26 May 2012


Dear The-Shar-You-Were-on-25-May-2011:

Today, you are going to turn your Verizon phone off for the very last time. You never thought this would be your life: you were going to keep it low-key in the Midwest until the day you died. Even though you've been emailing those poor people at WorldVenture for four years, always dragging your feet to commit to a plan that seemed as plausible as a fairy tale, you are going to get on a plane and do something that those other girls do--the ones who are braver and smarter and better-traveled than you.

You are going to land in Madrid on May 26th, sleep-deprived and hungry, blinking at all that sun, all that heat. Sheryl will make scrambled eggs for breakfast; Lisa will notice you're looking a bit ill and invite you to nap in her basement. There will be no soundtrack playing majestic arrival music, even though everyone who is cheering via facebook will think your life has suddenly become glamorous and perfect. Camarma will slam you into the truth: that life is life no matter where you live. (Some of us get to live in beautiful, warm countries, but we still sweat.) Still, there will be a bouquet in the colors of the Spanish flag handed to you by people who have never met you before but have already decided to love you. You will walk quietly to your new house with your overstuffed suitcases, and the cardigan that made it all the way across the ocean will not make it across the street because you'll accidentally roll your luggage wheels over it. You'll wear it anyway.

Adjusting to España will make you feel like a complete idiot. This is totally normal. You won't be able to do anything easily, like set up your internet--so let go of that independent spirit you're so proud of and ask for help. Trust me. Your new friends want you to make it here. They will talk about a "new normal," and you'll shrivel up like a dried-out barnacle inside because you can't do anything. But in the heat of a July day, you will take the bus to Alcala all by yourself. It'll feel like a birthday party, like meeting the Queen! It'll be a baby step back to adulthood. You'll do it again and again and again, and before you know what's really happening, it'll be normal. Your terror of imperfection will scuttle out of the house like those big beetles you keep finding belly-up in your shower, and you'll forget that this was all so hard once.

Neither your house nor your school will have A/C, but you'll learn where all the community pools are. Your washing machine will be in the kitchen; your dryer is a plastic rack on the back patio. You'll forget how carpet feels, and you'll get in the very Spanish habit of leaving your shoes on whenever you enter a house. Your winter heating bill will make you scream (these brick houses aren't made for holding heat)--the numbers weren't even that high in a North Dakotan January! However, there is a trade-off: this will be the nicest winter of your life. Your bathroom will have a bidet, and you'll use it...to stack your towels on before you get into the shower. (You won't even care about shaving your legs after awhile; the shower isn't big enough; the hot water doesn't last long enough.)

You will never get to stop explaining to friends at home that Spain is not Mexico. That Spain isn't really Europe, either. That Spaniards don't eat tacos and quesadillas, don't even like spicy food! Your school won't start lunchtime until 1:41pm, and you won't dream of looking for a supper venue until at least 8pm. You'll start drinking coffee (Spanish style, of course, drowning in milk and sugar); you'll even start ordering pop at restaurants because the water isn't free anyway (your choices will always, only, be Coke and Fanta, with the occasional Aquarius). You won't even think about ordering milk to go with your meal; milk is for old people and babies, and besides, the boxed shelf milk tastes nothing like the frothy coldness you've loved since childhood. You will drink sangria and tinto de verano with other Christians during a meal, and no one will gasp at the presence of alcohol. You'll try tapas, paella, crisp barras de pan, tortilla (which, again, is not the flat Mexican kind but the egg-y, potato-y, quiche-y kind)--but you'll draw the line at jamon serrano, since the hoof still attached to that giant ham hock makes it rather unappealing. And the smell. And the fact that it's hanging in the middle of the grocery store, unrefrigerated, in a row of other giant pig legs. Your churros won't be coated in cinnamon and sugar; they'll be plain and greasy and dipped in chocolate that tastes like warm pudding. In Spain, food is a way of life, so you'll be able to sit in a restaurant for hours, no one subtly trying to shuffle you out the door to make way for the next customer. You'll pay your bills with Euros that look like Monopoly money, or leave behind a tray full of 1 and 2-Euro coins. When you find that American dollar bill smashed into the back of a drawer, you'll wonder why it looks so big and green, so unpretty. You'll wish they used 20 and 50-cent coins at home. You won't leave a tip.

