Many Americans who live abroad get homesick. I love my family very much, but I rarely ever feel a longing for “home.” I don’t anticipate moving back to the United States anytime soon and I am fine with that. But Spain doesn’t really feel like “home” either.
When I moved to Peru almost two years ago, I began training at the Pitbull Martial Arts Center. We referred to our teammates and coaches as “la familia.” I felt like my teammates were my brothers. We trained together every day—through the blood, sweat, and anguish. We lived together and spent all of our free time together. We sacrificed our health and well-being for each other. When a teammate lost a fight, I felt their pain in my bones.
Besides my old friend Ben, I didn’t meet any other Americans during my first six months in Peru. When I moved to Spain, on the other hand, all of my friends were American. We constantly talked about the same subjects: struggles with the visa application, slow restaurant service, or weekend trips around Europe. While I had Spanish acquaintances, I didn’t exactly have Spanish friends.
Before I moved here, I looked up the best MMA fighters in Madrid. I found a fighter named Julio who owned his own gym. He was from Brazil and had trained under Alexandre “Pequeno” Nogueira. My coach in Peru was best friends with Pequeno and they had trained together for years. Pequeno often came to visit us in Peru, and I had trained with him many times. Julio and I began talking and we often joked about Pequeno’s antics.
At one point in my life, I considered moving to England and had made contacts in the MMA community there. I became close with a British fight manager. Since Julio needed a manager, they began speaking. I translated during their contract negotiations, which Julio eventually signed.
During my first month in Spain, Julio constantly asked me to come train, but I didn’t. I was too busy partying with my new American friends. Eventually I did make it to the gym though.
During that first practice, I met a guy named Misha from Tbilisi, Georgia. Last year, he won the Greco-Roman world championship at the veteran level. We’ve been training together for a few weeks now. He wants me to teach him English. Tbilisi is home to one of the toughest wrestling tournaments in the world. The late Dave Shultz was famous for winning it twice. Misha tells me that Shultz is a legend in Georgia. “Many Georgians name their sons Dave in his honor.”
Misha left Georgia fourteen years ago and came to Spain with nothing. He was living on the streets. He showed up to the national team training center one day and told them he had competed internationally in wrestling. They supported him, gave him some money, and helped him find a job. A year later, he was able to bring his wife over from Georgia. He now works as a taxi driver and has two children.
Misha invited me to his home for dinner and I met his twelve year old son and five year old daughter. Before dinner, his son said a prayer in Georgian. “I want to keep the language alive in my children, but it’s difficult,” he said. “One day, I would love to move my family back to Georgia.” He never stops smiling and talking.
During practice yesterday, Misha introduced me to an Armenian wrestler named Davo who spoke to me in perfect English. Misha was confused, “He is a very good friend and I never even knew he spoke English.” That’s the kind of guy Davo is: humble and unassuming. He is twenty-four years old, but looks like he has more mileage than that. He was born in Armenia, but grew up in Russia. He has lived with his mother in Spain since he was seventeen. Recently, he went back to Russia to train. “Wrestling is much better there,” he said in a conspiratorial tone. He showed me a picture of him with the Russian world champion Denis Tsargush. “I trained with him many times,” he said with pride.
Davo speaks four languages fluently. He and Misha speak Russian. Misha and I speak Spanish. Davo and I speak English. Julio speaks Spanish to us, but Portuguese to the other Brazilians in the gym. In the gym we always refer to each other as “bicho,” which means “beast” in Portuguese.
When it comes to combat sports, language is not important. We are all in the room battling and sweating together – it doesn’t matter where you’re from. A simple hand motion or a takedown says all that needs to be said. Or a smile.
After practice, Davo invited me to train with the Spanish national team. A few hours later, I met him and we walked to practice. “I am Muslim,” he explained, “and everyone looks at me like a terrorist.” He used to have a beard and said people wouldn’t stand near him on the Metro. “But I am about peace.” He was one of the friendliest people I’d ever met, and yet there was a twinge of bitterness in his voice. “I just don’t feel like I have ground under my feet here in Spain.”
We arrived at the training center and I waited outside while he prayed around the corner. The sun was setting and the clouds were a surreal shade of pink. When he returned, we went to the locker room.
The national sports complex included facilities for everything from badminton to gymnastics to archery. Boxing and judo were on the same floor as wrestling. There was an enormous swimming pool on the level below and an expansive weight room in the basement. The locker room had a sauna, steam room, and hot tub.
The wrestling room had two full-sized Olympic mats with yellow circles and red zones marking the edge. Two big guys in singlets wrestled in the middle while others waited tentatively around the outside. We walked in and Davo introduced me to the guys. One wrestler was wearing a t-shirt that said “NE Elite Wrestling.” I recognized it as a youth club in Connecticut. Even though I wrestled for a different club, I had known many of their wrestlers. They were my childhood friends.
“Where did you get that?” I asked.
“Nueva York,” he replied. He had traveled there on a wrestling trip and traded someone for it.
For the past two years, I had been training in MMA gyms around the world. But this place was different in a way that I couldn’t explain. I looked around the room and felt like I knew everyone already. I inhaled and filled my lungs with the muggy air. It smelled different. It smelled like wrestling. It smelled like my youth. It smelled like the thousands of hours I had spent in wrestling rooms throughout my life. It smelled like the people I had grown up with.
I was home.