A time to weep, and a time to laugh: Residency renewal

It’s that time again.

A friend told me it seems like I’m always renewing my residency. I agree. 

But this time was supposed to be easy. I waited for my appointment, full of confidence. Of course, my confidence may have been due in part to the fact that the immigrants in front of me had their dubious paperwork shoved into crumpled plastic page protectors. I, on the other hand, had my blue passport carefully tucked behind a stack of crisp, typed forms, neat photos still in their protective sleeve, and an appropriate receipt matched with a tax form. Bring it on.

But it was I who slinked defeated from the office, ready to throw my hands in the air and tell Spain, “FINE! I’m DONE being legal! So there!” 

I was able to stifle that impulse. And I’m not done being legal, of course. But it did take several hours of rigorous cleaning and a listening ear or two before I was inclined to persevere. 

Which, in turn, led me to a management office. And then a second management office. And finally, per directions, to a right hand turn by a children’s shoe store and down an alley to a hole-in-the-wall lawyer’s office which mercifully listed “immigration” on the plaque beside the front door. 

I stepped into the dim office to find the waiting wall lined with sub-Saharans, North Africans, and Asians. Congratulating myself on finally being in the right place, I took a seat. 

The man at the front desk didn’t acknowledge me as he gave slow, clear instructions to a client. So I had time to look around. The attempt at decor was shuffled aside for the sake of productivity. Stacks of paperwork in wild piles. Artwork lost behind taped up notices or a whiteboard. A bookcase filled with untouched manuals and a silent essential oils diffuser.

It was a bit messy, but not dirty, I decided. And it held a slight odor of the people who were crushed inside. 

Five minutes later, when the clerk had finished, he turned to me. I explained my situation, finishing with: “Can you help me?”

He took my card. “Maria, we have an American here!” he chirped. I must have been the first. Actually, I almost assuredly was. North Americans are an endangered species in Mytown. And how many of the seven or eight of us would have stepped foot in this office?

Only the desperate ones.

The lawyer peered down at me from her desk. I shuffled my neat stacks of paperwork, aware of the dozens of eyes now trained on me from the waiting wall. 

The clerk made a copy of my card and asked some questions. But could they help me?

It turns out, they could, but it would take several more trips to the office. Several more surprised stares from the other clients as I joined their ranks. Several more long stretches of leaning against the waiting wall and studying the half-hidden artwork. 

Then on one visit, the clerk removed the whiteboard to let me study more than just the fringe of the painting. On another visit, I was witness to a fight that the clerk helped diffuse before it escalated to the point of no return. On another visit, I bumped into a family I knew which helped to pass the time. That same visit, I took advantage of the clerk’s warm, North African culture to negotiate the fee. And on that last visit, he handed me a neat stack of stamped papers tucked in a plastic page protector. Success.

That was only step one. I will have to return. Being a legal immigrant is not for the faint of heart, no matter where you are in the world. But I’m full of confidence again. Bring it on.

Conglomeration of life

Below is a conglomeration of life I either noticed or experienced in recent weeks. The thoughts are scattered and unpolished (like everything else on my blog, except maybe just a bit more). But I hope you enjoy a peek into life here.


“Hola, American.” A sub-Saharan man said the words almost under his breath as we passed on the street.

I didn’t think much about it until I was a few steps beyond him. How did he know I was American? Someone must have told him.

Due to the abundance of Russian immigrants and the lack of North American ones, my community assumes I’m Russian. In fact, when I started Spanish class, my Russian classmate told me that she’s seen me around and always thought I was a Russian.

Last night in class, she worked on forming a sentence with the imperfect subjunctive: “Trish has a face as if she were Russian.” After various corrections and alterations, we all were very familiar with the idea that Trish looks Russian.


“I thought to myself: I hope she makes brownies. And you did!” My student pulled the brownie plate closer to her and grinned at me with shining eyes. And she didn’t protest when I sent the leftovers home with her after class.


Little arms thrown wide with delight in overhead bubbles.


Four neighbors were on the front stoop when I stepped out the front door of the apartment building.

“Are you having a meeting?” I asked with a laugh.

No, two were just out for a smoke and had collected the others coming in or out the door. Like me.

“Sit down here. Join us.” Demanded the middle-aged man from the second floor. We hadn’t seen each other for a while so maybe he thought he needed the latest scoop on my life.
Not really wanting to wedge myself between two people with lit cigarettes, I stood back just enough to enjoy the breeze that waltzed down the street.

