Snippets of life

Below are a few things I’ve seen or experienced recently. They’re not written in any particular order or of any particular importance (or of any particular grammatical observance, truth be told). Just some snippets of life.

  • Speakers wound up in trees and fastened to light posts play “Joy to the World” as I walk down the street, in step with the music. Then I notice others in step with the music–a Muslim family, several Spanish businessmen, and others. “Let eevery heeeart prepaare hiim rooom…”
  • Russian classmate #1 is disgruntled that she cannot absorb a complex Spanish grammar structure. Russian classmate #2 says: “You’ve only been here 7 years and you want to understand everything. Calm down. We’ve been here for 20 and we still confuse this.” Bulgarian classmate begins to giggle. “Yes, calm down! You still have 13 years of confusion ahead of you!”
  • After a rain, crushed snails in crushed shells dot the walking/biking trail like flattened M&M buttons.
  • An elderly man I meet on my morning walk that tells me that his mornings are better on the days we cross paths.
  • Little boys at the Kings’ Day parade, squeeze around me to get to the front, chattering in hopeful Arabic and clutching rumpled plastic grocery bags to fill with candy.
  • A winter evening curled up with a book and a cup of lemon balm tea…and Christmas lights I hesitate to take down. 
  • A shopkeeper tells me how long I should spend with the friend I am planning to visit in another town. “Are you going to spend the night at her place? No? Then you need to go before lunch and eat with her and spend a lot of time with her before you leave in the evening.” Oh, how I love to hear the North African perspective on relationships!
  • As I walk by, an elderly man comes out of a café to speak to me. “How tall are you?” he asks and all five feet of him steps back in surprise when I tell him. He says that the other day he was breakfasting with another man in the café. When I walked by, the other man said he would not like to take me out for breakfast. Because I was so tall, surely I would eat a lot! That makes me self-conscious as I walk home, realizing that my oblivion doesn’t exempt me from being a topic of discussion.
  • On my way to catch a bus, I notice a lady with her head in the dumpster. She doesn’t have that look of someone who usually sifts through others’ garbage. (And I’m not judging because I have rescued a few garbage items in my life.) But I pause, curious as she bats her broom handle around. “Can I help you?” She mutters something about losing an item. She doesn’t know if it could possibly be in the garbage she took out. I peer in and see a lavender bag of trash on the very bottom of a very empty dumpster. She doesn’t relinquish the broom when I reach for it, but I hold open the dumpster lid while she fishes around. Finally, success! She snags the handles and pulls it out little by little (still muttering). I manage to avoid the linty end of the broom that is headed my way and still make it to my bus on time.
  • I am at the counter of a North African store when a little boy comes in, not even big enough to see over the counter. He sets a hand-written list on the counter. The shopkeeper grins at him, “Peace be upon you, Arkan. How are you? At peace?” He looks down at Arkan’s mother’s list, reading aloud the first item before Arkan interrupts him. “I want a sucker.” Ahh, that’s how it’s done. And I wonder if suckers are free because he is so stinkin’ cute or if his mother ever notices that the grocery bill is always a little more than she anticipated.

Ireland- part 2

I awoke from a deep sleep to a hand grabbing my shoulder and someone gasping, “It’s you!” It was the middle of night. It was also the middle of my friend’s disturbing dream. She was comforted to know that I was not a mustached stranger and promptly fell back asleep. But the interaction left me staring at the dark ceiling, my heart pumping.

Morning came soon enough. We made ourselves tea with the electric kettle in our room and took our time getting out the door. Why rush? While planning our trip, we had both decided we’d rather see less at a leisurely pace than see everything and fully experience nothing.

We gathered a few recommendations from our host and then made our way downtown, where we dropped off our luggage (we had rented a different airbnb for the following nights) and crossed the scenic Ha’Penny Bridge.

ha'penny bridge

Our host had recommended Keoghs for an Irish breakfast. We gladly took his suggestion. I am not a bread person, but I spent the rest of the trip trying to track down more of this bread to eat with those thick slabs of creamy Irish butter. And the greens that garnished the breakfast? Peas!

irish breakfast

We walked through St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin’s former execution site, which is now a lovely park full of Dubliners out for a bit of green during their lunch break. We paused before a gruesome monument commemorating the Great Famine of the mid-1800s. A North African family stopped us to ask directions. “¿Habláis español?” they asked and were shocked when we ended up speaking in Arabic instead.

