The Power of Disconnection

When we moved to Valencia, everything was different. I felt so bombarded by the differences that any subtlety or shades of grey were completely missed. The things we were dealing with were all primary colors and right in our faces.

Now that we’ve lived in Spain for 16 months, I notice other things. Jeff talked about some of them in his one year recap. Things like not being blasted with advertising. We really do find we don’t seem to want as much stuff, because we don’t know about it. But it goes even deeper than that. I still read news from the US, but I also watch the local news on TV in Spanish. And something struck me & it all comes down to ‘Fear’.

When I watch the Valencian news on TV, the stories can be about social injustice – there is plenty of protesting and there should be. And sure, there are the crime stories, and stories about the politics and government. Sport, human interest and fiestas loom large. Boilerplate stuff. But there are a lot less stories about the number of things that will send you running for the hills, or to your doctor or therapist.

When I read CNN or BBC or Reddit on my phone, the number of stories that ask ‘Could this be the next thing that…a) destroys your career? or b) kills or maims your children or yourself? or c) causes you untold financial ruin?’ is jarring. And those that just generally create a low level anxiety boggles the mind. And they do it sometimes by asking questions that you know you don’t have the answer for, so you read it. And then, often it turns out, they don’t actually have the answers either. Just more speculation. And even if you don’t read the click-bait, you’re still left wondering what you don’t know. My favorite story recently was ‘Is your Anxiety life-threatening?’ That question alone would ratchet it up a couple of notches. I don’t hear things like this except on English speaking media.

Living in the US, I had never really noticed this before. While living in Valencia, I never see that stuff because generally it doesn’t appear to me that the social fabric of Spanish life is based on fear, like it is in America or the UK. Anglo cultures seem to bucket everything in terms of ‘Winners or Losers’, but you can’t be both. Growing up, we had ‘The War on Drugs’, ‘Zero Tolerance in Schools’ and ‘Three Strikes You’re Out’ policies for criminal justice. None of that has worked and some of it has done immeasurable harm to real people, and secondary harm to our culture. It’s scary.

Fast forward, this summer, we’re about to go through the the process of college/scholarship applications for Emilie. But even in that there are ‘Winners and Losers’. The incredible stress every American and British parent/child feels in getting them into a top school, while competing against millions of other kids and their parents, doesn’t seem to be a thing in Spain. And I know a fair few parents with kids the same age in Valencia.

The recent highly publicized college admission cheating scandal involving rich and famous American parents hasn’t helped. Privileged people who were so stressed out and afraid for their children’s futures they would commit felonies on their behalf, might make any regular parent think ‘If they’re afraid for their kids future, I should be too.’ So, many parents or their kids will go practically bankrupt – taking on unimaginable debt for fear of falling behind in the race. Higher education here in Spain is first rate and won’t break the bank.

I get 10-20 emails a day from universities all around the US who are trying to get Emilie to apply there. And some of them are frighteningly alarmist in their digital messaging. Almost threatening me to prove I care about her by sending her to them, Top Notch University X, for four years. And if I don’t? Well, then what does that say about me as her parent? Now, don’t get me wrong – she’s an excellent student with the perfect set of extra-curriculars (Yes, I just used that horrible phrase); but if she said she was going to a Community College for the first two years I wouldn’t bat an eye. Although, the message seems to be I should be very stressed out about it. But me being me, I’m naive enough to believe her success or failure in life will not be decided between the ages of 18-22.

This type of social brinksmanship seems to permeate our lives in the US from preschool to the workplace, thru retirement, where the specter of running out of money in old age is waved in your face weekly on every news site. ‘How much is too much to save for Retirement?’ ‘Will you have enough?’. If I had to sum up the general mood of so many I know in the US it would be perpetually worried. Because if you’re not, you might miss something.

The US is the largest single consumer economy in the world. If we get a Wall Street sniffle, the rest of the world gets a cold. But it’s not just about selling us products to make us more attractive or a luxury car to make us feel more powerful. Its the whole package. If we’re always on edge, afraid all the time, we’re continually trying to look for a solution to alleviate that anxiety. A shopping trip, a pill, a bigger house, a new boat, a self-help guru, a vacation. ‘Select sports’ this, and an ‘Ivy League college’ that. It’s got to be exclusive or we won’t feel special. And if we’re occupied with those things then we’re distracted, and, Whew! – we’re spending money. And the economic engine churns. Believe me, I’ve been there. I’ve made a career out of it. I struggled to get off that hamster wheel.

Then I walked the Camino two years ago, and when I entered Santiago, 36 days after leaving St. Jean in France, in my back pack I had:

  • 2 sets of well worn clothes
  • flip flops
  • a sleeping bag
  • a rain poncho
  • sweatshirt
  • my trusty Swiss Army knife (my most cherished possession now)
  • and some personal products

I needed nothing else in the world. I’ll admit, initially I had brought a lot more because of the advice I had gotten on social media and most of it was ‘What if this happens?’. Fear again. But I left most of that stuff at the monastery in Roncesvalles after the first 2 days. I couldn’t carry anything more than I absolutely needed for another 780km.

Day One. Camino Fances – St. Jean Pied-de-Port to Orisson (French Pyrenees)

The entire time, except for the occasional text interruption, I stayed off my phone, news apps and social media. I didn’t read a news report or of any new studies definitively confirming that dark haired women who walk the Camino at aged 50, are 1500% more likely to be hit by a meteor than those who just stayed home and shopped at the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale. In other words, I didn’t know to be afraid – so remarkably, I wasn’t. It was the best gift I ever gave myself. They say ‘knowledge is power’, but too much information can be crippling.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t things to be concerned about in the world. Climate Change is top of mind for me. This should, very seriously, concern us all. But now that I look back, one of the biggest things I took away from my Camino was the sense of peace. And I think a big part of that was being disconnected. Not disconnected from those around me. I’ve never felt more present or the deep sense of connection than I did with those I met. But a large part of moving to Spain, I see now, was about continuing that feeling.

I’ve spent this last weekend (other than sleeping) polishing and finishing the final edits on my book. I had to cut out more than 25k words so it’s been quite the exercise over many months, but its nearly across the finish line. It’s a story set on the Camino Francés (I was in Burgos exactly 2 years ago today). And editing requires you read and re-read the MS so many times you could recite it from memory in your sleep. But another thing its done for me is that its helped me get back in touch with those feelings, and one of my most important lessons from 5 weeks walking in the hot Spanish sun. The awesome power of disconnection.

Its About That Time

When I lived in San Francisco in the 90’s, there were earthquakes. A lot of earth quakes. Some larger. Some smaller. You took them in your stride. But you started to be able to understand the difference between the various kinds. ‘Rolling’ was better than the ‘Jerk and Snap’. That did more damage to people and property.

But I remember one that happened on a Sunday Morning when I had moved out of the city down to San Mateo on the Pennisula. It was a rolling quake and I could hear the roar – kind of like a lion – coming towards me and it was getting rapidly louder. It came in a wave, shook the house during the loudest bit, and then roared away. When I saw the first Harry Potter and Voldemort’s spirit goes through Harry holding the sorcerers stone – that’s what it was like. I later learned that the sound waves of a quake often precede the shaking.

That’s where I’ve been since last Summer. I’ll be 53 this July, so as a woman I’m at that age when it all begins – or ends, depending on your perspective. The symptoms started like that distant roar from the earthquake. I heard little warnings – but nothing big. Then, starting last Fall the roar has gotten louder and some of the symptoms more worrisome. So much so that I couldn’t ignore it anymore and last week decided to get some medical advice.

Yes, I have a doctor that speaks Ingles, but she referred me to another specialist whose ability to communicate with me is less than what I need right now. And her nurse just points and grunts – not even in Spanish or English. I mean, my ability to speak Spanish under medical stress isn’t where I want it to be, but normally I understand a lot. If they speak more slowly than normal. Otherwise, I’m forced to use my powers of observation. And that’s ripe for misinterpretation.

So I took myself to the specialist appointment yesterday and they were right on time. I must say, the offices are like a nice Spa and there are no complaints with how they do the business of medicine and patient privacy. I was taken back and then told to disrobe. This is where the trouble started.

I’ve encountered it before when getting massages here. In the US we take off our clothes to get a massage – all of them. Here they don’t do that. So the nurse at the Dr. office was taken aback that I disrobed completely – even with the robe for modesty. It’s a freaking doctor! Whatever. I wasn’t the mood for it.