“You don’t smoke, do you?” The second floor neighbor asked.

“No.”

“Do you drink?”

“Not that either.”

“What about the other thing?”

Was this a morality test? I hesitated, not knowing for sure what he meant. “Marijuana?” I asked hopefully. “No, not that either.”

“No. Making love.” He tinged a bit with this. I suppose you could say I had forced him to say it.

The lady on the other side of the stoop eyed me. “It’s not worth it. Men are too complicated.”

“You say men are too complicated!” He was indignant. “It’s the women who are too complicated.”

It was a good time to leave. So I made a light, overgeneralized comment. They laughed. I told them goodbye and continued on my way.


I had almost reached the language school when I noticed a woman was getting out of her car. She was a bleached blonde with dark eye makeup. The combination made her seem sad somehow. Behind her was a mural of a woman with streaking mascara.

Two sad ladies on the corner, almost like a piece of visual poetry, I thought, and continued walking.

I was in the middle of the crosswalk when muffins, donuts, and bread came skidding across the road toward me. I hesitated mid-stride. Was I hallucinating, my subconscious pulling up cravings for foods I rarely ate?

But no. A delivery van’s door had slid open as the van bumbled through the roundabout. The goodies inside had tumbled onto the street with enough momentum to shoot them in my direction.

I helped gather the packages littered across the roundabout and toss them into crates. The poetic sad lady from the corner helped too.

“Gracias!” the man told Sad Lady. “Chokran!” he told me.

I paused and looked down. Sometimes when I wear a dress, people ignore my fair coloring and assume I’m North African. Not that it matters, I suppose. Russian. North African.

Why not?


I trailed Sad Lady into the language school–who knew she was going there too?!–and when I couldn’t get my questions answered at the front desk as I had hoped, I began to chat with her.

She was planning to test for English; I for Spanish. “Let’s meet for coffee to practice!” she said and we exchanged phone numbers.


The next evening, my neighbor and I were only a couple of blocks from home when we saw the drunkest person I have ever seen in Spain. He stumbled out of a salón de juegos and clambered on his bike. Both he and the bike splattered onto the sidewalk. He gave an unintelligible monologue at high decibels but appeared relatively undamaged.

Just a block later, a man bumped into my neighbor. “I’m sorry! I was looking over there while I was walking and didn’t see you!” he said while his arm gave an exaggerated swing in the direction of the park.

“No problem,” my neighbor said graciously. “It happens.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not a racist. And I’m not a thief. You have to be careful on the street. Hold your bag like this!” He tugged the strap of his man purse. Then he clasped his hands together, and gave a wobbly bow in mid-stride and began the same speech again.

And again.

And so we continued several blocks with his cycle of effervescent apologies and wobbly bowing.

My neighbor and I finally stopped at a store to let him get ahead of us.

“Well,” I sighed. “We’re only a few blocks from home. What else is going to happen? Should we go back?”


Hopscotch boxes drawn all of the way to 85, progressively lopsided from weary little hands.


I fell out of bed the other morning. I was freshly awake and rolled over, only to realize that during the night, I had perched myself on the edge of the bed. Fortunately, I caught myself with flailing limbs before I made a resounding boom on the downstairs neighbors’ ceiling.

Who needs caffeine? There’s nothing quite like tumbling out of bed for a delightful adrenaline rush.


A friend cried when I brought her a gift. We sat on the floor together just inside her front door while she fingered every item in the gift bag with grateful tears. Someone cared.


The safety of Grandma’s hand holding fast.


A house with crumbs and sticky that remind me that someone has honored me with their presence in my home.

Waiting for the store to open

I’m becoming one of them. You know, those old people who wait outside of stores until they open because they have nothing better to do.

I’m not used to getting up earlier than the rest of the world–well, the rest of the world except those old people, of course.

Now that summer has cranked up the heat, I drag myself out of bed for a before-the-sun walk. I come home to do a few exercises, start my laundry, shower, eat breakfast, and then walk up to the supermarket in the far corner of town.

But oh.

“Do you want a mint to entertain yourself while you wait?” A gentleman digs around in his plaid shirt pocket as we stand outside of Mercadona. In front of us are several other elderly citizens, leaning on the carts they collected from the parking lot. We are ready to burst through those automatic doors…as soon as they open.

