There is a lion in the streets: lockdown in Spain

Restrictions descended upon us one by one. I was always still adjusting to the previous restriction and was never pleased with the new one.

Immigrantville inhabitants grew more careful as time went on. On Wednesday evening last week, I marched into an odds and ends store to find a plastic wall protecting the workers behind the counter.

On Friday evening, I took the bus to visit a friend in Almería. With one sneeze, I could have claimed the front half of the bus for myself. Someone at the station was wearing a mask. And for the first time since arriving in Spain, I saw someone besides my germ-freak roommate use hand sanitizer in public.  I knew people were getting serious. I used my hand sanitizer too.

Saturday I basked in my day off, but by evening, freedom as my generation knows it ground to a halt. We all were in lockdown, only allowed to go out for necessities.

The old men were still sitting on a park bench on Sunday morning as if they weren’t the ones most vulnerable to the virus. “And what was I doing out?” you may ask. Well, I hadn’t joined the pre-lockdown supply panic and truly needed groceries. The streets were quiet but the store was packed with people who were NOT a meter away from each other. 

“Aren’t you afraid of corona?” the store owner asked me.

I hesitated before answering. “Hmm, not for me. But I don’t want to give it to others. What about you? Are you afraid of corona?”

“What can I do?” He pointed to the people packed in his store and to the money drawer full of disease-ridden bills and coins.

Was his family okay? I asked. They were. People in North Africa weren’t so different than the people in Spain. They were buying supplies to last for months whether or not the virus ever reached them. 

On the way home, I saw a patrol car. I must have appeared law-abiding, arms laden with a bursting bag of groceries and a flat of eggs. I wonder if they caught up with the old men on the park bench.

Yesterday (Wednesday), at the store, people nervously steered clear of each other, speaking only at a distance. We had to squirt hand sanitizer on our hands before we faced the almost-stocked, limit-of-6 shelves.

Our apartment is the size of a box (a slight exaggeration): great when it comes to cleaning, but not so great when it comes to being stuck indoors for a few weeks. We’re using our roof to go for walks, around and around and around, assuming the neighbors won’t get angry with us stomping on their ceiling. 

It’s hard to know how to reach out to people in our closed neighborhood where everyone looks at everyone else as a coronavirus bearer. I might have to get creative, but the truth is that I very well could be a coronavirus bearer. Should I or shouldn’t I offer to get someone else’s groceries?

My roommate and I made a to-do list: a little something each day to keep things less monotonous. It makes us feel like little old ladies, though, planning our day around one event like a book club, delivered pizza, or writing a newsletter. We even had a virtual St. Patrick’s Day contest with teammates. 

Lockdown is also a time to take a deep breath and stare unfinished projects in the face. It’s time for extra quiet time with the Lord and spiritual nourishment from teaching. And time to talk with family and friends both here in town and at home (Praise the Lord for our internet!). It’s time for a whole lot of things because time, for once, is our most abundant commodity. 

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m two people

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m two people. How can I feel so alive in a field of green with no one else around when I feel just as alive walking down the street of a busy little town?

The green grabs me and pulls me in to whisper, “And God said that it was good.” I see His hand in the great green and blue of creation.

But as I walk down the street in the middle of humanity, I hear the same words, “And God said that it was good.”

city street with blurred lights, burger king and fountain

Here in town, surrounded by manmade structures and, well, manmade everything, I long for the moments I can slip away and just be by myself with nature. Or even without nature. Sometimes, what I’m really longing for is anonymity where I can step out of my house without someone reporting it to someone else somewhere along the line. 

I’m a country girl at heart, but I know that should I ever move again to the country, even under that vast starry sky, I would miss the connection and relationship of the daily ins and outs with humans.

I would miss the Spanish pop blaring from someone’s front window that puts a spring in my step. I would miss the evening chamomile with a friend who has invited me into her inner circle. I would miss the cars that stop as I approach the crosswalk. And the store owners who ask how I’m doing because we’ve been around each other long enough to care. I would even miss that dog yapping at me just because I walked past. Or the neighbors drilling into their wall when I want to be sleeping. And that little boy greeting me as if he knew me and then turning to his friend and saying, “She’s the one who visits Khadija.”

