Visa Renewals- Navigating Choppy Waters

Ahh. The dreaded Spanish visa renewal. Never fun. It should be simple math. A+B=C. But nothing is ever easy with Spanish immigration.

I have not been out of the Schengen region for nearly three years. So the last stamp on my passport was affixed at Charles de Gaulle airport on 28 December 2019. Since that time I have been granted another visa. No problem. But this time, even though I have no further exit or entry stamps, they didn’t like that last stamp from Paris. Why now?!? Doesn’t matter. They wanted my plane tickets from that trip. Who has airline tickets from three years ago? They are convinced I left the country for more than six months in a calendar year in the past two years. How do you prove you never did something that they are accusing you of doing, for which they have no proof that you actually did, because you didn’t? But that wasn’t our only hold up.

Jeff went to the bank and paid our filing fees. They went from €17 a couple of years ago, to €78. Fine. Jeff paid them for each of us and sent the stamped receipts. But the immigration authorities kicked it back because we should have paid it directly out of our bank account instead of cash. Even though you can’t pay it from a bank account and have to pay it in cash.

Jeff’s was denied for crossing out an incorrect house number, filled in by our lawyer, who told him to cross it out and enter the correct number. But they didn’t deny mine, which looked the exact same, with the house number crossed out.

Our lawyer had to resubmit them three times, with a long explanation about how I never left Spain for six months, then, never left Spain, again. All of this is utter bureaucratic nonsense. But we are not alone.

Since Brexit, there are exponentially more people filing visa applications. So scrutiny of applications and renewals has been turned up to high. I’ve heard horror stories. We’re caught up in that, now. Our visas and visa renewals used to take 24 hours. They take a lot longer now, packed with uncertainty, and require hoops that were not there before. In six months we are eligible for permanent residency. I don’t really want to go through more paperwork, but if it means we only have to do this every five years it will be worth it. I don’t see visa renewals getting easier.

We used to handle renewals on our own, but I wouldn’t recommend that now. Having an advocate is too important. Someone who can help navigate these choppy waters. Because, in the end, we love living here. We have made it our home. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that we are not entitled to live here. That we are allowed to by the government of Spain. It has been relatively easy, so far. But this latest visa hiccup makes my goal of getting Spanish citizenship even more top of mind. So that we never have to wonder if this really is home. For good.

I Get The Point

Sometimes the universe tells you its time to take a day off. These days, we are busier and busier. Each day at least one Pilgrim proclaims ‘You need more people to help you.’ And they are right. But we only have five weeks left in the season. Too late to hire now.

Jeff has been working two jobs. Helping me in the mornings by running supplies from the barn, making gallons of sin gluten waffle batter, and running tubs of dishes to the dishwasher. Then he works his real job. Even before I look at my numbers at the end of the day, I generally know how much I have taken in. Each dish bin has a value. Sure, there are days I am surprised. But I can count on a fixed amount, so I can keep track. For the first time in my life dirty dishes are a good thing.

But, I am a bit tired. I will admit it. There are less Pilgrims walking these days, but more are stopping at The Happiness Cafe. Jeff made more signs and posted then up the trail, right next to the other clusters of signs for other cafes and Albergues. And he made me a couple for the berm in front of the house. And all of the ideas are not necessarily ours.

A business consultant from the US stopped by with his buddies. Phil gave us some advice on where and what we might consider to raise awareness. I told them they have to come back quarterly for our board meetings. We are the second cafe Pilgrims come to in A Campanilla. The first one catches the most fish.

Members of my Board

But, the most magical advice came from my little old man, Modesto, who comes and sees me in the afternoons, right before I close. I give him free vino blanco and he helps me with my español. That free vino is the best investment I have ever made. One day, a couple of weeks ago, he left me and walked backwards down the trail. Then, later he returned for more wine and was loaded with good advice.

‘You need different signs. Signs that say you are friendly.’

I frowned. ‘Really? That seems like a strange thing to put on a sign. Aren’t most people in the hospitality business friendly?’

He looked at me like I was crazy. ‘NO! They don’t have to be because they are the only place and they get all the Pilgrims. You need to tell people you are friendly. And you should put that you speak ingles.’

Again, I felt weird about saying that on a sign.

‘Why?! Don’t you speak ingles? Of course you do. Many Pilgrims who speak ingles will come here if you tell them.’

It turns out that my elderly best friend, and newly appointed Chairman of my Board, Modesto, is spot on. Jeff made the signs. He put them up, my business tripled, then quadrupled overnight. To say I was unprepared for the onslaught doesn’t cover it. I have been working more and more hours, and days in a row. People message me on my day off or afternoons, asking why we are closed and if they can just get one spinach smoothie and a gluten-free waffle. They think they’re the only one doing this but there they’d be wrong. Sometimes, I trudge out there and do it. If I’m not having an afternoon nap during my siesta.

Yesterday, I had a full house and people lined up. Suddenly, I sliced open my finger. It wasn’t quite as bad as Dan Akroyd playing Julia Child on SNL, in the 1970’s, but there was blood. A lot of blood. Before I swooned, as one of my Pilgrim saviors put it, I grabbed on to the counter and went down slow. Two other pilgrims from Bellevue, Washington were there, of course. Because a day without Pilgrims from the Seattle area is not a day, at all. First aid kits were produced. Ice in a towel. I was laying down on the ground with my hand in the air, when suddenly a new face was looming over me as I lay prone with three woman in attendance working their magic, including deep breathing, herbal essential oils, and reiki. What!?! Remember- it is The Camino. 😳

‘Hello, Kelli.’ Came a smooth Australian drawl.

Wait, I thought, I know that voice, if not the face. It was Dan Mullins! Yes, that Dan Mullins who has the podcast in Australia that we did last Spring. The one who has brought Pilgrims from around the world to our doorstep. Multiple times a day someone tells me they heard me on Dan’s podcast.

‘Hello, Dan. Of course you’re here as I am laying on the ground in a crowd,’ I told him from my reclined, bloodied position. ‘Nice to see you in person.’ And it was. He is such a good guy.

One of my ladies in waiting was having none if it. She ordered Dan to enter the food truck and immediately start making coffees for those waiting.

He laughed ‘I suppose I could do that.’

But, luckily for Dan, Jeff was already in there trying to quell the masses, explaining that the person who knew how to make avocado toast or waffles was on the ground bleeding. Still, he took some money and handed out beers.

And all this just goes to show you that wise old men know everything. And when the universe wants you to take a day off you should listen. Because, no matter what, it will get it’s point across one way or the other. And sometimes that point is at the end of a knife.

A White Heart

Decades ago, I met my ex-mother-in-law, Claire. She is, to this day, one of the toughest, most resilient people I have ever encountered.

