Tag Archives: Philosophy

11 Lessons from a Year in a 6,000 Pueblo

I learned a lot this year, almost all of it the hard way.  Stripped of most of the things that make me happy, I learned the value of what we take for granted.

I was alone with very few friends in a stagnating village, unable to change my scholarship, unable to move to another city and unwilling to give up and come home.  The conclusions I have drawn in the last year may seem obvious to most, but I assure you they are all borne from deep experience.  So here they are, in no particular order – except for the first ; )

Mark’s Seemingly Obvious, Painfully Realized Conclusions from One Year in Spain

1) Friends and family are vital – When someone moves abroad, he temporarily gives up his friendships back home because he assumes he will make new friends in his new home.  But I miscalculated this one.  As I’ve previously described, there were only a handful of people my age in the town, all genuinely good people but none able to replace my friends I’d left in California.  Arévalo was a small town with no university, very little economy, and few prospects for ambitious young people so most people between 18-30 years of age left the town.  My four roommates dwindled to one, then none and I suddenly found myself all alone in the middle of rural Spain, praying to be reunited with my friends as soon as possible.

I constantly thought back to my time at UCLA, when I was constantly surrounded by friends and even made Social Chairman of my fraternity.  But because I had 30,000 students around me, each individual person’s significance can be diluted by the sheer number of other people.  You meet a great girl at a party, but lose her in the crowd five minutes later but it doesn’t matter because there are many fish in the sea.  Arévalo was a small pond with few fish.  Living in a 6,000 person town with a half dozen friends showed me how valuable every person is, that we should never treat people like they are disposable or replaceable.  We must bring small-town-style friendships to the crowds of our biggest cities.

2) Your Environment is Everything – I didn’t realize this until I’d moved into a negative environment.  All my life I have lived amongst successful people, from my family to my high school friends to my classmates at UCLA.  Being around successful, motivated and intelligent people encourages you to reach your best and provides you with stimulation.  In Arévalo, my sole roommate was so lazy he could hardly get off the couch to defrost his frozen dinner, the nearest intellectual conversations I could find were at my friends’ apartment an hour away, and, for lack of options I was forced to – eh-hem – stimulate myself.  Intellectually, that is.  I read a lot, studied Spanish a lot, but quickly realized the limitations of self-study in hermit-like reclusion.  That brings me to my next conclusion…

3) Living Alone Strengthens You, Maddens You, and Shows You What a Lazy Slob You Really Are  – At least in my case… In the absence of friends, I grew stronger by reducing my dependency on others for happiness.  A walk through town, smiling and chatting with the local villagers can overcome loneliness better than 2,000 peripheral Facebook friends and a dozen missed calls on your cellphone.  But solitude also maddens you – I talked to myself more than I’d like to admit and often longed for company and conversation, which goes back to conclusion #1.

[On a quick aside, I actually lived next to an insane asylum last year so most of the people walking past my apartment had serious mental issues.  This negatively affected me and a few times I thought I was going to lose it as well, so I conclude that living with crazy people makes you a little crazy as well.]

But above all, living alone forces you to come to terms with your most negative habits.  If the kitchen is dirty, it’s not because your roommate is a slob – it’s because you are lazy.  I have always relied on workout partners for fitness, roommates for cleaning the apartment, a buddy for cooking dinner et cetera.  This year I was forced to do this all on my own.

4) Live in the Moment, Not the Future and Especially Not the Past
For the first time in my life, I disliked the present moment.  All I wanted was to ride out the experience and move onto something else.  I reminisced about my travels in Asia, I dreamt about my future travels, and I lost myself by surfing the internet.  In this way, months slipped by as I distracted myself from my situation – that is, from my life.  The future, the past, the internet – none of these are realities.  The only thing that is real is this very moment, the room you are in the people you are talking to.  Focusing on anything else is mere distraction.