Then as they’re checking my various lady bits, they start making faces to each other and speaking in rapid fire Spanish. The nurse looks at me nervously and then the Dr. says something to her. Now I’m freaked out.

‘Is everything OK?’ I ask the doctor – looking at the nurse’s face.

No one answers me but they keep talking to each other so fast I can’t understand, and still the faces looking at me. Grimaces and wide eyes. Like cartoon characters. There was no mistaking it. ‘Oh that’s not good’ isn’t said out loud in English but their faces are yelling it at me.

‘Seriously? Is everything OK?’ I ask again. Nothing.

Finally I try ‘Hola! Por favor.’

This seems to break their exchange and they realize I’m a human over whose body they are discussing things with faces that look like I’m not long for it. The nurse nervously leaves the room and the doctor smiles at me a weak smile.

‘It’s fine. We are going to order some tests. It will be fine.’ But her face is the one I gave Emilie after a serious bike accident that required hospitalization. I wanted her to remain calm, while inside I was freaking out!

I try to ask more questions but she clearly doesn’t understand me enough to answer in a way that is helpful – for either of us. And then I realized, with everything I’ve overcome moving here – navigating travel/transit, ordering food, driving, getting our visas renewed, etc. – when I need to understand the most important things about my time of life health, I’m lost. And with all the other stuff I’m experiencing, I’m more emotional than normal. So I teared up. This makes her more uncomfortable and she clearly wants me to get out of there as soon as possible.

She tells me to go out to reception to get the information on the scheduled tests right away and then tells me.

‘Next time I see you, you will know more Spanish.’

I asked her when I would be seeing her and she told me right after the tests on Wednesday. I’m not sure if she thinks I’m some sort of language savant or if there is some magic they put in the water they gave me, but she’s in for a sad disappointment.

I’m not going to say I ever loved my doctors in the US, any more than this specialist. It always felt like the Burger King drive thru when you went to your appointment back home. They barely looked at you. But the one thing they could do, when it really mattered, was speak to me in my own language and answer my questions. Because God knows, no one wants me Googling this stuff. Least of all Jeff. He’s made me promise.

I do understand that I’m just at the beginning of this journey. It will get worse before it gets better. And no one knows how long it will take. There are people who tell horror stories (Yes, I mean you Mom) and others who tell me it’s really not a big deal. But no one I know have ever gone through it in Spain, in a language not their own. I guess either way, I can hear the lion and the roar it getting louder. But I can take comfort that it will eventually, after the really strong shaking, roar away.

Mis Amigos

I have 5 new Spanish boyfriends. Well, not exactly. Don’t get too excited. But the way Jeff is reacting to my new crew you’d think I did.

There’s a bar in Benimachlet that I go to in the mornings sometimes. I’ll bring my laptop and write at an outside table over a cafe con leche. They make a mean one. Here, everything is a bar – so no, I’m not drinking booze at 10am. I’m pretty sure the local children’s hospital probably has a bar in it too.

I was enjoying my morning coffee one sunny day, when a voice beside me seemed to be directed my way. I looked over and there was a table of 5 older gentlemen and they were pointing at my laptop and speaking to me in Valenciano. I understood, maybe, 3 words. But I answered in my pidgeon Spanish. Thus began a whole new relationship.

It’s well documented that I’ll use any means possible to improve my Spanish. This means I’ve joined groups way above my Spanish language pay grade. You gotta put yourself out there and be willing to make a fool of yourself and fall down – A LOT. I have an abundance of those things in spades. But one thing I hadn’t tried was the ‘Old Man Morning Coffee Klatch‘ down at a local bar

I’ll admit, I had observed these multiple groups from afar. They always seem to consist of 4-5 retired, well groomed older men who meet at the same bar, at the same time, almost daily. They’re usually smartly dressed and cologned. Would I have ever been so bold as to approach them in their natural habitat? Never.

But on that day, one group decided to approach me and now I’m In-like-Flynn – as my Dad used to say. Paco, Jose, Jose, Francisco, & Javi are my new crew in the 75+ crowd at our local bar near the space. At 10am every lunes, miercoles y viernes (that’s Monday, Wednesday & Friday to you and me) they meet up, as they’ve been doing for decades. And now they insist I come and speak with them each of those days.

One of the Jose’s explained ‘We need to improve our Ingles. And you, your Espanol.’ Yes, improving their Ingles at over 75 seems like a just-in-time for heaven kind of strategy. I mean, I’m pretty sure God speaks Spanish – but who am I to judge? Never stop learning, right?

The other Jose proposed marriage today. I told him I thought he had a Portuguese wife. He said ‘No. Today finish.’ And he gestured a karate chop.

‘Does she know yet?’ I asked him

‘If you say YES, I go home and tell her.’

We all just laughed. Silly man. His wife is fierce and he’s 5 ft 2  and maybe 120 lbs soaking wet. She’d run him over with her loaded grocery trolley and take him out. Or maybe pay me to take him off her hands.

Mostly they treat me like their daughter and explain Spanish customs and social conventions. The other day, Paco explained in Spanish that Valencian men are too macho and their wives suffer for this. I have no idea if this is a universal truth but it’s certainly a perspective. I do know learning Spanish through humor and laughter is so much more fun than worksheets and a whiteboard. I much prefer the classroom of life in Benimachlet.

Most of these guys have known each other since they started kindergarten. Here, when children start school they stay with the same classroom, and the same kids, all the way through until graduation. So they’re friends that long. Impressive. One of the Jose’s didn’t move to their class until second grade and they still call him ‘The new guy’ after all these years. But their wives do not like each other.

‘But you, Kelli. You are muey simpatico, I think. You join our group.’

At first I thought I might just be a guest star periodically, but am now appearing in the opening credits. Its a standing 10 am date 3 days per week to intercambio with ‘Mis Amigos‘. And one of them always buys my coffee – which makes me feel sort of strange. I think it’s the macho thing because they fight over who will do it that day. But since coffee is a whole uno euro setenta, I guess they won’t run through their pensions too quickly.

Jeff just shakes his head.

‘Heading out to meet your boyfriends?’ He asks as I grab my keys.

I give him a kiss on the cheek ‘ Not enough Viagra in an entire Costco pharmacy. So no worries there.’

Sometimes I stop and wonder ‘Am I the strangest American in Valencia?’ But then I remember I was strange for an American, IN America. So I probably am. I guess nothing has changed one bit. And you know what? I find I don’t really care.

Quieting the Mind

The last two years have meant constant change for me. It’s been two years since I quit my job in the US. Nearly two years ago I walked my Camino. Fourteen months since we moved to Valencia. But while those are big things, I’ve always believed its the smallest things that make the biggest difference. A click in a new direction can be a watershed moment that changes everything that comes next.

After I quit my job two years ago – sure, that’s kind of a big thing – I took a Meditation, Mindfulness and Essential Oils class at the local community college in Arizona. When people think of Arizona they think of either red-necks with truck nuts, old people, or mysticism seekers. So a MM&A class is right in the sweet spot on the mysticism side of that equation. I hadn’t been sleeping well after all the drama of quitting my job and I needed to try to remedy it.

WOW! Life changing. Meditation is all that and more. I had tried it years before but never really got the benefit from it. Quieting the mind seemed too hard with so much to do. This time was different. We practiced mindful eating and using essential oils to quiet the mind and to relax the body. It was just what I needed. I was so relaxed that driving home on those evenings was sometimes a challenge, and I would sleep like the dead.

Fast forward to Valencia in 2019. We’ve lived here over a year and I hadn’t really been keeping up my practice. Rather hit and miss. So much to do and see. But with the Creative Space – as we’ve taken to calling it – I’ve been inspired on many fronts. My writing is benefiting from my painting. And Jeff bought me a hammock so I’ve spent time lolling about – contemplating things. It’s then I realized I needed to get back to my Meditation and Mindfulness practice.

So on Friday I signed up for another class to kick start myself. It’s in both Spanish and English, and they also do Mindful Movement. Not exactly yoga but there are similarities. It was wonderful hanging out with mostly chilled out people. And then Friday night, I again slept like the dead. So there really is something to this.