Claire, born in 1939 in Haifa in what was then British controlled Palestine, was not happy about me marrying her son. It was clear she hoped for a better match than this chatty free-wheeling unedited American girl. In other words, her worst nightmare.

To say that Claire was intimidating doesn’t cover it. She was a force of nature. And she spoke several languages, which included English. But, there was a time when she refused to speak to me. Claire is a big reason I studied Arabic so hard.

There were good reasons she was so tough. It tends to happen to you when you are born in a country occupied by an outsider – the British. Claire was Catholic, a minority in her country even without an occupier. Religion is how political parties in the Middle East are organized. When the British created countries, then gave away the land of the people as they departed their colonies, Claire’s family fled to Lebanon as refugees. And that is where she went to HS. Where she married and had her sons. And where war would find her, yet again, hiding with her two boys under the kitchen table as the bombs blew up her neighbors. So, even in my 20’s I never begrudged her her tough exterior. She developed it to survive.

At first, the only time she would have anything to do with me was in the kitchen. If her precious son was going to be married to this silly girl, Claire would ensure the girl knew how to cook properly to feed him decent food. And by decent I mean Lebanese food. Somehow, even at that young age I knew this was my key to cracking her armor. So I cooked, and I cooked. And I learned a lot from Claire. Not just how to make amazing food that I still crave today. But other things. Soft skills. How to operate culturally in the Middle East. How far I could go without offending. And, she helped me learned Arabic – with some swearing thrown in. Claire smoked, so I smoked with her over pots of Turkish coffee as we waited for something to come out of the oven.

A year went by, then one day something happened. Someone said something about me to her. Something derogatory. A person visiting for coffee. Claire tore that woman apart and pretty much ended the conversation. I was shocked. Afterwards, we were standing in the kitchen and I asked her about it. Her response surprised me.

‘You are my family. She thought she could disrespect you because you are not like us. She learned she was wrong.’

I teared up, but she reached up and patted my face. ‘You have a white heart, Kelli. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.’

No one has ever used that term to describe me, before or since. Until the other day.

I was helping Pilgrims one afternoon. It was a very hot day. A priest in full cassock came through the gate. He was from Poland, carrying a back pack and sporting sandals. He had walked a very long way. And he needed water.

I grabbed a couple of cold waters and refused his offer of payment. He smiled and reached into an inner pocket from where he produced a card with a photograph and a small piece of fabric in it.

‘You have a white heart.’

I took the card and instantly thought of Claire. But I had no idea what I was looking at. It was in Polish. When I looked up, the priest was gone. I put the card with the other things Pilgrims have given me. But, over the past few days I have returned to it between customers, over and over. I am not sure why. Then, today, I had two American couples. They swung by for a couple of drinks.

They were really fun, and before they left they gave me a shell so I could put it up in the food truck to remember them. I promised I would, then showed them some of the things other pilgrims have left for me. The man picked up the card the priest had given me.

‘Where did you get this?’ He asked, amazed.

I told him the story of the Polish priest.

‘Do you know who this is?’

‘No.’ I told him. ‘It’s an old photo and looks like a piece of fabric is imbedded in the card.’

He called to his friends. ‘This is a relic of Father Kolbe. A piece of his robe. He was the priest who stood up to the Nazis when they invaded Poland. He saved 2,000 Jews in Poland from the Nazis. Then, he sacrificed himself by taking the place of a Jew in line to the gas chamber at Auschwitz. Are you sure you have never heard of him?’

I shook my head. ‘I’m not Catholic. I’m not really religious .’

‘He’s Catholic.’ Said the woman next to him poking his arm. ‘He’s a deacon in the church.’

The man nodded. ‘Don’t ever lose that.’ He told me. Then, they left.

I am not sure why that card has moved me as it has, even before I knew the story of the selfless priest. And I don’t know why Claire’s was the face that flashed into my head when he gave it to me. But I do know that white hearts come in many shapes and sizes, even filled with imperfections, from near and far. And I know this because I meet them every single day.

Through the Looking Glass

A not so fun fact. After living here in Spain for more than four and a half years you’d think I would have heard it all. Jumped through nearly every hoop. But there you’d be wrong.

This year is the year of renewals. We checked our US passports off our list. Then, we just need to get our residence visas renewed. It’s an odd cadence for us. We started out on a non-lucrativo visa. Then, the Barcelona office of the company Jeff is working for sponsored our visa during the pandemic. So it threw off our renewals by six months.

Technically, we are entitled to apply for permanent residence in March of 2023, having resided legally in Spain for five years by that time. But this switch to a highly skilled worker visa, and the timing of the two year visa renewal, leaves us six months short. No problem. We will do another two year renewal. Then, we will apply for permanent residency status. It will be good for five years. Deep breath.

One thing we have yet to encounter in the renewal process is that it has completely messed up our banking. On an NL visa, the bank put in our US passports. So, our expiration dates on our NIE cards (visas) had no impact. When we switched to a Highly Skilled Worker visa the bank replaced our passports with NIE cards. And now that we are in the renewals process we hit a snag. Kind of a big one.

Jeff went to the cash machine to pull out some money to pay for the firewood. Not a problem. Then they threw up a message that said since our NIE cards expired the following day they would be freezing our bank accounts in 24 hours. What?!?

Jeff came home freaking out. Good thing the firewood guy doesn’t speak any ingles. He would have learned some new words. Still, I’m pretty sure the tone cuts through any language barrier. What could we do?

How It Works

When your visa comes up for renewal you can initiate the process 60 days before the expiration date. And up to 90 days after. You can stay in Spain during this time. Actually, you can stay until you get a positive or negative result. So it can even go on past 90 days after your visa has technically expired. Because you are waiting or appealing. If you are on a NL visa this will impact virtually nothing, except if you want to switch cell phone providers in Valencia during this period – ask me how I know.

We are not newbies. We know the drill. So Jeff emailed the Barcelona office at his work, weeks and weeks in advance, and reminded them that the visa renewal needed to get underway. They have to initiate it. He heard crickets. Then August holidays happened and the entire office was shuttered. Another deep breath.

The weeks ticked down. Our visas are technically expired on September 13. Yes, we have a 90 day cushion, but why use it up? It should be simple to file. Pay the new higher filing fee. Easy. I’ve done it myself, and I am no genius when it comes to Spanish bureaucracy.

We know we are an anomaly at the Barcelona office. Due to the pandemic, they have never met Jeff in person. So our visa issues are not top of mind. But he kept emailing. Then, the bank message came through. Thank God we had to pay the wood guy or we would never have known. And we would shortly have no access to our money. We couldn’t even transfer money from the US. The bank wouldn’t accept it. How would we pay our bills? My mind raced.