5) Travel Towards Something, Never Away From Anything
Every long-term traveler will eventually have to confront this dilemma.  I left home in search of certain truths, experiences and knowledge I could only find overseas.  I was running towards something.  I came to Spain to learn Spanish, to explore Western Europe, to spend time reading and writing.  But I so disliked my present reality that I began traveling every weekend merely to escape my village.  By mid-February I was burnt out from incessant travel, wondering why I found so little pleasure in something that had previously defined my life.  I took a break from traveling, reassessed my priorities and by the end of the year I resumed running towards my travel goals.

6) Busyness Beats Leisure After One Week
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, not his Decade Off.  Too much play and not enough work makes Jack a dull boy.  Without the toil of work, leisure becomes boring and after a year of working 12 hours a week, I have had more free time than I knew what to do with.  I’d prefer to join sports teams, organize social events, learn how to sail, surf more, sign up for French lessons and continue practicing my Spanish.  I’ll have less time to write, but it will be more compressed and therefore more efficiently utilized time.   

7) You Gotta Run Your Own Race
I was one of the only foreigners in Arévalo and my values and lifestyle differed substantially from my neighbors – especially my love of travel.  My town was not far from the Portuguese border, yet many people had never left Spain and some thought I was crazy for traveling so much.  I saw the proximity of such contrasting cultures made it impossible not to explore Europe, but I began playing down my travel experiences in order not to provoke misunderstanding or jealousy.  I ultimately realized that I could not hide my great adventures, denying their existence was denying a part of my own identity.  I was a nomad amongst sedentary villagers, but I can’t be ashamed of who I am or what I’ve done.

8) Life is Short – You Must Take Control of Your Own Destiny
This one is huge. When I first arrived in Arévalo, I had tried to move to a bigger city but I was unable to commute to work so I abandoned all attempts to improve my situation and resigned myself to a having a somewhat shitty year.  Life is too short to spend even a day living in an unpleasant way.  I realized this only months later, when springtime came and I found that we cannot change the hand we’re dealt, only the way we react to it.  Eventually I simply decided to be happy.  I came up with a list of small things that brought joy to my unpleasant living situation.  Running in the morning, walking in the wheat fields outside of town, dressing up smartly even if no one would see me, making my bed and tidying an apartment that no one would ever see et cetera.  I learned the daily habits that made me feel happy, productive, and worthwhile and I’ve repeated them every day since. 

9) Make Peace with What You Can’t Change 
But there were some things I could not change.  I couldn’t switch towns, I couldn’t become fluent in Spanish overnight, I couldn’t write the Great American Novel at age 23 – but that’s okay.  As the year came to a close, I learned to appreciate the town’s beauty, serenity, and lovely people.  I made peace with my gradual progression towards my goals, finding joy in the process of improving rather than the anxiously demanding the fruits of my labor.  In short, I made the best of my situation and stopped trying to change what’s beyond my control.

10) Experience is the Best Teacher of All
I thought I already knew this, but it wasn’t until I spent a year in Arévalo and read Zorba the Greek that it really hit home.  Zorba, the hero of this excellent 20th century classic, teaches the protagonist how to live life to the fullest.  The protagonist is obsessed with books, studying the Buddhist scriptures for happiness and wisdom, but Zorba shows him that by spending one’s life cocooned in books prevents you from having the experiences (and mistakes) that ultimately teach you the most.  In my desire to improve my situation, I read many philosophy books, in my desire to learn Spanish I studied many grammatical books.  But nothing taught me more than simply closing my books and getting out there in the world.

11) Everyone Gets Lost Occasionally
 At the end of the year, I didn’t really know what I was doing anymore or why I was doing it.  My original intentions of continuing my free-spirited travels, learning from the open book of the world and practicing writing had led me to a year of stagnation in Arévalo.  I was lost, as happens to us all at one point or another.  I had to find my way again, and so I chose to follow The Way of St. James – that is, El Camino de Santiago.