lake in stephen's green
swan on lake
irish famine sculpture

We booked a tour to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College. The Book of Kells is a stunning copy of the four Gospels in Latin, supposed to have been copied by monks around 800 A.D. We only saw one open page, highly protected. Apparently, how long each page is exposed to light is carefully monitored. In the Long Room, a room of one of the world’s most stunning libraries, my friend and I pulled out our audio tour earbuds and sat on the wooden benches to drink in the odor of old books and to feel the smallness of us in a great big world of knowledge.

library at Trinity College
spiral staircase in Trinity College library

Then we remembered our luggage and began to consider what would happen if the 5:30 closing happened before we were able to retrieve it. So we meandered through downtown, with only a pitstop at Butlers Chocolate Café, another of our host’s recommendations. We carefully selected our hot chocolate and the little chocolate that came with it, wrapped in a small paper baggie. I have never had such amazing hot chocolate. Never. We moaned our way through our creamy cups, enough-rich and not-too-sweet but just-sweet-enough. We lingered long enough that we had to rush to retrieve our luggage before the storage center closed for the evening.

chocolates

From there we went to our new airbnb, the “Country Cottage Oasis,” which will require a blog post all of its own…

Until next time. 🙂

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? 🙂

Hindsight is not 20/20

Hindsight is not 20/20. At least mine isn’t, especially my hindsight of past conversations. My hindsight compiles a list of things I should have said and didn’t or shouldn’t have said and did.

“I should have invited her up for tea when she asked if this was my street.”

“I should have complimented her on how nice she looked; I noticed she made an effort.”

“I shouldn’t have made that comment about Islam.”

That’s what I focus on. How I should have made better use of the conversation. As I turn with a finger poised to shake at the past me, my hindsight narrows to tunnel vision. 

Because, more often than not, I’m forgetting the other factors involved. 

It could be that I already had plans with a neighbor and only when the other plans were canceled did I remember the interaction on the street.

It could be that our interaction at the noisy gathering was so brief that I only had time to ask her about the exams she had been studying for when I last saw her.

It could be that after my friends spent twenty minutes complaining about Muslim men, they ganged up on me to marry me off. And I made that split second decision to speak directly rather than lose the moment in the rush of conversation by taking the time to formulate an indirect response.

I want to learn from my mistakes. However, when I get analytical about what was said or not said, I need to pause long enough to remember the other factors involved: the distractions, the mind noise, the body language of the other person, etc. 

Then slowly, a shameful, paralyzing memory is seasoned with grace. Only then can I step forward because remembering truthfully is the best way to learn from mistakes.


Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

Lord of the shadows

Something about the book begs tears. I don’t know what it is exactly; there’s no paragraph or even chapter that particularly resonates. Perhaps it’s the undertone of sorrow mingled with hope in everyday sacred moments.

“God, where are you?” And I set aside the book and turn off the reading light to stare into the shadows of the 9:30 world. “Please meet me here.”

He does. And I have my own mingling of sorrow and hope. Of homesickness and gratitude. Of reluctance and awe. 

And, refusing to turn on the light, I stumble in the shadows to make a cup of tea, fumbling for the tea kettle and spilling leaves from the tea ball. Strawberry cream. I found it at the market today. It leaves a thick aftertaste of comfort although it’s new to my palate. I sip it from the robin’s egg mug I found while shopping with a new friend. The mug makes me think of her, this new friend full of intense questions ever since our first encounter.  She is working hard to please Allah. “Please meet her too.”

Down below, are voices. Arabic. I peek over the balcony to see two men and one woman leaving the nightclub next door. But no, only the men are leaving, caressing the woman’s hand in parting. “See you on Saturday,” they say. She tugs up her blouse neckline as she returns to that dark doorway that heaves its sweet and sick breath. “Oh God, please meet her there!”

With the light on, now I can see God was in the cooling rain this morning. In the huge, toothless smile from a friend’s husband who pretended to steal my market bag. In the husky greeting from a melancholy neighbor puffing a cigarette on the front stoop. In a phone call from a chatty acquaintance-turning-friend. In the final save of a document that took countless hours and headaches to create.

As I finish my cup of strawberry cream tea in the lamplight, the shadows have faded. But they lurk. There will always be shadows, I think. But even in the glow of the light, there is comfort knowing that He is Lord of the shadows too.

