Leap Year

Travel is one thing. But uprooting your family and moving abroad is a much deeper plunge into adventure.

Jan 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

Illustration by Jorge Colombo

WE AT LAST ALIGHTED on the south coast of Spain. A family of four from America, traipsing through the Málaga airport with overstuffed daypacks and four bulging duffels, four bulging bicycle boxes, and two sturdy computer cartons. Disheveled and greasy with the residua of transit, so exhausted that our two daughters' heads were bobbing, in any other country (especially our own) our huddled little mass would have been easy prey for customs officials with a taste for harassing tired refugees. Fortunately, this was España. The officers had trim Franco outfits but a languid indifference, and we barreled our laden carts straight out into a sweltering Iberian afternoon, no one even bothering to check our passports.

We had hoped to catch a bus, train, or taxi up the Mediterranean coast to our destination, the pueblo of Salobreña, but none would accommodate our small mountain of possessions. Instead, we rented an absurdly large moving van, loaded up our bags, squeezed into the cab, and set off just after dark along a winding contour line of asphalt. My wife and girls fell instantly into dreams while I navigated a causeway suspended between an indigo sky and the sable sea, two voluptuous bodies winking at each other like old lovers.

Creeping into Salobreña, I parked by moonlight and woke my family. The air was moist and perfumed with jasmine. It was not possible to drive to our new house. The road coming up from below was six feet wide, and the "street" dropping down steep steps from above was about the width of my shoulders—"la calle más estrecha de Salobreña," the narrowest passageway in town. So we half-sleepwalked up the cobblestone lane to our oblong courtyard, gladly leaving our ponderous luggage in the van. Traveling light we were not, but then we weren't traveling—we were moving.

At noon the next day, eyelids heavy from jet lag and cascades of sunshine, we set about exploring. Our new casa was old whitewashed stucco, and its big windows faced south, like all the other houses built into the hillside. We shared walls with our neighbors, who shared walls with theirs, and so on—a contiguous community called El Barrio de la Fuente, situated just below the ruins of a tenth-century Moorish castle. There were stone-tile floors and ceramic-tile walls, a porch lined with potted plants, and two terraces: a lower one, which looked out over a clanking welding shop and the town park, and another on the rooftop, affording a 270-degree panorama. To the west spread the hazy, azure Mediterranean, with Africa out there somewhere; straight ahead, to the south, the ancient alluvial sugarcane fields and the new condos inexorably consuming them; and to the east, the dusty brown foothills of the Alpujarras set against the cool whaleback of the Sierra Nevada.

It didn't feel like home, but that was the point.

THREE MONTHS LATER, as I look out from the wide-open window of my office-cum-living room, the mercurial seascape is flat navy blue, as unmoving as an abstract painting. It is late morning, and my daughters, Addi, 11, and Teal, 9, have caught the bus to their Spanish school, their backpacks stuffed with heavy textbooks. Sue, my wife, is taking a long run on the beach and then circling back to buy fresh shrimp for supper. Magdalena, our octogenarian neighbor, who is tinier than Teal, has taken her wee, blind, crippled, octogenarian dog—a beast whose bark sounds exactly like a baby crying (I've daydreamed of surreptitiously easing it into the afterlife)—for a walk, in her arms. Next door, infirm Antonia has flung a pail of mop water into the courtyard, and her grandson is feeding the bright, egg-size canaries in the rock cave beneath her house. Belinda, behind us, is bellowing from her terrace at little Manuelito, in the park two blocks away, to come home. El panadero has made his house-to-house deliveries with the large sack of baguettes; the propane-gas man has lugged an orange canister up to our front grate; el cartero, who buzzes around town on a yellow moped outfitted with yellow saddlebags, has delivered our day's mail from the States. And my father has sent an e-mail telling me not to worry—he fixed the toilet in our house, which churlishly broke after we left Wyoming.

So I guess we've settled in.

Sue and I talked for years about moving abroad, scheming and dreaming and putting money aside. It was part of my family history—when I was 13, my family moved to northern Holland for a year; my father, a mathematician, was on sabbatical. Although we spoke not a word of Dutch, all six of us kids were plunged directly into local schools. We floundered valiantly out of sheer desperation, quickly learned how to float with just a few words, began to kick a bit, then dog-paddled, and eventually swam (not gracefully, but passably). Submerged in a new culture, that one year abroad altered us all. The world would forevermore be beckoning—vast beyond imagination, resplendent and revolting, perplexingly complex, contradictory, ceaselessly intriguing. Sue and I wanted our girls to have their own eye-widening opportunity.

Being a writer, I'm fortunate enough to have a transplantable job, so that wasn't an obstacle. And yet life got in the way and the years clicked by until one day we looked up, noticed that Addi and Teal were half grown, and realized that it was now or never. It was a simple decision, really: In six months we would leave on a yearlong sojourn. Thereafter, each piece more or less fit into an unfinished puzzle that we solved as we went along.