As luck would have it, I had signed up for a new yoga class on Sundays held in the sun on a rooftop near the Mestalla – Valencia FC’s futbol stadium. Although there was a match on Sunday during the class, there were times I felt like they were cheering me on in Chair pose. Sun salutations are better in the, well, sun. And the class includes some meditation, too. Last night? Slept like the dead. If I doubted the prescription for a restful nights sleep and a peaceful mind I can’t do that anymore. So me and meditation/mindfulness/yoga are back on and stronger than ever.

I was having a conversation with someone in the mindfulness class before it started. She’s English from London and has been having a really hard time coping with the culture of Spain. She’s working here and having 2 hours for lunch is throwing her off.

‘I don’t know what to do with myself? I mean, I’m used to eating lunch in a conference room. I can’t get a coffee to-go anywhere here. And everything they do at work is so inefficient.’

I laughed. ‘I know what you mean. I lived that life. But maybe this is better. No rushing about. Actually digesting your food. Sitting down and eating when it’s time to eat, instead of trying to do more than one thing at a time. So much so that we don’t do anything really well, with our full attention. In the US, we favor efficiency over peace of mind.’

It made me wonder where all this ‘efficiency’ was trying to take us and I flashed back to the Frenchman in St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France at the beginning of the Camino. He pointed at Emilie and told her ‘This is not a race. Just like life, you can not ‘win’ the Camino.’ Although there were days, I swear she tried. But he’s right.

The woman in the Mindfulness course snarled a little. But there was a reason she was in the class. She’s looking for something she knows is missing. The same as me. I couldn’t judge her. I’ve been where she is. And not long ago. And I’ve even done that in Valencia thinking that multi-tasking is the path to happiness. ‘Getting things done’ instead of enjoying the doing of them. We’re all mirrors for each other.

After the class, we were leaving more slowly than when we entered. Kind of like church. Enjoying the feeling of slowing down and connecting to ourselves. And I looked over and the woman from London was smiling.

‘Maybe you’re right. Maybe there is something to all this.’ she admitted.

‘Maybe. You’ll figure it out.’ I told her. She nodded.

So today, I sit here ready to to pursue some of my passions and I need to take a moment and acknowledge how grateful I am that I have this space and this time to pursue them. That finally, I live in a place with people in a culture who appreciate the value to doing one thing at a time. Wait – I think I just heard the click. And suddenly everything is changed. Smiling. Namaste

A Political Time Out

With us being Americans, you may think this will be about the crazy political situation in the US. Yes, we watch it from afar and I only read bits of it because it’s too scary and depressing. I felt powerless to do anything about it when I lived there. Now? I can do even less. Yes, in the US we can still vote while we live overseas (unlike other countries) and we can contribute to campaigns. But we won’t be knocking on doors or participating in any caucuses or helping register voters to impact change.

We’ve watched Brexit with horror over the last year. Much like our own politics, Britian’s is broken – so broken. I was chatting with an Irish friend the other day. I told her ‘It’s like the UK fought a war with itself and it lost. And it’s losing the peace.’ She agreed. She has dual citizenship with the UK and can’t believe it’s gotten so bad.

And now, we get the Spanish elections. National elections in Spain are set for April 28th. I’ve taken to watching our local news stations to try to understand what’s at stake. As well as some of the coverage in other areas of the country, and what they care most about. While my language skills are not that great, I think it’s important to try engage in what is important to the people, and to me, it seems to be about a few key topics.

When we moved into our apartment, there was a Spanish flag on the rail of our balcony. It had been put there by the previous occupants and the owner had left it there. He said we could remove it if we wanted. I didn’t care either way until it blocked the sunlight from getting to my herbs. So we took it down over the winter. But that flag matters in Spain and it’s not the same as flying a flag in the US.

In 2017, Catalonya held a referendum to declare independence from Spain. I remember being in Tarragona after my Camino in Summer 2017 and seeing both Spanish and Cantalonian flags flying on nearly every balcony. I didn’t really understand the significance of this at the time. But then we saw it on the news in the US. It was a very big deal when the referendum passed and protests on both sides, and arrests of the separatists started. I don’t know enough to understand all the nuance on either side. But then when we moved to Valencia, we saw all the Spanish flags everywhere and I realized that it was a clear message for unity.

Spain has 17 autonomous regions. They each have their own legislatures, counties with additional layers of local governments, and then cities with their own councils. Each of these regions have their own priorities and very long histories. And the politics of the regions reflect that. Last year, there was a big change in the control of the national government. The Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) took over the government after the People’s Party (PP) lost a no confidence vote after 6 years in control of the government. They had overseen austerity following the financial crisis.

From where I sit, this change in government shifted the commitment of government spending back towards social programs and refocused the government priorities towards national health care, infrastructure and education. Of course, I don’t understand everything so I’m very sure I’m missing something.

Elections here aren’t every X years like they are in the US. We have elections and then must live with the results (good or bad) for 2/4/6 years, depending on what position is being voted for. But here, if confidence in the government is shaken, a new election will be called at any time. When PSOE took over last summer, it’s because they called a no-confidence vote and won. But this election has been forced because one region (Catalonya) blocked the passage of a national budget – some say in protest to the national government’s lack of support for their independence. Again, I don’t understand it all but it’s interesting to watch how it all works and plays out.

Unlike in the US, here there are more than 2 main political parties. What this means is that unless one party get’s a majority in the elections – not likely to ever happen – the one with the most votes must work with other parties to form a coalition to govern. Typically, under this parliamentary system, it means there are parties that are far right, some far left, and some in the center. By having to form coalitions, it keeps extremism from ruling the day. Of course, this isn’t guaranteed but compromise and coalition building means that even small parties can have a big influence. Their support matters.

The region of Andalucia – in the far south of the country – is where immigration and migration seems to be top of mind. It’s the point where many fleeing conflict in Africa try to enter the country. The ani-immigraton party, VOX, is gaining influence based on this platform and they’re expected to be a Major player in the election for the region. In general, Spain has been one of the countries willing to take some of the boats full of African migrants who have found themselves without an actual port in the storm. Valencia has willingly taken several of these ships. I’m a believer that instead of building walls and punishing migrants, we should look at why they want to flee and try to help the with root-cause problems that prompt them to risk so much and leave their homeland. Economics, war, violence, corruption. In the meantime, we owe our fellow humans our assistance and compassion.

One thing that has struck me watching the news here is that people are very engaged in their politics throughout the country. They don’t seem to sit on the sidelines, but are passionate about who is representing them and how. Throughout the year we have lived here we have seen MANY protests just walking through town on any given day. The Bomberos (Firefighters) were protesting one day in front of the regional congress. They were foaming all the streets and shouting about fair pay. Right next to them was a protest for the LGBTQ community – challenging our ears for equal attention on equal rights.

It will be interesting to watch what happens. Of course, like anyone, I have my preferences on outcomes based on my limited knowledge of the situation in Spain. Democracy takes many forms. When I was growing up, we were told we had the best system in the world. But I must admit, I kind of like this multi-party parliamentary system that forces compromise. I know it’s not full proof and can’t stop all ‘brinksmanship’ (look at Brexit). But I feel privileged to live here. And watching this process, I know I have a lot to learn. At the end of the day, healthy debate leads to the best outcomes and I wish that for Spain – and us all.

Love is the Little Things

Jeff popped home to Valencia from Germany, for an overnight (about 7 hours total) before heading to the US. We’ve spent so much time together over the last year – more than any other time in our marriage – it felt a bit strange to have him away. But in the past it was usually me traveling for my work. Now I find it’s easier to be the person traveling than the one left at home. I’ve never really experienced that before. Hmm. But like most things, there’s always a silver lining.

Jeff spent last weekend in London with a friend who had never been to Europe. Some of the best trips are when you get to travel with those who haven’t seen what you’ve seen. Its a special kind of joy watching their reaction and wonder. Like experiencing it yourself for the first time. It’s what I always felt when traveling with our kids. Their excitement was contagious. Perhaps that’s why we traveled with them so much. The smiles, until they were teenagers. Oof!

I went with him to the airport this morning on the Metro. He had already packed his next suitcase before he left for London, so it was just a shower and then off to hop on another plane. He goes armed with a list of to-do’s. Since it’s tax season he has some things to get to our accountant and so much other administrative stuff. And he’ll get to see his Mom and Ryan. But one thing that is different than before is the shopping list. Perhaps I’m evolving.

