Spanish with the nuns

Buried in my neighborhood is a tiny green door that leads to a tiled courtyard full of vibrant plants. Charming little rooms surround the tiled courtyard, completing the charming little haven.

In one room, there is a set of five sewing machines. Four treadle. One electric.

In another room, there is a plastic table with accompanying plastic chairs and a rough blackboard.

This is a sewing and Spanish school for immigrants. It is managed by nuns. A friend brought me along to class one day to see if I could enroll.

The first time I met the nuns, I had to bend over at the waist to greet them with kisses on their dainty little faces. Only one seemed more than five feet tall. And not one of them was under seventy. Maybe eighty.

I was captivated. “Is it possible to sign up for Spanish class?” I gripped my friend’s elbow as I awaited the nuns’ answer.

It was possible. After Semana Santa, I officially enrolled for the final trimester of the school year. (And by officially enrolling, I mean that I jotted my information on a scrap of notebook paper.)

On the first day of class—a lesson of body parts vocabulary—the teacher chalked a stick figure on the board with a rectangular trunk. For good measure, she placed a few wild curls on the faceless head to classify the figure as “female.”

During class, the figure was blessed with a chalky esophagus. No other organ required equal visual explanation, so the figure proudly sported her solitary organ until the end of class. And as the teacher erased both the figure and her esophagus, we students trickled out of the shadowy room and into the blast of sunlight that spread across the courtyard.

Since then, class has brought me in close contact with other immigrants as we reveal tidbits of our lives in choppy Spanish and laugh about our language woes. We share struggle and community. We even share goods: sometimes we carry home peppers, cucumbers, handcrafted sewing class projects, or even potted plants.

As the final trimester enters the final month, attendance has dwindled as most of the women fast for Ramadan.

The first and second hour classes combined and I suddenly found myself in a class of women who struggle with pronouns and simple verbs. But the energy and fun we have together is rewarding enough for me.

Yesterday, while practicing the structure “I like,” a classmate smiled and said, “I like Trish’s face.”

“Yes, yes,” agreed the teacher. “Trish has a nice face.”

The other students murmured their agreement and admired my reddening cheeks. Until, for lack of a Spanish equivalent, I burst out the Arabic expression, “God be blessed!”

I was thirsty and you gave me coffee

When I saw this mural of a homeless man and his hot coffee, I thought of the countless cups of coffee that we serve to immigrant women each week. Some mornings, we scramble to warm milk, fill sugar containers, and pour coffee, remembering that this lady likes her coffee heated especially hot and this one doesn’t take milk so fill it to the brim and that one wants her special cup and saucer.

“I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”

Some of the women are easy to serve. They smile. They are grateful. They ask you to sit with them and don’t mind your faltering Arabic. But others gossip or demand things from you while appraising you with hardened eyes. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that serving these women, “the least of these,” is serving the Lord.

But aren’t we all from the lineage of “the least of these”? At one time, weren’t we all watching the world with hardened eyes, cup out-stretched, thirsty? But did we know for what we were thirsting?

“The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Today we serve, we pray, we speak, we love. But we never want those we serve to find fulfillment in a cup of coffee. We want them to walk away thirstier until they find that spring of water that wells up to eternal life.


(Matt. 25:35 and Jn. 4:14)

Let the tears begin

It came while I was meeting my niece 12½ hours away from home. There it was! My Spanish residence visa. Dad WhatsApped me a picture. I broadcasted the news near and far and even took the first steps to get my plane ticket.

The ecstasy lasted approximately one hour; because when I pulled out my pocket calendar, excitement vanished with a puff of reality. I was looking at today’s date and my departure date on the same page. I had between three and four weeks.

I should have been ready; all along I had known of this possibility. But now it was real. That night, instead of drifting off into agreeable dreams, I cried myself to sleep.

That was a week ago. Now I have less than three weeks left. I’m still tossed to and fro between the delight of moving to Spain and the sorrow of leaving behind my world.

  • My nephews and niece will grow up, knowing me as the aunt who lives far away and brings them olives and cheap souvenirs with Spanish logos.
  • My family will try to keep me in the loop, even as we age and grow apart.
  • My church family will change dynamics as people come and people go.
  • Friends will move away, marry, and have children.
  • Older friends will have health complications and pass away.
  • The community will change as businesses start up and shut down, land is cleared, and landmarks disappear.

The list goes on.

I’ll change too. It’s just that this part of my life and I will not change together. It’s hard to give that up. But how can I cling to a vapor? My reality on earth is temporary. As important as life is to me right now, I don’t want it to weaken the anticipation of the life to come, the everlasting life.

Learning trust, one call at a time

The first time I got the call, I was woefully unprepared. “Your paperwork isn’t right. You have 10 days to straighten it out.”

“I will look into it. If I have questions, can I call you?”

“No, everything you need is on our website.”

I messaged my team in Spain with my sob story. Within a day, they had straightened out my paperwork on the Spanish side of things. Several agonizing days later, the documents had the proper signatures on them. All was well. Disaster averted.