It’s the living and breathing together that makes me aware of God’s Presence. But it’s also the furious ocean waves and the placid Midwestern cornfields that make me aware of Him. 

I can’t explain it. Except maybe to say that God’s Presence transcends our preferences and breathes life wherever we are.

(But I still sometimes wonder if I’m two people.)

God doesn’t owe me results

The night was a failure. Even after a day of prayer and fasting.

No one noticed that my heart was beating in time with the Father’s. No one noticed that my soul was alive and refreshed.

People were out breathing in the cool night after the long, scorching day. Last week on my nightly strolls, I had met several women. Under the cover of dusk, we had sat on park benches and talked while children played around us.

But tonight there was nothing invigorating.

A stop at the local store made me wonder where the line between friendly and amorous should be drawn. And why was I always the one to draw the line?

And then there was that woman again. The shriveled Gypsy for whom I had once bought bread and eggs and now every time she saw me she snagged me with a long, anguished tale and a request for a couple of euros. How could I communicate love? Bread, eggs, and euros were not going to alleviate her poverty of soul.  Her granddaughters averted their blushing faces.

And that was all. No one else seemed open to conversation. Alone and discouraged, I finished my route and turned toward home.

That’s when truth started to sink it, settling between the churning waves of injured pride and self-pity.

God doesn’t owe me results. He doesn’t owe me deep, blossoming friendships and engaging conversations. If I cultivate a certain level of spiritual maturity, He doesn’t owe me the world on a silver platter.

My service is not qualified by my carnally-defined successes but by my faithfulness. Am I loving (and consequently serving) God with all of my heart? My soul? My strength? My mind?

Years and years ago, my Sunday school teacher gave me a quote that I have kept tucked inside of my Bible ever since. “There is no more powerful force for rebuking all evil things, whether of conduct or of opinion, than that of the quiet, strong, persistent life of a man or woman who goes on from day to day doing the duties of the day well, cheerfully, and with joy.”

As I walked those final blocks home, my sense of entitlement slipped away. “What if?” I wondered. “What if in my day to day journey, I start counting each blossoming friendship and engaging conversation as a blessing rather than my entitlement? What if I named each interaction as a gift rather than my payment for growing in Christ?”

The neighbor man waved and smiled. “Good evening.”

I waved back. “Good evening.” And it was.

The belt slinger

Sitting in the shade of a damp sheet strung across two clotheslines hadn’t been too bad. But now out on the street, I had to stop pretending it wasn’t hot. The concrete tossed the day’s heat into my face as we walked down narrow streets of the tall apartment buildings in Aisha’s neighborhood.

It was the day of Eid, the celebration at the end of Ramadan. As the sun considered setting, people started to appear on the streets, freshly scrubbed and in new clothes. Time for the party!

Aisha had explained that all of the children would be out on the streets in their new clothes, playing, dancing, and laughing. We were on our way to witness this delightful street party now.

But we were only approaching Aisha’s mother’s apartment when we encountered a slight glitch in our plans: apparently, Aisha’s nephew had whacked a neighbor girl with his belt. The girl’s mother approached the few family members lingering outside of Aisha’s mother’s apartment. She was furious as she displayed the belt’s point of contact with her daughter’s face.

Along with the others, I peered at the unbruised, unbroken skin, trying to ascertain the validity of the crime. Her inflammatory remarks didn’t set well with the boy’s family. An instant wall of excuses met her accusations: this wasn’t the boy’s problem, but her daughter’s problem, the family told her.

The little girl’s shaky sobs were lost as the confrontation exploded. Hollering escalated, echoing up and down the street. Neighbors rushed to the scene to offer unwanted advice and intercession. Others stood in the background to observe. Above us, others leaned out of windows to watch the drama unfold on the street below. A bit of pushing began, but tapered off quickly as friends dragged the more aggressive ones away. There was little effort to control any display of temper.