The high plains of Wyoming are rightfully famous for their brutal weather, and we all agreed that we wanted a change of climate. Sue is fluent in Spanish, hence a Spanish-speaking country seemed sensible. Beyond that, each of us had personal criteria. Sue wanted the girls to learn classic Castilian—the most widely used form of Spanish—versus Catalan, Galician, or Basque. I wanted to be no more than one hour from the mountains and, for my work, no more than two from an international airport. Addi and Teal, realizing we were presumptuously making decisions for them and convinced that they had thus far led deprived childhoods, living 1,200 miles from the nearest ocean, insisted that we be no more than an hour from the beach.

In this way, we chose Spain.

Unspoken but understood was that we wanted a community small enough to perambulate but that also had DSL. A community that was still Spanish—not an expat colony of Brits, Swedes, or Germans—but wasn't hidebound in medieval prejudices. A community that had paella and pizza. A tall order.

"Andalusia. That's where we'll go!" Sue announced one night at dinner.

In April, Sue and I flew over on a reconnaissance mission, rented a car, and found Salobreña on the first day. A town of 10,500 inhabitants, it could be traversed on foot in eight minutes. The beach was a five-minute walk away; 800-foot limestone climbing crags a ten-minute drive; the Sierra Nevada, Spain's highest mountain range, only an hour north. Before we left, we signed a lease on a furnished house, paid our first month's rent, and spoke with the principal of an elementary school for the girls.

In early August, after renting out our house in Laramie (fully furnished, plates to electronics), rearranging our banking to live off ATM cards, and loaning our two cars to kin, we pulled up stakes and fired ourselves, as if out of a cannon, over the big pond. In less than 24 hours, we had traded the dry, landlocked spread of Wyoming—where there are more deer and antelope than people, and nine months of winter—for the sticky, flesh-covered Costa Tropical, where some form of summer reigns year-round.

By day two, the bikes were reassembled and Addi and Teal were out exploring. In one week, we had obtained a certificado de empadronamiento, our census certificate. In two weeks, we had willingly converted from expensive microbrews to cheap micro-riojas. In three weeks we had purchased a used VW Golf, the standard Euro family car, with 130,000 kilometers on the odometer. After a month, we had a high-speed Internet connection, supplementing our addiction to the BBC.

A little patience, bastante dinero, a lot of running around, and before I could properly pronounce destornillador (screwdriver), we were rookie members of the European community.

LIVING ABROAD, like isolationism and xenophobia, is a venerable American tradition. Benjamin Franklin lived in England for almost 18 years and in Paris for more than seven. Mark Twain settled in Europe for a decade. Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Matthiessen and Plimpton, and many other Yanks temporarily sank peacetime roots into foreign soil.

According to a 1999 U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs report, there are almost four million American civilians living abroad. A thousand in Tanzania; 38,000 in Taiwan; 450 in Mongolia; a hundred or so in Turkmenistan; about 95,000 in Spain. Among the millions are diplomats, Peace Corps volunteers, teachers, nurses, exchange students, and multinational corporate employees. All have chosen to forsake close friends and relatives, familiar neighborhoods and routines, to live overseas for a time.

Many go for the same reasons we travel: to experience the unfamiliar. To eat goat cheese from the green cave of Magaha, queso de cabra that is so acridly tart it makes your mouth water. To follow doglegging lanes in a mountain village until you're convinced you're lost, only to suddenly realize that you're right back where you started (the recursive metaphor of travel, again). To witness customs that we could hardly imagine: two oxen, say, garlanded with delicate violet blossoms, pulling a cart carrying a small statue of Santa Maria del Rosario, the patron saint of Salobreña.

Yet moving abroad is more profound than traveling. It goes beyond curiosity to commitment. If to travel is to be a stone skipping lightly over the water, to move abroad is to stop and allow yourself to sink into an alien world, gulping to breathe a different language. Moving abroad is full immersion in a strange country, being forced to make a new life there, using little more than whatever wit, wisdom, openheartedness, and evenhandedness you carry inside you.

Perhaps the principal difference is this: To travel is to expect much of the places you visit; to move to one of these places is to expect much of yourself. No longer just passing through, you must figure out how things actually work in your adopted nation.

Some of this is banal. When is garbage collected? (Midnight.) Where is the wine- bottle-recycling container? (By the bus stop.) What is the word for the female end of a telephone jack? (I still have no idea.) Which ferretería(hardware store) has clavos pequeños (little nails)?

