Alyssa’s Expat Life—One is a Comforting Number Sometimes

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It’s a simple title, but this is going to be a long one, so I decided not to go too deep. After I left my last expat excursion in China, I moved to Chicago, which had been a dream of mine for more than 10 years, with a kick-ass job that allowed me to travel all over the world, my dog in tow and a new lease on life. I had never been more comfortable in my own skin, and for once—shockingly—I was content and happy with myself and my life on my own.

Two years later I was feeling the itch again for something new, and then I went on a tour last May that would again change the course of my life. Sometime through Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia, something happened that I can’t explain. It brought everything I had searched for in my entire life into meaning. I’m laughing as I type this because I know most of you will, but I fell in love with my tour bus driver. I got on the plane at the end of the tour devastated, not only because I was unsure if I’d ever speak to or see him again (I was trying to be realistic), but because I felt like I was leaving home. Every time I’ve left Europe in my seven times here before now has been a tough flight; I took this as a sign that possibly this was meant to be home and that he was finally the person I was always supposed to end up with. I will leave the details of what happened over the course of the next few months out because that would make this blog much longer than it already is. Universal signs pulled me not only toward him, but back to Europe for a more permanent stay. Long story short, he asked me to move to Zagreb to be with him the very same week I was being drawn to another teaching job overseas.

His invitation swayed the pendulum of my decision, and since there isn’t a teaching market in Croatia and I had loved Budapest in my travels before, I chose a program in Hungary. I also wanted to have my own independence and not have my world wrapped up in a man, so I knew it was a smart move. We counted down the weeks together, got more and more excited, and then at the end of July, three weeks before my move, he was gone. He disappeared off the face of the earth except for a few emails, which would send me into a conspiracy theorist spiral that would last for months. He told me over email that he had a huge problem that he couldn’t tell me about, but he would be in touch as soon as it was resolved. And with that, he was gone.

I moved to Hungary at the end of August, determined to make as many friends as I could to move on and have a support system, which was something I didn’t do very well in China. You would think that would be another smart move, but my anger over what had happened didn’t present me in the best light. No one likes to be around an angry, negative person, and I made a lot of other mistakes along the way, including trusting people I shouldn’t have and forcing it with people I wasn’t meant to be friends with in the first place. As a result, friendships were lost and I have never been and felt more alone this year than ever in my personal life—and none of it had anything to do with living in a foreign country. With that being said, there were many good moments, and those I will choose to remember most.

Back to autumn, I was off to Ujpest to meet my contact teacher and my new home for the year. Virag Utca proved to be perfect for me (minus being adjacent to a kindergarten and across from another primary school), and the memories I’ve made in these walls are ones that I will never forget for the rest of my life. The emotions in this house have ranged from belly laughter to love to heartache to sobbing tears. It’s been such a gift to live here and I will never forget this space I’ve called home for a part of my life.

About a week after my birthday in November I met someone else and moved on, and sure enough the Croatian came back. In fact, they both friend requested me within a half an hour of each other—I took it as a door closing and a window opening. While he begged to see me for months, I was emotionally detached from him finally and very intrigued by this other person, especially after the holidays and the New Year. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize my new interest, and I’m not one to juggle relationships, so I said no. While I did meet the Croatian again in March to get answers, I knew I was asking questions he would never give me answers to, even though he begged to see me for months. The trust was gone, I got my closure, and I was done.

The new person gave me a new lease on happiness, which I never thought I’d feel again, and if I’m being honest I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way about a person before. It was different; just like Europe, every time I was around him it felt like home. It was perfect timing, as by this time I had lost all of my clients that I had had in the States. Work has always been central to my life, but I found myself juggling my workload at school along with my off-campus responsibilities. I viewed it as a blessing in disguise to finally concentrate on my personal life more than I had in years and to also make school my No. 1 priority.

