What’s Your Story?

As we prepare to head up to Galicia, I’ve been working with 3 different real estate agencies to line up houses to view, and multiple appointments. I like a schedule which will allow us to bake in enough flexibility to see additional properties that will, invariably, come up. ‘Well, we do have this one that might be going on the market.’ Things like that.

We’re taking the train this time to reduce our carbon footprint. Yes, it takes more time, but we will get to see the country along the way. Jeff and I both love trains and he told me last night he’s glad we made that choice for this journey. So, everything is now lined up and ready to go.

For each of us, whether we buy or rent, our homes are the story of our lives. Jeff and I have generally been nomads. We did live in one house for 10 years while raising our kids, but we like to shake it up. And when you move, you get to sort through what’s important to you, and discard what isn’t. I always feel lighter afterwards. Moving to Spain meant we got rid of everything, except what really meant something to us. So if you walked through our apartment today, you’d definitely be able to read our history. The art and photos on the walls. The books and souvenirs from important events and travels. The things that mark the moments of our each of our lives; both before we got together and since.

So it was interesting today when one of the agents WhatApp’d me and told me that there was one house we would not be able to go into, but could just tour the grounds and view from the outside. She said it needed total reformas so going in wouldn’t matter. I pushed back, of course. Sure, it’s right on the Atlantic ocean and we love the location. But I’m not paying for a house I’ve never entered. Jeff said the same thing when I told him what she said. We went back and forth and then she agreed to send me photos of the inside. And then my heart broke.

The man who owns and lives alone in the house, is very very old. He is in some of the photos the agent took. He is also very ill with age-related illnesses. The house is filled – top to bottom – with everything he’s ever owned in his life. But what struck me more than all ‘the Stuff’ was the story of his life. Sure, the place is a mess. A disaster, really. But the walls and many of the surfaces are festooned with old photos. One, I’m pretty sure, is his younger self with his bride on their wedding day. And pictures of his children’s births and weddings. All the important things. The people he loves and who have loved him.

There are books everywhere. Acting as his side table by his chair where he sets his mug. And his walls are lined with shelves to bursting with books. A kindred spirit. But the fireplaces were also filled with books, so either he ran out of shelf space or he’s getting ready to heat the place this winter.

This gentleman was born before the Great Depression, and before the Spanish Civil War. He makes mis Amigos at the cafe round the corner in Benimachlet seem young. Perhaps he remembers a house without indoor plumbing – like my Dad as a kid. Or the excitement of the first car in the family. While he may not know what he had for breakfast today, I feel sure he knows what hunger and deprivation look like. That generation had their share.

I looked through photo after photo. The agent suggested ‘You must imagine it empty’. But I’m not sure that’s possible. This man lived his life in that house. He was married and raised his family there. Imagine it empty? I couldn’t do that. It’s a place filled with all his memories. Things a bin man couldn’t cart away; nor money can buy.

It seems he’s unsteady on his feet, and perhaps blind. To be expected in your 90’s. There are knotted ropes tied to various walls and furniture so he can navigate his way through the house, from the kitchen to his chair, and then his bed and bath. I imagine leaving will very very hard for him, and tear up thinking about it. If we buy this house, I wish there was a way to let him know he should not worry. The bones of the house are solid. We would breathe new life into it; love it and take care of it. These two nomads plan on settling up there for good. The ghosts that surely inhabit it are welcome to stay. And hopefully, if we live into our 90’s in this hulk on the side of a cliff overlooking a frothing sea, someone younger will come along someday and do the same for us.

Giving Back

Since we moved to Valencia I’ve looked for volunteer opportunities. I think it’s important, no matter what city in the world you choose to live in, that you find ways to give of yourself. We’re all on this planet for such a short period and each of us show up with unique gifts that can benefit our world. Whether animal, vegetable or mineral.

When the ships of migrants were docking at our shores, I signed Emilie and I up to volunteer with the local Cruz Rojo (Red Cross). It’s just down the street, a few blocks from our house. I figured my rusty Arabic, and her French, might come in handy with the speakers on the ship from North Africa.

But for those who read this blog and are native English speakers, there is another organization that I’ve discovered that presents a unique opportunity. I’ve signed up (I’ve been approved, but not yet participated) so we’ll see how it goes. But for English speakers who want to come to Spain (at nearly no cost to you) and help native Spanish speakers to learn English, this might be something you consider exploring.


