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.

Here is Joy

Here is Joy.
Look, right here!
See her in the slippery soap suds puddling around the soap dish?
And in the far corner of the deepest cupboard you're cleaning,
Back, back, back until you can just dab the dirt triangle with the corner of your rag?
Do you hear her bursting through the speakers of your car stereo?
Or in the grunt of an awakening work computer?
She's here on the supermarket shelf, coming along free in the celery stalks just because.
Do you see her?
In the scuffed magnet that pins a child's artwork to your refrigerator?
And in the orange flame waltzing on the tip of a match as you light a candle and open the front door?
She's whisked into the batter and adds just the right nutty note…or is it woody…or just plain sweet?
She's here. Always here.
Even when your neighbor tells you never ever to add cinnamon and now you've ruined it completely.
Yes, sometimes Joy tastes a little like hot noodle soup during a head cold.
Or enlivens an aroma with a world of redeemed memories.
She's more than a good tiding at Christmas.
She's now. Today.
Riding along on the eternal breeze of faithfulness.
Look for her.

Give thanks

To me, the holidays bring a sense of belonging. There is a warmness, an extra niceness. 

Yes, the world gets frantic and grumpy when the store shelves aren’t stocked with what we want and the check-out lines are too long and the children need naps and, well, so do we but we still need to make that Aldi stop because Wal-Mart was out of pumpkin pie filling.

But then we come home and the individuality fades and there is a togetherness again, even in the hustle and bustle of a busy kitchen.

Celebrating far from family isn’t quite like this. The sense of belonging is lessened. Not vanished, but subtle, something I need to search for. But those remaining shards are precious too. Even from far away, I belong. And that belonging tints the world with bright, warm tones and I find myself extra happy this Thanksgiving and Christmas season. 

I don’t want to spend the holidays wishing I were somewhere I am not. I choose to contribute to the joy of right here, because this is where I belong too.

Ten things I’m thankful for this year:

  1. the great faithfulness of a loving Father
  2. Spain’s acceptance of my 5-year residency application
  3. the tail-end of COVID-19
  4. friends and neighbors that I bump into every time I step outside
  5. strong family dynamics, even though I live thousands of miles away
  6. music
  7. opportunities to travel and experience other worlds
  8. my team, my “right-here” family
  9. sweater and boots weather
  10. enough, even with climbing energy and food prices

What are you thankful for?


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Ireland- part 4

You may be tired of hearing about Ireland. I was only there a few days, after all. I suppose I could be succinct, but where’s the fun in that?

Friday morning we rolled out of bed at 4:45. We had packed our lunches the night before, so it didn’t take us long to get out the door and to the bus stop. Some of the grief from our place of residence had been eased by sleep. We were determined to love the day.

We had booked a day tour from Dublin (east coast) to the Cliffs of Moher and Galway (west coast). Our guide gave us a fascinating peek into Ireland’s history and culture as our coach bumbled out of Dublin. Then it was time to sit back and enjoy the scenery as the sun rose over the Irish countryside. Mists came up from the green rolling land, promising that fairies and leprechauns were real after all. It was breathtaking, but only one small part of a breathtaking day.

The weather was perfect: a mixture of sun and clouds and a constant but empty threat of rain. And the cliffs–Oh, the cliffs! No wonder the place was full of tourists with their cameras. My heart wanted to stop at the wild beauty of the place. (And having a cardiac arrest at the Cliffs of Moher would not have been so bad, really. Rather romantic.)

As we wandered up and down the marked trails, soaking it in, I couldn’t shake the sensation that I had stepped into a very beautiful photo.

the cliffs of moher
cliffs of moher

We traveled through the Burren, our driver skillfully maneuvering the mammoth tour coach down skinny roads next to steep drop offs. We made a brief stop for photos in the National Park where craggy rocks dropped off into the ocean in impressive cliffs.

craggy coast along atlantic ocean

Our guide gave us another fascinating history lesson before we stopped at the Kilmacduagh Abbey ruins. I wanted an hour or two to roam, not 10 minutes.