We went to the bank the next morning in Lugo (there is no branch in Melide) and they told us there was nothing they could do. Jeff shook the tree at the office, again, and they have finally filed our renewal. We even have a paper to prove it. Of course, we already had every document they asked for and sent them all immediately. And now, we wait. But that paper means nothing, other than to communicate that we have submitted paperwork.

Last time, after six months of Herculean effort, his visa was approved in 24 hours. This time, it’s been a week. Silence. We hear it might take another month. Apparently, there is a backlog of people applying for Spanish visas post-Covid and post-Brexit.

Jeff and I took out handfuls of cash before our account locked down. So we can eat, and I can pay the electric bill – if it comes to that. Looking at our bank balance now is like visiting the zoo. You can view it. Tap the glass on your phone. Ooh and ahh. Wave even. But you can’t touch any of it. I know this because I decided to try it out at our local el Chino. They denied my debit card. The guy behind the counter gave me a look of pity before I reached into my wallet for a wad of €50 notes, peeling them off and smiling back. ‘I’m not a deadbeat.’ I wanted to say. ‘Just caught in visa renewal NIE card expiration date banking HELL.’ But I didn’t.

The sad truth is that you are no one in Spain with an expired National Identity (NIE) card. So, learn from me, kiddies. When you are exactly 60 days prior to the expiration date on your visa or residency card, don’t wait. Have your documents at the ready. Pay the tax with your Modelo 790 form at the bank (before 11am <eye roll> 🙄) Then, pull the trigger on filing your renewal. You probably know the old saying A fool and his money are soon parted. Truer words were never spoken. You don’t want to be us right now. Waving to our money through glass.

Did You Know?

Our family history with our kids and flights is such that I didn’t want to speak too soon. But our eldest, Ryan, will be boarding a flight to Spain in ten days time. This after British Airways has caused me multiple heart attacks over the past two weeks by cancelling his flights, not once but twice. What?? I was not happy. Ryan was not happy. We both spent multiple hours on the telephone, live chat, and the like, trying to straighten it all out. We thought we were there. Then, they cancelled them, yet again.

It’s been nearly three years since we have seen Ryan. Since that day after Christmas 2019 in Bellevue. Before the world went mad. The pandemic didn’t help. In that time, Ryan earned his PhD. But, there would be no hooding ceremony where we would stand proudly with him in his gown and velvet hood, in his funny, tasseled hat, smiling, like we had earned the diploma ourselves. I think there might have been a Zoom graduation thing, but he didn’t even want to do that. Both he and his partner, Olga, who also earned her PhD, quietly packed up their apartment and moved on to their new jobs on the east coast of the US. Newly minted Drs.

Ryan was always the smartest kid in any classroom growing up. He was small and skinny, with his little round glasses. Jeff is an introvert, but Ryan makes Jeff seem gregarious. When Ryan was little, he and I had a routine. I would be cooking dinner and Ryan would come down into the kitchen. Invariably, he would get a glass of something to drink. If he left right away, he probably had homework. We never had to remind him to do his homework. But, if he stayed in the kitchen I knew he wanted to talk to me about something important. And it would usually take awhile before I would find out what it was. Time to turn down the heat on the pot on the stove, just keep stirring, and wait.

Ryan would begin circling me. Then, he would pepper me with facts. Non-sequiturs. This was the Did you know? phase of our routine.

‘Did you know that most of the stars you can see in the sky aren’t even there anymore? Most of them have been gone for millions of years.’

‘Did you know what it’s called when a lizard releases its tail to get away from danger?’

‘Do you know how long it takes light to travel from the Sun to the earth?’

Stuff like that. I understood my role. Even if I knew the answer to these questions I would say ‘No.’ Inviting him to inform me. Psst…I rarely knew the answer. We didn’t look each other in the eye during these exchanges. That was the point. Ryan was comfortable talking in this setting. That’s all I needed.

The circling would continue as whatever I was cooking was getting more and more done. Sauces became reductions. Chicken overdone. But I didn’t care. I just listened and answered appropriately. Delaying whatever I was doing. He needed to work up to it. Finally, Ryan would get to the point.

‘How old were you when you first had a boyfriend in school?’

Ah! I would try to keep my face blank, knowing that if I smiled it might scare him off. This was a big moment. Don’t blow it, Kelli!

‘Well. I think I was about your age.’ I said. The truth was my first boyfriend was in preschool, but I wouldn’t have said that. This wasn’t about me. He was just looking for reassurance. For many years, this was how we did things , and I missed it when the circling stopped. When he didn’t need my council anymore.

Ryan is brilliant, but also kind and honest. To a fault. I think he finds deception to be illogical and mean. He wouldn’t know how to be manipulative. It’s not in his nature. When Jeff and I had to make up our wills in Spain and determine power of attorney and our living wills, we named Ryan as the person who will make all medical decisions for us if we become incapacitated. And his partner, Olga, is the back up. Between the two of them, I am very sure if there are life and death decisions to be made, they will model it out logically. But with a compassion algorithm, as well.

Ryan and his partner have just purchased their first house where they live in Maryland.They have a dog and a cat he adores, and he works at a physics lab doing important things I can’t begin to wrap my head around. Solving the big problems. We speak often, and sometimes he even asks for our advice. But now, it’s about things for the house. Does this rug match with this chair? What I call soft problems. He handles the big stuff all on his own.

Because of the flight rebooking and airline shuffling, we can’t get Ryan all the way to Santiago on Delta Airlines, or their partners. So Jeff will drive 500 kms to Madrid to pick him up. I’ll stay home and open the food truck as Jeff heads out at 5:30 am to start the 8+ hour round trip journey to collect him. The drive home will give these two introverts time to catch up without me filling in the inevitable silence with which they are both so comfortable. LuLu kitty and I will close up at 2pm, then wait patiently for the sound of the gate opening so we can run out to greet him. I’ll hug him much too tight, after which he will pull away, pushing his wire-framed glasses back up his nose while smiling that lopsided smile. Just the same as when he was little. Jeff will carry his bag into the house and I’ll start cooking some of his favorites for dinner. Maybe, Ryan will come into the kitchen to get a glass of water after such a long drive, and it’s then I’ll hold my breath to see if he stays for a nice catch up, or heads upstairs to rest. But, even if he does stay, there will be no circling in the kitchen on the farm. The big house with the big kitchen island in the US is long gone. And, I have to remind myself that he’s 30 years old now, with a partner and a life of his own, so he doesn’t need me to tell him what to do. But, I kind of hope that for just these ten days he will let us have a few moments when we can pretend he still needs us. Because, after these three years, we sure need him. More than ever.

