I have been living in another country for well over a year now, and I find my life is fuller. To be honest, it’s mostly because nearly everything has been difficult. When you go through times when you have to strive in even the smallest task, a certain toughness gets built in your bones. However, this widening and filling of my life also comes from listening to stories I cannot relate to. I am immersed in a culture that thinks differently from what I was taught growing up. My conception of humanity and how we can relate to one another is a new frontier of ideas that I love exploring. I could stop here – expressing gratitude for my experiences, how they have changed my worldview and made me stronger. Really, though, life does that anyway, or it does if you let it. The greatest gift is that somehow in combination of these things, I learned to dream. Just like the best kind of freedom comes with fences, the best kind of dreaming comes with pruning shears and special glasses so the future stays blurry and the present focused. I have found dreaming to be far more like building a super complicated and awesome Lego® castle than Lisa Frank® folders. Focus and decision are important tools in my dreaming. It is so easy to get lost in the doubts and the small steps, but a phrase here is Spain is “poco a poco” or “little by little”. Little by little, I learned the language and earned friendships, but I had to move here first. After a year, I look back and I am astounded at the changes in my life and those around me. Dreaming is big, but the steps are small. When you learn this, everything is possible. And to know that is the greatest gift.
I’ve been here over a year. I’m passing wisdom and comfort to people who resemble my panicked heart 12 months ago. I have hiccups still, but they aren’t accompanied by extreme stress and shutdown. When I do make mistakes I can look with “calma” as my tutor might say when he starts to correct something I clearly wrote in a hurry, making mistakes I shouldn’t make anymore. In the same way, there is a new found tranquility in my second year. I review and reflect without the clamor and chaos last year brought. I am able to gaze at this ancient town and see beauty in the tall stone walls, instead of bowing my head against the cold they encourage. I am able to see the culture around me, know far more about subjective and objective values and their differences. I am able to grasp at the deep understanding one can glean from being a true foreigner. For example, like classic heroes, every culture has a tragic flaw. However, the story is not a Greek tragedy already scripted. This year, as I talk with students about current events, or rather, turmoils: the war in Syria, the US government shutdown, Spain’s economic crisis, etc, it becomes clear the enemy is not our cultural tragic flaws, though they exist and they are battles to be fought, but a sweeping global mindset that is quickly becoming cross-cultural: apathetic pessimism. This is what I fought last year in the gloom of culture shock. So although I have learned much this past year, I have fought a personal battle, only to look up in the wake of victory and find the world is battling the same. I can vouch personally that the cure is caring with hope, and like anything worth having it is far from easy, but it is the best way to make it to the second year.
There was a lot of cleaning out before we started painting this week. Old paint from years past has gathered like magazines in a bathroom. I needed to figure out what was worth keeping and using before we crowded more in from this year. I don’t know how many buckets and cans I cracked open or at least tried. I have no idea how to tell if paint is still good or not, but I came up with some criteria…
Mold is growing inside.
The lid and the canister are one. (ie opening it isn’t an option)
You nearly vomit from the smell
You aren’t sure if it was once a single color and consistency, or if it’s supposed to look like that.