You'll start craving Reese's Cups and Skittles, and someone will tell you their secret cooking substitutes, like Greek yogurt for of sour cream. Bags of chocolate chips, powdered sugar, Crisco will be big sellers at ECA's sweet shop since they're not imported here. Your diet will stop consisting of mainly cereal; you'll switch to avocados and hummus and those fantastic lemon-flavored Bocadito cookies they sell at SuperCamarma. When you make that rare visit to McDonald's or BK, you'll puzzle over the pronunciation of the items listed in English. Just say it with a Spanish accent. Seriously. No one knows what a BK Fusion is, but they'll happily serve a bay-kay foo-thyon. Yes, say it with the lisp, too. It's not a true lisp, not the exaggerated Daffy Duck spit-talk you joked about before you got here. It's a quiet "th" that slips into everything, and when you talk about plazas (which you will do almost daily), you'll forget that it's not a "platha." Mas o menos and perdona will become a natural part of your vocabulary, even when you're speaking English. If you're surrounded by French speakers, you'll accidentally default to Spanish and sound effects, awkward hand motions. You know you'll get back to the States one day and tell your cashier, "Grathias! 'A luego!"

You will slowly develop the art of bagging your own groceries while simultaneously paying the bill. The cashier will try to rush you through the line with her stare, despite the fact that you're juggling five Carrefour bags' worth of produce. You'll pay in cash (checks don't exist here), and even if it's a Saturday morning and you just need some bread at the local tienda, you'll comb your hair, trade in that hoodie for a nicer shirt. If you leave the house sporting the American casual grunge look, rest assured the well-dressed ladies on the street will stare. This is not the States: you cannot run to Walmart in your pajamas. Some of your neighbors will wave when they see you, like Juan and his giant dog Lula. The rest you will never get to know because they disappear behind the gates every house has, behind the barred windows. Your internal radar will slowly clue in to siesta hours, remind you to not even bother with the store between 2 and 5pm--or on Sundays. If you need lunch for Monday, buy it Saturday morning before everything closes down. Seriously. You will eat far too many lunches that contain far too little food, and tuna on Saltines is not a Spanish delicacy. Write that down somewhere.

Even though you're not great with numbers, you will eventually memorize the structure of the 24-hour clock. You'll start writing the date as 26 May and prices with commas instead of periods (€1,00). Your heart will stop for a moment when you see the number at the bottom of your bank statement--don't freak out! It's just the conversion from pesetas. Speaking of conversion, shut off your internal money converter as soon as possible (but don't forget to thank the ATM when it offers a good exchange rate!). You will memorize the Celsius rhyme and understand why 40° means sudden death, but you'll never quite figure out the equivalents of a Kg or a Km, except for the Ryanair backpack weight requirements, which you'll memorize in two seconds, along with your passport number. (It'll be nine months before you remember your 9-digit cell phone number.) Also, even by next May, you won't know how much a Kcal is, so when you pick up a chocolate bar, be thankful for your ignorance.

You've spent a lot of time stressing over your paperwork, and it won't get easier once you arrive in Spain. In fact, by the time you get your first residency card, it'll be nearly time to apply for your second one. Nothing will happen on time; the government will not share your concern for efficiency. Neither will the cashier at KFC, who will take your order, go into the back to cook your meal, and return five minutes later to take your change. Spain doesn't move quickly, and once you accept that, you'll be able to breathe. You'll understand the importance of being. You'll learn to roll with a country that's always behind schedule (except for the Camarma bus, which sometimes rolls away early without you on board).

I know you're trying to be smart with your limited packing space, but you should toss that extra pair of black boots in your suitcase right now. Probably the pink tennis shoes, too. No one sells size 11 women's shoes here, Shar. When you ask, they will give you crazy eyes and make you feel like the Jolly Green Giant, except you're really more of a Jolly White Giant, especially when you lean down in church to give those old ladies you don't know a kiss on both cheeks.

You'll love Spain's pedestrian way of life, that the dead of night is for families instead of creepers. Old people will pull their plastic chairs into the middle of the street for their nightly chat fest, and dogs will run without leashes and never disappear, and you will have to watch carefully to avoid the poop on the sidewalks, which, by the way, are wide enough for exactly 1.5 people.