Kilmacduagh abbey ruins

Our last stop was Galway, an outstanding city on the west coast. Our guide told us just to go and enjoy the city without trying to see too much. That’s the best way to experience Galway, he said. He also gave us a list of restaurants, recommending the famous Galway fish and chips.

My friend bought us dinner at McDonagh’s for an early birthday gift–smoked fish and chips and fresh oysters. The last time I had tried oysters, I had wanted to gag. But that was in rural Illinois, about as far from the ocean as you can get. Would I gag this time? I was nervous as I squeezed lemon on my oyster. To make it worse, the place was packed even at this odd hour and we were sitting elbow to elbow with strangers.

But I didn’t gag. The smooth oyster that slipped from its shell into my mouth was fresh, clean, and sweet. I eyed the leftover oyster on the plate until my friend generously gave in.

fresh oysters with lemon

While my friend did a little shopping in an Aran Island wool shop, I sat outside to listen to buskers who looked like brothers. They seemed to enjoy my enjoyment of their harmony, maybe especially when I dropped coins in their guitar case.

The entire evening felt enchanted. I slipped a few euros in my pocket and we wandered the streets of downtown Galway, stopping to listen to almost every street musician, even the dude singing “Galway Girl.” The way the Irish value the arts is something one can sense, even in a brief interaction with the culture, such as I had.

galway city street

And, wouldn’t you know, we found another Butlers and strolled back to the bus, hot chocolates and truffles in hand. Darkness fell as we rode back across the island to Dublin. It was a day that made be believe I wanted to stay in Ireland forever.

Well, except the dirty little cottage that we had to return to.

Ireland- part 3

Our Country Cottage Oasis awaited.

Both my friend and I were looking forward to having a place to base from for the next couple of days. A charming little cottage with great reviews and maybe even a fireplace. We had put in an order for a sturdy drizzle so we could curl up in snug armchairs with tea and a meaty book.

We found out by accident that our hostess, who lived in the cottage, wouldn’t be there to welcome us. No problem, we decided. Surely someone else would be there.

We wound through the countryside to a charming tree-lined walkway; though, admittedly, it would have been more charming had it been daylight. But we found the gate and rumbled our suitcases up the gravel driveway.

When no one answered the doorbell, we hesitantly stepped in the unlocked door. A draft sailed down the hallway to greet us. Although the entryway was dark, a welcoming glow was coming from one of the rooms. We removed our damp boots so not to leave tracks and headed toward the light. It led us to a cluttered sitting room with a pair of ghostly pink slippers residing on a carpet thick with dog hair.

We shuddered. Surely that wasn’t our room. But the rest of the cottage was dark and silent. Were we even in the right house? We tiptoed around, trying in vain to forget every Agatha Christie novel we’d ever read, because this was assuredly the perfect place for murder. “Foreign guests lured to countryside cottage…”

We found our room, at least a room that resembled the photos on the airbnb page. But could we be sure? The trash was overflowing and used towels hung on the back of the door.

My friend tried in vain to shut the patio door, the source of the draft. I set down my luggage, preparing to make myself at home. It was then that I began to notice the depth of the grime. It was also then that I began to lose my composure. We shot our hostess some questions: “Key? Washer and dryer? Wifi password?” but left out the most pressing: “Were you really expecting us? Because it sure doesn’t look like it!”

We left to grab a few groceries and, well, to evaluate our situation. Then we ate in one of the grimiest first-world kitchens I’ve ever seen, washing everything before and after we used it. A powerful odor wafted from the refrigerator, which we hoped were just the aging strawberries. I gnawed on cucumbers and broccoli, glum.

My poor friend was trying to make the best of the situation while I broke down bit by bit.

“Go take a hot shower and you’ll feel better,” she said.

She hunted down relatively clean towels in the overstuffed wardrobe in our bedroom. I went to the shower, hauling my entire suitcase with me so not to gather any extra filth by setting my clothes on her crowded bathroom furniture.

Soon, my friend heard a bellow, which happened to be the last of my expectations oozing out and spiraling down the shower drain. There was no hot water. Nor heat, as we soon discovered. We buried ourselves under blankets of questionable cleanliness which my friend had also dug out of that same overstuffed wardrobe.

