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 opened my box.
A box of books and things of story,
A painting sad and turbulent.
A tale adventurous and brave.
A picture of a party, friends, a family, a past.
A postcard from far away.
These drawings and words all jumbled together,
From theory to fiction to personal history to the ultimate story…
It seems what I have decided to take with me
Remember when you were a child
And you had so much frustration at your limitations,
And only dreams to battle them.
But it was happy.
Remember when that friend was the best friend you thought you’d ever have?
This friend here, this one though has stood the test of time.
Remember when you made promises?
Remember when you learned this lesson?
This person here says he remembered a time of darkness, too.
This author reminded me of David and other psalmists.
This character didn’t even have his books when he went far away.
Remember how to cook for 200 people? Here’s the recipe.
Remember how the grinch stole Christmas?
Poems are remembering and hoping
Sermons are exhorting and pleading to remember and think and reflect.
This is my box of books.
Sometimes I think it is all I have.
And then I remember.
Transitioning here has been challenging. I have encountered a desire to give up, which is a somewhat alien concept to me. I believe the turning point was when I let the lump exist in my throat–when I realized with acceptance the reality of living in a foreign country is that you will always be a foreigner. No matter how many roots I grow or how well I speak the language or understand the culture I am still not from round here. Maybe the day will come when I don’t jump when someone stops me in the street to ask for directions, or I manage a cheery “Hola” to the elderly lady who greets me in my apartment building. I think there has been a fear that I would be dismissed with the stereotypes of my nationality. While that fear isn’t unfounded, and people will choose their behavior regardless, the reality is and always will be I am a foreigner. Even if I moved back to my hometown, I will still go through the process of trying to blend my experiences. I find that there is an incompatibility of me with the world and try as I may to fit in, I never can. I’m loud and I have red hair. Fitting in has never really been an option. Although, I have certainly tried and worn myself thin giving it a go. So there is one of my lessons from this Spain thing: You are a Foreigner (and that doesn’t mean a rock star). You are a in a strange land, and no amount of disguise or clever speech will cover with any sufficiency that fact. And so we (me and my fellow American teammates) live as awkward, bumbling, little creatures with truth spilling out as well, and I suppose that makes it all worth it…to see that the light can creeps out of us as accented and different we are.
The bells ring in an arrhythmic pattern. It is the sound of joyous celebration. On the 26th of December in this German town, the streets are still and sloped roofs glisten with rain, but the bells pay no attention to the quiet demeanor. They are like the Shepherds’ voices raising high and bringing the news of the most scandalous and glorious birth of all time. They sing because anticipation has finally given way and everything we have been waiting for has, in fact, come. God pitched his tent among us. And that matters more than all the dark things in this world because it means those things have lost and though we will continue to fight them with everything there is, we fight them knowing Light has won. If there is something worth putting up lights and greenery and singing songs in the cold and exchanging gifts and expressing inexplicable joy, it’s that: That Light shines the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Pronouns will be the death of me. Pronouns and prepositions with a little mix of uncertain past and a desirous future will be the long, slow, torturous end of me. Learning a language has proved more difficult than I had originally planned. One doesn’t actual plan such things, but in my daydreams I would remember words the first time I heard them or diligently write them down and study late into the night with a nice cup of tea and soothing music. I would prance around Salamanca having no fear and walking up, smiling, to the camareros, with an order ready on my lips. When I mispronounced words, everyone would laugh, and I would take it gracefully with humor like we were all in some Katherine Hepburn film. But as things turns out, it isn’t like any movie I’ve ever seen at all. However, it is like some books I’ve read. Les Miserables, for example. An excellent read, but there are a solid 100 pages (at least) were everything is worse than the dreariest day in the most depressing month of the most monotonous year. Four pages later it’s still awful and then 50 pages later nothing has changed. I remember having a strong dislike for Mr. Hugo during that section. I thought to myself, “Those old authors. They have good stories, but what is the deal with the mundane crap fest that all of them seem to put in their novels?” Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, Austen in Mansfield Park, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dumas…They all have these long, seemingly pointless sections in their books. But in living here for 12 weeks, learning a new language and a new culture I’m realizing the stuffy old men and women who scribbled by candlelight in worlds of disease, dirt and slow communication understood far better than us the importance of those tedious periods in our life. They empathized with those seasons and wrote about them. But our generation cuts it out. Jean Valjean’s months and months of this drawn-out tedium isn’t in the musical and hardly in the film adaptations*. I mean who wants to watch a man moping around for 30 min? Those 100 pages aren’t in the abridged version of the book either. In our fast paced world, we just don’t want it to exist , so we cut it out. But I can’t cut it out of my life. And perhaps Victor Hugo couldn’t write it out of Jean Valjean’s life because he was creating a character of brokenness and redemption and struggle and joy and journey. He is a character we relate to and root for. I’m frustrated that remembering which pronoun I need and how it interacts with the particular verb conjugation I am using is taking up a good 100 pages of my life. Granted, comparing my time of acculturation with war torn France and being chased by an over vengeful inspector is a little dramatic. But what I am driving at is the boring and sad exists in stretched out seasons of life. We can’t cut it out. My life isn’t a 2 hour film. It has taken nearly 3 months to grow some love for this place, and I know it will take even longer before the grammar begins to come naturally. I finally find myself applauding those authors of old for writing characters who really have to fight to keep going; who have long periods in their life where everyday they have to overcome and get up and keep on keepin’ on. We all do. One day more! And another and another, and so on and so forth.
