Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s just another day here in Spain. It’s strange celebrating holidays that aren’t celebrated in our country of residence. The world around us zips by at its normal pace while we baste a turkey or set off fireworks and grill burgers. Once, I even celebrated Christmas in North Africa. That was the strangest of all.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday, so even though my team lives in Spain, we plan to celebrate. My roommate is basting the turkey as I write. The green beans and sweet potatoes are ready to cook. The pies are done. The table set.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

I have an appointment at the other end of town this morning, so I won’t be around for the last minute rush before guests arrive. I’ve been delegated to pick up the rest of the wassail ingredients and new light bulbs on my way home.

But before I leave, I decided to write a few things I’m thankful for this year.

  1. A safe return to Spain last weekend
  2. Family and friends who make leaving so hard
  3. A suitcase that arrived after all
  4. Stage 1 visa paperwork handed in
  5. A smoky turkey aroma filling the apartment
  6. That despite the craziness of our world, God is in control
  7. A fluffy blond niece who asked me yesterday, “What color is your imagination?”
  8. A thrill when I think about the future and the God who holds it
  9. Freedom to get out and about even while under covid restrictions
  10. The mountains and the sea in the same view– How I missed you!

By no means is that an exhaustive list. But I wanted to give you time to write your own list. What are you thankful for?

What’s been happening recently

A lot of time has passed since my trip to North Africa. Really, it feels like more than it was. Instead of trying to fill you in on all of the juicy details, here is a bullet list that might bring you sufficiently up to date:

  • Meeting a friend at the market to browse the various market stalls together and then walk back to her house for a relaxed visit. Recently, she told me I am a friend, not a guest.
  • Spending birthday/Christmas Kindle credit on books I had been drooling over for months.
  • Being stalked… and then protected by friends.
  • Post-Christmas candy-making and caroling.
  • New Year’s celebration complete with candles and fireworks.
  • Starting a hard copy recipe book that doesn’t include dusting my computer with flour every time I bake something.
  • A friend moving in about two blocks from our apartment which meant lots of pop-in visits at both my place and hers.
  • The same friend suddenly leaving town without any plans to return.
  • My Spanish teacher relocating to Madrid… resulting in my class being transferred to a teacher who uses “ustedes” instead of “vosotros.”
  • Crochet class morphing into knitting class against my will. (More on this later.)
  • Friends’ birthdays: small scale parties, a princess cake, and a photo shoot.
  • My friends’ children lighting up when they see me coming—it melts my auntie heart!
  • Blue Hat, Green Hat over and over again as dark, serious eyes soak it all in, even the title page.
  • A friend giving me two flowers she had planted at work. “No!” I cried, since I am a terrible plant keeper. “I’ll kill them!” “Look, you keep two and I’ll keep two and we’ll see whose dies on them first,” she said. The race is on. But, contrary to all reason, mine are BLOOMING!
  • Lots of book reading with children.
  • Helping a friend withdraw money from the ATM… an endeavor that had us laughing ourselves to tears.
  • Walking 45 minutes with a friend to the ER.
  • Anticipating visitors in March!!!
  • Lunch with a friend who started food preparations at 6:30 a.m. What an honor to be her guest!
  • Spending time with American teammates who belong to my culture and speak my language.
  • Trying out a few North African recipes, with moderate success.
  • Making copies at the African store down the street and being asked to run the copier myself since they were understaffed. I enjoyed watching customers’ eyes bulge when a pale face greeted them from behind the counter. The owner even gave me a discount because I had done the work myself.
  • Branching out a little with crochet patterns.
  • Attempting to grasp that God’s promises are for me and that my identity is, above all, a child of God.
  • Finishing up my visa paperwork! Lord willing, all that’s left is to pick up my residency card in March.

Lost in the system- Part 2

Continued from Part 1

F-7. That was my number. There again in the place I would love to bid goodbye forever.

We were all scanned in, checked in, and trapped. Waiting for that computerized voice to say “H-65” or “F-7.” Not that we heard the voice against the background of a hundred other voices; it was just a reminder to check the screen.

The room was heavy with anxiety and stale cigarette smoke on winter clothes. We were different colors. Different nationalities. But all in the dilemma of surviving the system.

An hour passed. Another hour buried in a legal system. This time to get permission to leave and re-enter the country while Spain ate up months processing my application. My paperwork, started in October, was now complete until they mailed me a list of more documents to wring out of someone somewhere. But if I left the country without special permission, I would have trouble re-entering.