Diverbo does week-long sessions in Spain for Spanish speakers trying to learn English, for all sorts of reasons. Work, School. It doesn’t matter. And they need people who are willing to come speak native English to them. They want your slang and regional accents. And your adventurous life stories and hobbies. It includes free room and board at hotels in the towns where they are hosting the classes. You just have to be willing to talk, A LOT! For me – Surprise! It’s not a problem.

For those trying to learn Spanish – they have programs for that, as well. I’m actually thinking of signing up for one of those sessions, too, but I’ll do the English volunteer one first, and see how it works. They also have volunteer opportunities in Germany.

I’m hoping this will give me an chance to see an area of the country I haven’t seen before, and to meet Spanish people from across the spectrum – students to professionals. And I’ll get to help someone in their linguistic journey while I’m doing it. Check out their website and see if a linguistic adventure in Spain is right for you. Who knows? We might end up in the same village, the same week! And then I’d get to hear your stories for a change😉

You Know You’re Living in Spain When…

We’ve been keeping a list of things that are perpetually different living in Spain. Things we will never get used to. I mean, it’s not like the entire country – or the EU in general – is going to look at this and say ‘Wow! We never realized. We’ll make changes with immediate effect.’ That’s never going to happen. But when we encounter these things it just makes us go ‘Oh yeah. I remember this now.’ And sometimes it makes us go ‘What the actual…? Ugh.’

#1. Lights on a timer. I think this is a hold over from after the Second World War trying to conserve energy, and there is a part of me that understands and appreciates it, in theory. But the implementation of it in practice? Well, mileage varies. For instance in our elevator in our building. Adjustment have been made recently. Jeff came home last night with a smirk on his face. I wanted to know why.

‘Well. Now I know our neighbor two floors down really well. The light in the elevator went out as the doors closed. The old man is 4 feet tall and I think he was nervous riding in the dark with me. So I turned on the flashlight on my cell phone and he stopped breathing like he was going to have a heart attack and thanked me profusely for it, as he practically jumped off at his floor.’

Stairwell and landing lights never stay on. Push them and run! And then there is the bathroom. It’s hit and miss when we go into a cafe bathroom and the light remains on the entire time we’re in there. It can get interesting when there isn’t a toilet seat (somewhat common in Europe) and you’re unfamiliar with the layout. Often, when one of us returns to the table it’s with a story to tell about the adventures in getting out without feeling the walls for the door knob. Inevitably, Jeff says ‘Well, that was interesting.’ And then he regales me of his most recent adventure in tiled darkness. I keep wet wipes and hand sanitizer in my bag for just such emergencies.

But my favorite was the other day at the Dr. They sent me in to collect a sample for my physical. I don’t know about you, but the gymnastics of that are hard enough with the lights on. When they went off midway through, casting the shoe box bathroom into a light deprivation chamber, I was at a total loss. Waving doesn’t help and you need to hit the switch which has been measured, through a conspiracy between the plumber and the electrician (no matter the length of your arms), to be exactly one inch beyond your clawing outstretched hand, toward where you think the switch might be. It just won’t happen. I know when I came out flustered and red faced my rambling and swearing could be heard by my fellow patients sitting outside the door. It was all in Ingles but I think they got the gist. There should be a sign on the door ‘If you have a cup in your hand its not going to go well.’

I’ve taken to quickly memorizing the position of all the pertinent appliances before I shut the door. It’s like a child’s game of Concentration. Only grosser.

#27. Amazon delivery is always days before they promised. Always. This last week, Jeff ordered some things at 10 pm. They promised to deliver the following week. We foolishly went for a walk the next morning and got frantic calls at 9 am from the delivery guy who was at our door with ALL the items he had ordered. That’s 11 hour delivery! They’d prompted him at check out to choose overnight or 2 day shipping but he just laughed – why bother? I hung up the phone.

‘Oh yeah. I forgot. When I order something from Amazon we need to stay home from that moment until when they say it should arrive.’

The guy told me he would return the next day to make the delivery. We went home and the delivery guy came again after lunch, rang the bell and brought it up. It’s so weird and yet wildly appealing to me. Jeff just finds it incredibly frustrating.

#32. No.This is Impossible.’ We are told so many times that something can not be done. But if you do your research in advance and bring the documentation with you for whatever you’re trying to do, Suddenly! It can.

‘I need XYZ’ or ‘To do XYZ.’

The person shakes their head emphatically. ‘It doesn’t exist. No. Never. It can not be done.’

But you insist.

