13 June 2011

If you ask how I'm doing, this is what I'll tell you

There is a certain novelty to traveling, a novelty reflected in the kinds of trinkets we bring home: postcards, scarves, flags, knick-knacks. We've been there, we've seen it, we've become a little cooler for having experienced it, and now we move on to the next place, unconcerned about having enough language to bargain in the marketplace--because we'll be out of there in a few days, and if we get it wrong, they'll never see you again anyway.

Living is so much different than traveling; even the word "traveling" indicates that at same point, the travel part will come to an end. But living! Here, living means collecting a variety of papers and passing them off to various government agencies just to ensure that you can stay. Living means going to the same grocery store again and again--and encountering the same cashier who doesn't understand you just as much as you don't understand her. Living means that your day is not just one big string of impressive facebook photos, crammed to overflowing with tours and souvenirs, but that you stay mainly in one place, carving out room for yourself in that place, holding a thousand new words and cultural rules in your brain as you attempt to peel back the top layer of culture and make sense of it what's underneath.

It's amazing how one overnight plane ride suddenly changes your skill set. At home, I was able to change lightbulbs, deposit cash into my savings account, mail packages, drive a car to the grocery store and successfully find everything I was looking for, then write a check to pay for it all. I could call the internet company and have them set up or disconnect my service. I could communicate with several different people at the same time about various accounts, products, utilities, rental properties, and Sunday school curriculums.

Here, even the simplest things are covered in layers of boundaries: I can't set up the internet because I don't know who to call, and even if I did, I wouldn't be able to communicate what I needed, and even if I could, I wouldn't be able to pay because I don't yet have a bank account, and even if I did, the Euro is currently killing the dollar. Everything is just harder.

These are the things I can do in Spain: Spend cash. Take the mail out of my mailbox. Find half the groceries I am looking for and thank the cashier for her patience when I realize that because I didn't get a bar code for my oranges, I can't purchase them. Fall asleep at times and in locations that would make a narcoleptic proud.

In other words, I am already feeling the effects of being a resident, not just a tourist. I've been told that a cross-cultural move starts with a honeymoon period, and of course, I would have to go and be the realist who was already expecting the chintzy honeymoon in the one-star hotel. I knew it'd be hot and difficult and that I'd feel stupid more often than I feel confident, so it's no surprise that I'm only 2.5 weeks in, and already I've rolled over in bed, so to speak, and acknowledged that Spain--the very thing I've committed to--is not only hot and difficult but probably won't take out the trash, either.

Please don't misunderstand: I am trying to be honest, not negative. And even if you're unconvinced by that last paragraph, I do like Spain. I think it's beautiful, and I think it's exactly where I should be right now. It's not necessarily the country itself that I'm having difficulty with, for I'd be struggling no matter my location--no, it's the fact that I suddenly cannot be independent. I know God is trying to break me of this stubborn self-sufficiency, of my unwillingness to rely on anyone but myself. Like the dad from Calvin and Hobbes always tells his son, "it's building character." Well, dang, my character is going to look like a cathedral by the time I go home if it keeps getting built at this rate, even though sometimes I can't telling the difference between building and being punched in the brain.

I know it's transition; I know everyone struggles through it. Someone told me that the best cross-cultural advice he could give me is this: "Don't worry about feeling stupid." And that was great advice. I acknowledge it as some of the greatest, most practical advice one can ever get while living cross-culturally. But it is probably also one of the hardest pieces of advice I will ever have to learn to heed. It could take me my entire two years here to figure out. I hate feeling stupid. If I had to make a list of the top ten things I hate, it would be right up there with "getting bit by poisonous spiders" and "eating various types of grasshoppers."

It doesn't help that I'm not a ridiculously extroverted, outgoing, afraid-of-nothing kind of person who doesn't worry about missing the train or sleeping on a stranger's couch or getting deported. You want me to survive for two weeks on ham sandwiches? I can do that. You want me to wear the same shirt four days in a row? I can do that. You want me to wait at the bus station for half an hour every day? My friends, I can do that! But I can't, for the life of me, figure out how to stop being afraid of feeling stupid.

Language is a huge part of it. I mean, my Spanish is at the point where I could say a lot of things, only they may not be connected and they're always in present tense. I am finding that I can read much more than I expected to, but listening is awfully hard. I can speak, but each word that leaves my mouth is accompanied by a terrible fear. A smile may be universal, but it doesn't change things when you're at a purse shop and the cashier asks you the same question three times in a row while you stand there with your brain frozen, tongue glued down in fright. No se, lo siento, mi espanol es horrible.

Because of this one thing--because I can't speak--because I literally don't know enough to communicate well and because it is so hard to try, I am limited from doing so many things that were second nature at home. Every time I talk, I fear I am making someone feel bad or, perhaps, just making no sense at all. (It's likely that when my landlord's wife asked about the patio-haunting cat, I told her, "She, in the last night next day, is from the school.")

