My baby’s birth & honesty from a new mom!

My son is 7 weeks old, and I am sitting down with a hot, fresh cup of coffee and the chance to write.  It seems like a lifetime ago that I had such luxuries! Between the sleepless nights, countless feedings, and consoling my baby, I have not had many opportunities to reflect on all this change, much less write about it.

My pregnancy was normal, and uncomplicated.  For the most part, I enjoyed it. I loved the attention, and it was exciting experiencing all the “new” firsts: the first time you really show, first fetal movements, first ultrasound, etc.  I’ll even go so far as to say the first real contraction was not so much enjoyable, but memorable,  “Ooohh, THIS is what those feel like…”

With some confusion on the due date, I was expecting to go into labor anywhere between mid-late April. My husband and I’s birthdays are both in April, and we were thrilled to share our birthday month with our baby too.

On Sunday, April 22nd, I noticed some mild cramping, nothing too bad, just uncomfortable, but throughout the day I felt it more.  I stayed home from church that day because the dull pain didn’t allow me to do much else than just sit or lie around.  I had just been to the OBGYN on Friday and the fetal monitor indicated 1 or 2 very small, mild contractions in about a 30 minute span. The doc sent me home and said the baby could come any day, or I may have these sparse contractions for another week or two.

Sunday night, I went to sleep no problem, but throughout the night woke up with those pesky “cramps” again, and noticed they seemed a little more frequent, though sporadic. Wondering whether I was imagining it, or if it was the beginning of the big show, in the middle of the night, I called my mom and my sister-in-law.  Thankfully they were still up.  I talked through my symptoms with both of them, and even though I doubted it was time yet, they both encouraged me to go to the hospital.  This was a big step, because the hospital is over 2 hours away.  I didn’t want to go prematurely, because what a waste of time that would be.  But I also didn’t want to wait too long, because it’s a 2+ hour drive to our hospital.  So, around 5 am I woke up my husband, and uncertainly said, “honey, it may be time?”

Those cramps got a little more intense on the car ride, and I finally recognized the difference between “cramps” and contractions.  Thankfully, the car ride was pretty uneventful, even if I had to clench my fists and pause briefly as the first contractions appeared.  We got to the hospital around 7:45 am, and were admitted to the monitoring room.  A nurse examined me, and hooked me up to the monitor, and even though I was feeling what I would call legitimate contractions, I was surprised when the RN told me I was only 1 cm and the contractions were very small (they didn’t feel small!).

Normally, at this stage, they would send you back home to wait for more progress.  However, as we talked through our situation and options, taking the long trip back home didn’t seem like a great idea.  We explained to our nurse that we’d rather wait it out in Madrid, even get a hotel if we had to, rather than go all the way back home.  At this point, our nurse said in our case, we had a couple options.  First, to wait it out naturally. Or, because I was already 39 weeks, they could break my water at the hospital and get the process going! At this news, Justin and I both looked each other and excitedly said, “yes! let’s do that one and have our baby today!”

I was wheeled to a delivery room where they broke my water, and while I didn’t feel much other than an unusual rush of warm water, I just remember Justin’s eyes getting big as he watched this procedure.  Now, we waited.  I began to feel the frequency and intensity of contractions increase, and realized now I was getting into the hard part.  Originally, I had planned to forego an epidural, and indicated on my birth “plan” I preferred alternative methods to pain control: a yoga ball, hot shower, and various positioning techniques to help ease the pain- none of which I used by the way.  For a little over 2 hours I endured excruciating pains, and only minor relief came when I sat on the toilet- no joke.  No other position, ball, water, -nada- helped with the pain.  I didn’t put on music like I had planned, or change into my “delivery clothes” like I planned.  I brought essential oils- never used them.  We brought a small massager, never got it out.  The only thing I could focus on was getting these contractions to stop.  At one point, I glanced at the chart in our room and saw a nurse’s handwriting on my chart: “no quiere epidural” (does not want epidural).