Sometimes they’ll try to send you to another shop or office across town or give you a number to call. But they’re still insisting it is ‘impossible’. So you break out the ream of paper backing up your request. Papers that have government coats of arms from their website. Or just stuff printed off the internet. They will study these papers with the attention of a Supreme Court Justice. Maybe they’ll call over a colleague for a consultation. Chin scratching and scowling will undoubtedly occur. They may start arguing with each other. There might be a phone call or a trip to the back room where an unseeen oracle resides for just such requests. But finally, they emerge with your wad of papers. They look will around so as not to arouse suspicion.

‘OK. We can do it. But just this once. I will tell you how.’

Dude. I’m just trying to have the voicemail set up for my mobile phone. Not to rouse an army or draw up battle plans to invade a small country.

Why all the cloak and dagger? Why the drama and the subterfuge? I want to say it’s a communication thing. Maybe they just don’t understand what we’re asking for. I get that. But I really think it’s the same method used by US Medical insurance companies when you call them.

First, they say ‘NO!’. Statistically, 50% of people will quit right here. The second call they say ‘We don’t do that.’ Another 30% drop out. Third call they say ‘This is not normal procedure’. And the forth call you feel them start to break down. By the fifth call you have direct line phone numbers and you’re calling the person by their first name and asking how their vacation was.

They’re betting that each round of phone calls will winnow the faint-hearted, who won’t keep up the fight and will just PAY. Any medical provider or insurance company I’ve ever had should have warned the Spanish bureaucracy that I was moving here. I never give up. Nunca!

Our actual list is much longer – but you get the idea. None are insurmountable, and if they drove us too crazy we would hop on a plane and head back to the good old U-S of A. But we’re not doing that any time soon. It will take a lot more than dark bathrooms, unpredictable deliveries and bureaucratic gymnastics to get us to abandon our new home. But if you’re ever in Valencia and you hear shouting coming from the ladies room. Take pity on a girl and help her turn on the light. Cause more than likely, that girl is me.

The Hooker and a Bone Scan

Under the heading of ‘What can go wrong, will go wrong’, the last 12 hours have been interesting. It felt a little like we were Tina Fey and Steve Carell in the movie ‘Date Night’. How can so many things stack up against you?

We were spending a quiet evening at home watching ‘Drunk History’ on Hulu. We weren’t even drinking, but apparently it made Jeff thirsty for a beer.

‘Let;s walk down to the Nagini (not the real name) and have a beer.’

I don’t drink beer, but I said ‘Sure, as long as I don’t have to change out of my pajama pants and my Georgetown t-shirt and my Birks.’

Jeff acquiesced – he’s used to my eclectic attire on the street. And so are our neighbors. Over a beer and a bottle of water, we free associated about some of the real estate listings and the potential for our favorite one. Kitchen remodels and the like. It’s got property to put other buildings on the site. He wants to find a way to convert some classic cars to electric and he could have a garage. Then Jeff had another great idea.

‘Let’s go down by the Creative Space and look in the windows of the kitchen/bath remodeling place that sells high end finishes. It’s almost on our way home.’

So we took a small detour and looked in the big windows and picked out our favorite finishes. As luck, or coincidence, would have it one of our favorite places to enjoy a night cap was near by. Keep in mind, I’m still dressed in, essentially, my pajamas. And this place is hipster central. So all I had to do was own the look and I was good to go.

After a Jameson con hielo, we were ready for bed. Time to hit the hay. Only 9 blocks to walk home. We could do it in our sleep. We got to the building and Jeff first checked one pocket, and then another. And then he checked them all again.

‘You have the keys, right?’ he said to me.

Fire nearly shot from my eyes. ‘Uh, No. You have them. When we left I said ‘You have the keys right?’ and you just rolled your eyes at me and said ‘Like I always do.’ So, No – you have the keys.’

Except he didn’t.

‘I must have dropped them.’

So we marched back – it was getting cold – to the packed hipster Benimachlet watering hole and asked the bartender if any keys had been turned in. She checked with the other bartenders and shook her head.

Then we marched back to the Nagini. The chairs and tables were stacked up. It was closed up tight. I looked at Jeff. ‘Any thoughts?’ He had none. My mind started going through potential options. None of the first few were doable between midnight and 1 am.

‘I guess we’re going to a hotel.’ I told him.

‘I think that’s kind of extreme’ he said. But he had no other ideas. And we weren’t going to wake up friends with our instant, middle-of-the-night homelessness. I hailed a taxi and had the driver take us to an area with a bunch of hotels. We couldn’t reserve a room on Expedia or Booking.com on my phone because it was after midnight. We would have had to wait until 4pm to check in. We needed heat and a bed right then.

