Every American should live in another country for a short period of time, because most of us trace our ancestors back to some other country. Living in a foreign place will help you appreciate the struggle your ancestors went through coming to America.

Vacationing is easy. You see the sights, buy “local” souvenirs made in China, and move on. Living in one place is hard. If you go, I suggest starting small.

Visit Idaho for a few days and when you feel ready, go to Canada for a week, gradually building up your resistance to foreigners who don’t like you.

Eventually you will want to try someplace truly weird and exotic, at which point you can schedule a trip to Washington D.C.

Glutton for misery that I am, while in college I jumped at the chance to study Spanish in Toro, Spain, with little preparation. No one told me, for example, the reason storks are associated with babies is that the average stork mating call sounds like someone using a jackhammer to retile the roof.

 This happens at 2 a.m., leaving married couples little to do except make the most of insomnia. There are a lot of storks in Toro, Spain. They have storks like we have pigeons. They also have pigeons like we have pigeons, only more so.

Suffering from a combination of jet lag and stork hatred, little things started to worry me. For instance, I was worried that after a week I was still having to wash my clothes in the sink and eat cold cuts because I couldn’t figure out how to work the washing machine or stove.

I worried because I missed reading the tabloids while waiting in lines and eavesdropping on conversations at restaurants.

I worried because I started feeling inadequate living around so much ancient architecture. Toro was old when (warning: historical fact ahead) Christopher Columbus showed up to buy famous Toro wine for his first trans-Atlantic soirée. Americans, including me, are not used to that kind of aggressive oldness.

On my afternoons away from Spanish class I remember drinking coffee outside the Colegiata de Santa María Mayor. As I looked up at the medieval church I desperately wanted to throw rocks at the windows, just so one piece wasn’t older than every single building in the United States.

All that worrying led, in part, to smoking more. I started smoking at 18, but only enough to fend off mosquitos on fishing trips and attract girls at parties.  The bigger reason I was smoking more was the one distinctly American thing I could buy were Lucky Strike cigarettes, and I smoked them with patriotic fervor.

To make matters worse, as my Spanish improved I started to realize some Spanish store owners had a strange sense of humor that wasn’t helping me learn Spanish. When I went grocery shopping for example, I would point to items behind the counter and say, “that,” or sometimes, “that one, your grandmother is in the bathroom?”

The store owners, in an effort to get into the spirit of the conversation, would give me the wrong item. Instead of a bottle of shampoo I would wind up with depilatory cream. Not married at the time, I didn’t realize that Nair is not Spanish for hair.

With my social prospects in tatters, I started roving about the city, finding new shops. Even though I was having a hard time learning Spanish, I was picking up rude Spanish gestures quickly, thanks to my tendency to daydream while walking.

With a month left in my stay, I stumbled across a little path that wound down a cliff to the Río Duero below the city. It was early spring, the almond trees were in bloom and the water was high and muddy.

Oddly enough, it reminded me of my hometown along the upper Okanogan River in Washington state. As I bent over to pick up a rock to throw out across the turbid water, I noticed a small weed.

I instantly recognized an arch-enemy from my youth. Thousands of miles away from my home was this small ground-ivy plant, bane of my mother’s garden. Fighting back an uncomfortable nostalgia for someone under 30-years-old, I pulled it up.

The rest of my stay in Toro seemed a little better. I was learning to hold limited conversations, and I started going out to tapas bars and local eateries. I joked with waiters and started eating real food. I even went dancing once or twice, and smoked less.

And whenever I felt like going home for a few minutes I walked down to the river and pulled weeds. Apart from worrying that I might get picked up as a crazy, hairless, homeless person pulling weeds, it  made me feel a little more normal.

It was my own little tradition to remind me of home.

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