At this point I panicked and thought, wait, maybe I do want it! Ok, yes, I do want it! I told Justin to call the nurse and tell them I changed my mind.  Within minutes a nurse and anesthesiologist came in and administered the epidural.  I was afraid I’d be hooked up to a catheter, my main reasoning against one, but thankfully they didn’t.  Now bed-bound, I found myself with some relief, although I felt guilty and upset with myself that I couldn’t “make it” without an epidural. I believed my pain tolerance was high and that with enough determination I could manage a completely natural, medication free birth. Ha! My other fear, was that in 2 hours I had only progressed from 1-2 cm.  I thought at this rate, I’ll be experiencing this pain all day! Maybe I could manage to do a few hours, but not knowing how long it would all take, I didn’t want to miss my window of opportunity for relief. Justin was amazing at reassuring and encouraging me that we had made the right decision.  He no more wanted to watch me in pain than I wanted to be in pain.

Once we had the epidural, things really moved quickly.  From the time I received the epidural, I was about 2 cm. In the next hour or so, I went from 2-4 cm. At 4 cm, one nurse told Justin, if he wanted to grab anything eat now would be the time.  He left for about an hour to go find food and take a walk, and in the time he was gone, I went from 4-9 cm. The doctor came in while he was out and said it was time, and she even had me “practice push.” I frantically called my husband, thinking if he’s not back any second, he’s gonna miss this! Finally he came back just in time for the medical team to join us in our room.

Around 3 pm I started pushing, Justin by my side holding my hand or rubbing my shoulder. After barely 15 minutes of pushing, at 3:12 pm, our baby had arrived! It’s incredible that I didn’t feel any pain during pushing.  It was harder than I though to get the breathing right, and I couldn’t tell if I was making progress with each push.  But I watched Justin’s face light up when he saw our baby’s head crown for the first time.  He kept cheering me on that we were almost there, and when it was time for the final big push, I felt a different sensation and knew it was over.

Our son was immediately placed on my chest, covered with a towel but still gooey from delivery. The doctor cut the cord (we didn’t get an option for this), and for the next hour we simply enjoyed marveling at our precious new addition. I waited for the tears to come, but they never did.  I felt incredibly happy, but not overly emotional. Justin cried for the two of us, especially when he held his son for the first time.  That first hour was incredibly sweet, and I’m thankful we got that time together, just to realize our lives had forever changed.

After an hour, I was wheeled, with baby in my arms, to a recovery room.  For the next 6 hours we had baby with us in my arms or in Justin’s.  I don’t know how they do it in the U.S., but here they never took the baby out of my sight.  Every check and procedure, was done in our room.  I never had to be separated from my baby. We spent the next 2 days holding our baby, learning to nurse, taking photos, asking questions of the nurses, and trying to sleep. I was and still am forever amazed that we accomplished all of this- prenatal appointments and a hospital delivery- in our second language.

We had a wonderful experience at our hospital.  The staff were incredibly kind and helpful, and we felt we were getting great “customer service.” We have private health insurance in Spain, and this is what we were hoping for.  Those with public or social insurance often tell a very different story.

We had our little David on Monday afternoon.  By Wednesday afternoon, we were discharged.  On Tuesday I felt fabulous and had so much energy, thinking this will be a breeze! By Wednesday I was feeling quite different.  On our way home, as I’m sure all new moms do, I felt overwhelming anxiety.  Now what? It’s just us, and we have to care for this baby all by ourselves! I had no clue even where to begin!

That first night home, I was wracked with anxiety and questioning every little thing: the first diaper change, first bath, first feeding home, I second-guessed how I was doing everything! It didn’t help that I was beginning to feel the lack of sleep and on top of that all the normal postpartum pain, plus nausea.