In the US, walking into a hotel and saying you need a room is not that big a deal. We do it on road trips. But here, it’s not really done. You call or reserve online or through a booking service with a credit card. I did this once in Milan with my friend, Stephanie, and it was frowned upon. You don’t show up in your pajamas and Birks with just your wallet, and a tall dude, at 1am and say ‘Got a room?’. And you know how I know this? Because the first 5 hotels we tried all looked at me the same way. Like I was a Hooker and the tall Scandanavian Lurch character looming behind me was my client. I really wanted to say ‘Look. If I was a Hooker, I’d be a lot hotter, and a lot smarter about getting a room than showing up in my pj’s, because if I was a Hooker I wouldn’t need pj’s. Just take a minute and think it through.’ But I didn’t.

By the 6th hotel I had my speech ready and I was able to conjure a tear that said – ‘Help us.’ The old guy took pity on us and gave me a room. He didn’t bother to ask for Jeff’s NIE card – just mine. Which told me he was pretty sure I was a Hooker but he was willing to look the way to fill the room for what would now be just 8 hours at the max. He asked if I preferred to ‘pay cash’. So, yeah.

In the morning I messaged our landlord. He was out of town but was willing to come into Valencia to let us in. But we’d have to wait until noon. In the meantime, Jeff suggested we go back to the Nagini since they’re a cafe and open for desayunos (Breakfast). We walked our 10,000 steps back to the cafe from the hotel (I’m still in my pajamas from the night before). No, they haven’t found the keys.

I’m cold now. So cold. So we head to our local El Horno (bakery) across the street from our apartment and wait until noon for our landlord to arrive. At noon we head to the bench in front of our building. Javier is always on time. Noon comes and goes. No Javier. 1 pm passes and I message him. Nothing. Finally at 1:30 he messages me. He was in an accident on the motorway and he will not make it. He apologizes profusely. Luckily, his wife and kids weren’t with him.

‘I will call my brother-in-law. He sometimes has success getting that door open. If that doesn’t work I will call a lock-smith. He will call you in moments.’

I didn’t want to ask why his brother-in-law had broken into the apartment enough times to warrant the ‘sometimes has success’ title.’ But he didn’t call or message me. We just waited. and we got colder. Neighbors who had seen me the night before in my pajamas were giving me looks. Usually, I have very little shame but even I started feeling weird. I left Jeff there and went and sat on a bench a block away, shivering.

The landlord messages me asking if I’ve heard from his brother-in-law. I said No. Then he texts me. ‘He’s just looking for a bone scan. Then he’ll be there.’

What?! A Bone Scan? To Javier: ‘I don’t know what that is. But if it works I’m happy,’

‘It’s radiology.’ He responded. Like that cleared it up. So this guy was getting an x-ray machine to break into our door? What the actual…? Could this get stranger and more difficult?

Finally, the brother-in-law calls me. He and his son are on their way. I am in the lobby with Jeff when he arrives and Jeff lets him in (he had followed a neighbor in).

‘Kelli’s Husband?’ he asks Jeff. I love that he called him that. I look him up and down. I don’t see the promised x-ray machine. He’s just carrying an actual x-ray image. He looks me up and down and is rightly alarmed at my disheveled, pajama’d appearance. I need a shower.

We all get in the elevator and head up to our front door. He holds up the x-ray.

‘Usually, I like to use a much bigger one, but this is all I could find. We shall see if this works.’ And he starts shaking our door. Then he slides the x-ray between the door and the door jam. He instructs his teenage son to wail on the door, over and over, while he slides the x-ray up the door jam, slowly slowly. Zip Zap – the door pops open! He kisses me on both cheeks, shakes Jeff’s hand, gathers up the little dog he had brought with him and says ‘Vamos’ to his son, and they take their x-ray/bone scan and leave.

We head into the house that is blessedly warm. A shower is in my sights. Then I look over, and what do I see? Jeff’s keys are on the entry hall table. He didn’t lose them. HE FORGOT THEM!!! When I asked him if he had them and he rolled his eyes? Yeah. That. But I have no energy to throw it in his face. This tired Hooker needs a shower and her beauty sleep. And I don’t even want to think about how much worse it could have been. But I know one thing. Screw keys. I’m never leaving the house without a bone scan again.

Look Out World – Here She Comes!