Before we moved here we stocked up on all the things we thought we needed. Things we were worried we wouldn’t have been able to get here. Slowly but surely we have swapped out US stuff for Spanish stuff. Moisturizer, mascara, medicine. Our medicine cabinets look very different this year, so I had to wrack my brain to come up with things he would need to bring back in his suitcase. I guess we’re like snakes, shedding our skins for new ones.

It doesn’t mean Jeff hasn’t gone prepared. He is staying with my good friend Courtney and he’s been shipping stuff to her house for months. A new wet suit for paddling made for someone who is extra tall. You can’t get that here at the local Decathalon. And a host of other things for someone who is more Norway (giant) than Spain (not). But I was pretty proud of myself that what I asked for could fit into the pocket of a backpack.

I’m getting in a lot of writing time, and painting. So that’s my silver lining. Hopefully I can keep that up when he gets home.

But there is also the downside of him being away. Every morning Jeff makes me my coffee. Often I wake up to the smell of it brewing. It’s a new thing since we moved here. But he makes it just the way I like it. With cardamon in the brew and then a little sprinkle on top. It took him a few months to perfect it and now it’s the only coffee I like to drink. But I don’t know how to make it like he does so my days don’t start quite so perfectly without him.

My attempt at Cafe con Leche ala El Jefe

When I was on the Camino and in Spain for two months in 2017, Jeff missed my foot. Apparently he subconsciously checks in with me at night and taps his foot to mine in his sleep. When he couldn’t find it he would wake himself up. Hopefully he can sleep on this next bit of his trip.

Oh well – it’s a finite time frame, we will both survive. And it proves the old adage ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’. And I’m here to tell you that it truly does.

My Take

It’s not all sunshine and oranges in Valencia. Well, it kinda is. But for the past week we’ve been reflecting on what we have learned over the last year. And it’s been conversations filled with smiles, laughter and A LOT of ‘Remember when we first got here and we ….’ and ‘I can’t believe we did that!’

One of the first things we’ve learned is that when an opportunity presents itself, take it. It might be a party, dinner, coffee, a class, an introduction, a Pokemon Go raid in the Jardin, travel promo. Almost anything. You meet people and you learn. And new friends emerge. People who will help you, and to whom you can lend your helping hand.

Whatever you think your travel budget will be – quadruple it. When you move to Europe you’ll get emails for cheap flights and cheap rental cars or luxury hotels at off season rock bottom prices. You’ll want to go on more adventures than you can count. I haven’t posted all of ours on this blog but we have traveled a ton in the last 12 months. This is EXACTLY what we wanted to do.

People moving to a new country are uncomfortable and unsure of where they fit. It’s natural. Like going off to college and you know no one. Give those you meet more than one look. Especially those who are expats, like you. Meaning everyone has a bad day, and you never know if someone you’ve just met is always like that, or if it’s just a tough stretch of adjustment. Who knows, they may become a close friend, but you’ll never know if you just scratch the surface one, or possibly a few times. I’ve circled around and I have made friends here I’ll have for a very long time – from a pool I might have missed if I didn’t dig a little past some rough edges. Cut them some slack, while you cut yourself some too.

Laugh, laugh and laugh some more. I have made such a fool of myself so many times I’d win the award for ‘Fallas Court Jester’ if they had one. Language faux pas and miming that would embarrass Jeff more often than he’d likely admit. (See my bear impression at the Haribo store looking for gummi bears) But then he’s learned if you’re willing to make fun of yourself, it disarms and frees others to do the same. Their self-consciousness fades too, and soon everyone is laughing and figuring it out. He encountered this on a recent trip to the local Farmacia to get me cold meds. He came back laughing as he and the farmacist had made fools of themselves, fake sneezing and miming throwing up. But they got to the right meds in the end.

Don’t over plan. Sure, lists are good (I love lists) but taking a left instead of right and getting lost is part of some of our best adventures. Don’t be afraid to eat, drink, listen and walk a new way to places that are completely unknown. Sure, we’ve joined groups that schedule things, but we’ve learned that there will always be beer or coffee afterwards and the day isn’t about packing in as much as possible.

Not everything is available in Spain. As a matter of fact, A LOT of what we would normally take for granted in the US isn’t available (or at least readily available). Especially electronics. And the selection of many household things isn’t as broad. But we’ve learned how to redefine ‘Good Enough’. And I find we’re actually happier, even though we can’t get every little thing with a selection of 50 choices. Sometimes having to delay gratification means that we find we didn’t really need it to begin with.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, is impossible or insurmountable. You just don’t know how to do it yet. And not knowing is OK. I’ve learned to take a deep breath, tap into my network and keep trying. It will come. And to have patience. Most importantly, with myself.

Lastly, I think we would both agree – this past year has been one of the biggest growth years of our lives. And also some of the most fun! As we start year two, the adventures will just keep on rolling as we head to Bilbao next week. Our initial renewal papers filed, and me behind the wheel of a compact manual transmission car, driving on roads I’ve never been on. Jeff’s idea of heaven – for sure!

We arrived yesterday last year, in monsoon rain, in the dark of night, 7 hours late, with nothing but 4 wet duffle bags into an empty apartment. And look where we are today. We have built a life for ourselves here. One filled with gratitude. Things have a way of working out. Happy 1st Anniversary to Us!

My Daughter’s Mother

Part of what is hard about living in Spain, so far away from family, is that when they are sick or injured you can do nothing to comfort them or ease their pain. I haven’t felt this helpless since we moved here.

Yesterday, I woke up to pictures on my phone of Emilie’s ankle, and a wall of messages telling me about how she injured it in her basketball game the night before. It looks terrible. It’s huge, purple and angry and she’s on the other side of the world wanting comfort. She’s a star athlete so she’s frustrated that it’s clearly a season ending injury. Tennis and the long jump (yes, she does two sports at a time in the spring season) are now out of the question. She will be in a boot for a couple of months, I’m very sure.

So I spent my day on messenger talking her through it all and speaking to her on the phone intermittently. She’s a tough cookie – she always has been. And she’ll be fine. But it’s one of those Mom Moments that makes me wish I was there, and it wasn’t someone from the school shepherding her to the hospital.

But then she told me that they had taken her back to the school without having determined if her ankle is broken and given her a treatment plan. What?! I had never heard of this and we’ve been to an ER with all the kids for one sports injury or another. Xrays, MRI’s, CT scans, emergency surgery. We’ve been through it all. So I called the school and spoke to them.

Emilie’s school is in the deep, deep South of the US. They ‘Tawk reeal sloow’. Not because they’re stupid but that’s just their cultural linguistic heritage. But it also means that when I call them it takes them forever to get down to the point and my cell phone bills are enormous. Bottom line, they said that this is ‘normal’ for the local ER they take kids to. And they would just wait for the results to be called to them – maybe by Monday. That seemed outrageous to me to release a patient with a clear sign of serious injury without a diagnosis or a treatment plan.

‘Well, we have her laying down and we’re giving her the ‘Mama treatment’. They assured me. I was not assured.

When I got off the phone Jeff looked at my face and said ‘Uh Oh’.

I told him what they had said. ‘Mama Treatment?’

‘I don’t know what kind of mama’s these people had, but mine would never have stood for leaving an ER with no answers. And this mama isn’t going to stand for it either.’

So I looked on Google maps and found the closest ER to the school and I called them up, explaining the situation. I’m 5000 miles away and my poor daughter was seen there with a clearly seriously injured ankle. Yada Yada.

Well, the first two people I spoke to, after 10 minutes of failing to get to the point, finally told me they couldn’t help me ‘Due to all those laws about patient privacy and such’. The upside of these long conversations is that I did get a kickass peach cobbler recipe and we’re now invited to a 4th of July bbq with ‘the best sweet tea in the South’. And I was able to calibrate my speech cadence and local nomenclature. It would come in handy.

So I called again. This time I asked for radiology. They were the ones who ran the tests in the first place. I had learned from my other two conversations not to go at it head on. You sort of sneak up on it, so as not to scare your prey. I told my same story but in a more round about, subtle way. I threw in some local colloquialisms like ‘Til the cows come home’ , ‘A hill of beans’ and ‘If I had my druthers.’ I was gonna try to work in ‘That dog don’t hunt’ but that takes some Olympic-level southern tawk, and I’m an amateur. I told them I was in Spain and couldn’t sign that crazy form to get information about my own child’s health in a crisis such as this. I said ‘One parent to another, I’m sure y’all can understand.’ It was a shot in the dark but Scarlet O’Hara had nothing on me. In the end, the person said they really wanted to. Really, really wanted to but they couldn’t help me or they’d lose their job.