To be frank, that whole first week home was utterly miserable. I was sick for a couple days with nausea and vomiting (side-effects from the epidural?), not to mention shaky from a recovering body, and with difficulty breast-feeding. After a few days of trying to nurse, it became clear our little one was starving, and we had to supplement with formula.  An incredible feeling of guilt and defeat washed over me.  I couldn’t seem to soothe my baby or even provide enough food for him. It seemed that every time I was holding him he was screaming.  Justin would hold him to calm and soothe him, while I was just there to try and feed him every hour or so.  It was exhausting, painful, and incredibly emotional.  I’ll admit I was beginning to resent holding him, because he was crying so much and nothing I did brought comfort. After we introduced the bottle more, he became more full and more at ease. While I felt relief that my baby was finally feeling full, and sleeping for longer stretches, my inner voice kept telling me I wasn’t trying hard enough or working hard enough at nursing. I felt like something was wrong with me and that I had failed as a mom- first to deliver au-natural, then a failure at nursing. There is such pressure with doing everything natural these days, and I felt a stigma attached to bottle-feeding at such an early stage.

When my parents arrived a week after delivery, things started changing slowly.  I was still going through “baby blues” which really became apparent to me when all I wanted to do was pass off my baby to be held by someone else. I remember one outing with my mom being half a day, and she asked me if I felt mom guilt for being away from my baby for so long.  I remember saying I probably should feel guilty, but no! As my parents helped and I was able to take the time I needed to rest and recover, things improved.  Our baby also improved as he was more content with each feeding, and sleeping better. He didn’t cry every time I held him, and I felt we were bonding more.

Now, after 7 weeks, our little bundle is happy, healthy, and growing. There are still days when I wish I was nursing, but honestly it’s bittersweet.  I miss the closeness of those first few days, especially at the hospital when he relied on me for every ounce of nutrition. But now, I can be away for hours at a time if I need to, and someone else can feed my child.  It allows me a freedom I didn’t expect, but have come to appreciate.

As David has developed, so has my love for him.  Those first weeks were incredibly hard, but with each day, I have a little more confidence, and we gain a little more traction with his habits.  He is awake and alert much more these days, and has started recognizing my voice and greets me with smiles when he’s focused on my face.  It’s an incredibly sweet and precious time, although we still have our rough patches.  We’re still learning how to soothe him and interpret different cries. I’m still reading a ton of “how-to advice” through books, articles and blogs and trying to balance that with just reading my baby. Sometimes I try to go by the book, other times I try to watch for cues from him.  Most days we just wing it.

I’m definitely not the poster mom for Baby Wise, or What to Expect, or Baby Center, but I’m beginning to relax and realize that our baby is content, he’s developing, he’s progressing, and most importantly he’s loved. I know each stage comes with unique challenges, and I’ll try to be prepared for those as much as I can.  But I’m recognizing that while difficult stages sometimes last for days or even weeks, if I just focus on getting through one day at a time, I can manage this. I can do this.

It’s incredibly hard being so far from family, friends, and a good support system with an infant.  Most days are very lonely and long.  Letting myself grieve the loss of support and help we feel has been hard, but good to go through. In a way it’s forced me to realize how capable I am and have to be for our baby. I have to be his advocate here. There’s a lot we don’t yet know in Spain, how to do this, where to go for this, in terms of our baby’s care.  And we have to navigate it all through a second language.  It’s daunting, but as I look back, I can see all we have accomplished and be proud of that.

Our baby boy is alive and well, and by the grace of God, so are we.

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My time in Poland: the good, the bad, and the in between

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On Wednesday night I returned home to Spain after a glorious 5 nights/5 days in Krakow, Poland.  I attended the Azmera Haven Women’s Retreat/Conference, something I discovered through an online community for women serving overseas, Velvet Ashes.  I cannot express how grateful I am to have found these resources, and more.  These days, it seems I need more connectedness than ever to a wider faith community.  These communities allow me to interact with women doing similar work around the world.  The beauty is, even though our cultures and contexts may look very different, often times our joys, pains, victories, grief, struggles, and issues are the same.

