Something to Sacrifice

My brother, Ryan, never made it to my high school or college graduation. He’s missed several birthdays, countless holidays, and important moments in my life where I needed him most, or just wanted him to be there.

Now in their sixties, my parents have had an empty room upstairs in their home for nearly the past ten years. There are not really any Mother’s Day or Father’s Day celebrations, let alone birthdays, or Christmas mornings with the four of us gathered together by the tree. In fact, I have felt like a family of three for quite some time now.

Now that my parents are grandparents, they can count the number of times they have seen their granddaughter on one hand since she has been born. And, as a first time aunt, I am realizing how much distance robs me of the simple things: discovering what gross things she may try to put in her mouth, learning to crawl, what color her ever-curious eyes are, and the way her laughter sounds. I only know by the videos that are sent to me.

Sure, a lot of this can be chalked up to “growing up.” Things change- I get it. People get older, move away, get married, and start their own families. There is no denying that it is simply a part of life, and sometimes it sucks.

However, our lives are different for another reason: the military. My brother joined the Air Force right out of high school. He became engaged to the love of his life, Alesha, at age 19, and they were married at just 21. Since then, they have lived in England and Italy, and traveled all over the world. My brother has slept in countries I probably couldn’t even find on a map. Despite the deployments and distance, Alesha has remained a pillar of strength for my brother and supported all of his endeavors, even if it means a rough road ahead for her. She has endured the difficult adjustments of living in foreign countries and being separated from her family back in the States. I can only imagine the many nights she has slept alone, struggling to keep the house in order, while working full time, just keeping her mind busy until my brother’s safe return. Ryan and Alesha have shown me what it means not only to sacrifice, but to love, honor, trust, and support your spouse unconditionally. They have fully put their faith in one another, and I admire that more than I have ever told them.  In June, after 5 years of marriage, they welcomed their first child, Cora Rae. Now, they are thankfully back in the States, but still a 10 hour drive away.

It is hard for me to admit that Ryan and I did not have the best relationship growing up. I was (as he would say) the annoying little sister, grappling at every chance to spend with him. In the end, all it did was smother him and push him further away. Yet, during my years in college, and his overseas, our relationship stabilized significantly. Though the calls were few and far between, we grew closer. I finally visited him in England in the winter of 2010. It was there that my desire to travel ignited, and could not be ignored. In a sense, he is the reason behind what I have been able to accomplish, whether he knows it or not.

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Every year during this time, similar to Memorial Day, 4th of July, etc., I see countless posts on social media about thanking our armed forces for the sacrifices they make. But I also see those people at barbecues with their families, and significant others. I see them photographed with their siblings on family vacations. I see them partying with friends, at fancy Valentines Day dinners with their spouse, or together around the table for Easter dinner.

I am not denying anyone’s right to celebrate, or comparing sacrifices, or condemning those people. I cannot (and do not intend or wish to) sit here, innocent, because I too have taken far too much for granted, and we all have lost or sacrificed something- there is no need to measure the size of those scars.

But I would be lying to you all if I didn’t sometimes get upset over how I do not have the luxury of having annual family vacations, or weekly dinners, or even Thanksgiving with my brother. I know that the time together we have missed is something I can never get back, and will always be looking forward to- especially now that my brother and sister-in-law have a family of their own.

I would also be lying to you if I didn’t admit how frustrated I can get sometimes with the unreliable schedules with ever-changing shifts, or the months he is gone for training. Having him not be there for certain things, or be unable to plan trips together (you all know I LOVE to travel) can still be upsetting, even though I understand fully and respect why they can’t happen, and feel selfish in confessing these feelings.

Because I certainly cannot complain.

For all of these things, I am lucky.

I may not have a brother (and consequently, a sister-in-law & niece) who are close by to visit. But I have a brother.

Some people don’t get their loved ones back. Some women lose husbands DAYS before they are supposed to return from deployment. Daughters and sons lose fathers, just like they do mothers, while they are serving our country- sometimes before they even get to meet them. Parents have had to bury their children without ever even saying goodbye.

I cannot imagine surviving the unthinkable. I do not even know the half of it, nor will I pretend to. I do not know what private wars still rage on in their minds when they return home, or the horror of the sights they have seen. I don’t know what they eat, or where they sleep, or the extent of everything they sacrifice, and from my brother’s silence, sometimes I don’t think I want to.

So yes, I am very lucky. And I am thankful. And all I know is that they deserve to hear this more than just on today.