Mending a Broken Heart

For the past few weeks we have been surrounded by stories of Lost & Found. It’s as though we have been attracting it.

Two weeks ago, a Mexican Pilgrim stopped and bought a bottle of water from me. It was a quick interaction but I remember thinking he looked like a bumblebee in his rain jacket. Later, I found a wallet stuffed with cash. Inside was his California driving license, passport, and credit cards. If we didn’t find a way to return it, he would – as we say in the US – be up a river without a paddle. Stranded in Spain with no ID and no money. We floundered for a bit over what to do or how to find him. He had quite a head start. We tapped into the Camino FB grapevine. Finally, I hopped in the car, drove ahead of him and waited on the trail before he popped up. He never knew he had lost it and was shocked to see the crazy lady from the Happiness Cafe Food Truck standing there in her apron waving, while holding up his wallet.

Then, there was a guy who lost a ring containing the ashes of his 10 year old daughter. He was sure he lost it on our stretch before O Coto. Jeff and I went out to look for it on a dusky evening as the sun went down. We looked in drains and ditches, and asked the other cafes if it had been turned in. But, to no avail. I heard the other day he got it back in Santiago. Someone had found it.

A couple of days ago, we had a mother and son from the US. They had found a diamond ring on the trail. A group of women who had arrived before them knew of the honeymooners who were walking the Camino, and she had lost her engagement ring. They all saw it returned to her with much relief. Teamwork!

We know the heartbreak of losing something you love. I couldn’t bring myself to write about it at the time, but three weeks ago we lost LuLu kitten. She liked to hang out at the tables with Pilgrims. One girl was very taken with her.

‘I love your cat. I want to take her home.’ She told me. Immediately after that, LuLu was gone.

LuLu is more dog than cat. She followed us everywhere and would come if you called her. She would talk to us if she was hungry. And she was happiest sleeping on our laps. To say that I loved that little kitten doesn’t cover it. I was heartbroken. She never wandered from the farm.

For weeks, we walked the Camino looking for her. Heading off the trail and calling out to her. Listening for her usual answer when she heard her name and our voices. Sure we heard it. Then, nothing. Silence. I didn’t tell Marie Carmen when she would drop by to deliver vegetables. LuLu is the kitten of Marie Carmen’s cat. She would always pet her when she brought me things from her garden. It would break her heart.

I had a hard time sleeping those first few days after she disappeared. Wondering where she was and if she was scared without us. Or if she had been hurt or run over by a car. She didn’t know to be afraid as she had never been away from the farm.

As I opened up in the mornings, Jeff walked towards Melide, calling out for her. One time, he walked through a farmer’s field sure he had seen her. Surprising the farmer and the Pilgrims, but he didn’t care.

‘It looked just like her.’ But it was a much bigger cat when he got closer.

We had resigned ourselves to the fact that the Pilgrim had taken her. And I consoled myself that the girl would take care of her and love her as much as we did. But, as the weather has turned cooler my thoughts returned to LuLu. Would she be OK in this terrible storm? What about when it dips into the single digits overnight. If the girl didn’t have her anymore – cats are a tough Camino companion – would she find a warm dry place? Or have enough food? We had stopped talking about her but Jeff knew it was hard for me to lose her. I couldn’t put her toys or her food bowl away. Not yet.

Today, I was making a smoothie for an Irish Pilgrim. We were chatting for a bit and Jeff was standing nearby. He doesn’t usually lurk by the food truck. He was wearing a grey plaid shirt so it took a moment for it to register that in his arms was LuLu!!! I squealed and jumped out of the door in front of a full house of Pilgrims eating. It’s not called the Happiness Cafe for nothing! Little LuLu kitten was purring like a bumblebee.

‘I went out to feed the horses some carrots and a big cement truck was coming down the road extra slow as Pilgrim parted. And running down the middle of the road in front of it was LuLu. She ran right into my arms.’ He was smiling from ear to ear.

She’s a little worse for wear. Very skinny. She hasn’t grown a bit since she’s been gone. Jeff brought her food bowl out and she ate it in a flash. Then sat on my lap hiccuping. But then, more Pilgrims came demanding smoothies so she lounged near the food truck door. Never letting us out of her sight.

I can’t imagine the adventures she has had in the past three weeks. But I should have known she would eventually make it home. All those other lost items were returned to those for whom they are priceless. So, we were due for a little Camino miracle ourselves for our priceless LuLu. And we got it. Mending our broken hearts in the bargain.

The Spice of Life

We’ve been busy on the farm, and with the food truck. We were in town enjoying a beverage today. Of course, there was an impromptu band. As per usual in Spain. This for San Caralampia. I have no idea what that is but the town was filled with red scarf-clad people.

We were sitting in a cafe enjoying a beverage when I saw my firewood drive by. No kidding. At that moment, we knew what our afternoon would entail.

The first load has been delivered, and Jeff and I went home to find the pile by the shed. We spent a good two hours stacking wood this afternoon. The next load comes on Wednesday in the midst of a lightning storm. Yay!!.

When I was in my 20’s, in my very first studio apartment in Pacific Heights in San Francisco, I would get paid, then buy food for two weeks. After I put my shopping away, I would open all the cupboards and the fridge and survey my bounty. I knew I was set for two weeks, at least. That’s how I feel about a full shed filled with firewood. No matter what, we will be warm this winter.

After our stacking I noticed something hanging from the gate. Strange. I went out and lifted the small package and a note.

This was tied together with red ribbon and a €20 note. Then I read the postcard.

Yesterday, the last Pilgrim of the day needed some help locating her accommodations. She had used a service that pre-booked her into a room each night from Sarria to Santiago. Very common. She had walked to us from Palas de Rei – having left quite late in the morning. It’s about a two hour walk, walking at her own pace. But, she was confused as to where her next lodging was located and asked for my help. We both assumed Melide. I unwound her folded pages and, between us, we determined that the tour company had screwed up and booked her in two places in Palas de Rei. Two nights in a row. So she needed to go back the way she had come. Crazy.

But, surprisingly, she was not rattled. ‘I guess I will call a taxi.’ She said.

I told her I was nearly done for the day and if she could wait a bit I would be happy to drive her. It was a bit difficult to locate and off the beaten path. She set down her pack and helped me take down the signs and close up. Then I loaded her up and drove her back to Palas de Rei and dropped her off at her hotel. We waved goodbye. Not a big deal.

So I was surprised by the package left on the gate with the lovely note, as she obviously walked by for the second time in two days. Included was a €20 note for the jar and a container of Old Bay seasoning with the recipe in Spanish. She must have asked the hotel to print it out for her. I have never heard of this seasoning before. Must be an east coast of the US thing as her postcard was from Maryland. But I was touched nonetheless. Her note will sit on the desk in my office. A reminder this winter of why we are living here on the Camino.