When I hung up Jeff was smiling. ‘What?’ I asked him.

‘That’s quite the accent you’re sportin” He laughed.

‘Well you know how I get when I talk to someone from there. I lose all the ‘g’s’ at the end of all those words. And one syllable becomes 4.’

‘Oh, I know. I figured if you came to bed in a hoop skirt, the transformation would have been complete.’

I was frustrated. ‘Well clearly it didn’t work. I almost had it too. They wanted to tell me but I didn’t get it across the finish line.’

Just then, my phone rang. It was the area code for that town. I picked up and a frantic person told me – with no Southern hemming and hawing – that they were in the parking lot on their personal cell phone. They understood my plight as a mother and they gave me the information I needed – including the results and the treatment plan.

‘You don’t know me and we never spoke’ they said.

‘I couldn’t pick you out of a crowd in the Walmart parking lot’. I promised. Then they hung up.

I called the school. Because I’m her parent and the medical results hadn’t reached the school via pony express yet, I get to dictate what they do for her. So I read out the instruction I had been given by deep throat in the ER parking lot and told them to follow them to the letter. They agreed of course. No body wants to get sued.

The final gem was my phone ringing at 2:30 this morning. The health coordinator at the school had finally gotten the results – hours after my covert medical records operation had born fruit. She related everything I already knew and told me they were going to do exactly as I dictated to them hours earlier.

So after little sleep, I’m happy Emilie is getting the care and treatment she needs. But I still wish I was there to take care of her. I’d make her up some peach cobbler from that new recipe and maybe a little sweet tea. That’d fix her up but good.

Ugh. Now I need to go out and speak to some Spanish people so I can’t stop tawkin’ like this.

Riding the Wave

Jeff is a water person. We both grew up in the Northwest of the US where mountains, rivers and streams meet the crashing Pacific ocean, and it rains ALOT. So there is water everywhere. His water of choice is usually fresh water, while mine is salt water from summers growing up, spent in Cannon Beach or a house in Manzanita, just south over Neakanie Mountain. It’s wild and the storms are epic.

For much of Jeff’s adult life, his sports have included wake boarding, sea kayaking, rafting, sailing, and white water kayaking. For years he was a river guide for a club and shepherded people through white water rivers in the US and Canada. But he really loves kayaking rivers like the Skykomish, Wenatchee and Snoqualmie in Washington State even more. And watching him surfing on white water waves in the middle of a river was a thing of beauty. Our old house was 20 minutes from the put in. He never said, but he chose that house and I think that’s why.

Surfing a wave on the Sky

When we moved here, Jeff gave all that up and shipped none of his boating or rafting stuff. He chose his motorcycle over his boats. But his face fell when they took the last of his boats and paddles out of our garage in Arizona a year ago. Deep breath. He was silent for a few days. I wondered if that might be the a deal breaker, but he persevered.

There are no big rivers in Valencia and the Med is like a lake – with a few days in the winter when you can get some decent surfing in. There are days I can tell he misses it. We don’t have a ski boat or a sail boat here (yet) and while we like going to Panorama to watch the surfers on super windy days, its not the same as being out on the water yourself.

So to celebrate getting my license, I decided that we need to get back out there. So yesterday, we walked to the other side of the city and we bought a couple of paddle boards and all the gear. Carrying those home 2 1/2 miles, strapped to our backs, might have caused a few fellow pedestrians to look askance, but it’s past time we donned the wet suits and paddle some waves again. Sure, not big waves, but it’s been a while. We need to start small.

Our biggest obstacle to overcome in the short term, prior to a selection of a car with a roof rack, is how to transport watercraft to a beach or a lake. Luckily, I’ve discovered that in Spain they are very clever with the available bike rack configurations. We can get the one for surf boards and install it very easily to a bicycle. So we’ll be able to get ourselves and our boards from here to there without too much trouble. Even I wouldn’t attempt a full sized paddle board on the tram to the beach, and I’ve brought a large dining room rug on the Metro. So either I’ve lost my nerve or I’ve begun to acquiesce to social norms. It would be the first time in my life for either of those things.

If all goes well this weekend, we’ll pick up a couple of kayaks next week too, for some fun maybe a little further off shore. Just to tide us over – haha. But that may force the car purchase sooner than later. No kayak racks for a bike.

Jeff’s ultimate goal is to move north and west in Spain. To where there are real rivers and where the ocean crashes against rocks on the shore. We’re heading up there next month to begin checking out some of the areas where we might want to live, and to look for bigger water. And I’ll be practicing my newly acquired driving skills.

I guess, as we wrap up this first year of living in Spain, it’s time to add a little of the old back in with the new. Sure, embracing change is fun. But weaving the familiar in along with it makes life that much sweeter.

When Lightening Strikes

There are people throughout our lives who inspire, mentor and show us the way without even knowing it. It’s just who they are. This month is the 70th birthday of one of the most influential people from my childhood. The person who, when I was a little kid, was the living embodiment of the ‘You can do anything you set your mind to’ philosophy. Ironically, he got his degree in philosophy from Cornell, so it seems appropriate. And he taught me lessons I have never forgotten.

Nearly 40 years ago, on a summer day in Portland – in my mother’s humble kitchen – my sister’s boyfriend, Rob, made up the first batch of Big League Chew bubble gum. It”s well known in the US – now. It’s a story that is almost too bizarre to believe, but I find that the truth is always stranger than fiction. Rob was a minor league relief pitcher on the local single ‘A’ pro baseball team in Portland, The Mavericks, and he dated my sister for nearly 16 years. But this was way back at the beginning.

Rob had a baseball school that he ran in the summers in Portland, where he earned the money so he could spend the winters in South Africa playing more baseball, during their summers. At the school is where he met my older sister when she was dropping my brother off to attend. Rob didn’t chew tobacco, but he watched a ton of players who did and his idea was that kids should have an alternative – thus the gum kit cooking in my mother’s kitchen, and me playing their ‘crash test dummy’ guinea pig. Tasting the first batch, that had been colored brown to mimic tobacco with the horrid maple flavoring, made me gag. But I was in middle school, idolized him, and was game for crazy thing he thought up.

Watching this thing start in my own kitchen, by this humble man, and then it growing in to what it did, was a huge example to me that big things can come from small beginnings. No one expected this small time baseball player, with no car, who was living pretty much hand to mouth, to make it big. Or to invent anything of consequence. And yet he did.

Back then, it was like a lightening bolt in my world. The idea that if you could dream it, you could do it, was suddenly very real. I had evidence of it. Rob had a belief in himself that I found magnetic. And inspiring. He never saw limits, only opportunities.

I don’t tell many people this story – although by doing this post, I guess I am now. It was just my childhood. But a friend sent me this link a while ago and it made me smile that Rob talked about making it in my Mom’s kitchen, with my brother Todd. But we were all there, watching and participating. My Mom likes people who cook or sew. She liked Rob, and I guess that’s partly why she likes Jeff.

https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/12-weird-facts-you-didnt-know-about-big-league-chew

Years later, when I ran the Innovation Lab at Nordstrom, I often thought of him. Throughout my career, I was always coming up with ideas people thought crazy. But I never doubted our ability to actually see them into reality.

I had a VP once who listened to one of my ideas. He said ‘Come on, lets take a walk.’

After walking around the block a few times, and questioning me and my sanity – he stopped and said. ‘Do you really want to take responsibility for seeing something like it’s through? If it fails, you own it.’

I remember never hesitating. ‘Yes, of course.’ I couldn’t imagine anything else.

I got that from Rob. ‘Be bold and powerful forces will come to your aid.’ It’s the only way to live.

He was also a kind person. Even after selling the idea to Wrigley’s, he lived a simple life while buying homes for, and taking care of his family. He never cared for ‘things’; he cared for people and ideas. 

A few years ago I took a cultural communications class. We were required to write the story of our lives to help us understand our cultural biases, but also to acknowledge those who had influenced our thinking the most. Before that, I’m not sure I really had a handle on how much my friendship with Rob impacted my life. But reading my own story, it was clear he had. Even when I was in college, and they towed my car for unpaid parking tickets, it was Rob I called. He picked me up, convinced the closed tow yard to open up and give me my car and then he took me out to one of many dinners. He was an amazing listener and was always interested in what I thought and why. I would leave those dinners, or even just a coffee, feeling lighter. He made me think differently.