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Speaking in Catalan Tongue

JUNE 26, 2013

After almost missing my connecting flight, surviving over eleven hours of travel, and freaking out I would not be able to enter the country since I didn’t have my return flight purchased, I made it through the Barcelona airport. Because we had talked via Skype a couple times, I recognized the family as soon as I walked out from baggage claim. I met Jordi, Roser, and their daughter Mar (Adrià was sick with chicken pox and was with his grandparents, poor kid). They insisted that I grab a sandwich at the airport, so I sat there chewing slowly and feeling every bit as awkward and nervous as I thought I might. Again, it hit me in waves how real this was, and how almost completely alone I was. But a bigger part of me was nothing but excited. They were so nice, and I was here. I did it! Bring it on, Spain. We made the drive back- about an hour all on the coast, to what would be my new home.

Look at this incredible view! This is from their porch, looking out over La Palomera and the coast of Blanes:

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Once in Blanes, I met Roser’s parents and we picked up Adrià since he was there. I got a tour of the house, which is connected to another house where Jordi’s parents live. It sits on top of a hill, which makes for the most perfect views. It is beautiful and modern, but a modest size. The children share a room and have a bunk bed, and their play room was converted into a space for me, with a bed, a giant bean bag, a desk, and a small dresser. In the corner, a giant white board read “WELCOME KARA” and beside it, bright colored drawings and paintings from the children.

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I took a short nap to recover from the jet lag, and then joined the family at the pool, which is on the deck above us- at the kids’ grandparents. It was so cold but I dived right in! Mar is such a good swimmer, it is incredible. She is the most beautiful little girl with perfect dark curls and crystal green eyes, very smart too. I was told she would be shy compared to Adrià, which is true. He came right up, yelled to me and kissed me and hugged me hard. Everyone kisses each other on the cheek, it’s great. Maybe because it makes me feel sophisticated, or just because I’m super affectionate.

With Mar, who is almost five, I think she knows that I don’t understand her language but Adrià (who is three) just repeats himself after he asks a question if I do not answer, or answer incorrectly. I had no idea how truly difficult the language barrier would be. I took three years of Spanish classes several years ago, and they don’t speak Spanish anyway, but Catalan. It is so different. I can recognize or guess some words and their meaning when reading Spanish but I am terrible speaking it.

Mar knows how to count from one to ten in English now and is learning her colors. There are four fish (diving toys) that I will throw into the pool and she swims to the bottom to get them, so I taught her blue, yellow, pink, and green. Roser’s English has improved from when we first Skyped although it is still hard with Jordi not here to translate for us. We’ve used her phone or my iPad a couple times but it is not always the most effective tool. It usually ends up in laughter or frustrated apologies. Jordi is a chef and works six days a week, and incredibly long hours. They really do have the most beautiful family, and are so nice to me. I am grateful. However, I feel helpless and like I’m taking up space and am just another mouth to feed. I made a silent vow to start putting more effort into learning their language.

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Adrià and I- he’s a firecracker!                                      Mar and I after swimming.

After the nap (which was in a mixture of Spanish, Catalan, and English- what a headache!) Roser, the kids, and I went to the center of town. Lots of shops, older cafes, narrow streets in cobblestone- it reminded me of Italy. I met a couple friends of Roser’s- all mothers, whose kids were in school with Mar and Adrià.  I don’t have kids to relate to them, nor could I even understand what was being said. So I just watched the kids play and tried to look useful, offering a smile every now and then.

Adrià and Mar rode their bikes around the playground -and they make me so nervous with some of the things they do. Since I can’t keep them in a bubble, or protect them from everything, my first instinct is to run after them and help them if they fall. But most times they surprise me. They just get back up and keep running in circles and screaming. Now may be a good time to admit that I don’t have any experience with kids, and don’t want my own. Probably something I should have strongly considered before I signed up to be an au pair, huh? We came back home and had dinner (hamburgers, pasta, yogurt for dessert), and played games. Mar draws me a lot of pictures. Everything we eat for dinner, she covers in olive oil. My type of girl right there.

I’m falling asleep as I wrote this but I finally thought I figured out how to work the adapter or connector thing and blew a fuse. No, honestly- the thing set off a vicious spark, had this horrible burning smell, and I freaked out. Then I noticed the wireless got disconnected. Roser didn’t say anything to me so I don’t know if she knew it was me but she fixed it sometime because when I woke up it was fine. But now I’m at 15% battery and terrified to charge it…I don’t wanna fry my iPad because it is literally the only thing I have to communicate with my family, friends, and my connection to the rest of the world on that side of the sun. Talk about first world problems. What part of me thought I could do this, again?!

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The Day I Quit My Job

Tuesday, June 4, 2013.

I quit my job. Technically, it was more of a mutual separation. I had come to loathe putting any effort in once 9 a.m. rolled around, and it had grown tired of making my life miserable since it had been working at that for the past eleven months.
Still, it was like breaking up with a boyfriend. Even if you’re the one to cut ties, there is something so strange about the way it feels to pack up the memories in a box and just leave it on a doorstep. I had to walk away from what I knew I did not want anymore, but how would I know where to go next?