The Anarchist’s Pad Pt. 3 (Lisbon, Portugal)

I am writing about this weekend in Lisbon for a reason.  In many ways, it was a turning point for my time in Europe.  The depressing monotony of Arevalo that had engulfed me in the past months was replaced by a new world of alternative lifestyles.  Small town life in Arevalo was boring, but I discovered that I could use CouchSurfing to meet interesting people like this virtually every weekend if I so desired.
I spent the next day walking around with new Peruvian friend, Shaman From the Jungle.  He showed me a side of Lisbon I never would have seen on my own.  We walked from neighborhood to neighborhood to drop in on his fellow South American friends.  All of them had immigrated to Europe in search of a better life.  Some owned Peruvian clothing stores, some sold goods in markets, while others eeked out a living from busking (playing music on the streets for money).  We watched six of his friends play flutes and guitars on the main square while fully dressed in traditional Incan clothes.  We walked to the second-hand market where Shaman From the Jungle sold his paintings.  Many of his friends had no immigration papers.  They were clandestinos, as the Manu Chao song calls them, and they showed me a glimpse of the daily life of illegal immigrants.
I gained a lot of insights that weekend.  From the hitch-hiking German girls and the Anarchist, I got a few tips on hitchhiking and insight on the European punk movement.  One night we went to a punk bar in a seedy part of Lisbon and their political beliefs almost got us into some trouble.  According to The Anarchist, the bar was the ‘oldest punk rock bar in Europe.’  It was, as we later discovered, run by neo-Nazis.  When the girls tried to enter the bar they were stopped by the bouncers, who asked them bluntly “What are you?”  They labeled themselves as punks, and the bouncers pulled them closer and inspected all the pins and patches that covered their sweaters to determine their politics.  The girls started freaking out and yelling at The Anarchist in English.  He tried to tell them that the bouncers were idiots, that they weren’t Nazis, they were just racists against the Angolan immigrants.
The German girl was actually quite pretty despite her best efforts to hide behind piercings, patches and pins.  I imaged what she would have looked like two hundred years ago in pre-industrial Germany.  Some long-haired innocent farm girl. But in the aftermath of Germany’s industrialization and subsequent attempts to conquer Europe, she was now an Anti-Nazi German Punk being denied entrance into a Lisbon punk bar by Portuguese Neo-Nazi Skinheads. Ironic? Labels were flying around everywhere that weekend: anarchists, punks, neo-Nazis, communists, capitalists, liberals, conservatives, etc.  Is there no room for someone to just be themselves, free of a label?
Labels aside, The Anarchist taught me a good deal.  I considered his political views and enjoyed learning about his philosophy on alternative lifestyles.  We talked about my ambitions to write a book and I told him I doubted that it could get published, but that I had to write it for personal reasons.  He showed me a list of self-publishing websites and explained that I didn’t need a large publishing house if was just writing for my own personal satisfaction.  I could do it myself.
I went out on the town with the Erasmus students on Saturday night.  We took the metro downtown and emerged from the station in the midst of a swarming crowd of young people all moving in the same direction – towards Bairro Alto.  We joined in the crowd and floated along with the crowd.  We moved away from the station and up the hill to the bar area. The streets narrowed and the crowd thickened.  Bars lined each side of the street but no one seemed to stay inside for more than enough time to buy a beer and take it back to the street.  Thousands of Portuguese were gathered in circles drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and passing joints around.
Street after street was packed wall to wall.  People hung off their first story balconies and flirted with passers-by on the street.  Chupeterias sold 1€ shots to fuel the party and beers cost 2€ for a liter.  Spanish was almost as common as Portuguese, and I had no trouble making myself understood.
We all exchanged past travel stories and planned adventures.  I told the Frenchies that I wanted to learn their language.  They said I could get a job picking grapes in the summer time, which would be a good opportunity to pick up some French.  Or maybe I could move to Marseille and get a job in a tourist area for a the summer.  Surely they would need someone fluent in English and Spanish to handle the hordes of tourists.  The possibilities were endless.
Yes, the possibilities were endless indeed.  That realization grew excessively painful near the end of the weekend as my train returned to Arevalo.  I had spent the whole weekend surrounded by interesting people and enjoyed a taste of a new world that was opening up to me.  That interesting world of adventure made my apartment in Arevalo seem hollow and dead.  Back to work for a week.  I realized the hardest part about living this double life would be giving up my adventures every Sunday.