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away. Well, it’s far from here, anyway. Thirteen and a half years ago, at a McDonald’s in Bellevue, Washington we met a little 4 year old girl. We had come specifically to see her and it changed our lives, and hers, forever.

That little girl had what I called then ‘The Thousand Yard Stare’. She might just be 4, but she’d already lived and seen more things – scary things – than many of us will ever experience in our lives. The details of which I wouldn’t learn for several more years. I will never forget my first impressions of her. Much smaller and thinner than an average 4 year old. But she was tough. I could see it right from that first moment. She gave me the first of the many once-overs she would give me in subsequent years. I guess I passed.

They told us she was behind on her speech development and she was. I asked if she wanted something to eat and she nodded – suspicious. But she followed me to the counter to place our order. We got in line and I looked down into a face with big chocolate brown eyes looking up at me. I was being studied, boldly. Then she said ‘You gone ‘dopt me?’. I said ‘We’d like to. Would that be OK?’. She scrunched up her little face and whispered ‘OK’, and then she reached up and took my hand for the first time.

Every night for months we would read her The Madeline books about the little girls in Paris in two straight lines, but the youngest of them all was Madeline. ‘When you ‘dopt me, you take me to where Madeline lives?’ she’d ask. And I’d always promise we would. We slept on her floor for countless nights and I held her hand through night terrors. In the mornings she would ask ‘Is this the day you ‘dopt me?’ And every day for two years I’d have to say ‘Not today.’ Finally, the day came and it was a done deal. And we got to take her to Paris and London, to where Madeline lives to celebrate. That’s why she’s ‘Emilie Madeline’.

She is the most resilient human being I know. When she turned 5, we enrolled her in Montessori kindergarten. An environment that teaches respect, gentleness and self motivation. I remember going to her first Parent/Teacher conference. They told me she was behind on everything and asked if perhaps their school wasn’t the right fit. It was a dismal report card. I asked the teacher ‘Tell me one good thing about her. Just one thing. You like her hair or she draws pretty unicorns. Something. Anything.’

The teacher looked doubtful ‘Well, she’s got a mean right hook.’ She’d been beating up the boys on the playground. Not the done thing at a Montessori Kindergarten. But I smiled ‘Well, that’s great!’ I told her, optimistically. The woman thought I was crazy, so I enlightened her. ‘Where Emilie comes from you need a mean right hook. Now it’s our job to teach her that she doesn’t need it anymore.’ The teacher just shook her head.

When Em was 8, she played soccer on a team whose players showed up to Saturday games when it was convenient for them. One game, only 3 players turned up and the coach didn’t want to forfeit the game. He put one girl in the goal, one girl as a defender and he put Emilie up front. She was fast and their best scorer every season she played.

‘Emilie. I want you to score 10 goals for me and don’t let them get the ball near our goal.’

Emilie nodded and went to work. We watched from the sidelines as she weaved in and out of the other players and scored goal after goal. She never smiled after scoring, or reacted to our crazy cheers from the sidelines. She just worked. She’d score and immediately march right back to the place where the kick off would be – waiting for another chance to take the ball away from the hapless full team of 8 year olds on the other side. And then she’d do it again.

By the end of the game Emilie had beaten the other team – almost single-handedly – and when we ran to her and lifted her up she barely smiled.

‘Emilie! You did it!’

‘My coach told me to score 10 goals. So I did.’ She was unimpressed with her accomplishment. She expected nothing less from herself. Just doing what was required to win.

I tell you all this story of our Emilie because yesterday she did another extraordinary thing. Emilie got a full scholarship to her university of choice! A top college in her chosen field of study. ‘And they’re paying for my books too, Mom.’ she told me after getting the embossed folder with all the information and the letter inviting her to accept. The books-thing seemed to be the clincher for her.

‘I think they liked my essay. I wrote about what I learned on our walk on the Camino. Those professors from NYU that we met in Santigo told me that would be the best college essay.’

Well, it worked. That little girl at the McDonald’s all those years ago, is going to be a lawyer. And it’s a surprise to none of us who know her and how hard she’s worked. Has it been easy? Not for one day, for any of us. But she’s always bounced back from adversity. Able to see what adjustments need to be made. Learning and growing from stumbles and mistakes.

I sit here today and tear up thinking about how far its been from there to here. The mountains that had to be climbed and the countless sleepless nights. Deep, deep water at times, when we couldn’t touch the bottom and we were tired from trying to stay afloat. The doubts, tears and days of real fear. And today I can let out that breath I’ve been holding for her for longer than I can remember. Today, our girl is on her way!