“Uh, no thank you.” I turn down the mint.

I don’t even like getting up early. And I certainly don’t like to be the first customer to charge into a freshly opened store.

Yet, here I am.

How did this happen?

A few more thoughts on hospitality

A few months ago, I mentioned that I hoped to share with you some of what I learned while writing an essay on hospitality. In May, a day trip to a mountain town with my neighbor’s family jogged my memory. My memory continued to jog, but only in place as the busyness of June took over.

Now here I am at last with my hospitality essay at my side. But my mind keeps returning to that mountain town…

As I sprawled out on the little sister’s bed during siesta time, my eyes roamed the room, spotting things stashed here and there. A rickety binder that looked as if it had been tossed on top of the wardrobe and promptly forgotten. Broken drawers in a dresser decorated with childish markers. An abandoned attempt at decor.

The untidiness spoke of things not cared for.

Yet there I was, a stranger to the family, welcomed into their home and offered a bed. Rather than buy expensive things and focus on protecting them from harm, this family created a space that said people mattered more.

The women set up a chair in the narrow kitchen doorway for me to sit and hold the baby and then spent the evening tripping over me as they bustled about. And they didn’t mind.

As we finished dinner around midnight, a deep weariness came over me as I looked around at the pile of people in the living room. As soon as they left, the cleanup would need to begin.

And then they left, and rather than being overwhelmingly dirty, the house looked almost clean. As I helped to stack the green plastic chairs and fluff the postage stamp pillows, I wondered why.

It was as if the people who had been in the room were the only decor. The room was serviceable not beautiful, because the emphasis was on the relationships of those who gathered rather than the things they gathered around.

I don’t believe that hospitality and taking care of things are mutually exclusive. However, coming from a culture that often values possessions more than relationships, I appreciate the reminder to engage the relational side of hospitality.

Oops. I’ve been rather long-winded and I haven’t even started my essay summary. Maybe next week? 🙂

Mural: Living with science

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I collected photos of murals as I prayer walked Mytown this spring.

Some of the murals were funny. Some were really odd. But then there were those that made me stop and wonder: What was the artist trying to say?

Over the next couple of months, I’ll share some of the murals with you. You can wonder with me or leave an interpretation in the comments below.

Getting ready for summer heat

Maybe you live in a climate-controlled house. But just in case you don’t, here are a few tips to beat the summer heat. These are ideas I picked up from summers in Mexico, Phoenix, North Africa, and Spain. Thank you to anyone who has contributed to this list over the years.

  • Keep the sun out of the house; shut the blinds.
  • Chill your water before drinking it (a no-brainer for North Americans).
  • Stay hydrated. Infuse that cold water with exciting things to keep you drinking. I learned about cucumbers in Phoenix.
  • Eat cold salads, smoothies, hummus, and fresh veggies.
  • Make popsicles or freeze yogurt for afternoon snacks.
  • Stay indoors as much as possible during the hottest parts of the day. Plan your adventures before the sun comes up or after it goes down.
  • Slip a flexible ice pack into a pillow case or towel and curl it around your neck or set your wrists on it. (I currently have three of these waiting in my freezer.)
  • Put your feet in a bucket of cold water. This was often my last resort when I lived in North Africa, those sizzling summer days when even thinking was impossible.
  • If you have a good water supply, shower multiple times a day–cold! If you’re too chicken to willingly shower cold, unplug your water heater. 🙂
  • Wash your hair often, or at least rinse it. In Phoenix, I came home dripping with sweat every day after class. Cold water over my head cooled me down to a liveable internal temperature.
  • Keep a spray bottle handy to spray yourself while you sit in front of a fan.
  • Wet your pajamas in the shower and wring them out before crawling into bed in front of a fan. (This worked for a decent night of sleep on those stuffy Mexican nights.)
  • Drape a wet towel over yourself at night.
  • Use a fan in the window overnight to bring in as much cool, night air in as you can. Cool air + fan white noise = decent night of summer sleep.

Have you tried some of these ideas? Do you have more ideas to add to the list? If so, leave them in the comments below!

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the tiles and a few other things about Spain

#1

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the tiles. If you live in a town with tiled sidewalks, you probably know what I mean. Tiled sidewalks are great as long as none of the tiles are loose. And even loose tiles are okay as long as it doesn’t rain.  

