Vida en España: I moved to Madrid in the middle of the pandemic

Sharing an article I wrote for The Diarist PH late last year. Enjoy :)

“I am moving to Spain, and I am flying next week, October 20.”

Writing that, the first in a password-protected blog entry for my closest friends, had felt so surreal. Even now, writing by my window and looking out at my view of Madrid’s terracotta rooftops, I have that feeling of unreality, of needing to pinch myself awake. I still can’t believe I somehow managed to get myself in Spain—a country I’ve never been to, but now, as luck would have it, I live in.

Antes de pandemia (prior to the pandemic), I was learning Spanish to prepare for the foreign service exam and found out about an internship program to teach English in Madrid. It was quite a departure from my line of work. I’ve been a writer and copyeditor for over a decade, but I’ve never really found the idea of teaching to be appealing. But because life circumstances in the last two years have left me in a rut, I thought maybe it would be a good idea to explore a new path while adding to what little español I know.

I got the internship the day before Manila went into ECQ. Given how Covid-19 has pretty much canceled and decimated plans for 2020, I never imagined I would actually go. But seven months later, after quietly dealing with visa- and government red tape-related woes, and taking one too many Covid-19 RT-PCR tests, I made the 19-hour-long journey that would take me from everything comfortable and familiar to the unknown, exciting, and honestly terrifying.

I’ve always dreamed about living in a country outside the Philippines. I knew that when I finally did, leaving home wouldn’t be the easiest of experiences. But leaving in the middle of these virus-hit times, when every day was a tiresome lesson in Murphy’s Law and fear of getting the disease in a foreign country where I knew nobody dominated the mind, made it doubly hard.

My source of stress wasn’t even Covid-19, but trying to help my family come to terms with my decision. Earlier in April, we went through the worst thing a family could ever experience in a pandemic, so it didn’t help that I was flying straight into its epicenter in Europe. As I’ve also always been in the habit of making impulsive decisions (something my family is only too well aware of), support—while given—was understandably reluctant at best.

For someone used to making gut-instinct choices, choosing to leave Manila was the exact opposite. For one, this was the most time I spent weighing my decision: to go or not to go. I wanted to be absolutely sure I wasn’t doing something rash. From May through September, there were plenty of drunken and sobering Zoom conversations with friends and former mentors who helped me weigh the pros and cons of everything, from Spain’s healthcare system to its property market, to exploring a new career path and having the energy to teach kids, to not being a short plane or car ride away from immediate family.

My certainty seesawed between 20% and 70%, never hitting 90% until the day I finally got my visa. The moment I saw it on my passport, I knew: leap of faith it is.

After months of barely any movement, at a time it was practically impossible to make a big life change, I decided to try my luck and move to a new continent. This was one of the rare moments in my life where I didn’t just let fate decide—I actually went through all that trouble to really do something for myself, to go against the usual comfortable flow. I knew I could have delayed the program—a lot of participants have chosen to do so because of worrying Covid-19 figures in Madrid, and a lot of well-meaning family and friends have even advised I do this. But losing people I loved dearly in the last two years—my mentor who lived her life to the fullest and my one-week-old niece at the peak of her innocence—made me see how truly fleeting life can be. And while internship opportunities or grants like these can come again, that opportunity to really choose what was 100% true for myself in such a pivotal moment may not come again, at least not for a while. Normal life can get in the way of, well, a possibly better one.

While there was no doubt I was finally going, I constantly questioned my decision to go. Am I really doing this? Is this really happening? Really, teaching?? How are you going to balance school work with your freelance work? What the hell did you just commit to, you crazy woman?! 

There were endless questions and they visited me while I lay awake at night, on the last few days I greedily spent with family and friends, while I meditated (or tried to), in line at immigration, on the plane from Manila to Dubai, from Dubai to Madrid, and finally from the airport to the corner of the street where my new flat mate Lani welcomed me to the city.

When I first stepped outside my room’s balcony and saw the rooftops of Madrid for the very first time, all the questions disappeared. In their place, there was silence and gratitude. My “monkey mind” had finally calmed.

Excitement would come a few days later when I first walked around El Parque de Retiro, my now favorite park in Madrid, and discovered that I arrived at the height of my favorite season, autumn. Delight and awe came in bits and pieces: 8 a.m. sunrises; my first taste of churros con chocolate; one-euro tacos in a taqueria five minutes away from my flat; the discovery of a weekend flea market; seeing Picasso’s Guernica at the Museo Reina Sofia; serendipitously chancing upon the last leg of the Vuelta a España; finding a libreria (bookstore) called Desperate Literature where I found a good collection of bilingual books; finding the best sunset spot on a small hill near Palacio Real; accidentally making my way to Campo del Moro; discovering that apparently I can be a very-early morning person. Every day is a mini adventure.

Not all days have been good. While I’ve settled into my new teaching routine, trying to come up with new ideas and activities and not having all of them work can be frustrating. Dealing with surly teenagers? Like pulling teeth sometimes. Homesickness has never felt so real: I feel a lump in my throat every time I see my darling pamangkins growing bigger and more talkative by the day, and realizing I’m missing out on time spent with them. Will they still remember me? Walking around the city, I see places I know my mom would love or a place my dad and brothers would enjoy. Stumbling upon a rosaleda had me tearing up because I wanted to take my lola there because she loves roses.

I terribly miss my old routine in Manila, like Saturday brunch with the weirdos I call my friends. While I’m lucky to have been introduced to some absolutely lovely people here in Madrid, there is nothing like being with people whom you share a long history. I rediscovered it really is a life of trade-offs: you gain something while giving up some really good stuff.

Earlier this week, when I walked along the Manzanares river that snaked through Madrid, it dawned that I had hit the second-month mark. It had been raining nonstop the past week and the weather was tainted with the blues. I was descending into what my friend Karmina calls “the PMS doom and gloom” when I suddenly remembered a trip to Culion, Palawan, several years back. I was working as a journalist then and was there to cover the community work of the Society of Jesus. On my last day in the island, a now-former Jesuit priest held Mass and his homily resonated with me. He said, “Ang tamang panahon bumubunga.” The right time bears fruit. For someone who constantly feels that time—rather, timing—isn’t always her best friend, I’ve held on to his words. That day, while looking out at the river, I felt his words ring true. Everything that happened to me in the last several years, maybe even the last decade, prepared me for this. It was finally my right time.

I’ve always made it a point to start the year with a “word” or mantra. When 2020 started, in the wake of a two-year-long dance with grief, I felt I needed to work on “faith.” I promptly forgot about it during the pandemic. Faith became one of the things that Covid-19 had “canceled.”

But in hindsight, I don’t think my new reality would be possible without it. Faith was always with me. It was what made me go through the motion of sorting all my documents. Even without me really knowing it, faith kept my head above water when everything was spinning out of control. Faith was my resolve. It helped me deal with the emotional rollercoaster that came with Covid-19, and eventually, with leaving. Even today, when Covid-19 numbers are increasingly worrying across Madrid and the Philippines, faith that everything will be alright keeps me going.

I guess when you have a little faith—in yourself, in a higher power, in doing the right thing, in anything, really—it leaves room for a miracle to happen. And moving to a new continent in the middle of a pandemic, isn’t that nothing short of a miracle?

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