Our jar is filling up. Todd’s Kindness jar is approaching €100 since I set it out just two weeks ago. Today, another woman gave me €20 for two cokes and told me to keep the rest. €16 went in the jar. These past few years, watching the news, my faith in humanity has been shaken. Extremism abounds, and I fear for the planet. But I meet people every day who let me know that there are more good people than bad in this world. More kind and caring individuals who we will never see in the news. People like this Pilgrim, who literally, seasons the world with their inherent goodness. And with enough of them, I think we might just be OK.

Small Threads and A Few Coins in a Jar

Today, something happened that reminded me that there are no coincidences. That we are connected, all of us, inextricably.

It’s easy in life to imagine our experience is unlike anyone else’s. We hear each other’s stories and we tell ours. And they can seem unrelated. But there will be glue, somewhere, that ties them together like the threads of a cosmic tapestry, of which we are all part.

As I have said often on this blog, I like listening to other people’s stories more than my own. There is a person who has read this blog for a very long time. She often comments on my random musings. And sometimes we exchange private messages. She is warm hearted, unwaveringly supportive, and generous. After I posted about a Pilgrim giving me a few euros to pass on to a needy Pilgrim, she reached out. She wanted to do something similar. Not from herself, but in the name of a friend of hers whose funeral from which she had just returned. And she told me his story.

Her friend, Todd, was an extraordinary person who lived a life helping others. He worked with those incarcerated in the US. And he was dedicated beyond the 8-5 of his daily work life. Helping these men while in prison and after, at times going beyond his brief to help them rebuild their lives. One such recipient of his care and his work spoke at his funeral, reiterating what Todd had meant to his life. Seemingly everything. Crediting Todd with his 25 years of remaining out of jail, and for helping him build a life filled with a wife, children and a home.

Hearing this story moved me to tears. And my blog reading friend wanted to send me some money via Venmo in Todd’s name to pass on to Pilgrims who might come up short. I was touched but, sadly, as I don’t live in the US I can’t set up a Venmo account, and I let her know. But, I had another idea.

Every day, I have Pilgrims come up to the food truck who have no money. They are walking the Camino and relying on the kindness of strangers as they make their way to Santiago. I give away coffee and sandwiches, a lot. These are some of my favorite Pilgrims. Humble people. And this friend from the blog wanted to help these Pilgrims, as well, but to no avail. So, in honor of her compassionate, kind friend, Todd, I set up a Todd’s Kindness Jar. Each day, the tips from Pilgrims will go into the the jar. And for those who can not pay, I will reach into the jar and cover their meal.

Today was filled with American Pilgrims. My last customer of the day was an American woman. We got to talking. She had just stopped because I spoke to her at the gate in my American ingles. ‘Hello’ stopped her in her tracks. Coming in the gate, she bought a very American iced tea – handing me €3.75 – much more than the price of iced tea. I smiled and thanked her, putting the two euros into the till. Then I told her I would put the remainder in Todd’s Kindness Jar. Jenny looked surprised.

‘Is that your husband’s name?’ She asked.

‘No’ I told her. Then I explained about Todd and his memory celebrated by my blog friend. About his work with those incarcerated. Her eyes got wide.

‘My father was incarcerated in San Quentin prison on a life sentence.’ She said. Then, she went on to tell me the story.

Her father had been born in Russian controlled post-war Germany. He lost his family as a toddler, was starved and abused as a German child, under the guise of Russian revenge for a war that decimated Russia.

Her father eventually made it to Canada where he met her mother, married, and had she and her brother. And the family eventually moved to California. Something triggered him one day. She never knew what, and he killed her entire family when she was just six years old. She was the only survivor, and hospitalized for a year, recovering. All while her father was sentenced to life in prison.

This lovely woman told me she had dedicated her life to studying mental health, focusing now on elder mental health in honor of her grandmother who was killed with her mother and brother. She has taught psychology at some of the top universities in the US. But what she found helped her the most was learning gratitude from her adoptive mother- a friend of her mother – after she was released from the hospital.

‘I found a way through it. Through lingering cognitive impairment. But I learned to be grateful for the life I have. And I learned how to forgive.’

Jenny has traveled to Poland – the town where her father was born is not in Germany now – looking for the seeds of what happened to her family. But she met dead end after dead end. Yet she is now at peace and is walking the Camino for her 60th Birthday.

When Jenny turned to go I hugged her and thanked her for sharing her story with me.

‘I didn’t plan on it. But when you told me about Todd working at the prison it just flowed out.’ She said, before smiling and waving goodbye.

Neither Todd nor my blog friend know of Jenny. But, today, because of them she told her story to me and it touched me deeply. How such a horrific trauma was transformed into gratitude in the heart of a beautiful soul. And it reinforced my belief that the threads of each of us weave around and through each other in ways we can’t possibly imagine. Today those threads from across the globe crossed each other on a small farm in rural Galicia. From thousands of miles away. Because of a kind man named Todd and a few coins in a glass jar.

Looking For A Happy Ending

Stories. Telling stories. More specifically, my story. All day, every day, a hundred people ask me ‘Is this your house?’ I say yes. ‘How long have you lived here?’ I tell them. Then ‘How did you end up in Spain?’

My story used to take longer to tell. Sometimes, if I am not busy I will provide further color, but mostly, I just provide the much, much abbreviated facts. ‘Walked the Camino. Went home and told my husband we should move to Spain. He said yes. Six months later we landed in Valencia on a dark and stormy night during Fallas with four suitcases.’

Then, I finish their order. After their jaws re-hinge themselves, they always ask ‘And how did you end up here?’ Pointing to the house.

‘It was October 2020. No one was walking the Frances. We went for a walk and saw the sign on the gate. Se Vende. Called the owners and six months later we were living here.’

This elicits Oooh’s and Ahh’s. Some ‘You’re my hero.’ But for all of you who have faithfully followed this blog for the past few years you know it was a crazy, mad-cap journey of nonsense, potholes, skinned knees, heart attacks (a couple of literal ones), a car crash, and much much more. But I would never say any of that to these Pilgrims. Mostly, because I am bored of my own story. And none of them would believe it all if I told them, anyway. Besides, I’ve always believed forward is better than back. The future is where I belong. The past is behind me, and perpetually looking back is a fruitless exercise.

If it’s a quiet moment between waves of Pilgrims, I sometimes take them back toward the barn to show them where the cabins will be. Our vision for the future. Our dreams for an oasis where Pilgrims can chill out. Where we, Jeff and I, aren’t the epicenter. Where it’s their stories that will take center stage.

