The good, the bad, and the downright terrifying stages of the ultimate mid-life crisis.

El Peix, fish sculpture by Frank Gehry, Port Olimpic, Barcelona, Spain

Over the summer of 2018, after making the decision to sell everything I own and move to Spain, I had several conversations that went something like this:

Friend — Hey! How’s it going? How’s work?

Me — I’m great. I’m turning 40 and I’m moving to Barcelona!

Friend — Seriously?! Why? Is it for a guy?

Me — Nope. I just want to go.

Friend — That’s amazing! I’m so jealous!

I prefer not to get into the fact that, male or female, “is it for a guy?” was always everyone’s first question. That is a post for another day. At this point, I would rather focus on everyone’s final thought of “I’m so jealous!”, which I heard over and over again. As you may have already assumed, many of my friends are 30–40 somethings, usually married with a couple of kids, and don’t have the same options to travel is a 40 year-old childless divorcee, so this reaction is completely understandable. However, now that I am three weeks into this adventure, I feel like I owe it to all those who proclaimed their jealousy, and anyone else who has ever been curious about moving abroad, the weird, wonderful, and sometimes totally annoying emotions that go along with it.

Here are my five highly unscientific, completely subjective, stages of acclimating to life abroad at 40.

Stage One — Enchantment

Going abroad can be a lot like falling in love. A feeling of enchantment may hit you immediately, once you emerge from your post flight coma, or after a few weeks when you finally feel like you have some sense of what is going on around you. Either way — it is an exhilarating, completely intoxicating experience at first. Imagine the best vacation you ever had. Now imagine what that experience would be like if you knew you could stay there? Holy crap, even the paper clips seem more charming! There’s landscapes you’ve never seen before, delicious food you never knew existed. There’s museums and undiscovered art, and so long as you’re contributing to the tourist economy, everyone seems to go out of their way to make you feel comfortable and welcome.

There are no shortage of these experiences in Barcelona. My first week here, I walked around the city in complete awe. The architecture alone will take your breath away. I’ll never forget watching the sun dance off Frank Gehry’s “El Paix” golden fish during my first walk to the beach. It looked like at any moment it was going to swim off into the ocean. Or the time I found La Sagrada Familia, a massive, surreal cathedral that has been under construction for over 100 years. It is so intricately designed and so massive, you just find yourself staring in disbelief, no matter how many more times you walk past it. There’s also art museums and festivals, and castles begging to be explored.

There’s just one catch. I’m not a tourist. I live here, and real life sneaks up on you fast. And when the reality of life starts knocking, it seems to do so at the most inconvenient and unwelcome time. It’s the kind of knocking that occurs around 3:30am, in the middle of a really pleasant dream, and won’t stop until you answer the door. Welcome to Stage 2.

Stage 2 — Frustration

“We need to go over a few things because CLEARLY you don’t look like you’re from here”.

That was one of the first things my school administrators said to me when I walked into their office. Of course my first thought was, “I spent three stinking months whittling down my wardrobe to two suitcases of beige and black clothes and I don’t look like I’m from here?? How DARE you, Madam?” Fortunately, I managed hold my tongue, and listened as I should. I have had a lot of these conversations in the past three weeks and believe me, as a 40 year-old who has been abroad before, I was one of the better prepared. That being said, nothing really prepares you for the unexpected headaches that await you in a new country. Here’s a typical exchange:

Me: “Do you have WiFi”

“Sure, during business hours”

Me: “Ok, when are those”

“We get here around 9ish, then we get coffee, so, sometime after 9.”

Me: “Ooookay, and when do you close?”

“2pm”

Me: “Huh?”

“Everyone closes at 2pm, then we reopen at 4pm”

Me: “Ok, and then when do you close?”

“It depends on the day”

Me: “Ok, what about tomorrow”

“Oh, we aren’t open tomorrow”

Me: “Ok, I’ll get on the WiFi today and find another option for tomorrow”

“Well, it’s not really working today”

Me: “Ok, got it. I’ll go to the store and buy a hotspot to get on WiFi” (notice how smart and proactive I think I am being…)

“You need a Spanish bank account to do that”

Me: “Ok, I’ll go get one of those”

“You can’t. You need a permanent address and permission from the police to legally live here”

Me: “Ok, I have a visa so that shouldn’t be a problem. Where do I start?”

