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.

Guest Blog: Feliz Primer Anniversario – El Jefe’s Perspective

We have made it a whole year! I have a lot of stuff filed under “If only I knew then what I know now” and I’ll help Kelli out now and again with a guest blog post sharing my observations of living here in Valencia.

Do I need one of those?

I think living in the US conditioned me to the never-ending stream of advertising telling me that I need this or that.  There are ads on TV telling me that I should consult with my doctor to see if whatever medicine the pharmaceutical company happens to be selling at that moment is right for me.  There is a constant stream of messages telling the listener to be dissatisfied with what they have.  Ooh look at the new version of X! You need a bigger Y.  How have you lived without Z in your life?   The advertising is relentless. 

When we lived in the US I noticed it, but I never thought too much about how it influenced me.  Here in Valencia the only advertisements that I’m exposed to are either the 5 or 6 billboards in the Metro or the daily text message from Vodafone trying to get me to buy something new.  As a result of the absence of marketing I am not feeling like I’m missing out for not having the latest and greatest of everything. 

I had forgotten how much advertising there was in the US until yesterday.  I decided to tune into my old favorite radio station in Seattle by streaming their broadcast over the internet.  Why hadn’t I thought of this months ago?  It was great hearing the familiar voices and even the traffic reports of places I had been countless times.  One thing that really annoyed me though was the sheer quantity of ads.  After listening for about an hour I began to record how much time was spent on advertising.  It works out to about 20 minutes per hour!  It was quite an eyeopener.  Back in the states I would have just assumed that was normal, because it is. Here in Valencia I mostly listen to music on Amazon or we watch Netflix. Very little advertising and I think I’m happier for missing out on it.

Take my money,please!

When I shop, I like to do ample research so that I know exactly what I need.  There have been several examples over the past year where I was sure I knew exactly what I wanted only to find out that the “latest” model available in Spain is 2 years older than what is available in the US.  This is perhaps my biggest frustration shopping here.  Even Amazon fails to fill the void as not all products are available everywhere.

My second biggest frustration is the pace at which the shopping experience advances. Once I’ve figured out what I want, then I need to figure out how to get it.  Where to shop, online or a local store? Even when I’m able to determine that a local store has the item I want, there is a good chance it will not be open when I get there. We are still getting the hang of the holiday schedule here. Some days are still just a mystery as to why everything is closed.  Sometimes even when you arrive at the store on a non-holiday between the posted opening and closing hours the shop will be closed. We have no idea why. This wouldn’t happen in the US.

There have been a few times where I think I’m being perceived as more trouble than I’m worth to a salesman, rather than to try to understand what I’m asking for.  There is a bike shop around the corner that comes to mind.  Both times I’ve been there I have been turned away without being able to purchase what I need. Maybe it is because I don’t speak Spanish, but I always come prepared with either a picture of the item I need, or a Google translated paragraph of what I am looking for. Both times I’ve walked out feeling like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman thinking “Big mistake, I hope you work on commission” as I end up placing an order online. 

Overall though, I would say that most people that I try to communicate with are willing to give it a try. My broken Spanish and their broken English – usually better than my Spanish – and we work it out.

Today we were out visiting car dealerships.  The steps to the car buying process is like buying in the US.  Visit the showroom, pick out a car, test drive the car, pay for it and go home. I’ve purchased many cars or motorcycles in the US.  I go in armed with all my data and negotiate a fair price as quickly as I can. I mean who wants to spend an entire day at a car dealer? I think my record was when I purchased a Range Rover on Christmas Eve a few years ago. I stopped into the dealer as they were opening on my way to work, and the whole buying process only took a little over an hour and that was because I had to wait for them to wash it. 

The steps are roughly the same here but instead of using a stopwatch to keep track of the time, you had better bring a calendar…seriously.  You need to make an appointment to test drive your selected vehicle.  If you want to drive a few different cars then that will require a separate appointment for each vehicle, hopefully all on the same day but not guaranteed if the cars will be available. Then once you have picked out the one you want it is time to pay for it. Like many things here this next part doesn’t make much sense to us. 

