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How to summarize a life story
Plus: one more week to Spain; how I got here, and whether I'm romanticizing it
Greetings from New Hampshire—
I’m spending one final week at my homestead here before flying to Barcelona next week. It’s been a wonderful Summer, mostly rock climbing, working on house projects, and spending time with family and friends.
People keep asking me if I’m excited for Spain—I keep saying I’m not sure it’s sunk in yet.
I’ve been to visit Catalunya three times in the past nine months, so this time just feels like trip number four. Except I’ll actually have an apartment in Barcelona. And I’ll have to figure out a new cell phone and health insurance.
Perhaps it’ll sink in later that I am making some profound change in my life, but the reality is I have spent SO MUCH TIME in Europe over the past 6-7 years, and right now I am just looking forward to being back.
I. How to summarize a life (with Chris Blachut)
A few weeks ago, Chris Blachut, who writes The Zag, reached out to ask if I would be interviewed for his series The Unfollowables. Chris asks a set of 14 very good and quite difficult questions—the first of which is to “briefly” summarize my life story.
I must have written and rewritten my answer a dozen times:
Sometimes it feels like multiple life stories.
I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but raised on the East Coast—we moved around a lot as a kid, leaving me feeling like a pretty rootless adult. Never had a real childhood home, which might be why I’m so obsessed with the idea now.
I started out as a newspaper reporter. Tried to save the world as a climate activist. Helped run a U.S. Senate campaign, volunteered for two presidential campaigns, then even ran for office myself.
Had another career in marketing and communications (having failed to save the world). Shortly before the pandemic hit, I was laid off, so went into business for myself doing marketing and strategy consulting.
Also started writing my Substack around then, and transitioned my life from being oriented around work to essentially being oriented around rock climbing, a passion I’ve had for 20 years. I’ve visited 40+ countries and lived all around the U.S., including 10 years in Washington D.C., but this Summer I’m finally moving abroad—to Barcelona, Spain with my son.
Like being a movie director, writing is often about what to show and what not to show. It’s all about where you point the camera. What I wrote above is highly curated of course—I could just have easily focused on other details, left out certain episodes, or expanded on others.
Most people want to make their lives into a grand, unified narrative. But I’ve always tried to recognize that my life is only a story to the extent that I’ve attached meaning to otherwise highly contingent events. One thing happens, which leads to the next thing, and the next.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t usually make for a very good movie.
As I wrote a few years ago:
It's tempting to write our own story of an entrepreneurial hero's journey—the truth is more like the Book of Exodus.
In other words, we are all wandering in the wilderness, and we don’t know how big the wilderness is or how long the wandering will continue. We might get to places that feel like milestones along the way—markers of a beginning, middle, or end—but in truth, we have no idea.
Thus, summarizing a life story is a bizarre and subjective act of creation. But it’s a topic I’m relentlessly fascinated by, which is why I write a lot of memoir and also why I read so much damn biography.
Anyway, Chris’ questions forced me to revisit a lot of formative details of my life, which was a fun and useful exercise. And it might be useful to ponder how you would answer some of the same questions.
It was also interesting to see how Chris summarized what I’d written (he asks everyone to submit one of these cheesy waving at the camera pics):
You can read the whole interview here.
II. My highly contingent upcoming year
Plus: postponing the Cornudella renovation
Speaking of life events being contingent: my moving to Spain with my son for a year feels weirdly, almost excessively contingent.
In other words, it’s strange how much each thing only happened as a consequence of the thing just before it happening.
A year ago, I had no idea any this would be the plan. I had never yet been to Siurana to rock climb and looked at Spain as only one of a half dozen or so countries I might one day want to live in.
Meanwhile, my son’s mom and I had an agreement that at some point in middle school, he would spend at least a year away from the D.C. area. But the leading plan back then was that he would go to Germany during that year—a family from his school in D.C. had recently returned to their home in Munich and had offered to host him.
My son was excited to go live with his best friend in Germany for a year. We all were excited about it. Everyone was on board.
Then, that Thanksgiving, I took my son on a climbing trip with friends to Catalunya. It was one of the best trips I’d ever taken, and neither one of us wanted to leave.
