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

Tips for surviving Spain- Part 1

Thinking of moving to southern Spain? Or even just visiting? Here are some helpful tips that my roommate helped me compile:

  1. Learn Spanish (I might as well start with the obvious).
  2. Carry your own shopping bags with you, recycle, conserve water, etc. Europe tends to be greener than America.
  3. Weigh your produce when you go shopping… or you’ll get to the counter without prices and the cashier might roll her eyes.
  4. Bring cash. Not every store accepts credit and/or debit cards. And many stores want small change, not large bills.
  5. Don’t read dates backwards. Dates are written by day/month/year rather than month/day/year. Don’t show up for an appointment on January 2 that was set for February 1.
  6. Read schedules by the 24-hour clock. Otherwise, you might expect a train at 6 p.m. that actually went at 6 a.m.
  7. Allow more time to complete tasks. The Spanish are fairly efficient… most of the time. But don’t treat the shopping world like a Wal-Mart. Shops tend to be more specialized and it takes longer to get everything you need (but it’s more fun!). And don’t expect buses to arrive on time… or arrive at all if it’s a holiday.
  8. Relax a bit. The average schedule runs about two hours later than the American schedule: shops open at 9 or 10. Lunch is at 2 or 3 p.m.
  9. Don’t try to shop between 2 and 5 p.m. In fact, don’t even bother going outside unless you’re looking for some quality solitude. And in the summer, you might burn to a crisp if you’re out in the hot sun between 1-6 p.m.
  10. Watch your step. At least in southern Spain, many people have little yippy dogs that leave behind deposits on the sidewalk.
  11. Realize that when it’s dark outside, it is NOT time to go to bed; the party is just beginning.
  12. Eat meat. Most Spaniards are unapologetically carnivorous. They especially love pork. (Be prepared to see the jamón serrano everywhere.) Some restaurant billboards would send animal rights activists into a tizzy.
  13. Don’t expect to find chicken in restaurants unless the restaurant name specifies chicken. Most menus are laden with pork and seafood options.
  14. Get used to eating bread, bread, bread. Fortunately, the Spaniards are excellent bread makers.
  15. And learn to love olives while you’re at it. Don’t worry; Spanish olives are amazing.

To be continued as we continue learning…

A day of Midwestern culture

One day last week, I started out the day with a friend and dusty chaff in a soybean field. It was a lovely way to celebrate my favorite season: the dry plains that stretch into the horizon, the banter of voices over the radios, the roar of machinery, the swirling haze of dust every time the combine approaches. There is something about growing up on a farm that makes the joy of the countryside stick in your blood.

But in the afternoon, I drove to the city to shop. Within minutes, I had exchanged the hazy corn and bean fields for the asphalt and concrete of the glaring city. And I loved it, as I always do. Right down to the traffic (as long as I’m not in a hurry).

After inhaling the exotic spices in the Asian Market, I had fun browsing up and down the aisles of Wal-Mart with a short list and a lot of time. Of course, I did this in a Wal-Mart that is sometimes referred to as “ghetto-mart.” But it’s my favorite Wal-Mart because one can escape the SUV, soccer-mom rush that usually accompanies Wal-Mart trips closer to home.

After crossing a few things off of my list, I paid and exited the store. The cart man met me in the doorway, gave me a bright look, and said cheerily, “Goodbye, Saint! Have a nice day. Praise the Lord!” And I smiled all of the way out to my car.

In fact, my heart was still warm even after 30 minutes of wandering around on obscure backstreets that inevitably turned into dead ends. (I had left the directions to my friend’s orchestra concert on my nightstand.) I told myself not to despair of ever hearing her play the violin and stopped at Arby’s for directions (and roast beef and curly fries, if you must know). I chatted with the helpful cashier and then tried not to spill the oozing Arby’s sauce on my shirt as I embarked on the remainder of my journey.

The free concert was lovely, but there was a catch: it was in an assisted living facility and I was the only person in the audience under 50 (or maybe 70). But I didn’t care because I had a great view. Plus, I didn’t feel out of place tapping my feet or humming my way along through “The Sound of Music”, “Chicago”, and “Phantom of the Opera.”