“You don’t. The mafia runs immigration. You can try to call this Russian lady…”

Navigating the quasi-official maze of foreign bureaucracy is a challenge — but nothing comes close to the frustration of not being able to carry out small, everyday activities you long took for granted. Why can’t I get a free glass of water? Why does my AirBNB have no microwave? How do I turn on the washing machine? Why is my coffee so tiny? How come no one sells peanut butter? Where on GODS GREEN EARTH do I buy paper towels? That last one was especially perplexing. I logged hours in every kind of store I could think of trying to find them. I started thinking Spain was either really into sustainable living or the dirtiest country on the planet.

I digress for a moment to address those who are reading this and thinking “Oh my god, this girl and her first world problems”. I am well aware and make no apologies for the fact I am from the United States, and therefore, at least by international standards, a spoiled brat. Pipe down. I wrote this post for my fellow spoiled brats, not for you.

Sadly you are not the only one who’s patience is being tested in this situation. Unless you are basically fluent in the language where you live, you are also testing the patience of everyone stuck translating and explaining things to you. The entire process is exhausting, intimidating, isolating, and at times, downright scary when you don’t know what’s around the corner. It’s enough to cause you to throw up your hands and think: “What if this was all a giant mistake?” Welcome to Stage 3.

Stage 3 — Homesickness

Fear and loneliness are powerful emotions that can come from just about anywhere. People can experience them from the mere act of checking their Facebook account and comparing themselves to the “fabulous” lives of their friends and all their vacations and perfect baby pictures. I thought a lot about that as I was posting my Barcelona pictures to social media. I wanted to be authentic. I wanted to be real, but I also wanted more than anything to survive this place. I so badly wanted to connect to home and tell people how I felt, but commemorating my negative emotions on my social media pages felt so permanent, so dark, and not at all where I wanted my head to be.

I missed my friends and family desperately during this time. I suppose as long as I’m here, I always will. Some I have leaned on intensely, others I took a step back from to avoid worrying too many people. One friend even came to visit for a brief time. As much as I loved having her around, I was also embarrassed to be in such a vulnerable place, reacting negatively to everything around me. Fortunately for me, she is one of the best, most forgiving people on the planet. It broke my heart she could only stay a few days, but her presence reminded me of who I was and where I came from. Most importantly, it helped me rediscover why I made the decision to move abroad in the first place.

We had a series of pep talks her last day here. The day she flew home, I found those damn paper towels and was off to Stage 4.

Stage 4 — Determination and Hope

Putting one foot in front of the other, chipping away at a problem, and not getting down on yourself when things don’t go as planned are pieces of advice we commonly dish out and struggle to put into practice. Then you start to look around and realize how many people migrate around the world with far less, far fewer opportunities, and somehow make it work. I am continually in awe of these people, and readily admit I don’t always have the self belief I am strong enough and capable enough to make the most of this experience. The one thing I do have going for me is a visceral reaction to the phrase “you can always just go home” that makes me want to dig in my heels, put my head down, and try a little harder. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m learning the language. I’m finding work. I’m connecting with friends. I’m buying paper towels. And in between, I’m walking around this incredibly beautiful city and taking in the sights (mostly of architecture), the sounds (mostly of motorbikes and drunk tourists), and smells (mostly of ham), grateful for the opportunity to be here at all.

I still can’t find peanut butter, but for three weeks in, I consider that a pretty good start.

For what it’s worth, I hope that eases everyone’s worry and helps provide a more authentic picture of where I am. Mom may still be riddled with anxiety, but she is my Mom and that’s her job. It’s not a life I consider something to be jealous of, and I imagine some of you could be downright horrified at this point, although certainly I hope not. The truth is I’m not here to take the prettiest Instagram pictures, or amass an enviable collection of passport stamps. For me, the time and effort to be a travel guru on social media is rarely worth the superficial accolades they return. I am simply here to be challenged every day to learn something meaningful and I want to encourage others it’s never too late to do the same. This world is an inspiring place and Barcelona has absolutely captivated my attention from the moment I landed. It is so unique, so colorful, and so drenched in art and history. It may not always be as pretty and perfect as the pictures in Conde Nast, but that’s OK by me. If it was, I doubt they would have ever let another Hooker in here.

Professional services marketing consultant, world traveler, and advocate for lifestyle entrepreneurship and adventure. Hey, Dos Equis guy…hold my beer.