A Breath of Fresh Air

I love living in a big city like Madrid.

The busy, loud atmosphere is one that I thoroughly enjoy – there is always something to do or see. I love walking through the streets in order to go places, feeling the heartbeat of the city as I walk (not having to drive everywhere is so LIBERATING). I also love navigating public transportation, which maybe is a little strange – but in my mind it’s kind of like a puzzle. (Note: one of the things I look forward to each day is jamming to pre-selected tunes on the metro during my morning commute. If you have any music recommendations, let me know)!

Despite all these wonderful things, I miss the great outdoors – with things like clean, fresh air, wide open spaces, mountains, and scenic views. I don’t prefer one over the other – city to countryside – because in my mind, they both have their own distinct appeal. But after living in a mountainous region for the past four years and taking great advantage of opportunities there, the arrival of crisp fall weather in Madrid brought a certain wistfulness for the Ozarks. I decided to address this with an adventure into the Spanish countryside.

Through the advice of a friend and the help of Facebook, I signed up for a group hiking trip. I wasn’t sure what to expect – but Saturday morning, I woke up early, put on several layers, and made my way to the bus terminal to meet the group. There was a forecast for potential rain, so I sent up a prayer against bad weather to the universe as I made my way uptown.

After meeting everyone at the terminal, we embarked for Bustarviejo, which is about an hour and a half bus trip outside Madrid. This is where we would begin our trek. The trip went by delightfully quick due to great conversation, and before I knew it we were in the little mountain town. We then headed down one of the cobblestone roads to a little cafetería to grab some coffee and do official introductions before we started our route. Afterwards, we zipped our backpacks up and set out into la Sierra Norte de Madrid.

At the beginning of the trip, one of my new friends remarked, “the air out here smells SO good!” And it was true – the fresh air did wonders for all of us who live in the city. It was clean and thin, and the sun was thankfully bright in the sky for the majority of the hike (and no rain)! The mountain air was chilly and windy, but not unbearable. Craggy rocks flanked the gravel trail as we ascended, and as we got higher and higher, the view got better and better. I felt lighter inside – from the pure air, the rural beauty, and new friends to share and experience it all with. It was an ideal situation. My soul were refreshed as we trekked through the morning and afternoon, chatting and joking and laughing and snacking (on PB&J, jamón chips, bananas, and yes, three kinds of chocolate) the whole way.

We descended down through a forest, with tall pine trees and a mossy, rocky path. The air was damp and thick and we all had to shed at least a layer (if not two). Yellow plants bloomed among the fallen orange pine needles, creating a beautiful carpet of fall colors. Eventually, we ended up at a highway, which we followed to a bit to a roadside bar. We shared a round of drinks, took a group picture, and then found our way to the nearest bus stop. The bus ride home was quieter because of everyone’s mutual exhaustion, but I was able to reflect and be grateful for the time I was able to spend in the countryside and the people with whom I was able to connect.

Coming back to the busy city after the adventure in Bustarviejo gave me a deeper appreciation for where I live. When I returned, I felt energized by the electric hum of the metro as I made my way back downtown, riding the line in communion with strangers whose lives are as complex as my own. I texted my new friends from the hike, conversing about future hikes or activities in the city that we could do together in the near future. I called a friend from home and had a wonderful conversation about life on a park bench in the middle of a busy street.

And maybe this is one of the things I am trying to convey with my account of this experience: that beauty can be found everywhere, but different perspectives are often necessary to bring unrealized beauty to our attention. I want to appreciate each individual experience and situation in my life, but sometimes getting in a comfortable routine can blind me from everyday things that have the possibility to inspire and encourage. Sometimes, I think it is necessary to retreat for a bit and clear our minds (whatever that looks like for each individual), to make new connections with people with different lives than us, and take a breath of fresh air that isn’t what we’re used to. Because when we return to our daily lives, the things we love most about where we are will be even more present in our hearts.

If you have any thoughts or a story from your own life about this topic, I’d love to hear about it! You can share with me over on my contact page, or feel free to tweet me.

The Unexpected

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Accompanying the move to an unfamiliar place is the scary and exciting potential of reinvention and reestablishment. Maybe you’ve experienced this at some level, the sensation of essential self-reliance as you forge ahead on the new frontier, whatever/wherever that has been for you. The realization of – “no one really knows me here” – can beget two very different and opposing mindsets: (1) either a sense of freedom, opportunity for growth, and new adventure, or (2) a sense of fear and invisibility as you walk among unfamiliar faces, always trying to find genuine connection in spite of loneliness. Or sometimes, these two come as a pair, and the choice to make is which one to focus. (Kind of like that often-repeated Native American proverb that you see on a poster in some highway-side diner or gas station in the states).