Your front yard will have tile instead of grass, but if you really want to see nature, you can hop a flight to a different country for less than the price of gas to Minnesota. You'll figure out when to press the "stop" button on the bus and how to figure out where the end of a waiting line is when no line-like formation is visible. You will see more denim jumpsuits and more mullets in Spain than you ever thought modern society could produce; you will see makeout couples at every turn. You will know which street performers frequent which tourist attractions in Madrid, and you'll breathe in clouds of secondhand smoke as you slide through the city. At night, the storks will clack their beaks. The dry heat of summer will suck your lungs dry. The gypsies at the train station will approach you, selling herbs; they will shake your arm, and it will shake your whole being because you're not used to saying such sharp nos to people, people who are God's creation, too. When someone begs for money on the metro, you will feel insecure about dropping a euro in the palm of a trafficking victim. You will sit quietly, not make eye contact, burn at your cowardice, wonder why it's you who didn't end up in their place, you with all your deficiencies.

The radio will randomly spit out American power ballads from the 90's. Dogs will be allowed in all the stores. The restrooms won't often have soap or TP, but the stalls will be fully enclosed, although it might take some maneuvering to fit those long legs inside the door. Pedestrians have the right of way, though you'll never feel fully comfortable just stepping into the crosswalk while a car blazes toward you, just a block away. You'll be free of all the American election campaigns, all the arguing, free now that you're in a Socialist country--but you'll still experience minor panic when you hear about the transportation strike that sprouted overnight, the protestors crowding Sol to complain about unemployment for the umpteenth time this year. You won't miss having a regular cell phone plan nor a car. That is, the idea of a car will be nice until you see all those glorietas, watch friends take and retake the driver's test, spend thousands of dollars to learn the rules that drivers don't follow anyway. The customer is not the company.

You'll read so many UK-published books that you'll forget whether you've always spelled it recognise or recognize. Neighbour will suddenly look so much more appropriate. And why does the UK get better book covers? You will spend many months pondering this--along with how wrong it is that Percy Jackson defends New York against tonnes of Titans. You will take the elevator to Nivel 2 if you want to get to the third floor, since the first floor is just called 0. There won't be screens on any windows ("keeps the flies in"), and there won't be such thing as customer service.

Shar, there are so many things that seem different now, but by the end of the summer, you won't remember what's new and what you've always known. You will meet a schoolful of kids who can flip back and forth between two or three languages fluidly, who will laugh kindly at your Spanish accent, who will fill in those "nationality" bubbles on standardized tests with something other than "Caucasian." Your American lit. curriculum, trying so hard to be multicultural by incorporating a bunch of Hispanic writers, will turn out to be a dream because your kids can pronounce the words, know what they mean. Those kids, they will grab onto your heart so tightly you'll fear it'll be punctured and deflate, but you will hold on just as fiercely, and you will come to adore them. They will get more talkative; they will get weirder. They will tell you secrets, and you'll weep for them, you'll hold them, you'll hand them books, you'll spend way too many hours grading their papers, you will look out a plane window on the way back from France and think to yourself, "I can barely make it through this semester; how on earth will I survive another year?" And almost as soon as you think it, another thought will kick those words over: "Why are these kids only in my life for two years? Why is this moving so fast?"

You will hurt and you will heal. You will fall in love with a bunch of kids who have nothing in particular to make them lovable except that they are themselves, and that will pry open another tiny window of understanding about the way God sees you. You will never, ever feel fully at home in Spain, but you will start to love it anyway.

When May 26th, 2012, shows up, you will look back at twelve months that can no longer fit inside your brain, and it'll seem as though it's always been this way. There's a wistfulness about this milestone, this halfway point. The past year has been a trek to keep going, stone by stone, building toward one year, but now the numbers reverse. You reach twelve months and you've only got twelve months left. You'll have to start counting down, counting away, from everything that just got familiar, but don't count too fast. Just walk forward, month by month, and breathe in the roses that are spilling over gates into your street. The next year can't possibly move as fast as the past one but surely will, and you need to squeeze the life out of it because there are still people to love. Your life is, for now, still here.

When you board that 8-hour flight toward Barajas, you will still be questioning whether this is the right decision, and you will revisit the question at least fifty-seven times during the next year. But you will always, always come back to yes. Shar, there are twelve months ahead of things you can't even imagine. Handle each day like treasure. All of this, all of it, will always, always be yes.

26 May 2012


em in españa said...

Superb post! You had me laughing out loud many, many times. You capture it do well. Here's to next year and it's many adventures!

Judith Hougen said...

Beautiful post, Shar. Blessings on the next year!

sharbear said...

Emily, I'm so glad you're here to experience it with me. :)

Judy, thank you!