Yes, I can ask for help. Please don't think I'm not asking. The good part is that I'm not isolated in this world--I have friends who have just gone through this and leaders who are walking alongside me, baby-stepping me through all the processes. I know that other people have it way harder and that I've got a really supportive community around me. It's just hard, you know? It's hard to know that in the States, I was responsible for things like helping to run camp, and here, I can't even buy mandarins. Add to that the fact that there's more paperwork rigamarole to go through here--in Spanish--and that I have just been introduced to several shelves full of things that I'll be teaching next year, and you'll understand why I'm suddenly feeling this desire to sleep, and only sleep, straight through to July.

I'll make it. Of course I will. Of course my emotions would look like a mountain range if charted, peaks and valleys, moments when I can't believe how green and lush and beautiful Spain's parks are, followed by moments of shame when I can't find the words to tell the kind man from church just how long I've been living here. At a team meeting last night, I woke up to the fact that living is stress. It's just the way it is. Things are hard, and they will continue to be hard, and as long as we are Americans living on Spanish soil, that's the way it's going to be. Spain is not here to make us feel comfortable and loved; that's what we have each other for. "And you get used to it," one of them told me. "This becomes your new normal. Everything is harder, and eventually, that just becomes normal to you."

I know it won't be soon. I know that daily life in Camarma is going to be hard and not very glamorous. I know that if I posted facebook albums of what each day really looks like, there'd be more pictures of my pillow and my sunburned arms and my "I-feel-stupid-again" facial expressions than of castles and ice cream and knick-knacks. (Well, that last one might be a lie. My daily life is pretty full of knick-knacks; the landlords have seen to that!)

But I also know that whenever I reflect on my time in Spain, be it in a month or a year or a decade, I want to look at the things that happened here and know that I lived. Not just traveled here, but lived. To have experienced Spanish life in all its gritty, difficult, sweaty, frustrating glory. To come home not with a suitcase of souvenirs but of memories and triumphs, of challenges met, and, yes, of character.

Some days, you cry. Some days, you take a picture in front of a castle. And then you keep moving forward, no matter how stupid you feel, one teeny-tiny step at a time.



ella peterson said...

Hey babe. While I might not be in an entirely different country, I too am in an entirely different world within my own country. I understand what you mean when you say, It's just hard. Something that I've had to remember through the last month is that God didn't give us a spirit of fear. But he does provide a peace that the world around us can't give us. Hold onto those promises. And be honest with the Spaniards. Tell them you suck at their language. My experience in Germany was if you told them you sucked but tried anyway, they helped and were much more understanding (and that's the rude, proud, stubborn Germans! - no offense Katrina if you read this!). I will begin praying for you specifically in this tough transition. Thanks for your honesty. It did not sound like complaining one bit.

Nick, Amber & Aaron said...

Your last paragraph is my favorite. Living one step at a time has been God's lesson to me in the last several years.

Miss you Shar!

amanda said...

Oh Shar! What a lovely post. You said it all so well. You will develop a new kind of normal...and it might happen faster than you think. Life is life anywhere in the world.
I'm excited to read more about your transition and adventures in Spain. Oh, and you will definitely catch on to Spanish a lot more quickly than I've caught on to Hungarian:)Just give it time.

mama of many said...

wow what a great read. i've never been to another country but it really makes me think hard about the people that are foreigners here and have trouble understanding us....

suz said...

Shar, I love reading your thoughts. It's like sitting down with you over a cup of coffee and hearing what's up. This post takes me back...to that moment it sunk in that I wasn't going home any time soon. To that time in the Chinese restaurant in Sevilla when I broke down in tears of frustration because I couldn't get the owners to understand that I'd left my umbrella there yesterday and wondered if they'd found it. To the many, many occasions when all I could do was point and gesture like a clown, because I had no words for what I wanted. To the times I'd make a phone call, then freeze in panic mode when they answered and slam down the phone. Yes, simply living one day at a time in a new culture and language is mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. The honeymoon might be over, but I pray you'll have a romantic weekend here and there where the castles and fields of sunflowers and ruffly polka-dotted dresses of Spain will enchant you once again.

JC said...


Travel tips!!!

It's going to be okay, that's number one. Number two, pray for a nice Spanish person who will listen to your half spanish half gibberish rants about troubles you're having… It may sound simple, and stupid. But to live in Spain, and not have a close Spanish friend will make you feel like a travler who stayed for too long. I promise...

JC said...

Travel tips!

1. It's going to be okay!
2. Find a friend who is from Spain. One who will listen to your half gibberish, half spanish rants. Who will laugh at your jokes and correct your Spanish. It may sound simple and obvious, but not becoming a Spaniard will leave you feeling like a tourist who ended up staying longer than normal… I promise! It may take time to find that person, but it will be well worth it. I promise…

Bob said...

Shar, you are in our thoughts and prayers. I know the feeling about traveling. I once visited Germany while stationed in Iceland. I don't know the language. The first night I was home-sick as I lay on a bed not really knowing where I was. However, I knew that it would soon be over and I would be with some Germans who knew English. I can really put myself in your situation.

Saw Hannah at church yesterday. She was very tanned and had a black eye from playing a game at Camp!

Aaron R. said...

I feel you completely! Foreign country living is hard. I've been in Japan almost a year and I still wake up every morning with the fear that what if today is the day that me not understanding the native language brings my life crashing down?

...but that hasn't happened yet, and God is good!