A few days later, after a day of work, I noticed a missed call on my phone… from the consulate. The chances of this being a “we received your paperwork” phone call were not good. But I still prayed that way until they called again 2 days later.

This time the voice was female. “One of the documents is still not right. You have 10 days to straighten this out.”

Within a day, the team in Spain had amended yet another document and it was on its way to the consulate. But as soon as the document arrived, my phone rang and my heart sank.

“This is not right. How can you live and work in one province when your organization is in another province?”

“That’s how it is.” I tried to explain, but the man remained unconvinced.

“I need a correction on this document or an official letter of explanation or we will reject your application and you will need to start again. This has gone on too long.”

“I know.” I didn’t even try to keep the whine out of my voice. “Too long” was right. My application would be either accepted or denied and we might as well get on with it. This middle ground had stripped my nerves completely raw.

In short, each phone call presented a new opportunity to trust. After each call, I gave the entire ordeal to God… but it was never long before I stole it back from Him. When would I learn?

Just this week, I sent off the latest document. I am waiting to hear whether or not it arrived in time. Re-application is a looming possibility. But I suppose that if I apply enough times, I might actually learn complete trust in the One who is in control of every government and their consulates.

At the consulate

While I was on the 15th floor of an office building in downtown Chicago, my siblings were lounging in a plaza across the street, discussing how I had been strong and calm before my appointment. “But when she comes out, she will collapse.”

They were right. Of course they were. They had watched me meticulously gathering my paperwork over the last several months. I had read everything once, twice, a dozen times. They had seen me bend over backwards to satisfy the requirements of a Spanish residence visa.

Fifteen stories up in the one-room Spanish consulate, I watched two other applicants turned away due to unsatisfactory paperwork. Would I be next? I had tried so hard, but had I missed something? They called my name.

I was so nervous that I couldn’t even read the tidy sticky notes that I had stuck to my paper-clipped and stapled stacks of paper.

“Application form?” The accented voice was muted through the glass window.

I slid the form through the slot. Why didn’t they have personal interview rooms instead of making us feel like paroled prisoners requesting our belongings?

“Letter of invitation?”

Another man approached and looked over my interviewer’s shoulder. They discussed something in great length and jotted some notes on my application form. I stood, breathless until nearly purple. Was something wrong? Didn’t I have the right papers?

The second man asked me a few questions with an alarmingly furrowed brow. I deflated. But it was okay. I would have to start over with some of it. But at least I could go home now. I could just climb in that shiny elevator and disappear.

But the man said, “Okay, I trust you. I will try to get it to you in time.”

I wasn’t sure what he was “trusting” me about. The answers to the questions he had asked were on the papers in front of him. But I didn’t ask him to explain himself. Prolonging our talk felt risky.

“Proof of insurance?”

I slid my translated insurance letter through the slot. The list went on until I had handed over every one of my documents. There were no complaints, no outbursts, no declarations that I hadn’t gathered the correct things.

The interviewer gave me a curious glance as I packed up my things. Perhaps he was analyzing how I would survive in Europe. But I didn’t care because gliding down 15 floors in a polished elevator was my red carpet.

Now the waiting would begin, and with it came the possibility of a rejected application. But for today, I could be done!

deep dish pizza on restaurant table

That is why I collapsed when I saw my siblings waiting for me in the plaza. And then we went to Giordano’s for celebratory deep dish pizza.

Grace and migrating tissues

I had spent a significant part of my evening in the living room chair with a box of tissues close at hand. It was my very own pity party. No one else was invited. The piles of bank statements, resident visa forms, tax papers, and junk mail were the life of my party.

I felt like I had been making lists all day. Lists of things that had to be done. Lists of phone numbers to call. Lists of people I should visit. Grocery lists. Arabic verb lists. And this list goes on…

Not only that, but the thoughts rolling around in my head hadn’t yet been categorized on any list. Is this what “normal” looked like in America? Had I simply forgotten? Or had I completely lost my ability to handle stress? Or was it just the paperwork I couldn’t handle?

That’s why I merited a pity party. So I moped and felt considerably worse afterwards. A pity party hangover. Finally, I was able to motivate myself to go to bed. And guess what? I had a wonderful night of sleep!

Not that I deserved it. Nope. If I would have been God, I would have made me toss and turn restlessly all night to learn my lesson for worrying about all of the “tomorrows” of my future. Instead, He showed me grace and I woke up ready to face the new day instead of cowering under the covers.

I chipped away at one of my lists, accomplishing what I could and leaving the rest unwept, unhonored, and unsung. And that afternoon, I was ready when a friend arrived in unexpected tears. She didn’t need to explain. We simply moved the tissues from beside my chair to where she was seated on the couch. And I made some tea.

God knows that we don’t always learn lessons best through justice. Sometimes what we need is grace.

Not so glamorous

I asked my roommate for ideas for my blog. She suggested that I write about how life abroad isn’t necessarily glamorous. The common misconception is that life at home is mundane, but those who live abroad are enveloped in a never-ending adventure. Yet, those who have live out of the country soon realize that there is a difference between traveling abroad and living abroad.