“You need to fill out a form, give me copies of your card, your passport, and this other form, and pay a tax.”
“Is this completely necessary?”
“Where are you going?”
“Africa.”
“Absolutely.”
“And I can’t get this done today?”
She looked at her clock. “Not today. Come back tomorrow!”

I couldn’t decide if I wanted to reach across the desk and grab her by the neck or simply burst into tears. Lost in indecision, I did neither until I was dismissed.

Out on the street, I fumed, determined to leave Spain forever. I was tired of these daily trips to immigration offices. Tired of being an immigrant! Eventually, I calmed down and rearranged my schedule to fit in two more trips to the immigration office, gritting my teeth as I crossed off the rest of life to make room.

But something happened when I stopped fighting for my schedule and opened my heart to joy. Something happened when I stopped wishing I could be somewhere other than where I was and embraced the present, bumps and all.

The world began to brighten. Not much. But a shade enough to make a difference.

Even more discouraging than being lost in the immigration system was being lost in the system of discouragement. After all, when we reject the gift of joy, we reject the strength we need for daily life. Check out Nehemiah 8:10 if you doubt it.

On the way home from my final trip to the immigration office, I met up with an acquaintance. I squeezed her little girl close as we bounced home together on the bus, letting uninhibited, contagious giggles complete the joy of the present.

Lost in the system- Part 1

I have been lost in a system I can never hope to understand. Once, an immigration official told me, “Immigration is the part of government that changes the most.”

No kidding.

The letter in the mail. The journey to the immigration office in Almería to request information.

“You need a new invitation to work.”
“And a new empadronamiento?”
“No, you don’t need that unless you’ve moved. But you have to turn your paperwork in to Immigrantville, not here in Almería.”
“Where in Immigrantville?”
He gave a vague answer that told me he had no idea.

So I put in a request for a new invitation to work and waited and waited. Weeks later, it came. We signed and sent it off. The same papers came a second time, requesting signatures again.

“What happened?”
“I don’t know. My guess is some little old lady working in the office lost your papers.”

So we started again. And waited again.

I wasn’t sure where this elusive Immigrantville immigration office was, but one morning I started out across town with a vague notion, a handful of papers, and a trembling aloneness.

“You need an appointment.”
I stood, almost panting after my 45 minute walk. “When?”
“Right now we’re scheduling in December…”
“My card expires in November.”
“Oh, well you should have come sooner.”

But she squeezed me in just after the weekend. Another 1½ hour round trip on Monday. This time I was at least 50% sure I was in the right place. If I wasn’t, I would have to start all over somewhere else.

I waited an hour with a cluster of Senegalese men, listening to Wolof and crocheting. Round after round of crochet as my hope dwindled.

“Could I borrow a scissors?”
The receptionist gawked at my amateur square of yarn. “Of course.”

Finally, I was across the desk from a lady who was late for her lunch break. But she was the one who actually knew something.

“You need a new empadronamiento.”
“But the man in Almería told me…”
“It expires after 3 months.”
“I know. But the man told me…”
She shook her head. “Sorry. You need a new one.”

She offered to keep my paperwork until I made my next trip.

In the morning, I was the first client at town hall, one half hour before opening. Within 2 minutes, I had a new empadronamiento. Within 20 minutes, I was presenting it at the immigration office.

A friend stopped by and sat with me while I waited for the process to be finalized: another 45 minutes for that tiny stamp in the corner of my form that said I was still a legal immigrant.

“Lost in the system” to be continued in part 2…

Giving thanks

Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family just before moving to Spain. That seems so long ago. Much more than a year.

And I’ve accumulated more than a year’s worth of things for which to be thankful.

The year has been very good and very hard. But sometimes, the hard is what makes us thankful.

This year, I spent our Thanksgiving celebration bundled up in my bed with a head cold. It made me thankful for the health I take for granted most of the year. Crazy busy days make me thankful for alone ones. Residence visa struggles make me thankful to have a week left on last year’s visa.

I have not arrived at “counting it all joy” when trials come (James 1:2), but facing trials helps me see my own unthankfulness before a God who has given me His life.

So today my headcold and I have started counting a few blessings:

three young children in wagon
illinois cornfields
bride and groom with sunflower bouquet
silhouette of two women

Small town librarying

After a couple of months of life in Spain, I gathered up courage to visit the local library. Through the park that hosts elderly men in the morning and rebellious teenagers in the afternoon. Down a long hallway lined with local photography. Until I stood in a room full of books.