Rob was there when my parent’s bought their grocery store in 1978. Before Big League Chew was even a kernel of an idea. He was their first customer, and bought a six pack of Heineken and paid $5. That’s before there were micro-brews and foreign beer seemed so fancy to us. My Mom had him sign the $5 bill for good luck, and she kept it framed over her desk in the back until they sold the store in 2010.

On the last day, before they handed over the keys to the new owners, Rob showed up by surprise. My brother had called him to let him know my parents were selling the store. He told my Mom, ‘I was your first customer and I’m going to be your last one too.’ He bought another 6 pack of Heineken. My Mom was so touched he had remembered after all those years.

I haven’t seen him in a long time. But one of the last things I did before we moved to Spain was to write him a letter. I’d been meaning to do it for a long time and I had put it on my list before we closed the door in the US for the last time. I tear up thinking about it, but Rob is a big part of how my life became what it is today. And acknowledging that was important to me. I’d left it well past time to say Thank You.

So this is to honor Rob Nelson’s 70th Birthday. He’s lived a big life, by anyone’s standards. But to me, he’ll always just be Rob, my friend, who was there for me when I needed him. Happy Birthday, Rob.

Perfectly Imperfect

I read somewhere that in Japan they have a tradition. When a bowl or a plate is broken, it is repaired, but with a thin layer of gold along the crack. They don’t try to fake it with super glue or send it out to a master ceramicist to refire and repaint it, so it’s ‘good as new’. They celebrate the imperfection by bringing the two sides together with liquid gold.

This serves two purposes. First, it make the item usable again. And second, it serves as a great reminder that it’s the imperfections that are beautiful. After all, a broken bowl – damaged in a very specific way – is one of a kind. And the knitting it together with the gold makes it an actual work of art. I love this idea.

A few years ago, Jeff and I went to Greece for a few weeks. We bought a tapestry. The owner of the shop hailed us in, as nearly every shop owner does on a narrow Grecian street. Then he plied us with wine and proceeded to compliment Jeff – ‘You’re clearly an orthopedic surgeon’ he told him. Jeff never lets me forget this. When I asked the man what he thought I did, he pondered very seriously and then exclaimed ‘Why, you are the wife of an orthopedic surgeon!’ Jeff laughed so hard he choked on his wine, and I actually heard his wallet open.

The man’s practiced shtick, and the wine, worked eventually. We looked through all his rugs and tapestries. The wine wasn’t working on me enough to agree to purchase any that he showed us. Then he pulled something from the back. BINGO! That was the one. I’m a sucker for pomegranates. And I knew it would look amazing on the tall wall going up our stairs in the Snoqualmie house. But after it arrived and we hung it up, I did little to observe it. It was just there – beautiful, if a bit asymmetrical if I’m honest – and a remembrance from our trip.

Now, that tapestry adorns the wall of El Compartemiento. I sit across from it on my chaise, as I read, and when I’m writing every day. And now I get to look at it in detail. At first, I noticed that it wasn’t balanced. The right side and the left side aren’t the same. This bothered me a lot. Thinking ‘I’m sure we paid too much for this now that I look at it.’ But over the course of the last few months, I’ve spent a fair bit of time following the stitches. Some, on one side, lead to little hearts I had never seen before. Others to little gold coins that are present nowhere else in the fabric. The treasures and secrets it’s held all this time but I had failed to observe. Several artist contributed their expertise to different sections. And that’s part of what I love.

Slowly, it’s dawned on me that the imperfections and the lack of balance are what makes it so amazing and beautiful to me. Even more than before. Its drawn me in and brought me closer, rather than repelling me.

Last weekend was challenging with all the drama over my phone and that gang. After a sleepless night, I cancelled my driving lesson and spent Monday not leaving the house. I looked out the window and thought ‘Out there, it isn’t as nice as it looks.’ And then I snuggled up and licked my wounds and stared at our tapestry between naps.

But by Tuesday I was done with that. This city is a lot like this fabric that hangs on our wall. Nope – it’s not perfect. There are both the good and the bad people in every city. But there are hidden gems too – and I wasn’t going to find them sitting at home. So I rescheduled my driving lesson, and I joined a recreation and activities club. They do stuff nearly every day and tomorrow is my first practice on a Women’s futbol (soccer for the Americans) team in the Turia. I haven’t played since I was 12. Yes, I will be total crap at this but I’ll meet some good people, I’m sure. And make some new friends.

Sometimes, the best things come from difficult situations. And I much prefer filling the cracks with gold than trying to pretend things were never broken. Celebrating the imperfection, and then choosing to swim in it. I hope someday on my tomb stone they write ‘She was held together with liquid gold.’ Then I’ll know that all my very many imperfections were also celebrated by the people I loved, who loved me anyway.

Roller Coaster Sunday

‘God takes care of fools and little children.’ It’s been my motto my entire life. So far it has worked for me nicely. I’ve toddled my way through things and while there were potential dangers – I mostly ignored them. I just kept toddling.

But I digress. I’ll start at the beginning.

We left the house today heading for shopping. But it’s some sort of holiday (I guess the fireworks this AM gave that away) and they were closed when we arrived. We should have known, after walking up the Turia to Campanar to the only El Corte Ingles that is usually open on Sundays, but it was closed. No Dyson vacuum for me today. So we walked up to the tram and headed for Heron City.

After discovering Bauhaus was closed, we had lunch and then decide that bowling at the local bowl-r-rama was in order. I mean, who doesn’t love bowling. We realized we hadn’t been bowling since we bowled with our kids in Snoqualmie at the local pizza bowl. Its across from the town train depot and has just 4 lanes. It’s ramshackle and the guy who makes the pizzas also repairs the mechanics of the place – so the pizza’s have a little black grease on them, but it was part of the charm. $28 for an entire family to bowl and eat pizza on Sunday nights. Golden.

So this time we were both out for blood. No more sand bagging to make our kids feel better. No bumpers or any assistance with rolling the ball down that dinosaur aiming thing. Nope! We were head to head, going for broke. And they even had America sized 13 men’s shoes.

As you’ll see by the photos, I won. At times it was a total blow out. I’m not saying I kicked Jeff’s ass at Spanish bowling. But I kicked Jeff’s ass at Spanish bowling. There is no other way around it. He rallied at the end in the first game but he was no match for me. It’s good he conserved his strength – cause he’d need it later.

We had so much fun! So we went into the arcade area and I decided we should play this insane air hockey game where gobs of pucks come out at the same time. I’m a crazy good air hockey player so I was eager to try this slice of insanity. Needless to say, I again triumphed over Jeff in this game of total chaos. I was crowing about my victory. High fiving strangers. Then I reached for my phone. It was gone. Yes. I had been pick pocketed during our air hockey game.

We looked everywhere. A man and his son helped us after I gave his daughter all my game tickets that had popped out of the slot. I was bereft. Finally, we went up to the counter and asked if anyone had turned it in. No – of course they hadn’t. Someone had lifted my $1200 cell phone from my coat pocket. It was brand new. They recommended I go to the police and file a denunciation. It’s complex but it’s a police report. I’ve never denounced anyone before so I wasn’t really sure what we should do.

We gave my details and Jeff’s phone number to the desk but left knowing it wasn’t coming back. All of my elation from my afternoon of victories was long gone. I felt like a fool. I hadn’t zipped it in an inside pocket. I had let my hubris get the better of me. My enthusiasm for air hockey had hoisted me on my own petard. We walked back to the tram to wait for the train and discovered we had just missed it, as we watched it pull away. Our luck was going south fast.

So we waited the 40 minutes for the next one. In the mean time we became surrounded by a gang. I feel sure they were coordinated. I was a bit teary after my phone being stolen and I think they didn’t know what to do with a crying victim – because I’m very sure they were planning to rob us. When I realized this, I started crying harder and louder. Men – even thieving Men – don’t wanna deal with a crying woman. They looked confused. I got up and Jeff followed. We started walking down the street to the next stop. Eventually the entire gang followed us. And a few more suspects showed up besides.

We sat down at the next stop and one of them approached us and in English he asked for a cigarette.