At Azmera, I found solidarity.  There is perhaps nothing more powerful than saying to another human being, ME TOO. I found affirmation and support.  Care and affection.  Empathy and understanding.  Though I had never met these women before, I found more comfort in being with them for 5 days than I have found in many other circles. They attended my soul, and poured into my spirit.  Sometimes through conversation, other times through a hug. They prayed for me, and massaged my feet. Some sat patiently and quietly with me, letting me process my feelings, my doubts. Some shared advice and encouragement. Some sang over me and others spoke words of truth and blessing. Some shared laughs with me, and on a few occasions, tears.

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When you’re in the thick life outside your passport country, far from all that’s familiar and comforting, it’s easy to forget that so many others share your experience. While we each have our own unique experience abroad, for many of us, the feelings we have about our lives tend to be more similar than contrary.

It was refreshing to leave Spain and visit a new country. The timing was perfect as life in our small town has been wearing on me and all the frustrations of administrative stuff (visas, licenses, blah blah blah) was getting to me. Poland reminds me of Germany, and I would imagine they have more in common than simply geography. I loved listening to the language, walking by street carts filled with freshly baked pretzels and buns, feeling the chilly autumn wind, needing that extra layer in my scarf, and seeing all the hues of green and shades of fall.  In Spain, everything around us is brown and dry.  Traveling to a place like Poland,  green and lush, I realize how much I miss my Tennessee mountains and the beauty of seeing green forests everywhere.

Speaking of “missing,” this place also brought me to memories of my sweet grandma, whom I treasured.  Even though she (and my mom) are from Germany, the close proximity and shared cultural similarities, made Poland seem familiar and comforting.  I smiled to myself every time I smelled or ate sauerkraut, remembering how my grandma cooked it with roast pork for Sunday dinners or on special occasions.  I saw elderly women who shared similar facial features and bone structures, and I wondered what my grandmother would look like now, 17 years since I’ve seen and hugged her. She loved pretzels and breads, and even though I was never hungry for one, I just wanted to buy one on the street in her memory. I’m thankful Poland brought me back to my memories of her. I resonate with the strong women of faith in my own story, my grandma and my mom, being my primary examples.

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(Above: Flying over Germany. One day I will come back to our homeland)

During my time at the conference, I am not ashamed to say I enjoyed relaxing in a hotel, glad I didn’t have to cook, and I drank as much fresh coffee that was available! I also ventured into the city to enjoy some “normal” things for a change, like wandering thru a big shopping mall, perusing H&M, and eating at Burger King- luxuries when you live in the rural countryside with no car. Another afternoon, I ventured into the city center.  My husband was with me and we decided on a long walk which took us through a nice park, and then onto Wawel Castle.  We did a little tour through the Jewish Quarter, then stopped by a swanky cafe which served up the best bagel I’ve ever eaten in my life!! Homemade toasted cheese bagel with Thyme cream cheese! Normally I’m a sweets kind of girl, but I would eat this bagel for breakfast lunch and dinner over and over again! I’m hungry thinking about it now.  Afterwards, onto Market Square to marvel at tasteful architecture and buildings, and a little souvenir shopping in market hall. On the way back to the hotel, I found one of the most beautiful cathedral doors I have ever seen, attached to an unpopular neighborhood church which I’m guessing sits empty most of the time.

We decided it was necessary to visit Auschwitz, since we were going to be so close (the camp is 1.5 hours from Krakow). It would be wrong to say we enjoyed our visit there, but I’m glad we went.  It was heart-breaking and chilling. We walked and walked, took some photos, and didn’t talk much about it.  How do you process something so vast, so evil, so tragic? History has a way of making us think about the future. I’m still processing this visit honestly. It’s an important piece of history, not to be forgotten.