In the telling of our future story I sometimes get discouraged. Like a bedtime story, it feels like I’m telling it reassure myself. We have just come out of August holidays. In August, Spain shuts down. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, gets done during August. No permit approvals or rejections, no well digging, no laundry room/bathroom building. And getting Solar Panels installed? Nada! My attempts to get two truckloads of leña (firewood) delivered so it could dry in the heat of summer went unanswered. Next year it will be delivered in June.

My friend, Carmela, walked down the road from her little stone house up the way, with her sister, and we chatted about my lack of progress over many cervezas. We speak ingles at my house. Español at theirs. That’s our agreement.

‘You need to go to Lugo. This is what we did for our permissions. The guy smoked like a chimney in his office stacked with mountains of papers. When he offers you a cigarette, even if you don’t smoke, you take it. We smoked five cigarettes each while he looked for our application,’

I laughed ‘That seems like a fire hazard.’

They shrugged. ‘You smoke with the guy, he gives you the stamp. He pulled out our application from a stack’ she held her hand four feet high, ‘after looking for a hour, then stamped it and handed it back. You need to go to Lugo.’

I called Diego, our contractor, and suggested that this approach might move things along. We could go smoke with the approver. Diego is coming out to the house today to discuss it.

Maybe I am telling Pilgrims this future story to keep it alive for myself. There are days I wonder if it will ever really happen. Will I still be manning just the food truck next year? Or even the year after? Telling Pilgrims they need to move on down the road 300 meters to get coffee in the next village where there is a bathroom, because I don’t have permission to build one yet? I certainly hope not. It is costing me business as €€€ walk away.

Jeff gets frustrated. ‘This is why expanding the tax base in this country is nigh impossible. They aren’t set up to do business. They are set up to celebrate bureaucracy!’

At this point, I can’t disagree with him. But I am trying my best, in the midst of everything, to remain positive and hopeful. The walking season has just seven weeks left. And a lot can happen over a quiet winter when the Pilgrims are gone.

Things are looking up, a bit. Carlos, my leña connection, came today. He will deliver my two truck loads of firewood ‘Maybe Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, Kelli. We will see which day.’ Translated, this means it will arrive in roughly ten days, or three weeks, give or take. So I have that to look forward to. Our tractor is now set to arrive ‘any day.’ Which means within eight weeks. Mas o menos. And while it’s Jeff’s birthday this week, he’s buying me something to keep my spirits up. My new wood chipper should be here soon. So I can take out my frustration about everything going on right now on our mountain of branches from all the chestnut trees.

‘Take that Turismo!’ As I cram a giant branch into the hatch ‘How’s that feel, patrimonio?’

Like popping those sheets of plastic packing bubbles, there is something incredibly satisfying about chipping branches. Although, right now I am unsure if there are enough branches on the farm to alleviate all the frustrations generated by misty labyrinth that is Spanish bureaucracy. Please let this story have a happy ending. 🙏

Ola Portugal – Again

I had an appointment today down in Porto. So the food truck was locked up tight. Jeff took the day off to go with me. And he had a great idea. Instead of driving down today before dark, we left last night and slept in a hotel in Vigo.

I have never spent much time in Vigo. It was a restless night. For a few reasons. Then we took a walk this morning before getting in the car to head south.

Because I can’t go anywhere without a Pilgrim walking past, we spotted a guy heading north looking for his first arrow of the day.

I was anxious we were running a bit late, but I forgot that while due south of Galicia, Portugal is one hour behind Spain. The drive south to Portugal was interesting. Entire hillsides burned from the fires in July. Very sad and scary to see.

After my appointment in Porto, we decided to cheer ourselves up before heading back home. I thought a visit to the Porto Sea Life Aquarium on the waterfront might do the trick. Aquariums are soothing. And acting like a kid for a few hours seemed right up my alley. But, well, the Porto Aquarium is no Oceanographic in Valencia. While fun, its like once you’ve been to Paris that casino of the same name in Las Vegas doesn’t hold a candle. But I did love watching the animals.

Afterward, we went for a walk on the shore and grabbed a bite to eat. And, yet again, we were surrounded by Pilgrims on the Portuguese route to Santiago. including the ladies just a few tables away.

Jeff offered to stay in Porto tonight. To find me a hotel with a big bath tub so I could soak the blues away like a mermaid. But I figured all these Pilgrims were a sign. I disappointed a few people being closed today. Time to head home. I need to open tomorrow. Get back to it. I’ll take a raincheck on Jeff’s offer. One day in the winter I’ll cash it in for a weekend hotel in Lisbon, a long lazy afternoon of browsing in Bertrand Books, and some amazing Iranian food. Until then, Portugal.

The Beauty of the Slow Stroll

When we moved to Valencia more than four years ago, we brought with us all our American sensibilities. Especially our sense of time. It couldn’t be any other way as that was our frame of reference. And nowhere reminded us that we were out of step with the pace of life in Valencia more than visiting our very first grocery store.

The Mercadona near our house was our grocery store of choice, and we approached it that first day with the same precision and level of industrial engineering that we had approached our entire lives in the US because there, it’s ingrained into you since birth.

The grocery store experience in America, at least in the cities where I have lived, requires preparation, coordination, and speed. When you arrive in line, there will be no dilly-dallying. No hesitation. You will approach like a hunter. You have already gathered the food, and now you need to kill the checkout with the speed of a gazelle. If you don’t, you will hear rumblings, groaning, eye-rolls, and whispers about your overall level of intelligence and some questions about whether you were raised in a barn. In other words, you need to get your stuff on that belt rapidly, so you can transition to the bagging process, completing this just as the checker finishes scanning the final item. The checker expects this kind of precision execution, and so does every person in line behind you. And you need to deliver. That’s your only job. Don’t hold up the line.

In Valencia, Jeff and I did our usual dance. I loaded the belt with the heavy stuff first – we had shopped and loaded the cart with this in mind. Jeff manned the trolley and packed it all. When I had placed the last item on the belt, I transitioned to getting my loyalty card out (if required), then my bank card, and prepared myself to pay. It was like clockwork. The other patrons just stopped and stared. Our swiftness and landing the dismount set us apart as foreigners, which was fine. As if we had something to prove.

As time went by, we had to modify our approach. Mainly because we lived in an area of Valencia with no other Americans. So our fellow grocery store shoppers did not ascribe to our methods and practices. And standing in line at the grocery store was initially an exercise in Herculean patience. No one followed the add-to-belt then load-the-trolly methodology. No one bagged their groceries before the final item was scanned and before they had paid. This meant our stuff began to mix with the previous customer’s groceries. I can’t tell you how many times we got home and some of what we bought was not there. I hope the lady in front of us liked Jeff’s favorite cookies or his bags of peanuts, and I knew we needed to take a valium every time we ventured to the store.