The “little” of what’s happening

Today you get bullets because that’s how my thoughts are arriving. After most of a day buried in a textbook, my brain is sore. There are big things happening in life right now, probably for both of us. But today, I’m bulleting the little things, the things that fall between the cracks of the bigger things because they don’t announce themselves but wait to be noticed.

  • There is a plant store nearby with inexpensive little green things. My pots and plants were a little like chips and salsa– too many pots, oops! too many plants, oops! and so on– until the day I walked past the plant store and the shopkeeper greeted me like an old friend. That was my wake up call.
  • The first tray of cookies I put in my convection oven, I grilled. I couldn’t find the user’s manual in my landlord’s things until the first singed round emerged.
  • I passed out cookies to my neighbors, my heart pounding all of the way to my toes. It was thrilling in the sense that I had no idea who would open the door– man, woman, child and what nationality– what their response would be, or if they would have a frothing rottweiler at their side.
  • A shopkeeper glowed when I asked him a question in Arabic and rattled off something that started with, “You understand Arabic!. I thought…” He rattled on for another paragraph before noting my blank expression.
  • Two long-time friends visited me in my new apartment, and reclined on those couches that were meant for dear friends to recline upon. 
  • I found cookie butter at my local Día!!! (I just found it. I haven’t bought it… yet).
  • Meanwhile, I discovered that the post office no longer carries stamps to the U.S. of A. How does this happen, Spain?
  • My old roommate and I accidentally spent some time wandering the beautiful old streets of Almería while trying to find a shortcut.
  • I have found local places to charge my bus card, charge my phone, send letters, withdraw money, buy quality light bulbs, and make photocopies and print. It’s small, but so much new takes time.
  • I have spent a lot of time trying to track down why my bathroom smells like drain all of the time. Either it’s going away, or I have a head cold coming on, or I’ve stopped noticing because I’ve started smelling like it too.
  • This week, I bought too much fabric at the market. I knew it was too much when the vendor threw in another piece just because. “Un regalo,” he said. Now, to find time to pull out my sewing machine…
  • On my way home one afternoon, a young man stepped into my path. He wore a towering chef’s hat like he had stepped right out of Ratatouille.  “Excuse me!” he said and I paused to look into his wide-eyed, breathless face. “Do you know where I can find a Chinese store that sells white wine vinegar?” After I apologized that I didn’t, he went on his way, even more panicked than before. And I can’t help but wonder if I misunderstood him…

I’m unfashionably lounging in gray socks and flip-flops (as if I didn’t have fuzzy slippers in the next room). The next door neighbors are thick in their nightly shouting match and I’m using Yiruma to drown them out (not working). And my bullety brain is ready to shut down for the evening. Buenas noches a todos. 🙂

Some ups and downs of language learning

We approached what we hoped was the bus stop, our suitcases rattling along behind and a disgruntled (and tipsy) beggar peering after us. Since disembarking the ferry, we were well aware that we were in foreign territory once again. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Spain anymore!”

“Peace be upon you. Do taxis stop here?” I threw the question out to a group of brightly dressed ladies waiting in a spot of shade.

“The taxis are over there, in the port,” one lady spoke up.

“No, I mean the taxis that you pay by place. Those other taxis are too expensive.”

Back and forth we went until suddenly she started giggling. “I’m speaking with you in Arabic! You’re a foreigner and I’m speaking with you in Arabic!”

Back in Spain, I apparently used just enough of a greeting but not enough filler conversation for a new customer to ask me if I was North African.

I thanked her and laughed because it always amuses me that someone with my complexion could ever be mistaken for a North African.

With wide eyes, she backed away from me, exclaiming, “Tbarakallah!” (God be praised!)
And it’s always refreshing to hear someone say, “You talk like us!” even when I obviously don’t. It makes the weekly log of Arabic study look less intimidating somehow.

Don’t get me wrong. There are also the less-proud moments.

Like when, after an English class, I was zoning out over a bowl of harira, letting the conversation swirl around me. Suddenly, my friend turned to me. “Isn’t that right?”

I swallowed that spoonful of soup and looked back at her blankly. Right? What was I expected to agree to? I groped for context–a word or a phrase, but I found only a blank slate. Oh, boy.

Yet, in the same conversation, a woman who had designated herself as my Arabic teacher told me I was dangerous. Why? Apparently, I understood more than I let on. (At least when I wasn’t zoning out over my soup.)