The dealership we visited today told us that we had to finance the car.  It wasn’t a large sum of money but in order to buy the car we couldn’t just pay cash even though I could. The salesperson told us that the upside is that they will give us a discount on the price for financing. (as if I have a choice)  And the punchline was that it would take about two weeks for the finance company to get us approved.  Once we are approved then it will take about another 4-5 days to get our insurance set up. We already have a quote but the turnaround time is so slow in them responding that getting the car attached to the policy is a chore.

So, I’ve learned that it takes roughly just under a month to buy a new car in Valencia. I’ve heard that buying a used vehicle is quicker but that comes with its own set of potential issues. For instance, the previous owner may have some unpaid tickets and somehow, they get transferred to the new owner as if the car was responsible for them and not the owner. I’m sure there are ways to protect yourself from this and I know I still have a bit of learning to do. 

Overall my experience here has been a positive one. From day 1 there has been something new to learn every day. What seemed almost impossible and intimidating just a year ago is now easily accomplished. I’m an introvert but I’m slowly being forced out of my shell due to necessity.  Well, that and Pokemon Go.  (They are fanatical about the game here, but I’ll save that for another blog post) 

Sure, there is still a huge language barrier for me, but context is everything. I may not always know what the cashier at the grocery store is telling me but somehow, I just know what she is asking and can respond accordingly.  “No, I don’t have a loyalty card.”  “No, I don’t need validation for parking.”  “Yes, I’d like a bag.”  It probably sounds a little weird to a bystander.  The cashier talking to me in Spanish while I respond in English, but it seems to be working so far.  And with each day that passes the language barrier is not quite so tall.  Want to order a beverage?  All you need to say is “una cerveza” or maybe “una pinta cerveza” if you are thirsty.  But I’ve learned that ordering a “una grande pinta cerveza” while gesturing with my hands may be a little overkill, as I found out the other day. 

Now that’s a beer

Would I give up all my worldly possessions and move to another country again? Maybe. But one thing I’ve learned is that I don’t need nearly as many things as I thought I did two years ago. I’ve traded them for experiences.

Time to Circle Back

When we moved here last spring, the furniture I bought for our living room was more stop gap than what I really liked. My sofa was on it’s way from the US – it’s took the long way around –  and I was going to build around that when it arrived. But for those who read this blog back then, you know it was 3/4 of an inch too large to fit into our apartment – by any means contemplated, and I contemplated them all. So, I sold it to some people we know from Seattle. Boo hoo. But this means our furniture ‘stop-gap’ has leaked into the Fall, and we’ve been making do with stuff I was OK with when we spent most of our days outside or on the other side of the world. Now? Not ideal.

I have very specific requirements for a sofa (my previous one ticked all the boxes) and I’ve had my eye out for a new one that meets most of those. The most important requirement being that it fits into the apartment. Miraculously, I have found just such a sofa, tailor made for me, and it will arrive next Tuesday.

It’s funny. I was trying to get them to deliver it by Thanksgiving. I’ve done this before with a new dining room table back in the US – squeaking it in before a big Thanksgiving dinner. But then I remembered, Thanksgiving is an arbitrary measure. There is no ‘Thanksgiving’ here. And it’s never been my favorite holiday, anyway. So it’s more important that it actually arrives before we leave for Ireland in a few weeks.

I also ordered a new arm chair and a buffet for the dining room – Yay! More storage. And even more important that those things, a console for the entry way. We have been managing our house keys by leaving them in coats and jeans. I find them in the laundry and we hunt for them before we leave the house each time. All because we haven’t had the wooden bowl in the entry hall to pop them in when we come through the door, like every other house we’ve ever lived in. 

Its funny. I love living in a smaller space. We have what we need and no more. It’s weirdly zen, and there’s freedom in that. But it requires us to ensure our storage/organizing systems are, well, more organized and more systematic, apparently. Jeff has been all over that lately.

We went to El Corte Ingles at Nuevo Centro. They’ve got a great kitchen department and we needed some things for the kitchen. I had a list and started making my selections. I wasn’t going crazy with the superfluous. But I noticed Jeff in front of one shelf in particular as I finished up my selections. He looked into my basket and shook his head.

‘What are you getting? It’s all mismatched stuff.’ He pointed out with disdain.

I looked at what I had chosen. ‘I got each item for a purpose. I know what I need and what we’re lacking in our small kitchen. I don’t care about matchy matchy.’ 