I can still remember our last day in Siruana, sun setting gloriously over the limestone cliffs, trying to grab cell coverage so I could change our flight, my son lobbying for at least another week, and me contemplating the email I’d send to the school and the text I’d write to his mom: “Hey, we want to stay. We’re not coming back for a while.”
The sunset was just that beautiful.
At the same time, I had been looking for years for a climbing town in Europe I might want to buy property in. In Cornudella de Montsant, I finally found it.
By January, I was under contract on a fixer-upper townhouse there. My thought was that my son would be in Germany next year, and I could climb and renovate the property and go visit him from Spain.
But by February, the Germany plan had begun to unravel. I’d seen it coming, for a variety of reasons.
We needed a backup plan, and I started researching schools near where I’d be buying the property. When I’d thought about backups to the Germany plan previously, I’d had the entire world to deal with: I’d looked at schools in the DR, in Mexico, in Italy, and in half a dozen other countries either I or my son was familiar with.
But now I was anchored in place, and in Barcelona, I found a great school option that looked perfect for him. When I took the idea to my son, he was tentatively on board (we’d just been there together, after all)—and his mom didn’t say no right away.
We took one step, then another. Soon, my son was excited (I may or may not have promised him monthly trips to go see FC Barcelona games). His mom still didn’t say no, but hadn’t exactly said yes either. Together, we did a remote video call with the school’s enrollment director. After that, I sent in an application, and he was accepted. It was now a real option—the only one on the table.
One day, I picked my son up from school and asked if he’d had a chance to talk about it more with his mom. “Oh yea—I’m going to Spain,” he said.
And so it was decided.
The consequence of all this is that I will not be able to do real work on the renovation. Cornudella de Montsant is a 2-hour drive from Barcelona. Instead of climbing and renovating an old Spanish townhome next year, I’ll be living in an apartment in Barcelona and focusing more on my business.
My life story zagged, one might say (looking at you Chris!). But this zag was incredibly important to me.
I am taking my son to Spain for the year, and at a highly impactful age to do it. He is turning 13 next week. My young boy is entering teenager-hood. And rather than do it in suburban Maryland, he’ll be doing it in Barcelona.
I couldn’t be happier about how one event led to another. Contingent as it all was.
III. Romanticizing Spain vs. reality
Finally: I’m a member of a few Facebook groups, mainly devoted to climbing and travel, and this question on the Digital Nomads Spain group recently caught my attention:
For those who idealized or romanticized living in Spain for a long time and realized their objective now for a couple of years I would like to hear if it has met your expectations? After being in Spain for some years do you see the country the same as you idealized it?
What have been some of your culture shocks living in Spain? What have you found difficult to get accustomed to? What do you miss from your home country in Spain?
I braced for a bunch of people who had moved to Spain and become disenchanted. After all, I asked myself a version of this question as I was debating whether to purchase the property I ultimately bought in Cornudella de Montsant.
Was I romanticizing Europe? Was I unhappy with my life and trying to fix it with a movie version where I move to Spain Eat, Pray, Love style (my version would be, Eat, Climb, Build)?
Before buying the property, I tried to grapple with real-world unknowns:
Would permitting any of the structural changes be a problem? Would they let me create more than one living unit? Then I started to feel a kind of internal resistance, a fear of everything I could be doing wrong. Was any of this even possible? Was I in over my head? Who was I, with my limited Spanish and newish renovation skills, to think I could manage a full gut renovation of a two-and-a-half centuries-old Spanish home in a mountain village I’d only ever visited once?
It’s really impossible to know whether we are romanticizing something ahead of time. Self-delusion is, almost by definition, impossible to detect.
Which is why it was interesting to read through people’s responses a few years after moving to Spain. Did it live up to their expectations? What things were grating on them? Did the benefit of hindsight alter their romantic opinion?
I was pleasantly surprised to read that most were really happy with their decision (One characteristic comment: “It has FAR exceeded my expectations”)—and that the bad things were aspects of Spain I’m more or less already aware of. Some pointed out the machoism, others the frustrating bureaucracy. Some missed the comforts of home, most of which amounted to minor conveniences that are inconvenient in Spain.
As for me: I’m bookmarking this to come back in a year with my own post. Did I overly romanticize Spain, and Southern Europe generally? Time will tell.