‘We don’t smoke’ I told him and then easily burst out into tears that were on the surface because of the frustration of losing my phone. I cry when I’m frustrated. It’s just how I’m wired, and my mother will tell you I’m a decent actress. Well Mom – I acted my ass off at that tram stop. You would have been proud. He backed away. What I wanted to say was ‘You don’t know the day I’ve had, Motherfucker, so you don’t want to mess with me.’ But the tears were doing the trick. Jeff just went with it. I was rapidly leaving the neighborhood of ‘Hysterical Female Acres’ heading straight to the border of ‘Unpredictable Crazy Town’. No body knew what I might do. Including me.

They were still circling us like sharks. Some of them with stocking caps and bandanas over their faces. I sobbed louder. Hysterical. Finally the tram came and we got on and sat next to the security guards. Then we got off and got on the subway. It’s the long way home but it felt safer. Jeff put his arm around me.

‘It’s just a phone. We could have been robbed or knifed by those guys at the tram stops but we weren’t. We’ll get it all sorted out tomorrow.’ And he kissed my head. Just then his phone started to buzz.

Turns out, it was the bowling alley calling us to tell us they found a phone in the trash. We hopped off at Angel Gimera and took a taxi back. Sure enough it was my phone. I was so grateful to the girl at the counter – more tears. I mean, my life is in that phone. Banking, photos of my kids, everything.

We took a taxi home – no more Tram drama for me tonight. Jeff made me a Bombay and tonic to calm my nerves – or two. It’s been quite a day. We’re starting to get into our visa renewal process, and crying at the tram station today surrounded by the gang members, after getting pick pocketed at the bowling alley, I had started to wonder if the universe was trying to tell us we should have a rethink. But then it all turned out OK.

God does take care of fools and little children – at least this fool. And for that, tonight, I am eternally grateful.

The Sun Also Rises

Time smooths out the rough edges of memory. Sometimes it makes the past seem rosier than, perhaps, it really was. We are home from Ireland. We were excited to spend Christmas in New Years in weather that felt like so many holidays of the past. Especially all the years we spent in Seattle. And it did.

But here’s the thing. Being back in Valencia it’s sunny and 65 degrees. And boy does it feel wonderful to be warm again. And Jeff, who really missed winter in Seattle (why, I don’t know) is happy to be warm too. Here, there is no bone-chilling wind. Hats and gloves have been put away. We can have our morning coffee without a coat and scarf again. It feels good.

We’ve hit the ground running too. We found a dentist and Jeff has already gone and seen them. I often hear that ‘socialized medicine’ means long lines and weeks of waiting for an appointment. We went yesterday to a clinic who had no idea who we were and he saw the dentist today. We anticipated it being much more difficult. So one more myth debunked.

This morning, I walked across the city to an Autoescuela that speaks English. Yes, these rarest of the rare actually do exist here in Valencia, like unicorns. You don’t see them and they don’t make themselves known. But my shot gun approach of talking to everyone I have ever met here about needing an English speaking Autoescuela to get practical lessons has paid off. Someone knew someone, who knew someone who once took lessons at a place where the instructor spoke English. And the lady there was surprised I got my theory test taken/passed all on my own without a school.

Next Tuesday morning I will be taking my first hour and half lesson to learn how to drive in Spain on a manual transmission. The woman who signed me up has as much English as I have Spanish (her husband – my instructor speaks English). She asked me what I was most wanting to focus on. I told her ‘manual transmissions and round abouts’. She nodded knowingly.

But at least I’ll be taking all my lessons in daylight. I feel very sorry for this man already and I haven’t even started. He has no idea what he’s in for. But his wife told me – via Google translate voice – that once I’m ready, passing the practical test in Spanish won’t be an issue. I asked her how many lessons she thought I would need. She said her husband would have to determine that, after a nervous laugh. Ugh.

I’ve also started gathering and filling out the paperwork for the residency renewal in March. Nothing like having a few balls in the air at the same time. But it seems like a much less arduous process than the original visa appointment. No Apostles – No background checks. Pretty straight forward. It seems the hardest thing so far is getting the government website to cough up an appointment time. It may require professional help to get it across the finish line.

Coming home to Valencia feels good. While we could speak the same language as the people in Ireland, it didn’t feel like home. It’s nice to be back to our grocery stores where we know we can get what we need. Where to get a haircut and our favorite coffee place. Poundland has nothing on our El Chino. I was disappointed in Derry when I didn’t get a gift with purchase beer upon leaving.

Our flight home was full of Irish students heading back to Universidad de Valencia after the break, and others like us. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief that at midnight when leaving our Metro station near our flat – it was still 55 degrees. Suddenly, the language barrier doesn’t seem so high anymore.

Last Days in Ireland – Feeling the Love

We left Derry and made our way back to Dublin. I’ve finally figured out the roads – what the letters mean – so we used the wider cow paths to get there – mostly uneventfully. I won’t lie, I’ll miss being called ‘Love’, ‘Pet’ or ‘Darlin” liberally sprinkled in any sentence that addressed me for the length of the country.

We fell in love with Derry so it was a little bitter sweet to leave it behind. The people in NI were lovely. We heard more Gaelic spoken the further North we went. Even though it’s UK. So happy that they’re keeping the language alive and it’s spoken on the street – not just in schools or at special occasions.

But we got plenty of sweets on our last day. Ireland makes donuts and ice cream one of the main food groups. We saw it all over the country and while Northern Ireland is technically the UK, they embrace it there too.

At Taboo Donuts I was a few pence short – I had winnowed my British pounds down knowing we were leaving the country. The woman understood.

Taboo Donuts – Derry, NI

‘No worries, love. I’ll just take 60 pence from the jar and if I see ya again, then I see ya. If not, no one leaves here without donuts.’

Of course, I went back to the hotel and found 60p in a pocket and brought it to her. How nice is that?!

Joe Jacksons ice cream was to die for. Lots of gluten free options and the scoop size is first rate. The place we stayed in Derry was, again, very traditional. Like our authentic coal burning Christmas in Mayo, our Derry Georgian New Year was a little smaller and more compact than we had planned. The pictures online were not accurate. So we were happy to move on back to Dublin to stay at more accommodating accommodations. An old Ducal Palace.

We headed first to Trinity College Dublin to see The Book of Kells. It’s a bible written many centuries ago – like a thousand years – on velum. But honestly, I was kind of ‘Meh’ on it. Not because it wasn’t beautiful or important, but after going to the Templar Castle in Ponferrada on my Camino in Northern Spain, where they have an entire library of such bibles and other books, it seemed a bit over-hyped.

But I did LOVE the library above where the the book is housed. It’s like what you expect all libraries in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries were like. With ladders and such. Women had to get permission to enter back then, all knowledge being for the Men and all. They have displays of some of their most famous female graduates that fought for their right to study and graduate from Trinity College. Ironically, Trinity was initially funded by Queen Elizabeth I, so honoring women just seems natural.

After pulling me out of the library, Jeff and Em and I walked to the river to see the EPIC museum. This is the Irish Emigration Museum. Emigration and Ireland are intertwined. Due to famine, oppression, war, and economic hardship, the Irish have been spread throughout the world seeking a better life. EPIC does an amazing job telling that story.

We were astounded and moved by the stories from artists, engineers, politicians, athletes and much more, who have changed the world by sharing their gifts with the rest of the world. But the one thing that moved me the most happened after we were done viewing the exhibit.

Of course, you exit through the gift shop – just like every where else. But tucked behind the elevator is the Irish Heritage center. For 12,50 euro they give you access to their data bases. And you can sit right down and look it all up.

We had heard from others in Northern Ireland that Jeff’s last name, Darragh, could be the same as the city Derry. Derry is Royal Oak – only in Irish (Gaelic) its pronounced Darragh. It’s not spelled that way in Gaelic but upon entering Ellis Island, the officers spelled people’s names how ever they liked.

So the lady at EPIC started helping us and we got no where. Jeff isn’t close to his Dad or that side of the family. A lot happened there after his parent’s divorce and it’s like a third rail. He doesn’t touch it. But this lady didn’t know that and kept asking questions. I could tell she was coming close to the third rail. And then something happened.

There, all of a sudden, was a record of his grandfather via his Uncle Paige – who we discovered wasn’t named Paige at all. Which led to other records and more relatives. And suddenly we were looking at the immigration record of his 9 year old great-great grandmother who was from Northern Ireland (where we had just been), and had boarded a ship alone during the Great Famine – sent to live in America with relatives. It takes ‘Unaccompanied Minor’ to a whole new level. Jeff was overcome.