It rains. Then the sun begins to shine and a smiling you decides to go for a walk to enjoy the fresh air. You’re in high gear when it gets you: that warm splash up your ankle and along your hem. Sigh. That tippy tile was hiding a puddle of rainwater. Rainwater that had been flowing along a filthy street. 

There are some streets that I avoid after a rain because to walk along them is to feel the ground moving beneath you and hungry waves of brown water lapping your ankles. Most rainy days (and even 1-2 days afterwards) I long for drab concrete sidewalks with obvious puddles rather than the noble but surprising tile ones. 

#2

Most Spanish balconies have water spouts and people use them as they wash down their balconies. Beware, pedestrians below! Those of you who live in the city probably know what I mean, but balcony water spouts were a new concept to this country girl.

After the Saharan dust storms in March, everyone was splashing water on everything. At times, the streets flowed with orange water. My neighbor tossed a bucket at his balcony wall and seconds later heard a shout from below. Oops, he had nailed a passerby.

I think the proper etiquette is to check for any passersby before starting the flow. After that, they’ve been warned by the growing puddle on the sidewalk below the spout and if they’re unaware enough to walk within reach of your balcony spout, then that’s their problem, not yours. 

And, for the record, yes, I still get dripped on every now and then. And I just hope… hope that it was a harmless drip from someone’s squeaky clean mop bucket. 

#3

Some Spaniards set plastic water jugs on the sidewalks outside of their homes, often fastened to something with string or rope. The bottles are filled with liquid, sometimes clear, sometimes amber.

I have noticed this for years and finally asked my landlady about it. She acted like she’d never even noticed this strange habit. So I did a little research and found that the water bottles are supposed to scare away pets and stray animals from peeing in doorways or sidewalks in front of homes. Whether or not it works is up for debate, but it’s still widely practiced here. 

#4

I’m not sure what northern or central Spanish flies are like, but the ones on the coast have the ability to drive sane people mad (at least temporarily).

The lesser flies aren’t so bad, the ones that zip in jerky patterns in the center of the room and never seem to land. But the ones that I pick up by walking down the street can get my blood to a rolling boil in no time at all. 

They don’t leave me alone. I might only pick up one or two on my walk, but they follow me no matter how fast I walk. It’s like they believe they’ve found a friend and want to stick by my side–or on my nose–for the duration of my trip. I swat one away and walk a few meters, imagining that I have left him in the dust and suddenly he’s on my ear this time. The next time it’s my nose again. And then my chin. And I want to sprint down the street screaming bloody murder.

Would it hurt Spain to invest in some good ol’ American flies? Not that I ever liked American flies either, but they seem to respect boundaries a little better than coastal Spanish flies.

#5

Pepper spray is apparently only available on the black market. 

One day, I went to the police station to ask, “What can a woman in Spain do to protect herself?”

The officer’s eyebrows raised. He tried to explain how citizens were not allowed to bear arms. (Maybe I’m imagining things, but he seemed to emphasize this point when he realized I was American.)

“What about pepper spray?” I asked. 

“It’s only available on the black market.” He shrugged. Then he gave me a lecture about matching the defense with the assault. 

Right. “So how can a woman protect herself?” I repeated. 

“We are your protection.” 

“But you weren’t there when I needed help,” I pointed out. 

He sighed in assent and was quiet for a little. “Then what you need to do is report the incident.”

Right. But no pepper spray.


Well, those are a few things about life here. If you come for a visit, watch out for those loose tiles, dripping balcony spouts, plastic water bottles, pesky flies and, oh, BYOPS (bring your own pepper spray). 

Have a wonderful weekend!

Mural: Passions Kill

As I prayer walked the streets of my city, I came across many murals, on the sides of businesses, on crumbling block walls, around the corner of an apartment building where there was no street and no one to see it.

Some of the murals were funny. Some were really odd. But then there were those that made me stop and wonder: What was the artist trying to say?

Over the next couple of months, I’ll share some of the murals with you. You can wonder with me or leave an interpretation in the comments below.

Mural of lipstick and pencils in bullet shapes with words Passions Kill

Belonging where I thought I’d never be

Today marks a year in Mytown. One whole year. I baked cookies for my landlord this morning and she gawked at me. “One year already?” I’ve always been here, I think. And yet with every past event, why is there that conflicting perception of time? My years in North Africa and Immigrantville have faded into black and white mental photographs unless I pause long enough to remember them. 

Today, I paused over some ISU memories.