Soon, the checkers knew us, and we knew them. They expected us to do our deal. Jeff was convinced they appreciated our efficiency. I was pretty sure they didn’t care either way.

Now that we live in rural Galicia, we have learned to chill out. This tranquila peregrina has slowed down, and she takes life more as it comes. I’m less in a hurry than at any other time in my life. But, Jeff? Maybe not as much.

He just returned from the grocery store to get me some bananas. Smoothies are all the rage on these last days of summer, and the stores were all shuttered on a Sunday after I closed up shop yesterday afternoon. So I had to send him out for crucial supplies. He returned with his jaw hanging open. After all this time, a woman in the local Gadis was able to surprise him.

‘I was behind a lady who put all her stuff on the belt. The checker scanned it all, but she stood at the beginning of the belt, rummaging through her purse as if she had never been to a grocery store before. She finally found her loyalty card, then started taking out all the cards from her wallet, looking for her cash. The line was snaking down the aisle.’

‘After she paid, she got the three thousand coupon receipts that spilled out of the register; instead of bagging her groceries, she took the receipt and checked every item, sitting at the end waiting to be bagged, off on her receipt tape with a pen. I know the checker and I had a bonding moment because she gave me a look of utter disbelief and just shook her head. So finally, after four years of being in Spain, I’m not the only one who sees it.’

We live in an area where the average age has to be well over 60. People for whom this current pace of the world is just too fast. Who grew up without the mega supermarket and whose telephones were shared or party-lines. You didn’t stand in line to get your fruit and meat in one place. You went to the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. OK, maybe just the fruterria. But you get the idea.

Sometimes I think it was good we didn’t land in rural Galicia before living in Valencia. Jeff would have had a heart attack. But I think of these people we meet on a daily basis. Many walk down our shady lane under the old oak trees, in front of the food truck in the afternoon with their dogs, and sticks, and worn wool caps. They are not in a hurry and sometimes stop to have a drink and chat with me – the dreaded foreigner.

The other day I had an old man stop to whom I had been waving for two months. He has a cute little white dog, but he had never let me give her a treat. Finally, Modesto stopped and spoke to me. I told him where I was from, in español. And it turns out he is from Melide but worked in Bilbao for more than 40 years before returning to this area. He reassured me that it was OK to be a foreigner and told me I should relax.

‘If you think Spanish is difficult, try Euskara (Basque). No one knows how to learn it, and everyone in Bilbao speaks it. It is very very difficult. In Bilbao, you will never be one of them. I know what it feels like to be an outsider.’ He was reassuring me that it would be OK.

He told me his history and listened to mine. All in Spanish. He was very patient with me and my need to stop and think to get across what I wanted to say. I gave him a glass of wine, and he stayed for a while. Then, it was nap time for him and his dog. And we said our goodbyes.

Today, I was listening to Jeff’s story of the supermarket, and it made me think about how far we have come in these last years. Yes, he was frustrated with this old woman, but he waited patiently as she got her things together. Even helping her to her car with her groceries.

My little old man and Jeff’s little old lady are unconcerned with efficiency or speed. They are in this moment, right now. Where we all should be. And I think that has been the most beautiful lesson from moving here. I’m no longer in the American rat-race to nowhere. All day, every day I am asked ‘Why would you move here?’ And I always laugh and wave my hand around indicating the beauty that surrounds us. No words required. With its slow lines, slow strolls, and lazy afternoons in rural Galicia, I’m right where I need to be.

Sorry – No Avocado Toast For You!! (Today)

Today, I am taking the day off. Yesterday was a record breaker for us. In a weird way. It was never crazy busy like it is on Wednesdays, with people jostling for position in front of the food truck and holding out cash through the window. It started at 8am and it never let up, one table at a time. Just the way I like it. The business is growing and growing every day. I think Google reviews and word of mouth are taking hold. But I knew I needed a day off when getting out of bed yesterday at 5:30 was way harder than it needed to be.

Our normal hours are 7-2. I always open earlier, just because I want to. But by 2pm most pilgrims are already on their way to Melide, Boente, or Arzua. But that is changing as we head toward autumn. I don’t need to be open at 6am because the heat isn’t an issue and Pilgrims are leaving Palas much later in the morning. The big crowds don’t reach me now until 9-11am. Yesterday we noticed that we had more and more people until as late as 8pm passing by. And we did much more business after 12 than usual. I finally closed up after 3pm but I had Pilgrims still sitting at tables and told them they could stay as long as they like, but we were closing for food.

And today I am tired. Bone tired. I haven’t had a day off in quite some time. I need to take a beat to gather myself and meet other commitments. But when I went out to turn on the coffee machine in the food truck to make myself a coffee this morning, I had a Pilgrim at the gate.

‘Why aren’t you open yet? It says you open at 7.’

I assumed he was referring to Google Maps.

‘We normally are. But I need a day off. It’s been awhile.’ I told him.

‘Well, if you’re going to do that you should update your hours in Google.’

I apologized but he stood there quite literally hanging on the gate.

‘So, I guess I can’t get a coffee and some avocado toast.’

I laughed, but then realized he was serious. He had a wild-eyed look of an addict. Come on, baby. Just a dime bag of avocado toast. I need a hit of garlic and cilantro and that green gold! I didn’t want to go all Seinfeld-Avocado-Toast-Soup-Nazi on him. No Avocado Toast for You!!! If I had some made up already in the fridge, I would have made it for him. But he was going to be disappointed today.

My Pilgrim avocado-toast-junkie is not wrong, of course, about updating my hours online. But, for a random day off this seems a little overkill. And, besides, Jeff runs our Google reviews account and he’s in Pamplona picking up something from a guy on Wallapop (the Craigslist of Spain), in preparation for his Catrike Camino next Spring. I can’t change the hours online without his credentials.

I guess I need to have Jeff create a sign for the gate that says something like – Lo Siento. Sometimes, even Kelli needs a day off every once in a while. And so do the avocados!! Move along down the road. Ok, maybe it will read a little nicer, but I think I do need something.

Stuff to Do

And I have things to do today. So, not so restful. But I can do some of them sitting down and I love getting organized. First off, I will clean my house which has been sorely neglected. A good vacuuming, mopping, dusting. A good scrub down.

Then, I will get all my facturas (invoices) for the business sorted out and logged in my business expense spreadsheet. My revenue side is looking great, but my start up expenses will bring me back down to earth. I am happy to report that we have stopped bleeding and are now adding more money to the account than we are subtracting. This crazy business might just work! And that is before the cabins are built, bringing in additional income.