I was the only foreigner, the only one who didn’t quite culturally grasp what was happening. I leaned awkwardly against the doors of a closed shop to watch, fighting my own instincts to intervene.

The original crime had been so trivial. Why the big fight in the middle of the street?

Meanwhile, the little belt slinging offender was running around slaying other children with his belt, unhindered and unnoticed altogether… except by me!

The pattern of practical loving

Sometimes I don’t know what the practical side of love is supposed to look like. And by the practical side of love, I’m referring to loving those in need. Is it really even “supposed to” look like anything, as if it were a consistent pattern? 

This is on my mind because today on my way to the store, I saw the same beggar that I always see on the way to the store. As usual, she sat on the sidewalk, her swollen feet outstretched for passersby to take pity on her condition.

I smiled and greeted her. Her face lit with an almost-toothless grin. She cackled a greeting in return and asked how I was. She wasn’t expecting anything more from me than what I gave.

So what did she really want? Was it the couple of coins I could have dropped into her hand? Was it the groceries I could have bought for her? Or did she really just want eye-contact: to be treated like a normal person, to be loved instead of patronized by a stranger?

When I walked back out of the store, I had nothing for her except another smile. And she was ready with that same brilliant grin. What I had given her was all she wanted from me today.

Perhaps the only consistent “pattern” in practical loving the fact that one is loving.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matt. 22:37-40

Good windows make good neighbors

Robert Frost once wrote a poem about good fences making good neighbors. But what if there are no fences, only windows that overlook walls of windows from neighboring apartments? Do good windows make good neighbors too?

Through the windows, I can sample the lives of my neighbors. Without really knowing them or even really knowing exactly what apartment they live in, I know certain things.

For example, a man sneezes about 9:00 every evening. It’s not just a sneeze, but a SNEEZE. Actually, it is a series of sneezes that gives me an estimate of the time not unlike the call to prayer. And since the Ramadan time change, the sneezes have been coming at 8 p.m.

There is an unpleasant child in a lower level apartment, whose screams are punctuated by the parents’ roars of disapproval.

I can smell what neighbors are cooking, at times even identifying individual spices. And there is often the clattering of women washing dishes or the hissing of a pressure cooker.

In a tiny courtyard below, some neighbors play soccer with friends. When there are five or six of them, I don’t know how they manage to fit, let alone play a game. Their shouting in African French echoes all over our mini community.

Parties on the roof until the wee hours of the morning mean that talking and laughter float through our windows with the cool night breeze.

One evening, a little boy appeared in his window wearing only a T-shirt and his underwear. Silently, he climbed up in the window sill and measured the window with a tape measure. Then he climbed back down.

See, good windows must make good neighbors… or at least provide daily entertainment.

Day with the plumber

Just below our bathroom, in the storage closet of the apartment of the second floor, there was a gentle tick, tick, ticking of water dripping into a plastic tub. The neighbor had already visited our apartment to make it clear that this was our problem, not his. (His apartment is owned by a different landlord.)

We were not convinced, especially after talking with a friend with plenty of renovation experience. However, he forewarned us that the plumber would blame the problem on whoever would pay the bill: the foreigners.

My roommate called our landlord who sent us down the street to talk to his friend who came over and buzzed our neighbor. They had a long conversation in high decibels without resolving anything.

We waited for the plumber to arrive at 2:30 as scheduled. At 3:30, we visited the neighbors to tell them that the plumber wasn’t coming today. At 4:00, the plumber arrived, unconcerned that he had largely missed his appointment.

He checked our bathroom, the neighbor’s storage closet, and then predictably told us it was our problem.

“Fine,” we said. “Tell our landlord.” And we handed him the phone.

Several hours later, the neighbor was happy because the problem was fixed, at least temporarily. And the plumber was happy because he walked away with a pocketful of money.

Only my roommate and I were not so pleased because our European and American perspectives groaned at the inefficiency of a warm culture workforce. The gentle tick, tick, ticking had cost us an entire afternoon and evening!