I love working with my hands. And this week, I used my hands to paint, my mind to design, and my heart to receive input and create something that everybody, not just me and my abstract desires would enjoy for the next two years. The place where I work to create a place of friendship for students at the University has a new look, and it was very hard work. The other things in my life, my study of political science, my relationships, hit a pause as every ounce of energy went into this work. And it is done. And I am proud, except for this one little part….but it’s ok. I’m probably going to be the only one who notices……
Summer in Salamanca feels just as summer should. When you are a kid and you picture summer changing things, if only for the few months before you are trapped in a classroom again, that is what I feel is happened here. The dry heat makes for lovely walks in the shade, and coffees under the stretched umbrellas that crowd the pedestrian boulevards in this tourist town. Air conditioning is pretty rare, so all the windows are open catching the cool breezes. Normally, the population here is students and elderly, with a scattering of tourist groups and young families. In the month of August, however, all the students have gone home. I haven’t seen as many elderly, and I wonder if the heat has something to do with it. The dynamic here has changed. I have changed, as well, so perhaps I am noticing new things. There is a woman who lives in my building who sings opera. Fresh from a visit home and thawed from the long winter, I find myself wondering about her in ways I was too tired to think about before. What does she look like? How old is she? Would she want to be my friend? Does she have a dog I could play with? There are several tenants with dogs, and I want to play with all of them. The voice that echoes in our marbled staircase has me curious. What does this next year in Salamanca look like? What stories will I gather (and hopefully be more disciplined about posting)? Why do all my cakes burn on top and stay gooey in the middle (I adjusted for altitude this time)? Who will I meet and become friends or just acquaintances with? I don’t know, but I will soak up the sunlight and warmth while it is given to me.
I once lived in an apartment with a ladybug infestation. That was weird. I’ve also dealt with ants, slugs, weird smells, bad pets and roommates of every sort. Living in Spain has been mostly normal considering the dozen or so other places I’ve called home. Our place doesn’t smell, I have great roommates, enough space and light. We have an excellent landlord and no pest problems. There is a portion of our hallway that has been broken since October. Although I enjoy complaining about it, ever since I applied duct tape to the foam covering, it’s stopped tripping me and I don’t really care anymore. Recently, though, we’ve had some unexpected visitors. Moths. It began a few weeks ago when I was pulling laundry off the line and my hand grabbed not a sock, but a large fuzzy insect. I was startled, but not scared. I see few bugs here, and I have found that I miss the tiny buzzing lives that are prolific in the South (except mosquitos, of course). Anyway, about five moths came in with my laundry. With the fair weather, we keep the windows open, so even more have fluttered their way into our lives since. I’m rather indifferent to their presence. I’d take moths over mosquitos or other biting bugs any day. My roommate from Syracuse, however, is terrified of them. In her defense, they also scuttle out at the most inconvenient times and places, and they are rather big. She calls them bats. I think if we had a bat problem, then I would be concerned.
(click the pic for your Goonies reference of the year). But for now, they just add to the list of small things that make life in Spain different.
It has been a long while since I have posted anything. Lately, my life has flashed back and forth from nothing and and everything, skipping the in-between, and the in-between was what I meant to write about in this blog. The average things in life, like my plants, and my running and my cultural run-ins. Perhaps at the 7th month mark of being here things just started to seem normal again. Even the language frustrations follow a new pattern these days. If I’m not understood, or don’t understand the first time, I can simply ask for a repeat or explain again, with different words or structure or conjugation. I get it right eventually, me and the native smile congenially, and get on with our way. Yet at the very moment when things begin to have a feel of normalcy, the school year ends. My work slows down, the pace of the city changes from hectic student life to confused tourist life. The sun decides to show its face and warm the chilly stones of this tan and gray town.
Summer still feels far away, although we’ve bumped into June. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything yet, like a drawn out movie with no climax. The credits roll and you sit awkwardly waiting for the punchline. But my watch reads: 6-03, 10:04:55. I’m on vacation because I get a week long vacation at the end of the school year. I took my Spanish exam last week and stopped having class. We had a banquet to celebrate the end of the year and say farewell to students who are leaving. The facts add up to tell me 8 months have passed since I stepped off the plane in Madrid. I speak conversational Spanish. My friends are taking exams. Time has passed. I have changed, in ways I didn’t expect at all. The end of this year is a fading without fireworks. After all the ups and downs of a year in a new country, all the ruckus and fuss, this end feels eerily silent. So I will gather my things and walk out of the cinema, into the sun for the summer, and start again in the fall, all over again.