And finally, I need to get the first installment of my book out to all of you who agreed to be beta readers. You’ll see that in your inboxes before I go to bed tonight. I am very excited for your feedback. Since you read this blog you already know my writing style, so that shouldn’t be a distraction for getting into the story. I await your brutal edits and suggestions (hopefully cloaked in a bit of velvet) with bated breath.

As further confirmation that I needed to take a day for myself was this morning when I got out of bed, padded to the bathroom to brush my teeth and comb my hair, then promptly put on my overalls, backwards, and it took me until I tried to latch them over my shoulder to figure out that this was why they fit so weird. They say that we are all just humans who put their pants on one leg at a time. But I will submit that some of us are so different we put them on two at a time and backwards. So, sadly, we’re not all the same, after all.

With all I have to do today I think a nap will be on the list, too. Time to recharge the batteries just a bit, in preparation for the final two month push towards the end of the walking season. Crisp, end of summer evenings are here. Still sunny. Mornings that require a jacket. Perfect walking weather. In two months time I will be missing these Pilgrims. Hunkering down to write and paint over the dark winter months, secure in the knowledge that March isn’t really that far away. I’ll even miss that guy at the gate demanding avocado toast.

Dine and Dash

Holy Macaroni! Me and horses on the Camino. Me and horses! The last seven days have been all about the horses. Police, pilgrims, and locals on horseback. Capturing and corralling, petting and watering. I have done it all! Full service. Apparently, we are getting quite the reputation by word of mouth – from HNN – the horse news network🤣🤣.

Jeff put up two hitching posts yesterday, but after today I think we will need more. A lot more. I was recovering from a rush of people this morning that had Pilgrims lined up ten deep. It was so crazy, I pushed the panic button in the food truck and Jeff came running. He ran to the barn a hundred times as I ran out of things, took people’s money, and bussed tables. He even had to go in the house and make more waffle mix.

I was winding down a bit after replenishing the aguacate 🥑 para las tostadas, when in through the gate rode two caballeros astride their horses. They didn’t stop or dismount, but rode right up to the window.

The horses chose the Kambucha. But the riders wanted the dried fruits and nuts I sell. They had no Pilgrim credentials. They were just stamping their arms and chest with The Happiness Cafe!

If that weren’t enough, five more riders came galloping through the gate. It all happened in a flash. It takes ‘para llevar’, To-Go, to a whole new level. I will need to learn how to say ‘On the hoof?’ In español. 😉🐎

Update – Beta Readers for The Baker of El Mujandar

To all those who agreed to be beta readers for my novel, Thank You! Since I am still landing this plane, what I have decided to so is to send it out for your feedback in a serial format. This way it’s more in bite-sized chunks. You can opt out at any time.

As you read it and send feedback I can incorporate it into the next installment before I send it out for more feedback. In this way, you will see your feedback as we go. Certainly glaring plot holes can be fixed. And, who knows, you could influence the direction of a character or a plot line as I edit.

In the next week you should see a an email with the first installment in your inbox. Hopefully, your Spam filter won’t block it.

Thank you, again, for agreeing to read it. I am far too attached to these characters to see them with any objectivity. I hope you will love them as much as I do. 🙏

Stay tuned…


The Trick to Retirement

As most people know, I am not a fan of the ‘someday’. That time in the distant future when something that is not happening right now will finally happen. As in ‘Someday, I will visit the Taj Mahal.’ or ‘Someday, I will learn to mountain climb.’ To me Someday is a dangerous thing. It keeps us out of the the here and now.

But, like most people, I have done my share of someday-ing. I am a human being, after all. And I spent a large part of my life doing a version of this. Someday, when our kids are grown, I will… Or Someday, when I’m retired, I’ll xyz. This is natural, I suppose, because when we’re working and raising a family we don’t have time to do all the things we dream about, or day dream about while looking out the office window. We’re busy. Very very busy.

And then that day comes. The kids are grown. It’s time to stop working and retire. Now what? I sort of did that when we moved to Spain. Although I eased into it as I did some serious consulting for the first two years. But, I was essentially retired. No dressing for the office unless I was giving a speech at a conference, or giving a presentation at a client site. Mostly, I got up when I wanted and my time was mine to organize. It was an interesting experiment into my psyche.

I have a friend in Spain. She said she promised herself that her retirement wouldn’t include long liquid expat lunches. She had things she wanted to accomplish and places to see. And I felt the same way. Because, it turns out, the secret to retirement is, well, not to retire. And I say that in all seriousness.

My roadmap for retirement is my Mom. She sold their business and immediately hopped on the volunteer bandwagon. It was good for her. At times she would joke that she was busier in retirement than when she was working. There was no money in it, but she wasn’t retired. So, I assumed my retirement would be much the same.

‘You’re too young to be retired.’ You are probably thinking right about now. And that would technically be true. But, I did leave the traditional working world five years ago. And have never really looked back. And I have learned a few things about myself in that time.

  1. Children need guardrails and so do I. When you set boundaries for your kids, it made them feel safe. They knew how to operate. When you set boundaries for yourself – I get up at 6.30 every day – It helps organize your day.
  2. Human beings need a purpose. All of us derive some purpose from the things we do in our lives. We raise our children hoping they will grow up to be productive members of society and help change the world. We work in our careers hoping that when they throw that retirement party we can look back and proudly say ‘I did that!’ or ‘At least I didn’t do THAT!’
  3. Make a difference. If you can combine being busy with making a difference you’ve won retirement. Jane Austin would call it ‘Useful employment.’
  4. Chart your own path. Time spent doing what everyone else is doing gets old, fast. I’ve had friends call me crazy for doing what I’m doing. But it makes me happy. And that’s what matters. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else.

The pandemic years – I can’t believe it was years – were difficult for me. I painted and I wrote, and fir a year I slept more than I was awake. So, in that respect they were restful. But, my days were admittedly, a bit rudderless. When you don’t get out of your pajamas it’s not a good sign. I needed a project. And I needed a purpose. Not someone else’s. Mine.

At one point, after that first battle with Covid, I was worried about my brain. I could tell that Jeff was concerned, as well. Even I knew I wasn’t as sharp as before. I couldn’t find words. And my ability to do simple math had flown south for the winter. It was the weirdest thing. But I think the brain is a muscle, like any other. You have to continue to challenge yourself and exercise it. Or it won’t be there when you need it.

This little food truck that could – has been so good for me. My Spanish comprehension has gotten much better. I can actually hear words being spoken rapid-fire that I couldn’t before. And I have to speak to people, too. In my pigeon, mistake-filled awful español. And I am learning to spit out numbers like a pro. Making simple change for a €20 note. Is it hard some days with the language barrier? Yes!! But everyday I am open before the sun comes up. And drinking my coffee as the first Pilgrims head lamps quietly come down the lane. Ready and willing to try, again.