Since moving to Europe, I’ve been in both of these mindsets (at times, even during the same day)! I don’t think they are opposite feelings, but that maybe even they go together most of the time. Each day, I try to consciously focus my energy on the first. This is not only a more positive step for my well-being, but it also helps me to be the better version of myself. I can continue the progression towards the person I want to be. Also, opening myself up to the unexpected and unfamiliar has put me in the path of beauty and yes, even thinness. I want to share a few anecdotes of how that has happened and how I have been inspired.

Each morning, I choose to seek wonder in the day-to-day. I don’t want to take my life here for granted. Whether it’s choosing to take the longer yet more scenic route on my way home, moving my homework spot from my apartment desk to a newly-discovered cafetería or a patch of glorious sunlight in a park, or simply choosing a bench in a busy area to unplug from my Spotify playlist, sit, breathe deeply, and observe as people go about their individual lives – I want to take time each day to reflect and enjoy life amidst the hubbub of the big city.

When random opportunities come my way, I try to say yes in the face of uncertainty. (I want to add in a note for my loved ones: I do this in a thoughtful and safe way, so no need to worry – I know what you’re thinking, Mom). I have a few stories for this one, but I’ll share one for now. A few weeks ago, I met a woman who invited me to volunteer at a tea party fundraiser she was doing. Being new to the city, I definitely had no prior plans, so I accepted. On that morning, I caught the metro, a bit nervous and not knowing at all what to expect when I arrived. After meeting my fellow volunteers, I was thrown into the event and found my place in a tiny church kitchen, furiously making hundreds of tiny sandwiches and keeping 7 tea kettles constantly brewing with Earl Grey. It was such a long and tiring day, but I felt so content – working SUPER hard with other people towards a common goal, collaborating and helping each other in dynamic ways – for me, it was so refreshing and fun. And the community I met was incredibly welcoming – from pouring champagne for each other in tea cups in-between shifts, smashing dozens of loaves of bread for sandwich prep, eating scones and jam and excess cake and laughing all the while – I left feeling so grateful to have said yes to the initial invitation.

I have also been working on being more aware of the world around me. This one definitely ties into my first point of seeking wonder, but I have a specific example to accompany this one. One evening, I attended a information fair/party to learn more about English speaking organizations and clubs in the city. After talking to a ton of booths, I pushed through the crowd to get a drink and caught a glimpse a tiny sign with an arrow that said “LIBRARY THIS WAY” leading into the hallway of a building. Being an book-lover myself, I forgot my drink and made my way through the masses of people to investigate further. The sign led me to a small room with shelves lining the walls, with hundreds and hundreds of English books stacked high to the ceiling. The lady at the desk greeted me kindly, and we got to talking about pretty much every topic under the sun. Fast-forward to one week later: I became a member of this little library. Now, I go once (if not twice) a week to check out books and visit with/help out my librarian friends, who welcome me with genuine smiles and update me on the happenings with the library and themselves. They inquire about my life, give me advice, encouragement, coupons, and (of course) book recommendations. This library has become a thin place for me, because it is warm and safe, full of two of my favorite things (books and friends), and I know that I will always be welcome to pull up a chair and connect with kind people. I know I am accepted and welcomed there. Going back to that night, if I would have overlooked that little sign with the arrow, or just been apathetic and didn’t follow where it led, my life here would be different. I want always keep my eyes open and be aware of these little corridors I might come across, like the dim corridor that led me to the library – the mysterious and beautiful corridors that we all happen across at some point in life. (I’m planning on doing a post about the library in the near future, so if you’re interested in hearing more about it, you’re in luck).

I’m glad to share these things on this blog, and I hope they give you some new food for thought or spark something within you. By trying to put myself in this mindset as I navigate my new home and life, a lot of unexpected avenues have opened up that I would not have expected three months ago. But they are full of beauty, wonder, genuine people, and new beginnings. It’s exhilarating to think what adventures could be lying ahead, and who or what I could encounter next! Yes, there is fear and there is freedom in reinvention and reestablishment – and overall, an astounding amount of personal growth. I am grateful for the total experience.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. You can share with me over on my contact page, or feel free to tweet me.