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God did some great and beautiful things on this retreat, and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to go.  It’s important for missionaries and overseas workers to make time and effort for events like these, and not just when you’re in crisis, but as an ongoing, preventative measure of self-care.

Now, if you think my life is all roses and you’re teetering on jealousy that I get to live in and travel around Europe, let me share some of the not so fun realities of travel!

First of all, traveling around Europe is not always easy, cheap, or quick- despite what Ryanair will tell you.  We spent ALL day getting to Poland, and ALL day getting back.  It took roughly 13 hours each way.  This involves getting up early (who likes this?), getting a ride to the bus station, 2.5 hours on said bus, taking the metro 30-45 minutes with crowds (ugh) and juggling luggage (double ugh!), finally getting to the airport, and then having to wait.  Waiting too long for one flight, while having to rush and run at your connecting flight just to make it.  Arrive at destination, but still have 30 minutes to get to hotel.  Soooooo tired and not wanting to get on another bus or metro or tram, we take a taxi.  But it’s rush hour, so price surging.  Awesome, that taxi fare was our budget for the day. Oh, and did I mention, because our connecting flight time was so short, our luggage didn’t have time to make it on our flight.  So it’s delayed, and supposedly arriving to our hotel overnight. We go to bed in the clothes we’ve been traveling in all day, without brushing our teeth because EVERYTHING is in our checked bags- like we’ve never traveled internationally before. Who are we!? (Oh, and the hotel was out of toothbrushes and toothpaste).

Luggage did not arrive until the following afternoon, which meant I went grungy the entire day, feeling so gross, and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather go without undies than wear old ones, so that’s what I did! THANKFULLY, our luggage arrived about an hour before the conference started, so I could at least freshen up and change clothes and appear somewhat normal.

There was also the time we decided to go out into town on the day it was POURING.  So remember all those fun things I described doing in the city center? well fun and miserable, as my feet and ankles were soaked and my umbrella kept catching the wind.  We had hoped that day to not only see the Jewish Quarter but the south side of the city too, where the Oskar Schindler factory and museum are located.  This is one of the main sites I wanted to see in Krakow (Schindler’s List was one of my grandma’s favorite movies, and I wanted to go there for her too).  So we opted for a “guided city tour” with a local who said he would take us to both places, at what seemed like reasonable fare.  When we did the math secretly after having time to think, we realized this tour was WAY overpriced, so we had to cut it short. We asked the guy to stop mid-tour so we didn’t have to pay anymore. I still regret that by this point, we didn’t have time to make it to the Schindler factory on our own.

Whenever we end up having unexpected expenses or go over budget on a trip, tensions always arise in the marriage.  Justin is very budget conscious and I’m more carefree when it comes to spending.  So, with all the unexpected costs, let’s just say we had our moment of non-marital bliss on a random street in Krakow. Then the next to last day, we had an adventure of sorts. We took a local bus to Auschwitz, but as it was a local bus (read: not a tourist bus), we weren’t quite sure where to get off and no one spoke English or was very helpful, so we got off one stop too early.  Which wouldn’t normally be a big deal, but it ended up being a 40 minute or so walk to get to Auschwitz.  We actually ended up at the camp site first, and we took our time there.  Then we saw a shuttle taking you back to the museum and second site.  When we got to the museum, it was 5:00, so it was closing.  All that way and we ended up not being able to see half of what we came to see.  Plus, now, we had an hour and a half to kill before the bus home.  OK, Let’s Eat!! We saw 2 or 3 restaurants across the street, which were all conveniently closed or closing.  We ended up finding a hotel restaurant which was open and gladly served us, although we were hoping for cheaper plates (more like the street food or pizza variety).  After dinner, we found our bus home, and thankfully, THANKFULLY got on the bus in time to get a seat.  The last 10 or so people on the bus were not lucky enough to have a seat and stood for the 1.5 hour ride back to Krakow!