And there was the ship’s manifest for his great-great grandfather – her eventual husband – who came from County Clare a few years later. It was all there in black and white, this 18 year old kid who made the crossing for a better life.

But there was something else. Jeff was very close to his grandparents when he was little. His grandfather owned a music store, and when ever we go into one here, Jeff always talks about him. What a kind man he was. And how much he loved his grandmother. Well in that data base in Dublin, they had a photo of his grandparent’s graves. Jeff had never seen or been to the graves before. He had tried to find out where they were but no one seemed to know. And yet here we were, 7 thousand miles away and he was looking at them. I’ve never seen him so struck. Still waters really do run very deep.

We had another place to hit on our list and the museum was closing so we had to go. Jeff was quiet on our walk to the Jameson Distillery. It was a lot to process. I saw this on a wall on our way and it seemed to say it all. Across time and across miles, love doesn’t diminish. Even if those we love are gone.

We would go to both the Jameson Distillary and The Guiness Store house. Both are kind of must-see touristy things to do. But I definitely prefer Jameson’s and would skip Guinness as being a little too over the top.

Jameson’s was started in 1780. They are still making whiskey in Cork and I felt like I connected with their story more because of how small an operation it still really is. Sure, they make whiskey and ship it all over the world. You can buy it anywhere. But the people working there took so much pride in the operation and the legacy, well, it just struck me as more authentic.

Maybe it was the family motto of Arthur Jameson. It mean’s ‘Without Fear’ and as a Scottish Immigrant coming to Ireland to make whiskey from his own sweat and hard work, I liked it. Perhaps I’ll borrow that.

By contrast, Guinness feels HUGE. But of course they do. They’re everywhere, in every pub in Ireland. I had started taking pictures of the ads I saw on buildings all over the country. The message was clear ‘Guiness is good for you’ and it actually said it in one sign. It was always the working man’s drink – a reward after a hard day’s labor. But in Ireland, ‘the drink’ has a darker history.

But the view from the bar at the top of the Guinness Storehouse is not to be missed. The rest of it – Meh. You can see that it’s above the cloud bank looking out through the window in the first photo. Jeff enjoyed a pint too.

Our last stop before Em was due to fly out was Murphy’s Ice Cream. This was a must see for Emilie. She had watched ‘Somebody Feed Phil’ on Netflix this summer and when we told her we were going to Ireland she said ‘We need to go to that place he had ice cream’. So we did.

Murphy’s is a County Dingle company with a few locations sprinkled in the south of the country. They make some traditional favorites but specialize in crazy flavors like Sea Salt and Brown Bread. And that’s what Emilie ordered.

The staff are absolutely wonderful Brand ambassadors and we enjoyed chatting with them as much as eating the ice cream. An American couple came in and the kid behind the counter said ‘Hey, weren’t you here yesterday?’

The man looked incensed. ‘No’ he replied very cranky. As though the kid were implying that he was there too often.

‘Ach, too bad. You see, we give all our customers who come a second time free ice cream.’

That made the guy laugh.

This interaction is so typical of our whole trip. The Irish just have a way about them. They smile, they laugh, they cajole. You can’t be mad. We were on our way to the airport but had to make a stop to pick up another suit case. Yes, I finally admitted I had done a little shopping.

We parked on Merrion Square (Oscar Wilde called it home) and were walking into the main shopping areas. On the square, artist hang their canvases on the black fences and sell their work to passersby. It’s been going on for a long time and this square fronts the Irish National Gallery so it’s no wonder. Some of the artists are talented beyond what I ever hope to achieve with my dabbling, and they’re selling their art for peanuts.

But they’re also starving artists and they can be aggressive in their pitch. One old man – who’s canvases and those of his son are something I would be proud to hang in any home, sang me an Irish love song while trying desperately to get me to load up my, as yet, newly acquired suit case with a canvas or two of his work.

I’ve decided I’m going to create a gallery on this site for all our adventures. I’ve got too many photos that won’t fit into my blog posts. But then, after just scratching the surface of Ireland, I’m pretty sure there aren’t enough photos or blogs to capture the beauty and the people. We will be back.

Derry on the Uptick

*Still doing this on my phone. Formatting, etc. May be wonky.

Derry is a vibrant walled city with the old and new working side by side. Traffic and people weave through the gates; tourists and locals walk the top of the wall. Life is good here.

The walled city sits on an island hill that used to be surrounded by water entirely. Several centuries ago the river sort of sank a few feet. Hence ‘the Bogside’ neighborhood. And ‘the Waterside’. No longer an easily defensible island with a natural mote.

Derry is the only walled city in Europe whose walls were never breached by an enemy. And they were under seige here plenty. There is an actual Siege Museum to walk you thru the details, complete with armour and starvation descriptions aplenty to ensure you skip lunch. But not Guiness or a Savingnon Blanc. We’re not that disturbed.

Short version: Surprise! The English colonized Ireland in the 1500’s with their protestant Scottish cousins. They kicked the Irish Catholics off their land and formed plantations. ‘Plantations’. Now where have I heard that before? Hmm. This is known as ‘The Plantation of Ireland.’ It was systematic oppression and colonialism.

Lots of rebellions by the local native population took place, so the English ringed the city in a wall with gates to allow commerce to flow. But also to maximize defense from local riff raff. Only Anglo-Scots were allowed to live inside. Other Catholic crown heads of Europe took umbrage over this and that – bada bing, bada boom – siege!

And like most sieges, it left a big impression on the population. The mayor of the town at the time said essentially ‘Hey, so I’ll pop out for milk. You guys stay here and guard the town during this ‘siege thing’. Promise I’ll be back.’ The milk got lost in the royal mail. (Insert Crying Over Spilt Milk reference here).

The town starved brutally during the siege so even today, every year, they take great pride in constructing effigies of this gentleman, then hanging and burning them. And I thought my family could hold a grudge. We got nothin’ on these people. There is even an effigy guide in the local Tower Museum to help the next generation make sure their effigy is the most accurate and humiliating as possible. Lest they forget.

The walls are the transit system here. Its a little over a mile all the way around. We are staying right on the wall so we just hop up and we are off where ever we need to go. No traffic to contend with and the views are lovely.

Just up the wall from us is The Cathedral of St. Columba. It’s the first Protestant cathedral built after the Reformation (Martin Luther starting the Protestant church). Its old. They wanted me to pay for a ‘photo license’ to take pictures of the inside, so I don’t have any. Never been asked to do this in any church in the world, and I’m not starting now. It wasn’t as spectacular as our little church in Benimaclet, but it was nice enough.

In the vestibule, where you can take photos without a license, is the cannonball used by the Catholic army to shoot over the wall. It has a hole where they stuffed the terms of surrender. Heads up! Siege mail incoming!

The graveyard outside the cathedral peaked Jeff’s interest for walking thru and reading old tomb stones. It’s his favorite activity in small villages.

Here are a few photos of walking the wall and some of the sights from it.

We have discovered little Alleys and warrens in the city. Full of businesses run by women.

Derry is the poster child for the working woman, in my opinion. Shirt factories were in full swing here. 18,000 women worked in them in this area at one time in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was little work for Catholic men so the women were the breadwinners.

One of our elderly guides told us his mother worked in one. Another co-workers came to work 9 months pregnant and had her baby during her shift. The other women hid them and made sure to pick up the slack on her quota of collars for the day and such, or they would have fired her. The woman was back on the line the next day working. Without the baby. If she had taken a day off she would have lost her place. The women-run businesses here today are a tribute to those women in the factories working 12 hour days to support their families.

We will miss ‘Womens Little Christmas’ on January 6th. Its when women, on one day a year, have traditionally left the housework and kids to the hubby and go out with their friends for the day. I love how the advert advises booking early to ‘avoid disappointment’. I think the women here have known disappointment for centuries.

We are off back to Dublin tomorrow to see a few of the last must-see sights before heading home to Spain, and seeing Em off back to school in the US. We’ve checked off so many things in our lists this holiday.

We picked up her prom dress and shoes here yesterday. I’m pretty sure no other girl will be wearing the same thing at her school. Whew! Prom dress shopping is too important to leave it to an online experience. And it’s a Mom/daughter milestone I didn’t want to miss. She’ll go back with all the things she needs for the next few months.

After one more cross country drive tomorrow. This marking on a Derry street pretty much sums up how that will go.

We will thoroughly enjoy the last few days in this beautiful country.