He shook his head. ‘But it’s not a system. Look at these.’ He indicated the containers and jars on the shelve. ‘Now these all go together. And they open with a half turn.’ he demonstrated and turned the lid so I could see the inside. ‘And they have a gasket. They’re not going to leak and moisture isn’t getting inside. It’s an actual system.’

I looked down at my hodge podge of jars and what-not and shook my head wondering how many times he could possibly use the word ‘system’. Of course, he was assessing the engineering quality of kitchen storage. But it was more than that. It was all designed to go together. The pieces were interchangeable and the care and thought that went into it appealed to his sense of order. So we bought his system and now my kitchen is perfectly organized, and he feels a small sense of accomplishment when he opens the jars of coffee beans and cardamon every morning to make me my cafe con leche.

But I get it. We all have our things. And my ‘thing’ will be arriving on Tuesday, when I’ll be stretching out on my wide seat sofa, drinking said coffee. And finally, the world is back to normal; for which I am very Thankful this year.

Surfing the Equinox

We made our way home. It was a long trip – of course. Over hill and dale. Or mountains and an ocean and the city of Amsterdam. Our goals for the trip were met. We saw family, did a little business and took care of some shopping. This trip was all about Jeff getting the things that someone who is exceptionally tall and has big feet needs to feel comfortable in a country where the population is a foot smaller.

I bought nothing. Seriously – I restrained myself through some sort of personality metamorphosis – and I bought not one article of clothing or shoes. My list was along the lines of allergy medicine and deodorant.  My favorite deodorant lasts exactly 6 months. And my face cream and mascara was right there with it. So I bought that stuff, but that’s just a restock. Even explorers to the Antarctic would understand purchases like that.

We had stored some luggage at my parent’s house when we made the trip in January to drop off our bed and other things we wanted to keep but didn’t want to move to Spain. We just did carry on on the outbound, but it became very clear that the luggage we had at my Mom’s wasn’t going to cover all that Jeff had ordered in advance and purchased while we were there.

img-20181002-wa0000958539491326990249.jpg

We went to purchase an additional suitcase, found out that they had a two for one situation going on, and purchased 4 suitcases for the price of 2. This meant donating our old luggage and heading home to Spain with some bright green (Seahawks colored – or ‘Soilent Green’, as I call them) suitcases that attracted so much attention in every airport, taxi and train, transcending language or culture. But no one in Valencia airport baggage claim wondered if these were their suitcases.

The temperature and the humidity has entirely changed since we were away. The mornings and nights are cool. The air feels more like Seattle did. During the day, it’s in the 70’s, just like back in the Northwest of the US, you need a jacket leaving home in the morning but by mid morning stripping layers off is the only way to make it through the day. And like ducks flying south for the winter, this weather has triggered my bi-annual closet flip. Home just in time to make it happen before the really chilly coat weather sets in.

In every home we’ve lived in for the last 15 years, I’ve had two closets and lots of storage. So the swapping closets was easy. I just rotated them like seasonal groceries on the shelves of my parent’s grocery store. Or on the floor of a department store. New stock in front. Old stock in the back. Simple approach. But here in El Compartimiento? Not so simple.

When our things arrived in July, I didn’t even bother unpacking our winter clothes. I stacked all those space bags in the top of the closet and forgot about them. I had other issues to deal with, like my overflowing emergency shoe situation. But our early morning walk trying to shake off jet lag had my brain thinking it was perhaps time to open the bags and perform the task of swapping things out.

Before I started the exercise, I had congratulated myself on how much I had given away before moving here. And my creativity on finding the secret storage for my greatly winnowed shoe collection. It was short lived.

How many coats did I needed here? Rain coats, from formal to others for camping or walking the moors. Over coats for every 5 degree Fahrenheit temperature variant possible before fading into full on arctic outwear. And my vest selection is impressive. Except I have no where to put them and I hadn’t even started on the fall and winter clothes yet.

‘Oh well’, I thought to myself, ‘Jeff will be in the same boat. He’s got loads of winter clothes and he loves coats too.’ Turns out, not as much as I do. Surprise! It’s all laid out in the living room now. Holy Moly! And a lot of it is work clothes. It’s like my closet is telling me to get a job.