While I proceeded with my newfound man with extreme caution based on my history, I was hopeful because he was different than anyone I’ve ever dated. Throughout this time I was learning my students’ names, cranking out interesting discussions in class and wading through life as a teacher for the first time by myself in a classroom. The time over Christmas when I went to Iceland (even though I was extremely ill) was one of the best couple of weeks of my life and easily the best Christmas I’ve ever had. We talked for hours every day, he wanted to know everything about me (and for the first time I wasn’t bored by the “what is your favorite color” type of questions), I too wanted to know every detail about him, and we shared everything from religion, to family life, to fears, to yes, favorite colors. He took care of me when I was sick and we spent our New Year’s Eve together. At this point I was completely gone and the most taken I had ever been with someone in my entire life, all things that I kept to myself. I decided that I was going to take things slow and let him take the lead. I did not want to be the pushy American or do anything to jeopardize the course of where things were headed—or so he led me to believe.

And then, toward the end of January, it happened again. He retreated, changed and stopped reaching out. I asked him several times what had changed, why this happened after how close we had gotten, and I was met with resistance. How can someone want to know everything about you one day and then become a complete stranger the next—all the while refusing an explanation? Devastation again set in. I questioned myself constantly. What am I doing wrong that this has happened twice to me in the course of six months? I made a point to not pursue either one of them, they pursued me. And, as soon as I gave in and allowed myself to open up like everyone says is the healthy thing to do, the hammer fell. I chose differently this time; the two men could not have more different jobs, personalities and lifestyles. I asked myself, “Why doesn’t God just want me to finally have a normal, happy life with a partner and even (for the first time this year I said this) kids?” I’m a strong, smart, independent woman who has so much to offer—one student even told me what a great mother I would be, which is probably the best compliment I’d ever received in my life, even though I’ve never even been sure I want to be a mother. Traveling the world and living in a foreign country are wonderful, life-changing experiences; I will never regret any of those choices. But for the most part everything in this area of my life has been done completely solo. I was so happy to have someone to share this experience with on an intimate level, and while he is still kind to me and speaks to me sporadically, he never has given me an explanation. I didn’t want to blame myself, but the irony of both situations was uncanny. I was ready to stay here permanently, no question. I wasn’t pushy, I went with the flow and I still lost him for reasons that I will never know and will wonder about until the day I die. Without my dog, my friends being geographically somewhere else and almost no support system here outside of school, I sank into a pretty dark place of regret (for speaking to him in the first place), despair and hopelessness.

I was destroyed on a level like never before, but I loved this city and this country so much and didn’t know what in the world I could do to change my personal circumstances. Every day I went into my classroom was a blessing and a welcome distraction, even on days that discipline was an issue (and there were a large number of those). For some reason as I’m typing this I’m already smiling about those days, and also the really good ones like my food conversations with 8A and the time students would come into my class just to hang out; my demo classes that kicked ass, deep life conversations and field trips with 8B; my hugs from 7A when my aunt and uncle’s home was destroyed by a tornado (yeah, that happened too) along with the “would you rather” game that helped me get to know them more and the last day of school quiz; 7B making me laugh with their jokes like the time when I tried to explain glass half full/glass half empty and a student said something like, “I lost my glass;” and 7C who provided me with the most consistent work, caring smiles and inside jokes. Each class had its own personality and I can’t believe I learned all (I think 150?) of my students’ names, handwriting and individual personalities in such a short time. On day one I never thought that was possible.

I wish I could bottle all of the good times in class somewhere so I could remember them all. These days and the countless writing assignments to grade got me through all the grief (yup, some people also died), heartache, isolation and the personal issues that plagued me throughout this year. Writing assignments also let me into the personal lives of many of my students, and I feel like getting assigned to the older kids was a blessing, because I really feel like I got to know many of them on a personal level—a form of trust as 8A put it in their goodbye speech this week. Seventh and eighth grade are such unique grades to teach as the students are going through so many changes. Some are acting like young adults ready to take on high school while others are still teetering in a child’s world. I cared about each and every one of them beyond just teaching English, and I can’t wait to see what changes to the world they make as adults (thank you social media). As I was supposed to get grades 1-4 when I first came here, I’m so glad that I didn’t. The writing assignments, class discussions and level of English allowed me to connect with my students in a way that not only they needed—but so did I.

