DSC02315In case there was any doubting my ability to raise an eccentric child…



6892441165_f673f8b480_nAs the word has gotten around that we’re moving back to the US, the reactions of other people in Spain have been surprisingly consistent. Almost universally, the first reaction is along the lines of “oh, I’m so happy for you,” followed often (but not always!) by some expression of regret that I’m leaving. What I find most interesting is the way in which nearly everyone seems to congratulate me for getting out of Spain. Even native-born Catalans and Spaniards comment on how dire the situation is, sometimes confiding in conspiratorial tones that they’d like to leave, too. But another comment which has come up more than once is “how nice it will be for you to work in English again”.

At first, I was a bit taken aback by this. I certainly know that my accent exposes me immediately as a foreigner, and my Catalan is basic at best, but I generally manage to get by in castellano. For every five people who immediately ask me, “where are you from?” at least one person comments that I speak Spanish well. After ten years, is it really possible that I’m still struggling so much that it’s obvious I’d rather be speaking English?

I thought about this for a while, and eventually had to admit to myself that, yes, language is actually a big part of my motivation for moving back. I’m not particularly proud of that fact, since I like to think that I’ve got the intellectual capacity and determination to become fluent, but after further reflection, I think there’s more to it.

(The following may read like bragging, but it’s only to make a point.)

From a very young age, I was always very literate. My mom says I began reading on my own by age 3, and I was reading newspapers before I started kindergarten. We changed schools when I was 10 years old, and they gave me the standard reading level tests as part of the admission process. When I passed the tests for my grade level, they gave me the exams for the next grade, then the next, and so on until I had tested at university level and there were no more exams to take. At a loss for options, the teacher decided to just let me read on my own for the rest of the year. In all of the standardized tests I scored in the 99th percentile for language ability, and it’s fair to say that the ability to comprehend and express myself became a big part of my identity.

In English, that is. Once we moved to Spain, I suddenly found myself at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, unable to buy food at the market or carry on anything but the most basic conversations. Over time, through classes, practice, and embarrassing mistakes, I managed to get to something approximating fluency in Spanish, and even made some forays into the politically charged subject of Catalan. But the disparity between the image I projected in Spanish and my self-image in English was enormous. On countless occasions, I wanted to stop a Spanish conversation midway and explain that no, really, I was much smarter than I seemed to be. Going from having a well-above-average vocabulary to the language skills of a grade school student was depressing, and even more so when my job surrounded me with talented PhD holders working in their native languages.

I also found that other peoples’ perceptions of my personality were much different in Spanish. Multiple coworkers commented on the difference between my English-speaking persona and my Spanish-speaking one. Word occasionally got back to me that coworkers had been surprised to find that I had a sense of humor and a strong sarcastic streak when conversing in English, whereas previously they had thought I was shy and, in a word, bland.

In one of my workplaces in Silicon Valley, there was a Chinese-born engineer who was very competent but also very quiet and unassuming. He communicated well, but I always got the impression that language and culture set him apart just enough to keep him on the periphery. I was initially surprised when I found out that he had gone on to become a venture capitalist back in China, but now I think I can identify with what his experience must have been like. I also have a newfound respect for anyone who rises to the top of his or her profession in a language and culture that aren’t their own, with all of the extra obstacles that it entails.

So in short: yes, I’m hugely relieved to soon be working in the English-speaking world again, even if I’m a bit ashamed to admit it.

Photo via flickr/Chiew Pang under Creative Commons license.


On April 15, 2002, Amy and I passed through Vancouver on the trip that would lead to our move to Barcelona within a few weeks’ time.

On April 15, 2013, the movers are coming to load up the first batch of boxes for our move back to California in a few weeks’ time.

You may have noticed that this blog has been fairly quiet for the past few months, at least as far as written posts are concerned. There’s a reason for that, and for once it’s not the standard “too busy to post” excuse. It’s actually because there’s a significant piece of news that I’ve had to keep under wraps for a while, but now that I’ve broken the news to my group at work and to our primary client, I can go public with it here.

After more than 10 years in Spain, we’re moving back to the US this summer. I have a job offer waiting for me in San Francisco, Sofia has been accepted to a kindergarten in Half Moon Bay for this fall, and we’re in the later stages of applying for Amy’s permanent residence visa. Our current date estimate is sometime in late July; that date depends in large part on getting Amy’s visa approved, but also on letting Sofia finish out her school year here in Barcelona.

To say I have a lot of thoughts and reflections about this move is an understatement, and I’m sure a lot of them will bubble up to the surface here. Overall, though, while it’s been an interesting decade-long adventure, it feels good to be heading home again.

This morning on the way to school, Sofia was using the iPad in the back seat. Her current favorite thing is to watch the videos on pbskids.org, but since they’re restricted to viewers within the US, we use a VPN service called Tunnelbear to access them from Spain.

The older iPad model we have is wifi-only, so in order to connect to the net, I turned on the mobile wifi point on my phone, and connected the iPad through my phone’s data connection.

In other words, she was sitting in the back seat of a moving car, using a magic glowing screen, connected to the global internet wirelessly through a smaller glowing screen, watching her choice of videos on-demand streaming from halfway across the globe. Her response?

“Daddy, it’s too slow.”

And that is the story of how I used the phrase “when I was your age” for the first time.