My wounded sense of justice was still sending off flares when I fell asleep in a bed that was actually pretty comfortable.

My friend chose to believe that our hostess was grief-stricken, since she had mentioned she was at a funeral. Actually, over the next couple of days, even with socks laden with dog hair, we made quite a few excuses for her. She was a very nice lady, after all. Even if she did forget to clean her house. Or which amenities she had listed on her airbnb page. Or that we needed hot water and heat in an Irish November. Or that the last guest (or maybe the one before) had left a liter of milk and hummus in the window sill.

We began to refer to our country cottage as our “Hairy Haven,” a generous term for a place that wasn’t a haven at all. Although, it wasn’t a total loss for it did provide a space for bonding and quite a few opportunities for memory-making.

But there would be no curling up in front of fireplaces here. And so we slayed our dreams.


Photo by Oliver Hale on Unsplash

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?

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. 

Under the Sevillan sun

The sun’s fury didn’t really matter from the front row of the bus. I plugged in ear buds and listened to Los Miserables. (No, that’s not a spelling error; I really am attempting to listen to Hugo in Spanish.)

But I kept drifting into that almost dream state where thoughts don’t make sense and I happily embrace the sleep I know is coming. But then a truck and trailer tried to pull into our lane. The bus driver honked, swerved, and muttered something under his breath. That was the end of my nap.

But it didn’t matter, because tired or no, I was on my way to Sevilla.

As the Andalusian landscape whizzed by, I enjoyed the rolling olives groves, the plains of ripened wheat, the fields of yellow sunflowers, and the occasional glimpse of stubborn snow on mountain peaks.

My first impression of Sevilla? The realization that there are two bus stations and I was at one and my friend at the other.

Finally reunited, we dropped the luggage in the car and strolled through the Plaza de España, despite the scorching afternoon sun.

brick plaza with horse and carriage in forefront

We met our airbnb hosts and then set out to shop and fill our empty bellies with Udon’s veggie yaki udon.

The next morning, we visited Las Setas de la Encarnación (The Mushrooms of the Incarnation… whose name sounds infinitely nobler in Spanish), a giant structure that provides a lookout of the city. Honestly, the modern bulk seemed a little out of place in the old city; yet, there was something intriguing about climbing a mushroom. And the view was fantastic.

mushroom-shaped structure
white city of sevilla spain

Strolling toward the cathedral, we happily made pit stops to enjoy the lovely city streets and even watch a bit of street flamenco.

At the Cathedral of Sevilla, not only did we behold the grandeur of the outside walls, but were able to walk around inside and observe the ongoing mass.

elaborate facade of cathedral

We stopped for coffee in the Jewish quarter before taking a picnic lunch to the beautiful María Luisa Park. Regretfully (in retrospect), we barely made it beyond the first row of luscious trees. We were tired and hungry.

We strolled home along the Guadalquivir and topped off the evening by attempting a picnic in the Jardín Americano, a park from the 1992 Expo. Not a good idea. If ever a park could give vibes… We backtracked when the only people slinking around looked like they were not the picnicking sort.

Instead, we sat on concrete boulders along the river’s lip and dipped our toes in the water. We talked until long after the sun had gone down.

bridge over river at sunset

The next day was a picnic in the Alamillo Park (see a “picnic in the park” theme?) and time to soak in more of Sevilla’s scenery.

We also met up with friends to experience real flamenco. Photos weren’t allowed, but they wouldn’t have captured the experience anyway. Not the guitarist nor the vocalist. Photos wouldn’t capture the way the dancer’s eyes glittered concentration beneath the changing lights. Or how his face gleamed with the sweat of maintaining perfect control of his feet in time to the music, even while at times keeping his upper body motionless. The whirring fans did little to cool the room packed with eager spectators. Our tippy wooden bench always seemed to fit one more and why not?

On our final morning, we awoke to banging and drilling in the apartment below. We packed up and did a bit more strolling of the streets. Our last adventure was the unexpected and charming Parcería Cafe.

latte and smoothie on wooden tray next to plant

I thought I was ready to head back to Immigrantville, but as the bus pulled out of the station, I admit that there were tears stinging the backs of my eyes.

