Spanish lessons in Medellin
Dear January 1st Becca,
Tomorrow you leave on a six-month trip to Colombia. I know you are both heart-poundingly excited and sleepless with anxiety. What will Colombia be like? How will traveling as a family go? Will you be able to write? You have conflicting visions of how this crazy plan will go down. In one, you serenely tap at a laptop with palm fronds blowing over the ocean in the background, the sound of children’s laughter surrounding you. In another, you are decompensating into a puddle of humanity in a remote, uncomfortable corner of the world, your three co-travelers looming malevolently over you. And of course you’re wondering what is going to surprise you.
A lot, my Beautifully Innocent Past-Me. A lot.
I can’t live your life for you, because I already did. And I don’t want to spoil your adventure by giving too much away. But if you will indulge me, I’d like to provide you a couple pieces of advice to make these next six months the teensiest, tiniest bit easier.
1. Invest in friends.
The ones back home, of course. Their emails and posts and Skype calls will keep you tethered to your life, in a good way. When you or someone near you starts decompensating into that puddle — which will happen, by the way, in every possible scenario, regardless of choices you make, because you are all fragile and you are all far from home — those friends will have your back. They will provide the support and pep talks and butt-whuppings that you need to keep soldiering on.
But also invest in friends in Colombia. There is a potential scenario where you leave a town you’ve lived in for four months without making a single friend. No one to hand off your extra books and clothes to. No going-away dinner or send-off. No one. I know you cannot believe how this could possibly happen to your family of all families, the family that makes friends while pumping gas, for goodness sake, but there is a path that leads here.
And your family needs friends. Really needs them. Find Jack some buddies to run around and make noise with. Eric could people he can go dancing with. You and Retta can meet people that pull you out of your books and hobbies and keep you hooked into this life. Sure, it’d be awesome if they were Colombian and contributed to your “living local” goal, but don’t be picky. Befriending those Dutch or Polish or Kiwi ex-pats — the ones who would seem foreign at home but are embarrassingly familiar in Colombia — is not cheating.
2. Embrace the easy.
You will be swamped in a tidal wave of vulnerability. You will be exhausted and worn down by the everyday difficulties of life: how to buy food and how to get from one place to another and where in this crazy town can you buy nail clippers. It won’t be Syria-hard, where it was a full-day activity just to find a hotel in Damascus in 1998. But it will be hard enough. It will grind at you. So take the easy way whenever you can, and do it without guilt. Don’t get obsessive about “wasting opportunities.” You’ve been outside. You’ve shopped at the central market. You’ve been to the museum. It’s okay to stay in. Pay extra. Hide. Indulge. Skip it. Because this trip is not meant to be an endurance test. You don’t need to prove your toughness — or anything, really — to anyone. Right? Right.
3. Lower your expectations.
Yes, I know you think you’re being realistic already. You know that you won’t write a novel and come back fluent in Spanish. That your children won’t spend five hours a day in educational pursuits. That you won’t have a complete personality transplant and return the unflappable, present-focused Zen-master you aim to be. But take it down a few more notches. Plan to come back speaking a little bit of Spanish, enough to navigate a taxi in Tijuana or order food in Coachella. I have the plan to write some beginner-level pieces about this trip, and a lot of stuff that stinks. To let your kids watch way more television than they should and learn absolutely nothing about Colombian history. Plan to learn one or two things about who you are deep inside.
4. Beware of inertia
You will learn soon that you have an unhelpful tendency to stick to a path for a few minutes (or months) too long. I know you like having a plan, and putting down roots, and being loyal to your word. But sometimes the best experiences, the most satisfying or eye-opening moments, are the digressions.
So choose a path and make a plan. Enroll in school. Sign a lease on an apartment. Tell your family and friends to buy plane tickets. But when something else beckons, answer the call. When at first you don’t succeed, try again, of course. But if it still doesn’t work, chuck your plan in the trash and do something completely different. Learn — early on — to stop the taxi when you see an interesting restaurant, to stay an extra few days when you like a place, to walk away from the sunk costs of tuition or plane tickets instead of slogging through something that’s no longer feeding your soul. This time is short and precious and not meant to be spent gritting your teeth on a path that is no longer right.
Brave and Beloved Past-Me, I know you are too smart and experienced to expect six-months of Club-Med-like ease, of sunshine and roses and unicorns with fairy dust. And you’re right. There will be life-altering moments of painful clarity, vast swaths of self-doubt, uphill battles against ennui and cynicism and other primordial components of your personality, and even the occasional tango with regret. But it’s cool. You will get more out of this experience than you ever imagined.
PS If you happen to see Next Winter Becca, can you ask her to drop me a note? I could use some advice on navigating this coming-home part. It’s lovely, of course, but… well, you have enough on your plate and you’ll see soon enough.