Unruffled by my presence, the librarian looked at me over a piece of cardboard she was painting. A prop for a children’s program? “Can I help you?” she asked.

There would be no subtle spying out of the library grounds. I was an outsider and expected to state the purpose for my unheralded intrusion. “Uh, I live here now and-and I would like to read m-more books in Spanish.”

“You need proof of residency from city hall and a copy of your residency card.”

I retrieved the documents and filled out the paperwork. Then I selected a book.

The librarian scrawled the due date on a slip of paper inside the front cover of my selection. I admit that even in that small town, one-room library, I was startled by the lack of technology.

The book I had chosen was boring, so I returned it the next week.

“Did you finish it?” the unruffleable librarian asked without glancing up from her new craft project.

Why this sudden sense of guilt? “No.” I cleared my throat.

“Okay. Just leave it there on the desk.” And she continued unruffledly crafting.

A week later I slipped in again, determined to select a more interesting book. This time, the unruffled librarian was in the middle of a sewing class. She barely looked up while I selected Las Memorias de Sherlock Holmes.

She pulled out my file without confirming my name, made a phone call to the main branch—the internet was down, she said—and then picked up a pencil.

I’m sure my eyes widened when she penciled the due date in the corner inside the front cover.

Sherlock Holmes was a better choice, but I still didn’t finish it by the due date. So I attempted my first renewal.

The librarian’s hands were covered in black paint as she was undertaking yet another craft project. “Did you finish it?”

“No. I would like to renew it.”

“No problem. Just bring it back when you finish.”

Assuming she was referring to the due date, I pointed out that the date inside the front cover said tomorrow.

“No, not when it is due. When you finish,” she clarified. She held up a black hand while the other still clutched a dripping paintbrush. “My hands are covered in paint right now. When you finish, bring the book back and I will erase your fine.”

This week, I returned the overdue book. There was a painting project spread across the entire library floor. The librarian’s pre-teen volunteers cleared a skinny path for me between the massive sheets of damp paper. The unruffled librarian continued hot-gluing safety pins to name tags as I selected another book and brought it to her.

Inside the cover of the old book, she jotted down the number of the new book, handed the new book to me, and returned to her gluing. Apparently, she didn’t feel like traversing the skinny path to her desk.

But this time, she was not the only one unruffled. I had grown accustomed to small town library dynamics and was quite unruffled myself.

BOOM!

I was home alone the day that a man came to inspect the hose on our gas tank. Apparently ours had expired in 2008. Not good, I guess.

“It might explode,” he said.

“What?” I was still trying to figure out exactly who this guy was, how he had burst past me in the doorway, and how in the world I was going to get him out.

“It might explode,” he said again, more slowly this time as if he realized that I was a foreigner.

I was silent, my mind racing in all directions.

He lifted his eyebrows. “BOOM!”

I explained that my roommate wasn’t there and she was the one in charge of the household, so he couldn’t do anything. Surely there was some sort of a law that said a serviceman couldn’t barge into an apartment and do a job against the wishes of the occupants. Right? This was ridiculous.

He gave a long and rapid speech about how it was obligatory and since he was from thirty minutes away, he had to do it now. He probably said more too, but that was what I caught.

“Now all I need is your card or your passport.” His head was in our cupboard and he was fiddling with our tank.

“Wait. Don’t do anything. Wait!” The situation was spiraling out of control. I dashed into my room to grab my phone and call my roommate. Twice. She was in the middle of an English class and didn’t answer.

When I returned to the kitchen, I saw that the man had parked himself on a kitchen stool. The oddity of the situation struck me as I looked at him there. “Do you want a glass of water?”

The question caught him by surprise. “No thank you,” he said.

“Look, I can’t do anything until I talk with my roommate.”

“What time will she be home?”

“Eight.”

“That’s too late. I leave work at six. You have to change the hose. It’s obligatory. Look, if you don’t change it, you might have an explosion. BOOM!”

There he was, booming again, as if a hose expired ten years couldn’t wait a few more days. I heaved a sigh. “If there’s an explosion, I will go to heaven. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Again, he was taken off-guard. Perhaps not every client has said that.

He insisted. I insisted. Finally, he was on the verge of a concession, “You don’t want to pay that price?”

