Six Months Under the Spanish Sun
It was a grey and wet November evening when my wife met me at the top of the stairs with a bottle of champagne.
“How do you feel about living in Spain?”
Spain! There’s an idea. Amy's work had asked her to oversee comms for their European expansion, which would place us in Spain for the moment, and Europe indefinitely. I had only been to Europe twice, and never set foot in Spain. Neither of us spoke Spanish, we didn't know anybody, and, aside from the certainty that we would get more sun than in Seattle, we had no idea what we were in for.
Still, we were giddy as we put our things in storage, sifted through a mountain of paperwork to get our dog Hugo through customs, and put our house up for rent. In a few short months we took an overnight flight to Málaga, on the southern coast.
As the plane touched down I thought to myself: “I live here now.”
Which is a strange thing to say in a country you’ve never visited. As we watched the gold and blue Spanish coastline scroll by on the way from the airport to our new home, I tried to make friends with the glaring unknown ahead.
The landlord of our apartment gestured westward. “On a clear day you can see Gibraltar.”
“That’s not Gibraltar?”
I had no idea Africa had mountains along its northern coast. I also had no idea you could see Africa from across the Mediterranean. I always thought of myself as worldly, but, as would become de rigueur, Spain joyfully elbowed my preconceptions aside.
Amy’s job was based in Marbella, a seaside fishing village that has managed to retain at least part of its soul in the face of unflagging capitalism. The old town remains quaint: narrow streets wind between whitewashed buildings dotted with hat shops, vintage boutiques, and restaurants serving fresh seafood and tapas. One gets the sense that the locals still genuinely enjoy the place, in a way that maybe Coney Islanders do not. Hotels and resorts have sprung up outside the historic center, with golf courses and terraced condos marching into the hills that face the sea.
On the beach, the promenade extends for miles. It's completely segregated from cars, making it an amazing pedestrian thoroughfare. Amy and I adopted the habit of jogging with Hugo in the mornings. The coast is dotted with chiringuitos, from small shacks selling ice cream and beach umbrellas to full-service restaurants with white-tablecloth service. At night, local high school kids wander through British bachelorettes and sunburned Norwegians.
I was not prepared for the generosity and kindness we received from virtually every Spanish person we met. When Javier, a guy I had met only once, learned we might be moving to Madrid, he sent me a text:
“Hey! Here’s a list of the good neighborhoods. When you’re in town we’ll do a bike ride and I’ll show you around.”
When I arrived he handed me a hand-annotated map and proceeded to give me the grand tour of the city, showing off secret gardens nobody knows about, shortcuts through congested neighborhoods, and how not to piss off the cops. This incident would be more notable if it wasn’t for countless other moments of extreme generosity and kindness by the people we met. The patience extended in the face of my mumbling, stumbling Spanish continues to amaze me, and the gusto and openness with which everyone seems to enjoy life is infectious. There’s a willingness to engage directly between people that might have one day been present in the States, but is sorely missing today.
Indeed I was surprised how little I missed from the States beyond friends and family. I had lived in Seattle for nearly 20 years, and as an avid cyclist, snowboarder, and sailor, I couldn't think of a place more perfect for the kind of life I wanted to live. In my mind I assumed Seattle would always be my home, but Amy and I both struggled with the lack of sun, and the dark months became a constant battle for serotonin.
Luckily serotonin is in long supply in Spain. In addition to main-lining vitamin D on a daily basis, we were walking everywhere, eating better, and traveling to Seville, Barcelona, Madrid, and scores of towns along the southern Spanish coast. Large sections of many towns and cities are pedestrian and bike only, and when cycling in the countryside cars actually give space and wait for a safe time to pass. Coming from riding in rural Washington where a day isn’t complete without a couple Chevy Silverados rolling coal on you, the absence of automotive antagonism here is almost ...unsettling.
I was never more than a casual photographer before arriving in Spain. Not for lack of things to shoot, but when we arrived here something changed. I think it stemmed from a need to slow down the onslaught of newness. When every meal, stroll, and street corner is laden with novelty it starts to blur the brain a bit, and the camera helps document and digest it all.
I find it heartening that every photo is unique. Photos taken at the same time will be from different angles. Photos taken from the same angle will be at different times. It’s amazing to me that every photo ever taken, from Niépce’s first shot of his French village to frame 1,232 of the latest TikTok dance is a completely unique sliver of time and space. This revelation has however made deleting bad photos a bit of an existential crisis: it's hard to destroy a photo forever when you realize each one represents a unique moment in the history of the universe.
But in between good photos and bad, being able to look back on my evolution as a photographer and as an apprentice European has been a blessing. Both because of the ability to sift through the waves of new experiences, but also to see steady growth. Over the past 6 months I've found myself growing more and more accustomed to life on-foot, in the sun, and with a slower tempo. I no longer fidget when waiting for the server to bring the bill, and the morning walk to the panadería is unhurried, usually with a camera in one hand and Hugo's leash in the other.
I think the camera is a kind of primitive time machine. It allows us to freeze light, and carry slices of time around with us in our pockets. Like many pieces of technology the miraculous has been blunted by familiarity, but I don’t really think there’s anything particularly wrong with that. The fact that we can share these moments with others so they can see what we saw and feel what we felt—and we can remind ourselves—is what matters.
In a few days Amy and Hugo and I will move into our new place in Barcelona. A new city, in a new part of the country, with new people and new experiences. I don't think we really know what a chapter of life is about until we look back at it, but I'm glad to be able to collect more moments to carry with us as we continue our journey forward.