom, but Zorba shows him that by spending one’s life cocooned in books prevents you from having the experiences (and mistakes) that ultimately teach you the most.  In my desire to improve my situation, I read many philosophy books, in my desire to learn Spanish I studied many grammatical books.  But nothing taught me more than simply closing my books and getting out there in the world.

11) Everyone Gets Lost Occasionally
 At the end of the year, I didn’t really know what I was doing anymore or why I was doing it.  My original intentions of continuing my free-spirited travels, learning from the open book of the world and practicing writing had led me to a year of stagnation in Arévalo.  I was lost, as happens to us all at one point or another.  I had to find my way again, and so I chose to follow The Way of St. James – that is, El Camino de Santiago.

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