Last year I decided I would take a month long vacation this year and I would do it alone. I wasn’t exactly sure where I would go at the time, but I wanted an experience where I could use my second language, feel safe as a woman traveler and be surrounded by the things I love; art, architecture, music and good food. Madrid seemed like an easy choice. I’ve never been afraid to travel alone. I’m the woman that can go hang out at the bar with a book and a cocktail or strike up a conversation and make a new friend. I met one of my dear friends, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago by complimenting him on his dancing skills at a house party in Chicago and we danced all night and discovered we were born a day apart and Mark Twain was our favorite American writer. That was over 10 years ago! If anything, some of the people closest to me worry that I enjoy my aloneness a little too much. I am by no means an introvert, quite the opposite actually. I love people and feel energized by others, but I also enjoy my own company. I need to be alone just as much as I need others around me. Time to myself these days is rare and I don’t have enough of it. I’ve known for awhile that what I needed was a little time to rejuvenate and my business needed me to take this time as well. I’m more creative when I have some space. An entire month with no agenda sounded like a dream.
The first few days in Madrid were meant to explore my neighborhood and get myself settled in. There were a few things I was going to live without like, air-conditioning (this was the hardest luxury to be without in 90 degree temps everyday), a microwave, dryer for my laundry and as it turned out, the internet. I walked around a highly condensed immigrant area called Lavapies relatively unnoticed and without incident. The streets were packed with young people smoking cigarettes and drinking beer at outdoor terraces and families sitting in the shade eating gelato on a perfect summer evening. I was hungry and decided to peek into a bar/restaurant because the walls were painted green and it seemed inviting to me. It was too early for dinner, and many restaurants were closed until the dinner hour. (Which incidentally is around 9 or 10pm in Spain.) There was no one inside, but I sat near the door anyway searching for an internet connection until the owner came out from the kitchen somewhat surprised to find me there. “Are you open?” I asked. “Si, si, si!” He replied enthusiastically, a big smile on his face and brought me a menu. He had an easy manner and large round brown eyes very much like mine. The kind of eyes that are inappropriately revealing especially when you don’t want to be. He explained he carried some rare gins and asked if I wanted to try one and I eagerly said I did. We began chatting and I quickly learned his restaurant was new and he had recently returned to Madrid after living in Toronto for the last five years. He felt a bit nervous about the neighborhood he was in because it was in transition, but the rent was less expensive than other hip areas and he needed to be smart on this new venture. Our conversation became at some point personal and poignant as we discussed our families. He was a recently divorced single father. We shared our insecurities and dreams. It seems being vulnerable with a perfect stranger is ironically safe. Here I was, just a day in on this month long journey and I was already spilling my secrets to a stranger about how I was overworked, in need of a recharge as well as my issues with long term commitment. My new friend fed me an off-menu dish that he proudly served me and later I walked home feeling satiated, content and connected. I dove into that experience with curiosity and allowed myself to be seen as a person with a few hiccups and reservations. Somehow, it made me feel fully engaged in my present life as a traveler in another country and more awake than I’ve felt in a while.
Soon after, I met Sophie. I walked into her shop just a few days after meeting Miguel and like a bolt of lightning I felt her kind energy cocoon me like a warm fire. Have you ever had the experience of meeting someone that you felt like you’ve known for a long time? It feels effortless and comfortable being around them, as though they’ve been a part of your life all along. That’s what it was like when we began talking and then she invited me to dinner and the rest, well it made my time in Madrid that much sweeter to find a kindred spirit. Once again I found myself sharing parts of myself that I typically don’t share often and in exchange she shared some of her stories with me. Sophie had just followed her dream of owning her own boutique. Her shop had only been opened for a month and she was wearing many hats and doing it all while learning the ropes. I discovered that Sophie is Parisian with a Moroccan mother and an Italian father. She looks very much like the beautiful actress Jennifer Beals. She had moved to Madrid without speaking very much Spanish. She learned it quite well and began a new chapter that I found so admirable. Her feisty and determined demeanor is charming and I could see a lot of myself in her outspoken ways. There is a no parking ordinance in front of her shop and many people try to park there anyway, but she always informs them that they can’t block her doors and asks them to kindly move their vehicles. One day while I was in the shop with her I witnessed a big police van park outside her door and Sophie elegantly made her way towards the police van and informed them in her French-accented Spanish that they also could not park there. I laughed so hard as they drove off and she walked back in, hands on her hips shaking her head with a smile on her face. She had a hold of my heart in that moment and we had a permanent connection as kindred spirits. I also found myself enjoying this newfound vulnerability of digging deeper and asking questions one doesn’t generally ask. (What was it like leaving Paris for Spain? How do you feel about your new business?) I also made the connection that being vulnerable is probably more brave than “protecting” yourself by keeping it all in. We hide our true selves because it’s safe, but we also miss opportunities to connect or engage with situations we cannot control that may just turn out to be amazing. What a magnificent correlation and it only took me some, well lots of years to figure it out!
I had many more moments like this with a few visitors while in Spain. I laughed a lot with my cousin who was in town for a wedding and got stuck in Madrid one night. We went off to find cocktails and catch up on our family and other things. My dear friend Richard who lives in London came all the way to Madrid for a short weekend just to eat gambas with me. We spent an entire evening in my living room eating homemade tapas, talking about art and past relationships and all the little details that makes the hours speed by. It felt special to have this uninterrupted time together. I saw my Swiss nieces in Barcelona and got to hug them. love them and tell them how proud I am of them. I even had the pleasure of having lunch with an amazing LBF fan/customer who became a kind friend. There was someone coming to visit that I was anticipating seeing for many reasons. Someone that evokes an array of complex emotions from me and yet excites me in such a way I feel quite honestly, disarmed. (I feel naked even admitting that!) This person took me time traveling on one of our evenings together and while the moment was happening I made sure to acknowledge it. It seemed an important thing to do. I felt truly myself being vulnerable in the presence of another vulnerable soul. In case I’m not being clear, this “someone” represents the riskiest of all risks for me. The risk of taking my fractured heart and putting it back into circulation. There is of course a longer story here, but what I finally realized was, even if my feelings weren't reciprocated or the situation isn’t ideal, what mattered most was that I simply risked at all. It isn’t everyday that you meet someone that you have an unexplainable connection to. A person who is willing to risk is a brave soul indeed. I read a quote recently, “Vulnerability is the essence of connection and connection is the essence of existence.” (Leo Christopher) It is part of the human experience to seek connection and it may be especially true of the ones that fear it most. So, I guess what I’m trying to explain is that while we somehow wish to have it all or we wait for perfect timing, for the stars to align so that everything falls right into place and we can truly make a “go” for it…well, that’s simply a fool’s game. Being present in time with awareness that nothing is guaranteed or that you’ve been inspired by someone who touches you deeply is often the best of what this remarkable life has to give us. Sometimes the risk takers are the quiet ones who start a new business in an unfamiliar part of town or the ones that follow a dream and are scared to death. Sometimes it’s even those of us who fear love and yet mysteriously draw it towards us like some kind of cosmic magnet. We do not achieve the nuances of feeling fully alive without great risk. We do not discover the beauty of our colorful and fragile lives without peeling back the layers and revealing our naked selves. I allowed myself to flow with all that was coming straight at me while I was taking this time for myself. I accepted friendship, love and the fear of the unknown. The reward is still being relished with an abundance of beautiful memories and a heart running at full capacity.