I had never quit any job before. I’d worked summers at home between my college years where it was understood that I’d be back at school when the leaves changed in the fall, but I never quit. Still, I always imagined all the ways I’d make my big exit. Maybe, in a red hot rage, I’d throw a dish against the wall at the family restaurant I worked at for three years. Or cuss out a customer. Or just say, “To hell with it!” and sneak out on lunch break and never come back. That didn’t really sound like me, though. How do people even quit jobs?

It turns out that (despite what my family thinks) I’m a little less dramatic than that.

That Tuesday afternoon, after giving prior notice to my supervisor, I just left. I walked quietly out of the double doors with a tiny voice in my head screaming, “OH MY GOD, YES!” all the while feeling a lot like shitting my pants and crawling back home into my mother’s arms, to when things were easier. I knew that I couldn’t possibly know what would come next. After all, the comfortable routine of 9-5 Monday through Friday was now gone. Did I just make a huge mistake?
Most of my friends, like any other college graduate, struggled to find a job after graduation that did not involve food service or retail, and here I was, nearly a year into my first actual “big girl” job, and I threw it away.
But, I did get something in return: a one way plane ticket.

Just shy of my 23rd birthday, I bought my flight to Spain and fought to leave uncertainty on the doorstep of my first apartment. I had a goal in mind:

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I convinced myself I was ready for this. Months of energy had been channeled into reading travel blogs, self-help books, and a desire to make my breaths known, and not just taking them to live. At 22, I had honestly felt life slowly draining from my fingertips with every number I dialed in the call center I worked at, every forever friend I lost, each meal I microwaved when I got home after working countless hours of overtime, and every bottle of wine I finished by myself.

You grow up familiarizing yourself with the way the system works, and what role you play in it. You do what is expected of you: graduate high school, go to college, get a job, start a family, etc. But what if that’s not in the cards for everyone?

I made the decision to move to Spain when I realized that I had no passion for my life. Not a career I loved to throw myself into, a man I couldn’t imagine being without, a hobby to consume my days, a real hunger for my life anymore. I had done just what was intended of me, and what I thought I wanted. I graduated college and moved from my small town to the city of Pittsburgh, where I immediately started working. Yet, I was unhappy. I stopped reading and writing for pleasure. I quit trying to discover the world, let alone trying to change it. I’d live for the weekends, but those would leave me waking to a pounding headache, and blurred memories disguised as happiness. I thought, “Would my 16 year old self be proud of where I am?”

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It was around this same time that my good friend Matt kept posting pictures about his travels from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. For a while, I watched from the other side of a computer screen with jealousy. Then, one day, I sent a message pleading with him to tell me anything and everything he could about how I could travel the world like he was, and the rest is history.

He introduced me to Workaway, a site that essentially allows individuals to connect with host families and exchange help (i.e. babysitting, teaching English, gardening, other housework, etc.) for a place to stay, allowing the traveler to fully immerse themselves in the culture of the country of their choice.

Now, don’t get me wrong. As perfect as that sounded, and as badly as I wanted to just ditch everything and escape my cubicle life, I still had fears. I had saved up some money, but what if I came back to the States unable to get a job? I knew how hard it was for me to find this one in the first place, and what my friends were still going through. What if I ran out of money, and had to come back? And then, had to move back in with my parents because I couldn’t afford my rent? How can a girl who just got used to taking a city bus ever survive alone navigating through foreign countries, by HERSELF?! What if I got robbed? What if I got shot by a gang or caught a serious illness? What if I got sexually assaulted in a hostel, or lost my passport, or missed my flight, or was denied by Customs? I confessed my less irrational fears to Matt.

Here was his reply:

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Simply put, he was absolutely right- and I knew it. In that instant, my mind was made up.

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With the help of Workaway, I connected with a family in Blanes, right outside of Barcelona, Spain: Jordi, his wife Roser, and their two children, Mar (5) and Adria (3). After several e-mails, Skype dates, and consideration, it was decided that I would stay with them for two to three months, lend Roser a hand with the children, and help teach them the English language. I would fly out of Pittsburgh International Airport on June 26th and meet them in Barcelona.

In preparing for my big day, Matt also was gracious enough to lend me his backpack that he used during his travels. My mom drove down to help me pack up for six months (that woman can fit the whole state of Texas neatly into a Ziploc bag) and restored order back to my wild, racing mind. I distinctly remember her joking, “You have two boobs and there are seven days in a week. WHY do you have so many bras?!”

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So, finally there I was, packed and ready to go. I had found someone to sublet my apartment, bought an adapter, and left behind my cell phone, several people who didn’t support me or understand, and my fear of the unknown.

Stay tuned for me setting sail, first impressions, and what happens next when I touch down!

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