Each weekend I would go to the city center and just enjoy the city, something I wasn’t really able to do at this level in China. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like an expat or like I didn’t belong somewhere. I felt completely at home. I love the lifestyle of Hungary—not having a car; not knowing what anyone around me is saying (there’s something pleasant about the detachment); the no open container laws; the csirke sandwich at Charlie’s; the ease of getting around this city (and Europe in general); drinking with the locals at Vezer and getting hit on constantly (hey, who doesn’t love harmless attention and free drinks?); the massages and amazing haircuts at A-list; my WestEnd excursions and talks with Szabi2; the intoxicating fragrance of the tree outside of my house and the most deep, blue skies I’ve ever seen in one year; all of the beautiful museums, bars, scenery, food—I could go on forever. I will also miss being able to hop on a train and travel to at least 10 different countries with ease. Along the way I visited Romania, Iceland, Bratislava and Serbia, making my country count 29 so far.

I had made the decision to stay another year, but then by spring break I went back to the States and started researching bringing Maddux here. The stress, expense, logistics, quality of life, my travel load, taking him away from everyone who loves him, just added up. And, with my friend count here plummeting and not being able to get over my last relationship, I made the hardest decision of my life to move back to the States. As I sit here editing and putting the final touches on this blog after an incredibly emotional last week day with my students, I’m honestly torn and not sure I haven’t made the biggest mistake of my life. I have to put on my big girl pants now, give myself some tough love, and look toward the future. It’s the first time in my life I haven’t been resolute about a decision that I’ve made.

What wasn’t a hard decision was accepting a wonderful job back there and focusing on my career, which hopefully will make my emotional transition a lot easier. I’ve always been great with sinking myself into work, and that’s what I plan on doing this next year and beyond. And, I will also admit that even down to the last day here I was hoping he would ask me to stay. False hope, I know, and I feel like a fool even mentioning it. But, all he had to do was ask. Funny how the people who care about me the least are the ones I strive to please the most.

Even though some of the weeks dragged by, now that I’m looking back I can’t believe that I’m leaving, that it’s over already, and how much has changed within the school walls since the beginning of the year. I promised myself I would not rush time along (life goes quickly enough as it is) and I would cherish the moments here, even the crappy ones. I still remember the first school assembly, and the people in my life who were standing there literally and figuratively are completely different than the ones today. People standing in that room who were strangers are people who I now know and who have changed my life forever.

This week my students said the most lovely things to me and gave me an overwhelming amount of beautiful, thoughtful gifts. I was reminded of my last day in China when Candy cried to me outside of the school out of fear she’d never make it to America or see me again (no FB there), when Eric and Rain gave me their notes, and when Fred asked me to take his photo to always remember him. I still do and always will. And I know today and the cherished moments of the past year will be etched into my mind just the same as my final bus ride leaving Always Learning Center and my final bus ride home on the 20E.

I came here for love and I leave Karinthy with a different kind of love, an outpouring in fact. Life rarely has given me what I’ve expected out of it, and it’s always kept me on my toes—this year more than ever before. I’ve lost so much this year, but hopefully I can look back in the future and only remember what I’ve gained. God blessed me with the best school, administration, co-teachers and students in all of the land. Perhaps I’m romanticizing because I was just showered with an abundance of gifts and praise all week, but I don’t think I am.

Thank you so very much to my students; my co-teachers, especially Eniko who was my rock and taught me so much; my amazing principal, Agi, who was always there with a helping, friendly face, and who was just as much of a boss as a motherly figure; Virag Utca (I’m writing this as I hear the familiar sounds of school letting out across the street and my walls banging and all I can do is laugh—and man this tree smells good); my countless bartenders and servers all over the city who have fed me; to my true friends who stuck by me through it all for better and for worse; and to you—while I have to force myself to move on because if I don’t I’ll never recover, as the song lyrics go from the last movie we watched together, I’m just trying to leave something behind. I hope I did.

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