A cathedral, cave houses, and amateur flamenco

The end of June, just before I left for the States, my roommate and I took a short trip to the nearby city, Guadix. In all of the July activities, I neglected to put up pictures… until now.

Overall, it was a good trip, although it did have its downsides… like being in town on a holiday weekend when businesses were closed, realizing that our trusty map was on my broken-down phone, getting hot and tired from wandering through the old city streets in search of our elusive airbnb. But those were the not-so-fun things that I didn’t bother to capture on my camera. So enjoy the happier things that I did…

Guadix is known for its splendid Baroque cathedral which was built from the 15th to mid-18th century.

Guadix is also known for its cave houses. Before you start picturing primitive etchings in rock walls and cavemen wielding stout clubs, take a look at these pictures.

Rather from being formed from natural caves, these cave houses or “troglodyte houses” are carved into the rocky landscape. The cave houses maintain a temperature of 18º C (64ºF.).We toured a church in the cave community. The church had marvelous nooks and crannies and tottering staircases to explore.

I noticed the window shoppers after I took the picture. And I definitely don’t have anything against window shopping. Especially since that’s how my roommate and I found a flyer for a charitable event hosted by a flamenco school of dance. We went.

group of female flamenco dancers in black

A Good Friday stroll

The Good Friday streets were quieter than normal. I plodded along, bracing myself against the wind.

When I was young—not more than ten—I overheard a conversation between my mom and her friend. The friend claimed that it always rained on Good Friday, even if it was just a little. Mom was politely dubious, but the statement impressed itself upon my impressionable mind. Did it really? Was God reminding us of the death of Jesus through a sky full of tears?

However, since this friend had revealed the fact after Good Friday, I had to wait an entire year to see if the statement were true. By then, I had forgotten about it. And I forgot the next year and the next until more than twenty years later, I still had never noted whether or not the rain dutifully came on Good Friday. Would it come to every part of the world if it indeed came at all? Would it come to Spain?

To be my age and wondering these things made me question my sanity. Why would I believe something that had neither Biblical nor meteorological basis?

I continued to walk, lost in rambling thoughts. My morning plans had been changed at the last minute, making me wish I had stayed in bed longer. But since I was up, I thought I might as well go for a stroll. My relaxed pace allowed a stooped, old man to zip around me. As he passed, I wondered what his story was.

Today the world was worth noticing: young voices pouring out of open cafés, elderly men congregating on park benches, a boy with a soccer ball. What did Easter mean to these people?

I wandered into my favorite café. “Coffee with milk?” The server asked before I had selected my chair.

“Thank you.” I smiled and pulled out my Kindle. I read, inhaling a fair amount of secondhand smoke and sipping my coffee from the sweet rim of my mug—I hadn’t used sugar and tried not to think too hard why the rim tasted sweet.

“One euro, guapa.” The server made change for my ten euro bill.

“Have a good Easter.” I smiled at her.

But would she? In Spain, the climax of Holy Week is the passion of Christ. That part of the holiday is celebrated and reenacted until resurrection Sunday is almost lost. Like their Jesus, did these people also keep their faith eternally nailed to the cross? Did they believe in victorious faith? Victorious life?

A dog trotted along a crosswalk, confident he owned the street. His owner followed a few paces behind.

The North African store was one of the only stores open on Good Friday. It bustled with limp produce, loud Arabic, and bodies that were busy making room for themselves in the small shop.

I dropped a euro on the floor as I paid for a few too-ripe tomatoes. The clerk gently smiled at my clumsiness. And then he switched from Spanish to Arabic to bid me farewell.

I greeted the mother of a lesser-known acquaintance and we walked home together in the powerful wind.

“I have laundry on our roof,” I told her as a gale threatened to carry us off like Mary Poppinses.

She had also hung her morning laundry on the roof, so at her street corner we said hasty goodbyes and rushed to rescue our scattered clothing.

It was afternoon when I opened my laptop to write an email. Outside my bedroom window, the clouds lowered over the mountains while the sky and the sea simultaneously turned gray. Then from somewhere came enough drops of rain to make me wonder, against all logic, if Mom’s friend had been right after all.


Photo by Anant Jain on Unsplash