Why You Should Definitely Romanticize Moving Abroad

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I never planned to move to Madrid. When I visited in 2015, I knew next to nothing about the city. Almost immediately after arriving I fell in love. My heart, without me knowing it, had decided that I would live there one day. My mind had no say in the matter. Everything aligned so that I would be back in what I call, the Paris of Spain, exactly one year later.

Almudena Cathedral, photo credit: author

The romance of nostalgia

If it sounds romantic, that’s because it is.

My lofty dreams to living abroad started at a young age. The idea of living in a foreign country came in large part from my childhood. Every other summer we traveled to Iran as a family.

One of the world’s most foreign of countries.

My family moved to Chicago in 1987, when I was just four years old. In the summers we would go “home” to visit family in Iran. There were layovers in airports, usually somewhere in Europe for a few days.

Each airport or quick day trip offered something different, whether it was a special kind of candy in the Duty Free shops, or a new language on the intercoms that we had never heard before. The final destination was always the biggest treat.

I loved visiting Iran. There, I experienced a feeling of belonging, juxtaposed with the feeling of being the most foreign person in the country. I spoke Farsi fluently, but with a strange accent.

The first words out of curious strangers’ mouths were usually, Where are you from? in Farsi. I had moved to the US when I was very young, so I had a lot of questions myself.

Why does everyone drink tea so much, even in the summer?

Why do I have to cover my hair and my brother doesn’t?

How could anyone ever think this was a bad place?

There was such a visual and cultural departure from my US life that I was hooked. It was that feeling of curiosity, and craving the beauty of what history offers, that no manicured and modern construct can.

I began to romanticize living in Iran. My experience of the place was one of constant learning and fascination. It would have been a much different experience if I had stayed to live there.

Family members would assure me that life is not as exciting once we were gone. Gatherings were fewer and the reality of living in a theocratic country would quickly set in and things would look very different.

I was seeing their world through vacation goggles, they told me.

Isfahan Iran, photo credit: author

As I got older, the romance of living in Iran was redirected to other, more suitable parts of the world. I dreamed of that same feeling again, to be foreign and in a state of endless discovery.

I was 33 years old when I finally gave in and started the process to move to Madrid.

What initially prompted me in the rational world, was to learn Spanish. What inspired me and pushed me to set the wheels in motion, were the outdoor terraces, sinewy roads, and buildings with beautiful facades. I pictured myself with a juliette balcony, a glass of cava, more color in my passport pages, and endless questions.

To my delight, it has been all of that and much more magic than I could have imagined. It was the belief that this city offered the same magic of my childhood, a place of foreignness and belonging at once.

When I had visited Madrid the year before moving there, it was a subtitles only city. I took four weeks of Spanish before my first visit, enough to boost my confidence to ask for directions and order food. The subtitles were still on, but the sound came across more clearly.

Curiosity in motion is discovery.

The greatest joy of living in a foreign country has been discovery. Being
prepared is important, sure, but having no clue is way more fun. I don’t want to know how to say hammer in Spanish until I have to.

I got a lot of advice when I started talking about my plans to move.I wanted to live in the space of discovery and would not let someone’s bad experience inform my expectations.

I was grateful for the thoughtful intentions, but I had decided that my experience would be my own. I considered each piece of advice, however most of it, much like the word hammer, didn’t end up mattering at all. My circumstances, motivations, challenges were my own. Why should I expect to encounter theirs?

To give an example, one very well meaning friend told me that it will get lonely abroad. You will cry and want to come home some nights, be ready for that, he said. During my five years, this happened to me zero times. . . until a global pandemic hit, crying became a ritual, and I found myself like everyone else in the world, longing for familiarity while in isolation.

But that’s a whole different story.

During my five years in Spain, friends and friends of friends, would contact me, hoping to jump the proverbial ship of the US that had been visibly sinking for some years. I shared tips and answered questions I too had had before my move. I aimed to channel the whimsical energy of the romantic in our conversations.

This was the connection that made it possible for me to pursue my dream. I knew there had to be some of the same fairy dust sprinkled in their imagination to consider the move, not just the rational desire to escape. I included only a light dusting of horrors like bureaucracy and immigration to keep from diluting the joys of moving abroad.

Planning can quickly become administrative and unsexy. There’s legal paperwork, research, budgets, logistics, the very necessary and boring basics of a major life change.

Nothing romantic about it.

Romance over reason

If you’ve dreamed up the idea of moving to a new country. . .

Then you have already ventured into romance over reason territory! You’re about to embark on a relationship with a new life. Much like all relationships, it takes some effort to keep the flame going or things can quickly fizzle out and fall flat.

Retiro Park, Madrid, photo credit: author

Cherish what you crave. Focus on the positives and hurdle through the pain points. Those people contacting me for advice had a vision for their life, and who was I to pepper it with blinding realities?

I know someone who moved abroad only to end up having the same life as they did back home. Living in the drab suburbs of a thriving capital city with so much more to offer than long commutes and chain restaurants.

It was a life filled with traveling as often as a corporate US job would have allowed, evenings with Netflix, and a very basic grasp of the language that left her feeling isolated in many situations.

This is where romance goes to die. She chose reason over romance again and and again, until her fairytale fizzled out, leaving her terribly unhappy. You must recall your curiosity, desire, question some compromises and what reality it would create. Do your daily decisions still align with your reason to move there?

What my message here is, is that its ok to romanticize something because sometimes it’s the only way to get you to leap, and keep leaping. If I didn’t have years of longing for more hours on outdoor wicker chairs, gelato, and never feeling 100% all there, and if I had listened to naysayers, then I wouldn’t have lived the most beautiful days I could imagine.

Retiro Park in Madrid, photo credit: author

Living abroad has been everything I wanted it to be. If I had listened to reason, then I would have never taken the steps to get there. You don’t have the same childhood memories of falling in love with Iran’s bright and beautiful places.

You have your own electric memories. Those that spark the imagining of some life unlived, one that sound crazy to everyone else. Find the fuel to move towards the things you love. Start fanning the flames of the idealism, the flames that make you love what you love in the first place. It will only help you soar.

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