There Are No Strangers

When you move to a foreign country (one that isn’t the one where you were born and brought up) you are forced out of your comfort zone in a huge way. Well, in every way, really. Discomfort is your friend and your enemy. It can force you to connect. Or it can force you to retract.

Sure, you can do the typical expat thing and find your tribe. Other people in a similar circumstance who speak your language, if not the exact same cultural references. And that’s OK. But it also forces you to talk to people you don’t know. To take risks you wouldn’t otherwise. To put yourself out there with the very real possibility of appearing foolish or stupid. For the record, I continue to be both of those things.

When I think of my life in the US, certainty was paramount. We hedged our bets constantly looking to eliminate uncertainty at all costs. But when we moved to Spain uncertainty was a constant companion. And appearing foolish was an hourly occurrence.

But after living in Valencia for over three years, we had our circle and our comfort zone. Our neighbors and our neighborhood knew us. We felt a part of the community and while they may have all still viewed us as foreigners, it was all we knew. Because, at the time, it was the only home we had. But it could still be isolating. The language barrier and sometimes the cultural subtleties escaped us. I’m sure we made enormous errors and perhaps offended Valencians unintentionally due to our lack of understanding. But we were blissfully ignorant.

Now that we live in Palas – really Melide, we are back to being outside our comfort zone. Yet again, we have had to learn to navigate. But we are better equipped now. And more people in our area of Galicia speak some ingles so we can muddle through. But one thing I have noticed since we moved to Spain is my willingness to speak to random strangers has gone up 1000%. Which is odd because there is often a language barrier. But I do it anyway. And I have never had anyone turn me away or get impatient with me. If they can’t help me they will find someone who can.

Recently, I had to go to the Vodafone store. Well, really it’s a reseller of their service. Melide isn’t big enough to have their own Vodafone store. Vodafone keeps charging me for service that should have been cancelled 5 months ago. After being hung up on over a hundred times on their English speaking line, I decided to go to the store and ask for help. The woman there, who was going to make no money off helping me, readily did so. She didn’t even hesitate and spent an hour on the phone getting it taken care of.

And I help strangers all the time, too. The other day I was coming home from Lugo and I passed a few Pilgrims on our road. One woman was sweating profusely and bent funny. Looking like I did outside Uterga that hot day coming down from Alto de Perdon. She was clearly struggling beyond the normal struggle. I stopped and asked if she needed help. The three women were obviously sisters and spoke only Spanish but we muddled through. They said she would be OK. It was only a kilometer until Melide. When I explained to them it is over seven kilometers with the bridge detour into the town center, their eyes got big. They told me which Albergue they were staying at and I said that was even further on the way out of the other side of town to Arzua. I knew that because it was the Albergue where Emilie and I stayed all those years ago. I, again, offered to drive the older lady there. The two other sisters discussed it and then put their struggling sister in my car. We had a nice chat on the way to dropping her off. And I felt better knowing she was going to be able to rest and rehydrate while her sisters made their way on foot.

I was happy to help. But I have noticed that this is more of a regular occurance now, yet it’s not something I would have done back in the US. There, I would never have approached strangers and preemptively asked if I could help them. I might have viewed it was none of my business, or didn’t want to intrude. Overstepping. But here, there is a sense of collective community that I never felt back home. Culturally, Spanish people seem to have more of a connection to each other. A sense of social responsibility that permeates their daily interactions. A stranger offering assistance isn’t weird. It’s just life. And it’s become our life now, too.

Today, I was in Melide. Jeff was getting his haircut and I was trying to pay my car tax for the year at the bank. You can only do this operation between 8 and 11am. Why? I don’t know. But it was this way in Valencia, too. I forgot that, so I was turned away at the bank. I will have to go back again tomorrow. But when I got out on the street I saw a woman wearing a mask of the Arizona state flag. For some reason I pointed at her and said ‘Hola Arizona’.

She laughed, asking me how I knew she was from Arizona, and I pointed to her mask. Then she laughed again, and asked where I had been walking from. I told her my car in the municipal parking lot. ‘I live here.’

She was surprised we would move all the way from the US to small town in very rural Spain. She told me she would live in Spain but it’s ‘too hilly’. I told her she could live in Valencia. It’s like Phoenix. Flat as a pancake. She was trying to find something she needed and asked if I could help her figure it out. Of course, I knew just the store and took her there, introducing her to the owner in my sad español. Then I left her with a hearty ‘Buen Camino.’

When I meet people here from the US, it makes me miss the ease of communication. The cultural shorthand that requires no effort. My American slang comes out, like riding a bike. You never forget. But once the interaction is over, it’s as if I got a small shot to last me until the next American. But it’s not America that I miss. What I have now is something I never had there. A sense of community. A feeling that we are all pulling together, connected and responsible for each other’s well being. For me, it has transcended language and culture. And I find, these days I value this above all else.

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