*This was edited Jan 14, 2013 after re-watching the musical and confirming: that section isn’t there.
I didn’t write a Thanksgiving post. The holiday is one of my favorites, but writing about it only twisted the knife of being far away. And I felt like I was lying because I wasn’t very thankful for much. As hard as I tried I couldn’t pull myself into a spirit of gratefulness. But a few weeks have passed and the horror of culture shock is wearing off. While being truly thankful is still not a constant companion or anything, I do find that I like things that are different or specific to Spain. I am hoping these things and the hard stuff can become fruits of thankfulness.
- Milk. It tastes good/different.
- Walking. Not having a car.
- Learning Spanish.
- The Plaza
- Dogs. Well behaved beautiful dogs…
- Street musicians
- Boots (warm, cheap and guay)
- En Vivo
- Teaching fun English expressions to people
- Learning new cultures
- Parque de Jesuitas (this is a beautiful park)
I also like the fact that I have time to make this place my home. It won’t all happen at once. Poco a poco.
On October 31 there is a man who climbs the Catedral Nueva in Salamanca. Without assistance or security he makes his way up hundreds of narrow staircases. His first summit is the clock. He peeks his head out a tiny door in the face. He begins to tell a story. It’s about his family. It’s about how generations before him have checked the tower every year since a devastating earthquake in Lisbon put permanent fissures in the cupola all the way in Salamanca. His pride is beating like the drum he carries with him. The crowds below cheer him on, although a good half or more are foreigners, like me–struggling to understand why a man would do this. In ruffly, restricting clothes, with ungainly baggage, he pushes to the top. Stopping at intervals to literally proclaim his story from the rooftops. It is his life. And we are his captive audience. The atmosphere below is traditional dances and food, crowds and bustle, and in this moment he gets to shout through the ordinary why what is happening matters. And for the day we join in. Stopping to stare at the man 92 meters high with silly clothes and a drum and a flute and a dove in a cage. But I think I get it. I want people to know me and my story and my family. I want what I do to be important. I think we all do. And I think there is a story most important that everyone should know. And even if it was just for a day, if I got to tell the world those things, I too would climb recklessly high in funny clothes with random objects to shout it from the cupola. I would move far away from home for a long time and leave all I know, all I hold dear behind to tell stories about why it all matters.
Every night the streets of Salamanca are washed clean. If you missed seeing the trucks and hoses, you could believe the city wept every night. Why is it weeping? There are so many stories in a place this old. There is hate and tragedy as well as laughter and peace. Perhaps it is crying in joy as much as sorrow some nights. But it must be hard to have so much of oneself forgotten. What is it like to see the years pass and things change and have people remain much the same in so many ways? Is it happy to see people’s lives? To be an observer of the chaos and beauty of the world? Stepping forward to share your life with another person is hard and warrants tears. Entering their pain and happiness is no easy task. But it is so worth it at the end you could cry for the experience of it all and the new burdens you share with grace and joy. I don’t know why Salamanca is crying. But her people are something I want to share my life with, despite the weeping and because of the laughter and in the midst of it all.
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.