Now I have to clean out the drawers and the hanging areas, and see how much room I can make. Spring and Summer will go into the space bags vacated by Fall and Winter. I wonder if I’ll be able to hear them cry out to me.

‘Hey! We don’t do bags. We just head into the second closet or under eave storage. What’s going on here?!’

To which I will reply.

‘Oh little tank tops and open backed dresses. We don’t have a second closet anymore. Our life isn’t like it used to be. We don’t live in a house where you could go for 24 hours without seeing the other inhabitants. We live in El Compartimiento. And The EC – as I call it now – doesn’t stand for wasted space. So hop into the space bags, enjoy the sucking sound and stay quiet until we see each other again next April.’

I am looking forward to a night when I can put on my favorite duffel coat, wrap a scarf around my neck and smell wood burning while we walk. Then it will feel like home.

 

 

Doing a Little Shopping

Never mind the fact that we are heading to the US for most of September. Jeff is shopping for real estate. Well, why not. We have nothing else going on. We have been married for a long time, so I know him well. For all those years, if there was ever a gap in Jeff showing me properties or market potential, I don’t remember it. So when he started saying things like ‘Look at this’ and the screen showed apartments or maps of available properties, I was not surprised.

When we went on our little mountain excursion a few weeks ago, he pulled up Fotocasa and we sat in a cafe in a micro village and thought about the commute, vacation rental potential and charm factor. I am resigned to it. It’s just how it’s going to go.

So this past week, when he’d set up an appointment with an agent here, I didn’t bat an eye. He’s ready to start the process of finding a home. I guess I should take that as a good sign that we’re staying in Spain. I don’t say ‘Valencia’ in particular because he’s looking at things in other parts of the country too. But this first appointment was local.

Jeff knows my weird adoration for Benimaclet. I can’t explain it, but he’s willing to go with it. We have talked about buying something and doing ‘Reformas’ or remodeling. I have dreams of finding something old and gutting it. Breathing new life into a forgotten gem. Improving the neighborhood and setting down roots. Kind of giving back. Jeff is ok with my romantic dream. But he sees the financial upside and the possibility of ALOT more space than El Compartimiento can provide.

The first property was the top floor of a three story building over a cafe. It’s 5 bedrooms and it has a nice large kitchen terrace. But what makes the property so appealing is that we get the entire roof with a 360 view of the area. Well, maybe blocked by a couple of buildings at certain points but we could entertain up there 8 months out of the year. The downside – holy moly, the roof had leaked and it is a total mess.

So now we’re doing research on the costs of ‘Reformas’ and gauging our tolerance for ‘disaster recovery’ as I am now calling it. Jeff showing me this property is challenging my stomach for construction project management and just plain waiting – not my strong suit. How many walls can you knock out and how long will it take? But I’d get to work with engineers. I love engineers!

The agent had lived in LA for 5 years. He seemed to be a keen study in human nature watching me walk around and examine the leaking roof and peeling paint.

‘I have another property. It’s a 15 minute walk and has been completely reformed. We can go now if you like.’

So we walked. And it was gorgeous. Already done up and in a secure building with a 24 hour doorman. The complete opposite of what we were thinking and it’s not in Benimaclet. I touched the shiny fixtures in the two large bathrooms. And stood on the terrace looking down at the lush courtyard with the fountains and the blooming bougainvillea.

We walked home and on the way we stopped in at our local El Chino for a few things. He’s been closed for some of August and he greeted us with a smile. We’re good customers. At check out, I got my ‘Mystery Gift w/ Purchase’ as he often includes. This time it was Tomato Sauce. So random.

And then it hit me. If we move out of Benimaclet, I wouldn’t have this El Chino. It’s like a coffee shop in Seattle. When you move to a new neighborhood, you think you’ll go back to the one near your old house, since they know you and call you by name, but you won’t. It’s not convenient. You find a new one you can walk to. And I’d never again get cans of free anchovy stuffed olives that I’ll never eat. Or a random can of beer.

So now I have some thinking to do and luckily we’re leaving town soon so I’ll have a month to do it. But that doesn’t mean I won’t hear ‘Look at this’ as I’m trying to go to sleep in one hotel or another over the next 4 weeks. Jeff is on the case like a bloodhound, and I have a feeling that by the spring, where we call home here won’t be same as it is today. I need to decide if that makes me happy or sad.