I dug around in my old emails to find my initial impressions of my “exotic” life. It turns out that despite the initial culture shock, I soon settled into a routine, much like life at home.

From February 2016: “It was hard to decide what to write about this month. If I only mention the highlights, you assume that my life is one big, adrenaline-laden adventure. It’s not. Each day is unique, but I have developed a pattern and am beginning to plod down the same cowpath day after day. Even the grass is wearing out beneath my hooves. Moo… In spite of these very normal circumstances, occasionally I do experience variation from normal life. It’s like happening on an untasted meadow (to continue the bovine analogy). Sometimes the meadow is sweet grass, other times it’s mostly thistles.”

From April 2016: “Perhaps my life sounds glamorous to you. I suppose it is in theory, but it’s been hard to give up close interaction with family, church, and friends while what used to be my everyday life changes without me. And looking like an ignorant tourist isn’t particularly glamorous or comfortable..”

What’s new quickly becomes normal when you experience it enough. Flagging down taxis, crossing the street amidst moving traffic, watching things shatter when dropped on hard tile, eating piles of bread and drinking liters of syrupy tea is all commonplace.

See, the glamorous part happens in the initial stages. A North African immigrant in America might be startled at the wealth of personal space, how difficult it is to make friends, traffic that is relatively decent and in order, prices that are non-negotiable, and everything running on time. That is something to write home about…initially. Until the glamour of the foreign adventure becomes everyday life.

Also from an email from April 2016: “A recent sermon has given me a few thoughts to ponder. Using John 21, the speaker proclaimed that our duty is to follow Him, not to compare ourselves to others and decide that our personal callings are unjust. No matter where we are, whether glamorous or not glamorous at all, our duty is to follow, day by day and hour by hour.”

Interviewing Carmen

As I was reflecting on different aspects of North African culture, I realized it would be refreshing to get someone else’s perspective. So I talked with Carmen, a fellow foreigner, who lives in my city. (Keep in mind that her answers are paraphrased because I could not type fast enough to keep up with her thoughts.)

What do you like most about the culture?

I love the modesty. They have so much style and yet they’re so modest. Especially coming from Western culture. Although it may not be a true heart modesty, it’s physical modesty and that is nice.

Another thing I like is that people here talk about honoring God, and they’re just more open to talking about God in general. I went to a wedding in North America and there was no mention of God anywhere! It makes me wonder if God has a great plan for the children of Ishmael to have a greater voice for Him in the future; they’re already used to talking about Him.

What things about the culture makes you smile?

The colors of the traditional dress. They remind me of jewels. I went to a festival where everyone had on their best clothing and they looked like a flock of butterflies.

Do you find that people are friendly or easy to get to know?

I’ve found in our neighborhood that people are a bit harder. There is a foreigner barrier. They are hospitable but they have a limit. At the school where I teach English, that barrier is gone. They know that I’m the teacher and they are the parents instead of a foreigner and local.

Thinking long-term, what are some things about the culture that you will enjoy?

The coolest thing about being here long term is the chance to learn the language to make friends with people who don’t speak your mother tongue and don’t share your worldview. But when you get beyond that, you can share even bigger things; it becomes natural. Long term relationships are an investment and a privilege. I look forward to developing deep friendships with people from this culture. One of my best friends ever was an illiterate, subsistence farmer. I look forward to developing more of those kinds of relationships.

What are some things you might get tired of?

Not seeing what you most hope for. And if you work in the school system, lack of administrative support.

Why should someone visit North Africa?

To pray. There is such potential here in a culture that already acknowledges God. Will the Lord raise up a voice in this culture? Spirituality is respected here, not old-fashioned.  Whereas in the past, the West has been reaching out to the East, but will the Lord flip that and have the East reach out to the West?

30

Turning thirty is means that I have a fair amount of life under my belt. Instead of being sad that I am leaving the 20s behind, I’m pondering the things I would like to do during my 31st year. You might call it a bucket list. You might not.

  • See more parts of this North African country
  • Finish language and culture study (well, the official stage anyway)
  • Learn how to cook North African food
  • Spend lots of time with family
  • Meet my nephew and make him fall as in love with me as I am with him
  • Renew friendships and relationships at home
  • Gather the required paperwork for my Spanish residence visa
  • Daily recognize my reliance upon One who loves me completely

Bittersweet release

Here I am at the coffee shop, thinking that there’s just something melancholy about today.

Dark clouds sprinkle the sky, peppering brick storefronts with moving shadows. Somehow watching the sun and rain play tag makes me not want to go.

I got my ticket today; I’m excited! ecstatic! but also nostalgic. Am I ready to introduce another home to my heart? Can I really say goodbye to life as it is?

These aren’t doubts exactly because I already know the answer to these questions is “yes.” But must feeling fulfilled in a calling always be preceded by a bittersweet release? Perhaps I just want to have my cake and eat it too…