Photo by Jouni Rajala on Unsplash

Aisha- part 3

Isolated. That was the flavor of the air as we walked down streets that were merely variations of the same. I was the only foreigner in the neighborhood, strange considering that just over the hill, tourists were thick within the shadowy walls of the old city.

But here, crumbling buildings full of tiny apartments stretched toward the overcast sky. Cobblestone streets cupped leftover puddles and floating litter. Laundry was strung everywhere: on wires, through window grates, on rooftop clotheslines. Curious faces darkened whitewashed doorways and window ledges. Children danced along the streets in endless game.

Much of the world was happening outside. Together. As if the culture didn’t realize that people didn’t have enough room to live.

Our first stop was a relative’s home. We entered a low doorway and were enveloped in a world of chattering woman. It was a noise that trailed up several flights of uneven concrete steps. There Aisha picked up her 1 1/2 year-old son. And there, we were offered coffee so sweet it made my teeth cringe. My coffee cup smelled like the residue of someone else’s saliva. I smiled and drank the coffee anyway. Our hostess was a dainty woman. Her face was young, but her smile revealed only a few teeth scattered along her gums.

I met in-laws, nephews, sisters, and other connections I no longer remember. It didn’t help that I was struggling to remember my family vocabulary! After a few more stops, we wound our way to Aisha’s apartment. She insisted on carrying the juices I had brought with me even though she was also carrying her little boy.

The apartment building was cold and concrete. With every floor that we climbed, I would turn and ask Aisha, “Here?” She would shake her head, “Still!” She said that all of the way to the sixth floor after dozens and dozens of uneven concrete steps.

In each woman, there is a certain amount of pride for her home. Aisha was no exception, although her home consisted of a closet-sized wash room and kitchen, one salon, and one bedroom. That was all.

Aisha’s 16-year-old daughter Soukaina and I walked out on the roof to stare at the world six stories below. Heads walked by–heads without faces from my point of view. A woman dumped a bucket of water over the cobblestones in front of her home and scrubbed vigorously. Two little girls played school. A man propped himself in the doorway and watched the world. A woman two doors down did the same. But it wasn’t just the street that was alive; all throughout the apartment towers, people were moving: appearing in windows, hollering to someone below, gathering laundry on the rooftop, smoking a cigarette, or talking across the street with someone in the opposite building.

Once Aisha ascertained that I liked couscous, the lunch preparations began. I offered to help once, but only once. I was a guest. When the food was ready around 4 p.m., the family pulled down the table for my sake. (I heard the father say, “She’s American.”) There were some other random family members around the table, and I couldn’t remember exactly how they fit in the family. But it didn’t really matter.

We all dug into the center plate. Aisha kept tossing potatoes and carrots onto my side of the platter. Whenever I tried to stop eating, they demanded I eat more. No amount of “I’m full, praise God!”s could satisfy their vicious desire to watch me glut myself.

For me, mealtime was tense because in their attempt to honor me, they set my presumed needs so far above their own comforts that I felt the separation deeply. I was given two cushions to sit on at the table and the older woman present was given none. When I tried to share, I only succeeded in raising a chorus of protests. I was incapable of experiencing their everyday life because I had the prestige of a guest.

After an hour of TV and conversation over the TV, the preparation for the afternoon tea began. I offered to go with Soukaina to buy doughnuts, but the father turned down my offer on account of my being American. “This is not like the new city!” he declared. My presence would attract attention and a 16-year-old companion didn’t provide the necessary protection.

More female relatives joined us for tea and the conversation livened. We laughed, ate, and took pictures. And then it was time to go. We descended–down down down–until the precarious stairwell spewed us onto the narrow cobblestone street again.

We sloshed through the evening drizzle to the taxis. Aisha and Soukaina tried to accompany me home in the taxi, but when I put up a protest that rivaled their insistence, they relented. But Aisha gave the driver precise instructions where I needed to be deposited and made sure that I had enough money with me. I kissed them both goodbye.

For now.