There are also times that a friend will sigh and look weary while trying to understand what I am saying. Times when I talk in the wrong language, or simply switch back and forth between Arabic and Spanish without realizing it. Times when a joke or a witty quip falls flat because it was funny in my mind but not my mouth.

Occasionally, just to be annoying, I speak only in Arabic to a new shop owner. I don’t look North African, but neither do I look very Spanish. I’ve had owners eye me but keep speaking Arabic simply because they weren’t sure if they could switch to Spanish.

But my local shop owner got me back by playing my game with me. In fact, he didn’t let on that he spoke a decent amount of English for two whole years! In the meantime, he was able to eavesdrop on conversations I had with visiting friends. Today, we still talk mostly Arabic and he occasionally gives me language lessons while he bags up my groceries.

Overall, like I wrote last time, language learning is a journey, an act of worship. With its ups and downs, it’s bound to be a bumpy, but meaningful ride. 🙂

The woman in the mirror

Who is that woman in the mirror staring back at me?

Glazed eyes from sorting through language notes all day. Almost in tears from how much there is still to learn and how does she start? Really start?

But enough of this not starting! Enough of unfinished projects in a burial heap in the cabinet! Because from now on, there won’t be projects to finish but a process to journey.

That’s what the woman in the mirror decided just now. Because it’s not all about what she doesn’t know, but also about what she does know. 

And she knows that studying two languages each week is hard and doesn’t always fit into her schedule. But she also knows that language learning is an act of worship because it is what God has called her to do.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

(Col. 3:17)

When will summer come?

One of these days summer will come. I’m not talking about the heat; I’m talking about the time. Summer is the season I have been holding out for in the crazy March, April, May, saying, “During summer, I will finally get to this or that.” I had a list of goals: learn how to sew better, develop materials for an English curriculum, refresh my Arabic, houseclean, and other noble goals like that.

It’s July, but I’m still waiting, thinking that summer and its abundance of time must begin soon.

In the meantime, life is full. Full of time with friends. Visits. Meeting new babies, both here and via WhatsApp. Appointments. Meetings. And even a chance to be a witness for my friend’s paperwork-only wedding at the mosque.

Maybe I need to redefine “summer.” Instead of labeling it as “extra time,” I should just label it as “life.” “Life” is a more realistic expectation anyway.

Life and smelly summer laundry.

Words were more than just words: North Africa part 3

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

Chaimae’s hug was long and tight, trying to make up for the year and a half of missed embraces. Her mother gave me the same hug. They led me into the salon, not the fancy one for guests, but the family salon that doubled as a bedroom. I wasn’t a guest; I was still family.

“Did you eat lunch?”

Chaimae fried fish and reheated chicken and potatoes already in a pot. We ate, talked about our families, and showed pictures from our time apart. Both mother and daughter were amazed that I remembered Arabic, or at least a semblance of it.

After the bread was patted into round loaves, Chaimae and I went for a stroll around the neighborhood. By the time we returned, the older brothers had arrived for afternoon tea.

It was after sipping cups of syrupy tea and eating mounds of oily bread that one of the brothers wiped his hands on the community napkin, leaned back against the couch, and pinned me with probing eyes. “Who is Jesus to you?”

I was ready.

The entire family listened as I shared. I listened as they shared. The conversation grew thick and loud. My face turned hot in animation. But their faces were hot too.

We discussed our differences and how our separate paths could not both be the path of God. Yet, beneath our disagreement was a profound respect for one another. We had known each other long enough now that words were more than just words; our words were what we had seen each other living and breathing.

And our words were as different as our lives.

Tea time blurred into dinner and more food appeared on the table, but no one seemed interested in another round of feasting.

My Arabic was worn out. So was the rest of me. When family members started to trickle out the door, I slipped into the kitchen to wash dishes. Chaimae made beds on the floor. She gave me a couch pillow so high that my neck immediately began to ache. I waited until the light was out to quietly set it aside.

Partway through the night, the light switched on.

“Chaimae! Chaimae! Wake up! Trish isn’t on her pillow!” They tucked the pillow under my kinked neck, and Chaimae’s mother tucked more blankets around me.

“It’s good that I slept in the room with you,” she told me after my interrupted night of sleep. “To take care of you.”

I smiled, hoping my expression reflected more of the endearment and less of the suffocation I was feeling.

After breakfast, they sent me to the taxi with enough tears to let me know I would be missed.