An Expat’s Reflections on the Big 25

JULY 9, 2012

Photo: Emily Long

Turning 25 in sunny Spain sounds like fun and fiesta, right?

Well, the truth is that life as an expat is far from a permanent vacation and my “big 25” this year felt completely anticlimactic. There were no margaritas with girlfriends, no pretty Hallmark cards, and no homemade birthday cake. I didn’t receive any presents the day of my birthday and no one made my favorite food for dinner. I felt sad and lonely, craving familiarity from a culture that just couldn’t offer it on my special day.

Don’t get the wrong idea; I spent my birthday in a gorgeous place surrounded by people who love me very much. I awoke to another beautiful autumn day in Andalusia, sunny and warm. My Spanish husband and new parents-in-law wished me a “feliz cumpleañosover coffee. I took a relaxing walk on the beach. But nothing could cure my nostalgia and desire for a clear sense of purpose.

I guess by 25 I expected my life to be different. I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d be living in Spain, still not knowing what I want to be when I grow up, and trying to get used to Spanish culture while figuring out my life. I was supposed to have a career by now, more degrees, stock options…

I projected this sense of failure and despair on the people and culture around me. As much as I knew the facts (my husband’s family doesn’t celebrate birthdays very much, Hallmark cards have yet to infiltrate Spanish stores, and birthday cakes in Spain are rarely homemade) I couldn’t help but feel angry at my adopted country for being so different.

Then, for the afternoon merienda (coffee and snack), my mother-in-law brought out a cake. It had five mismatched candles and wasn’t my favorite flavor, but it was a gesture of kindness and affection that, despite my homesickness, I managed to appreciate. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and blaming my new family for what clearly was not their fault.

We ate cake and I semi-smiled through the rest of the day. And a few months later I’m still reminding myself to value the things I do have in my life rather than miss the things I don’t. I think that we all feel enormous pressure to succeed in some way by the 25-year milestone, and I’m coming to terms with the fact that success is defined in many ways, only one of which is career related.

I’m not telling you to lower your expectations, but rather to reevaluate them. How important are the overpriced Hallmark cards after all? And sometimes if your day isn’t going well simply managing a half smile is an accomplishment in itself. The next day will be better–the day after my birthday was actually amazing!

In retrospect I hope to have many more birthdays like my twenty-fifth. I’ll be lucky if each year I’m surrounded by people who care about me in such a beautiful place. And as for the cake, I love baking, so who’s to say I can’t make my own delicious dessert? If I can recreate my mother’s German Chocolate, that’s what I’ll call a success

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