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 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.

The Half

You tell me I am half
Or maybe even less
When I don’t dream your dreams
Of how my life should be.
But while you count my flaws
And give advice, of course,
You are the one who’s half
By never knowing me.

I wrote this poem for one of the writing prompts my sister and I are doing this year. The inspiration? The countless North African women (and the few men) who have told me, whether directly or indirectly, that my worth is determined by my marital status and number of children.

But this poem is only part of the story. The sting of being under-appreciated for not ticking the “right” boxes has motivated me to find my worth in my Savior. I’m still learning; meanwhile, God has brought many others into my life who value me for being me.


Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

The Last [of] Murcia (Day 3)

I didn’t bother getting up early. Not much was open on Sunday anyway. I spent some quiet time at home before heading out to the Santa Clara Museum.

tree-lined walkway

The museum was quiet except the creaky floorboards whenever anyone wandered overhead. Although it was small, there was a lot of a history in a building that over the centuries managed to be both an Arab palace and a convent.

I wandered and read and imagined and caught the persistent ringing of the bells for mass.

palace courtyard with pond
Museo de Santa Clara
arabic script engraved on stone

I climbed the stairs and traversed those squeaky floorboards to find displays of Catholic saints and relics. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up in the Catholic tradition, but I find the statues and porcelain figurines the things that nightmares are made of. Especially when walking through rows of them while all alone (and this time there wasn’t even a security guard following me).

The figure at the end of the hallway was life-size. I wondered what I’d do if she moved, an arm twitch or a roll of the eyes. I’d probably have a heart attack, I decided, and add to the horrors of the upstairs when an unlucky tourist would stumble over my body.

Some of the paintings were fascinating, though. The last supper with everyone sporting a halo except Judas Iscariot who hung out on the fringe of the painting, clutching the money bag. Or exiled Apostle John having strange visions right from the book of Revelation and writing them in his modern-day book.

painting of the book of Revelation
The apostle John writing down the Revelation of Jesus Christ

After much deliberation, I decided on a taco bar for lunch. A taco bar with pretty lame service. The server eventually got around to me as if the cafeteria were bustling with people, when in fact, there were only two tables.

I occupied myself by pretending that I was doing a sit-in during the civil rights era. But when my jamaica, homemade tamal, and taco arrived, I somehow wasn’t grumpy anymore. And, for the record, the server ended up being very friendly… just not speedy.

taco and jamaica

I had paid my Airbnb host to stay longer at the apartment, so I spent the afternoon lounging in the AC, soaking in the cool for as long as I possibly could.

When teammates picked me up, we headed out to the closure of a Rubik’s cube competition in a very hot gym that smelled like–well, I suppose like the combination of what we smelled like as individuals. I was amazed by how quickly the competitors–even the little people–could solve the cubes. (For the record, I have no clue how to solve a Rubik’s cube. On the ride to Murcia, I became the official mixer-upper for the others to solve.)

From the competition, we headed back to warm little coastal Mytown. Sure, I may be infatuated with Murcia, but I’m also glad to be back where I belong, air-conditioning or no.

theater between narrow street buildings

100% Murcia (Day 1)

Although August in Spain is not the best time to be a tourist, Murcia is a city I could easily fall in love with, even in August. You could argue that three days is hardly enough time to fall in love. And spending those three days almost exclusively downtown–only glimpsing the outlying barrios from the bus window–you could argue that I don’t even know her. So we’ll call it an infatuation.

I arrived in downtown Murcia close to three p.m., perfect time to check into my airbnb, eat lunch, and rest on the couch in front of the air conditioning. (Aaaah, what luxury to control the temperature!)

My apartment was within a few minutes of the cathedral and well, pretty much all of downtown. Downtown was full of churches. As the hour changed, bells sounded from every corner, clapping through the narrow streets. I stood, enchanted.

coffee shop interior

I parked in CaféLab, an utterly charming coffee shop. The aromatic ambiance made it hard to choose what I wanted–one of each? I finally opted for the mango smoothie.

cathedral façade

As a non-Catholic, I am fascinated by cathedrals, but I also find them a little creepy. Like, I didn’t come to church to see a mural of Saint Bartholomew being skinned alive. I toured the cathedral, reading the signs, staring at the statues and paintings of saints, and wondering what the cathedral builders would think if they saw all of us walking around in sneakers, snapping pictures.

fountain and flowers
Glorieta de España
statue of sardine half-submerged in water
Monumento al entierro de la sardina
boat under arched bridge, bus over arched bridge
Puente de los peligros

I walked along the river, enjoying the view and the parks I stumbled upon. Eventually, I rested on a bench to listen to the gentle clacking of loose bricks as feet passed over them.

birds on bridge
Pasarela Manterola
people walking across suspension bridge

Pasarela Manterola, a pedestrian suspension bridge, moved as we walked across it, just enough to make me wonder if my mango smoothie had made me tipsy–Am I imagining this mild motion sickness? A young man serenaded us with “Stand By Me” while ducks below fought over the bread crusts someone had tossed to them. When I peered over the railing, they eyed me expectantly.

“So darling! Darling! Staaaaand by me. Oh, stand by me…”

I strolled through the Paseo de Malecón and tried to snap a photo of red red roses that decided not to be photogenic in the blazing sunlight. And there was a catalpa tree with long beans dripping from it. I would have studied it more had a man not been lounging in its shade.

From there, I circle back to find the Arab walls. The smells began to overwhelm me in the way that they often do when I allow myself time to smell them. I smelled chwarmas before I passed the chwarma shop and then a spice that transported me the North African old medina. Shadows grew. Men with fat, unlit cigars dangling from their lips crossed my path.

Somehow, with a malfunctioning sense of direction, delayed maps app, and winding downtown streets, I ended up in Plaza Mayor instead of in front of the monumental Arab walls. There in the plaza, the silence was astonishing. Someone with squeaky shoes left squeaky echoes after she had disappeared around the corner. I just stood there and listened for long moments.

I made another attempt at the Arab walls. And another. At my third pass-by, I realized street work hid the walls from view and made them inaccessible. Apparently, the “open 24 hours” listing on my maps app doesn’t apply to August… or maybe I still didn’t find the right spot.

On my way back to the apartment, I crossed through Plaza de las Flores where everyone was in slow motion, eating an early dinner or meandering through the warm plaza. And me? Enough exploring for day one. I had an evening date with the air conditioning.

downtown street lined with brick buildings

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? 🙂

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!

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

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.