In America, I zoom around in an isolating box, going from place to place…seeing very little of the strangers around me. My life in America was mostly restricted to the young. But here, I walk. And when one walks, the lives around are close, too close to ignore. Here, the lives of the elderly are often pacing next to mine. And it is beautiful. My heart warms to see the abuelo walking with his grandchild. I gently pass the two old ladies strolling arm in arm, prattling away in lisping Castilian. As I enter the Plaza Mayor the benches are filled with Salamantinos that have persevered here since the Civil War. Spaniards have one of the longest life spans of any other nationality. Some say the reason is their diet. There is plenty of seafood and red wine to increase one’s longevity. But bread and pork are just as common, and chocolate seems to be a staple as well. Diet could be a factor, but I think the reason Spaniards live so long is because they stay in the world. They brush against the hustle and bustle and have the tough skin to push back and keep up. They smirk at frantic students saying, “Tranquila.” They have seen some very bad times, and still they stroll with canes and wool stockings around and around the Plaza. They watch and participate in the activity around them. They live life where they have always lived it and share the space with new growth. They are as vibrant a culture here as the tourists, the students, or the children. Every life overlaps here, even if it’s just on the sidewalk. And when I walk home after a long day, I see the lady with thick shoes and a stunning blue scarf smiling at her friend as they exchange besos…and I am so happy I live here, amongst the old and the young and some-where-in-betweens.
There is a gathering of friends. One person has a word. He talks weird so the friends can say what word he is thinking. But it is more official than what I am saying. Do you know?… This is my life right now. This is what I sound like. My vocabulary in Spanish is so small, almost every sentence requires piecing together a definition of an unknown phrase or word. Using motions and words and sounds, I attempt to convey meaning to my Spanish friends. During one of these (comical) sessions, I had a sense of deja vu. It was like remembering a puzzle I had put together before. But it wasn’t a puzzle, it was a game. Taboo. Or if I am lucky with the vocabulary, Catch Phrase. Like a far less dangerous version of Jumangi, the game has become my life. I hurt my knee playing soccer. People ask, are you feeling better? “Yes, but it’s (how do you say stiff?) I can’t (what is the verb for to bend?) no it has no pain. It’s not walking well…No, no pain…” And so it goes. The puzzle is slow to come together. I want to express my life, but I’m not sure of the conjugation or the correct tense, so I figure out new avenues to get the point across. In English, I treat grammar as a guideline, a tool to accomplish my true objective: understanding. In Spanish, I am stumbling in the dark. Grammar is a phantom I seek in the hope it will grant me clarity in speaking and listening to others. One day my life here will be more than a game, keeping only the laughter.
Running here is difficult. The air is dry, the terrain is hilly, and the elevation is much higher than my hometown in the States. I ran four miles at an easy pace and almost chucked my donner kebab by the end. I wouldn’t have finished, except for the three women pushing me on. It’s easy to get frustrated. I can’t run, I get lost, and I don’t speak the language so I can’t do things by myself. I’m like a child right now. Running should be something I can do regardless of my other shortcomings, but it too will require perseverance and training. I need a “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster in this country. Keep calm, I ate pig’s cheek today. Carry on, nothing is open when you need it to be, so find something else to do. Perhaps the perseverance I need in running will transition into my life here. Carry on, up the next hill, through the next conversation. Keep Calm, there’s a water fountain there, there is grace here. I don’t have to speak perfectly. The people here are helping me learn. I have time to set up my life here. I have time to wander this city and learn its alleyways and plazas. I can pace myself, and persevere. The next time I run I will probably feel less like throwing up at the end. I will be a little more hydrated before I go. I will be stronger from all my walking. I will keep calm and carry on.
“What’s the first thing you are going to do when you step off the plane in Madrid?” asked a friend. We were at a local hangout, for one of the last times before I was heading off. “Get on the train to Salamancaaaa!!!” cut in another friend. “Heh, yeah. And kiss the ground. And get a soccer jersey,” I replied. I’ve been trying to get my size 6 1/2 feet on that dusty Spanish earth for the past 14 months: I do want to kiss the ground when I arrive. I want to cry, releasing the pent up stress and desire. I want to sleep and talk and eat where I belong. I’ve been looking at the open door, with my walking stick and pack, ready to go. But when I step off that plane, where will I be swept off to? Salamanca. A campus ministry called En Vivo. A house with a blue door. A team that has been preparing for the students to arrive. Cobbled streets and buildings that are older than my country. But I don’t think those are the kind of things Tolkien was referring to. I think he meant our journeys. The people we meet. The friends we make. Our choices. Ultimately, it’s those things that have swept me away to Salamanca in the first place. So, for right now: Right foot forward. Then left.