He was going to drop it. I was pretty sure. But it didn’t matter. Obligatory or not, he would not change our hose today. “I don’t want you to do anything.”

We finally agreed that he would leave his information so I could call him after I had talked with my roommate because, I pointed out, if expired hoses have to be changed now, what does he do if someone doesn’t answer their door?

He asked for my number and scribbled it on a piece of paper. I took his business card and took a picture of the contract.

I smiled. I had won. At least for now.

But he was smiling too. “I will message you on whatsapp, okay? Not for the business. For me, like friends.”

Or had he won? I wondered as he walked out of the apartment with my number in his pocket.

Side note: As far as we can figure out, this was a scam. Gas hoses do expire, but the government does not send out servicemen to inspect and change them for 42€ cash. A friend kindly changed ours for 8.50€ to keep us from going “BOOM.” And, no, I am not in contact with the scammer via whatsapp.

Tarjetas and tourists: what’s been happening recently

“What has been happening recently?” you ask. I’ll tell you, even if you didn’t ask. 

One of my favorite big events was getting my residency card, my tarjeta. FINALLY. All of the paperwork, the trip to the Chicago consulate, the phone calls that drove me close to insanity, the corrections, the visa, the move to Spain, the various trips to the extranjería (and the wonderful roommate who accompanied me on all of those!), and finally… finally… on the last trip, the man across the counter handed me my tarjeta. “Perfect.”

We celebrated with a trip to the mall, coffee and tostadas, and getting lost (as is our custom while on foot in Almería).

Last week, my roommate and I took a trip to Berja, a small town in the province of Almería. Away from our immigrant town, we noticed a more defined Spanish flavor, especially in the thicker Andalusian Spanish.

At a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, a man (one who would fit nicely into one of those “anti-smoking” commercials) climbed on board our bus. He sat in front of us but hollered over our heads to the man sitting directly behind us. After several minutes of thick and raspy Andalusian exchange, he turned to face forward and lean back in his seat. The seat was broken and little by little, it voluntarily reclined so far that soon there were three of us in our seat. I giggled. I couldn’t help it! The day was going to be an adventure…

In la villa vieja, we freely roamed the Roman and Arab ruins and enjoyed the silence of the forsaken countryside.

We walked part of “the route of fountains” to find the oodles of little fountains throughout the town. But more fun than finding the fountains was seeing pretty pieces of the town I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

We topped off the afternoon with a sumptuous “choto al ajillo” (goat in garlic sauce) which we bravely tried… and liked!

Of course, lots of other things have been happening too that I haven’t described in detail here (at least not yet), such as:

  • setting up a library corner at the store
  • watching a bus driver threaten to call the police to remove a disruptive and cussing passenger
  • walking with a friend in time to a spiritual discussion
  • seeing God working miracles through brothers and sisters in Christ who are willing to be a channel of God’s power and love
  • multiple trips to the bank to set up an account… to no avail until the fifth time I tried and the bank teller threw up his hands and hollered, “IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT!”

And more. Much more. But that’s enough for now, because I’m off to have another adventure. After all, there is an adventure in every day if we remember to look for it.

Two steep ditches I dig for myself

“If you don’t take your sorrows to God, they turn into bitterness. And if you don’t take your joys to God with thanksgiving and praise, they turn into idolatry.”

My brother learned this in one of his classes at Bible school.

But how one is supposed to balance on the narrow path between the ditches of bitterness and idolatry?

Late one night in the thick of my visa process, I was angry with life’s injustices. I curled up in my bed and started thanking God for His blessings. Thanking God seemed to be the spiritual thing to do.

But I didn’t feel thankful. I felt worried and scared and alone.

God saw through my flimsy façade. “Tell me about it,” He said.

“But, God, You have brought me so far already. I should be thanking You. I don’t want to be ungrateful!” Couldn’t He just accept my hollow thanks and be done with it?

Instead, He beckoned me to approach Him with my sorrow, no matter how frivolous or temporary it was. So I did. Would my silly little sorrow have turned to bitterness had I not given it to God?

See, I’m not sure that the path between these two ditches is so narrow after all. I don’t have to balance on a fine line between bitterness and idolatry. It’s not about balancing; it’s about surrendering.

God wants to be the One to hold our joys and our sorrows. The only two ditches are the ones I dig for myself when I don’t allow my Creator into my confidence and determine to face life alone.

Let the tears begin

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

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

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

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

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

The list goes on.

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