When I heard about the study abroad program in Andalusia, Spain, I wasn’t interested. I was heading to the southern border, not overseas. I tilted my college projects, volunteer hours, and self study toward my goal. 

Within my program, there was a clear divide between those who had studied abroad and those who had not, the “in” and “out” groups (as much as students are “in” and “out” at state universities). Those who had studied abroad re-lived their together memories and savored their “thaythayo” (what to the rest of us just sounded like a bad lisp).

Latin America was my first love and always will be. First loves don’t change. But they lose a bit of their potency when you fall in love again. And I have. This time, ironically, with Andalusia.

How did that even happen?

The other night, I met a Peruvian lady in the park. I delighted in her gentle Spanish and warm, generous culture. A year ago, that interaction would have stirred in me a longing for where I was not. But now?

I could spiritualize this. I could say that God has tuned my heart to contentment, even if my life isn’t what I had pictured. But that isn’t true, at least not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

My acceptance of where I am right now is more about familiarity, belonging.

Years ago, I found my place in Latino culture. I never planned to rupture that sense of familiarity, safety, and home. But then I moved to Andalusia where the blend of cultures in this huge immigrant community reinforced my outsider complex; it showed me my “un”– how un-Andalusian and how un-North African I was. How “un” everyone else around me.

But time marched on, as it usually does. I began to taste the many flavors of my community and realized that I simultaneously do and don’t fit in on account of my being different, just like everyone else. 

The blend of us–Spaniards, North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Pakistanis, Russians, Romanians, South Americans, Chinese (to name the most prominent)–can be overwhelming sometimes, but each culture adds a subtle note that the community would miss were it not there.

On Sunday, three of us neighbors stood in a neighbor’s kitchen, chatting about our far away families. I belonged just as much as they did. And this belonging is my new familiarity.

No, my life is not what I had expected, but I can say that it is essentially what I had hoped for.

So today marks one year in Mytown and more than four years in Andalusia. I cradle this fragile bit of geographical belonging in my hands and am grateful. God has given me this earthly gift not to distract me from Him, but to direct me to His heart where I find belonging that will “belong” me no matter where I am in the world.

Tarjetas and tourists: what’s been happening recently

“What has been happening recently?” you ask. I’ll tell you, even if you didn’t ask. 

One of my favorite big events was getting my residency card, my tarjeta. FINALLY. All of the paperwork, the trip to the Chicago consulate, the phone calls that drove me close to insanity, the corrections, the visa, the move to Spain, the various trips to the extranjería (and the wonderful roommate who accompanied me on all of those!), and finally… finally… on the last trip, the man across the counter handed me my tarjeta. “Perfect.”

We celebrated with a trip to the mall, coffee and tostadas, and getting lost (as is our custom while on foot in Almería).

Last week, my roommate and I took a trip to Berja, a small town in the province of Almería. Away from our immigrant town, we noticed a more defined Spanish flavor, especially in the thicker Andalusian Spanish.

At a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, a man (one who would fit nicely into one of those “anti-smoking” commercials) climbed on board our bus. He sat in front of us but hollered over our heads to the man sitting directly behind us. After several minutes of thick and raspy Andalusian exchange, he turned to face forward and lean back in his seat. The seat was broken and little by little, it voluntarily reclined so far that soon there were three of us in our seat. I giggled. I couldn’t help it! The day was going to be an adventure…

In la villa vieja, we freely roamed the Roman and Arab ruins and enjoyed the silence of the forsaken countryside.

We walked part of “the route of fountains” to find the oodles of little fountains throughout the town. But more fun than finding the fountains was seeing pretty pieces of the town I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

We topped off the afternoon with a sumptuous “choto al ajillo” (goat in garlic sauce) which we bravely tried… and liked!

Of course, lots of other things have been happening too that I haven’t described in detail here (at least not yet), such as:

  • setting up a library corner at the store
  • watching a bus driver threaten to call the police to remove a disruptive and cussing passenger
  • walking with a friend in time to a spiritual discussion
  • seeing God working miracles through brothers and sisters in Christ who are willing to be a channel of God’s power and love
  • multiple trips to the bank to set up an account… to no avail until the fifth time I tried and the bank teller threw up his hands and hollered, “IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT!”

And more. Much more. But that’s enough for now, because I’m off to have another adventure. After all, there is an adventure in every day if we remember to look for it.