Culture shock in my own country

A few ways I’ve been shocked by my own culture in the last months:

  • Other kinds of foreign language. I approached some people in Aldi, excited that they were speaking another language… only to discover it was a butchered version of my mother tongue.
  • The politeness of complete strangers, even if they’re not trying to sell you something!
  • Efficiency.
  • The constant busyness. Without lifting a finger to plan, one can manage to walk into a new week with a full schedule.
  • The availability of, well, everything. If I can’t find it on a garage sale, I’ll pick it up at Wal-Mart or simply order it from Amazon.
  • The quietness. No noisy neighbors at night.
  • Menu prices. They’ve already made my eyes pop out more than once.
  • Not needing to carry tp with me everywhere I go.
  • The evasion of temperature extremes. Cold? No problem! Turn on the heat! Hot? Easy peasy. Turn on the air conditioning!

Little by little, I’m acclimating to my own culture… A journey that will probably continue until I leave it again.


Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

Do you want to know the apricot tree?- Part 3

The uneven cobblestone streets wound down into the old medina. It was my last big shopping trip before I left the country. I wasn’t going to rush. Not many people were out today- was it a holiday? Who cared?

I had already bought a neat little set of tea glasses and stopped to chat with the rug seller who invited me into his shop whenever I strolled by. Then I paused in front of a shop to look for a piece of jewelry someone had asked me to look for. Earrings with a ship anchors on them.

“Can I help you?” The idle shopkeeper was suddenly at attention.

“Yes, do you have… do you have… Do you have earrings with-” How in the world was I going to describe an anchor?

“Yes! Here are the earrings! I have this kind, and this kind-” His hands flew as he pointed out his worthy merchandise. “Do you want camels? I have camel earrings!”

“No. I want… I want earrings with something from a ship. Something they throw into the water.”

He covered his confusion by pointing out more undesired sets.

Then I spotted a keychain with a ship anchor. “There! I want earrings with this! What is this?”

He shrugged and grinned. “Something from a ship that they throw into the water.”

I rolled my eyes, but he urged me into his shop to look at other things. After a quick glance around, I was ready to go.

But he had spotted the set of tea glasses sticking out of the cloth bag I had draped over my arm. “Are those colored?”

“No. They’re just normal.”

Uninvited, he pulled them out of my bag. Carefully, he opened the box and seeing the set of shining but very normal glasses, he said reverently, “They’re nice.”

I agreed as I took the box back from him.

He was still staring at the box as I replaced it my shopping bag. “How much did you pay for them?”

The moment I had been waiting for had sneaked up and caught me unaware. Almost. But not quite.

“Do you want to know the apricot tree and who planted her?” I didn’t say the words loudly; I was too preoccupied with saying them correctly. But they hit their mark.

The storekeeper took a step backward before bursting into hearty laughter. It was several moments before he was able to respond. “You are not a foreigner. You are a North African! You speak North African!”

Do you want to know the apricot tree?- Part 1

Just a quick trip to the store and I would be back in a jiffy. Humming, I pranced down the flights of stairs and onto the street that baked in the warm March sun.

“Peace be upon you,” I greeted the storekeeper.

“And upon you.”

A woman was in front of me at the counter. She turned to me with an intrusive stare. “Is she English?” she addressed the storekeeper.

“No, I’m American.” I answered for myself and then looked away to avoid further questions.

Some North African women could smell evasion. They went around, rooting out people who dared to hide anything from them. Her eyebrows lifted. “You speak Arabic?”

“Yes. I live here.”

“How much do you pay for rent?”

Really? All I need is two eggs. I bit back a smart reply that would probably be effective. It would also probably be rude. So I cleared my throat and tried to dance around the question. “I live with two other girls.”

The storekeeper was smirking. I could feel it more than I saw it. But despite our months of trust-building and extraordinary civility, he refused to come to my rescue. Then again, maybe I had rescued him.

The woman hung on like an un-oiled tick. “But how much do you pay?”

Exsparated, I gave her an amount.

She gasped. “What? All of you pay that together?”

A gusty sigh escaped before I could stop it. “Noooo. Each of us pays that amount.” I had yet to acquire the linguistic ability to defend myself and my private information around women like her.

“Oh.” She glanced at the ceiling as she did some quick math. “That’s not very much.”

Glad you think so. Now, could you please finish?

When she had vanished, carrying with her the essence of satisfied control, I stepped up the counter, deflated. “Eggs.”

“How many?” The store keeper was still smirking.

“Just two.”