And some of this is sublime. Discovering the back way to the girls' school, a paved path beneath limestone caves, past a goat pen, through tall sugarcane, around the last sugarcane factory in all of Europe, through the burnt-maple air to Colegio San Juan de Ávila. Sleeping on the rooftop on warm summer nights. Drinking a new red wine with a late dinner on the terrace and finding that Sangre de Toro has the more poetic name, but that nondescript Tarragona de Baturrica is more robust. Learning words that are so much more mellifluous than their English counterparts—melocotónes meloso, ciruelas redondo, chorizo (sweet peaches, round plums, sausage). It is through such words and such modest, quotidian undertakings that one begins, poco a poco, to learn a new language—the central challenge of living abroad.

At this moment, my daughters are at school. Addi is perhaps studying geography, learning the Spanish names for countries she never knew existed, or maybe she is working on division, which Spaniards write backward and which schoolchildren are taught to do entirely in their heads. Teal has a test spelling the ordinal numbers, primero hasta tregísimo (first through thirtieth), and later she'll be practicing the Spanish terms for the anatomy of the eye. All three of us will get another kitchen-table language lesson from Sue tonight. At the last tutorial, Sue informed me that it was time I stop speaking Spanish like a Latin Tarzan and get cracking on my conjugations.

It is not possible to know a country well without knowing its language. Language is the magic key that opens the imposing gates to another kingdom. Once inside, everything looks different, not the least of which is your mother country on the other side of the fence. What you actually see and feel and believe—that is, who you are—depends a great deal on where you're standing on the globe. Geography is destiny.

I'VE JUST RETURNED from my noon bike ride. The loop begins with a cruise through the groves of cherimoyas—a sweetish fruit that you spoon out of its scalloped green skin—along the broad Guadalfeo River bottom. A gushing canal runs along the narrow strip of asphalt. Beyond the fruit trees, the road climbs into long-ago-terraced mountains, passing through several small villages where old men in berets sit in the shade of somnolent stone churches.

As the road curls deeper into the mountains, it becomes absurdly steep, which makes for a fabulous workout. It is a road steeper than anything ever allowed in the U.S., but rules, wonderfully, are anathema to the Spanish. Speed-limit signs are as rare as traffic police, and people drive as fast as their little tin boxes will move. Drivers give cyclists a wide berth but, oddly, appear to aim for pedestrians. When a vehicle finally comes to a halt, it does so wherever the driver pleases, like a toddler falling asleep in the middle of the living-room floor. Double parking is de rigueur, triple parking fair play. Of course, the narrow cobblestone streets were originally designed to accommodate little more than a mule and a mule cart. Triple parking usually blocks the entire thoroughfare, giving all involved something to honk and yell and wave their hands about, which they seem to enjoy far more than actually getting where they're trying to go.

But this is to be expected—Americans always whine about how foreigners drive, from Madrid to Madras. Now that I'm the foreigner, I've quite happily learned how to park with half the car up on the sidewalk and take joy in using my horn. It's the consciousness of a culture that really matters, not so much its formal regulations. Fathoming this takes time and requires forbearance, a virtue that matures immensely when you choose to live abroad. Suddenly you are an uninformed minority—a healthy experience for an American. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants, yet within only one or two generations we so easily forget how difficult it can be to adapt to unfamiliar territory.

America's immense economic and military strength makes us believe we are a majority on this globe. Nothing could be more ludicrous. There are more Europeans than Americans, more Africans, more Indians, more Chinese, more South Americans. And yet living only in the United States, you could easily imagine that being number one in all things is a divine birthright. This has the potential to breed an ugly closemindedness. Not surprisingly, then, one inevitable outcome of a move overseas is a renewed respect for the teeming diversity of humankind, a recognition that there are at least a dozen ways to skin a cat—and they're all right.

Of course, living abroad—even speaking the language and settling there for years—doesn't make you a true insider. You will always be a foreigner, but if you're lucky you may come away with a perspective on your new home that the locals don't have and find you've become a fledgling connoisseur of red wine and olive oil.

As I rolled back down into Salobreña, it was just after 2 p.m. From every household, the soul-nourishing aromas of home cooking wafted out the open windows and along the streets. Nose uplifted, I gloried like a bloodhound in the different smells: cerdo (pork) sautéing in garlic, papas fritas (fried potatoes), sopa de albóndigas (meatball soup).

We didn't move to Spain to recover some rustic, romantic, agrarian life. That's been gone for some time. Rather, we moved to live surrounded by whatever traditions are here now. As when, at the stroke of two, citizens one and all pull down the heavy metal grates of their work life, physically and metaphorically, and go home to their families for la cena grande—the big meal. Somehow, amid all the shove and shuffle of the modern commercial world, the Spanish have had the good sense to still organize work around life, instead of the other way around. Imagine stopping right in the middle of your fervid workday and taking a three-hour break. One hour to enjoy your meal with your family, one hour to converse extravagantly, using all body parts, and one hour for siesta. Can you think of anything more decadent or more civilized?

Pulling up beneath the kitchen window of my house, I could hear the girls, already out of school for the day, laughing, and I could smell Sue's shrimp paella cooking on the stove.

Vivir la vida.

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