“¡Venga, venga! ¡Ánimo!” the abuelos, madres and niños cheered from the sidelines. I was just some giri (white, non-Spanish person; usually North American) to them – some slow, struggling foreigner – and yet they were rooting for me like I was the winner. I was far from winning anything in that half-marathon, but these people cheered with such energy and passion. Those moments are what I need to remember. In a beautiful way, they don’t fit with my experience here. I encounter negativity and inefficiency, the enemies of my American culture. I encounter disdain for my dress and accent. Then, for 12 miles, there was compassion, concern, and encouragement. Even recently, I was going for a short jog by the river, and I passed a group of friends lounging in the spring sun. One of the girls and I made eye-contact. “¡Venga!” she shouted. I smiled back with a thumbs up. Motivation doesn’t feel very Spanish. For the half-marathon I expected a few people to come out because that is race-culture, which I assumed would transcend the national culture. I was right, but not nearly enough. Lots of people were out, enthusiastically helping and supporting. They believed in me when I didn’t, and that doesn’t happen very often. I tend to swagger around believing that just about anything is possible if we really put our minds to it. In the tempering of this arrogance, who should lift my spirits, but the citizens of the city where I experience my defeatism. They smiled and gave me water. One of the volunteers was on a bike, cycling around, checking on the stragglers (me). His form of encouragement turned the air blue. Even as I ran and knew that the words coming out of his mouth were some of the most vulgar terms I was going to hear this year, I was surprised to feel my spirits lift and I ran a bit farther and longer because of it. Honestly, the only reason I made it as far as I did was because of the sideline rooters. Every “venga” and “ánimo” and “si, se puede” was little push to go on to the next kilometer and then the next. What I find is, it’s easy to remember the pain in my abdomen and my legs and my whole body, but it is better to remember why I went so far, and who carried me there.
One of the most frustrating things about learning a new language is the inability to express the correct emotion. During my half marathon for example, there was a desperate moment where I needed a bathroom.
“Hay un baño?” I asked a bit frantically*. But no one seemed to understand that this was no conversation piece. They shrugged their shoulders casually.
“No, there’s no bathroom on the race.” Asking again, I tried to look panicked to express how important a toilet was. But the response remained nonchalant.
“Well, there might be one in the bar just down the road, but I doubt its open.” In Spain, a bit of pessimism is normal. It’s also sensible to have a little doubt as to whether a place is open. Nevertheless, I took the detour to the bar and barely acknowledged the staff as I went into the restroom. When I got back to the course one of the race volunteers finally seemed to understand that I hadn’t simply wanted a tinkle break. He asked me if I was alright and if I needed an ambulance.
“No, I don’t need an ambulance. I want to keep trying.” I looked around and took a deep breath. I can do this. I can keep going. I was only at 8k out of 21k. I couldn’t stop there. So with a quick smile and a dose of determination I made my way.
At 19k, I experienced the same situation but opposite. I had just made it to the top of a big hill and I had to pause at the intersection for the policeman to stop the cars for me. My body giving out is a different post, however it did. I knew at that moment my legs weren’t going to take me any further, even if it was only 2k. Now there was nothing that needed immediate medical attention, I just couldn’t run anymore. The policeman saw my look of defeat and came over.
“Are you ok?” I shook my head.
“I can’t finish.” It was everything I could do to keep from crying.
“I’m getting the ambulance,” the policeman decided.
“No, I’m not sick,” I repeated, “I just can’t finish.” But no matter how much I tried to downplay the situation the policeman didn’t understand. I finally got him to agree with me, and he let me just wait for the van that marks the end of the race to pick me up and take me to the finish line.
Even now as I look back, I am confounded by my inability to communicate a sense of emergency when I needed a bathroom and a sense of simple defeat, but non urgency, when I couldn’t finish. In studying a foreign language, I learn words and expressions, but I never thought that I would have to relearn emotional communication. I still do not know what I could have done differently to express the correct emotion. At least I made interesting friends along the way and I have a story to tell about the time I tried to run half marathon in Spain.
* For practicality, all dialogue is in English. But everything happened in Spanish.