And then, we’re on our way home.  Nothing dramatic, only another long long travel day. Walk to train station, take train to airport, take first flight, rush to get to second flight, arrive in Madrid. Take metro to train station. Quickly grab something to eat (Burger King again) and run by the pharmacy.  Take the 2+ hour train home.  Get picked up at the station and finally arrive at home.  Oh yeah, without our luggage again.  Because we had the same connecting flight time issue.  That was Wednesday.

It’s Friday night.  Still waiting on luggage to arrive at home.

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My life is different here

It warrants saying out loud, that my life is different here.

I hang clothes to dry on a rack, rather than putting them in a machine.  Sometimes I have to wait a whole day for clean, dry socks. And if I forget to do the whites first, my poor husband may go a day without clean underwear. Oops.

Once a week, I stroll through a street market, stocking up on seasonal produce. Like clockwork, my favorite vendors are always in the same spot, from 9-1, on Tuesdays mornings.  I may find other goodies, like a cheap t-shirt or some kitchen gadget I don’t really need but want to buy because I want to practice my language or bartering skills.  The plant guy is the end of me. I almost always bring home a new green addition to place on our small balcony.

(Some life from my balcony! Before it all dies during winter)

Going shopping for things other than food, means planning and making a day trip to a bigger city.  It means only buying what you can carry- because, no car. Most of our shopping is done online, thank you Amazon. It might cost a little extra with shipping, but the ease of finding exactly what I want or need makes it all worth it.

Our street is our backyard. Meaning, we don’t have a backyard.  Here, life is lived on the streets.  Sometimes I miss the green spaces, and the soft grass I could walk barefoot in.  Other times, it’s kind of nice to feel like you’ve arrived “home”  as soon as you enter your street. We talk to our neighbors in the street, but rarely inside our homes.

(Above- meat! bbq style pork and chicken at our street’s block party; and typical food we eat at the farm with our Spanish friends- crawfish in sauce, fried brie with jam, empanadas, potato salad, tortilla, bread)

We eat better, more or less.  There is no family restaurant in town, nor a fun fast food joint to frequent weekly.  There’s the bar, and the cafe, neither of which are known for great food.  So I, like most people here, almost exclusively cook at home.  I prepare a home-cooked meal (usually from scratch) every day.  Processed, pre-packaged food is available, but I prefer a slower, more intentional method, preparing all my own sauces, jams, gravies, granola, juices, etc. Living here, and abroad in general, has taught me a great deal about the art, joy, simplicity, and goodness of cooking slow.

Speaking of food, THE. BREAD. There are more bakeries in our town than anything else, and most mornings, I stop by one of our two favorite “panaderias” to buy a fresh from the oven, still warm baguette, or rustic or ciabatta loaf. Justin is threatened if he manages to eat the whole loaf in one sitting- something he still seems to get away with.

Like everybody else who rests and takes time at home during siesta, I too must force myself to stop working for a couple hours in the afternoon. I found the lack of a work-centered culture frustrating at first (especially when I wanted to do my shopping in the afternoon, or go to the post office only to realize it closed at 2 p.m.). But I quickly realized the frustration I felt would dissipate if I could just go with the flow. Now I do all my errands and shopping before 2 p.m. and it’s fine. My work schedule may look like a few hours in the morning, and a few hours in the evening.  Work with people happens in the streets at the bar or cafe, occasionally in the morning before work, but mostly in the evening after work. Life and work beat to different rhythms here.

Everyday I switch between languages, one my native tongue and another which still sounds and tastes odd to me. Everyday I struggle to make myself understood in my non-native language. I wrestle, wondering does this ever get easier? Will I ever be able to carry on a meaningful conversation without having to resort to gestures, or Google translate? Will I ever feel at home in a place that doesn’t share one of the most fundamental part of who I am? I may be able to get by, but shared language and deep conversation are at the core of my relationships. Without a mutual language, relationships look and feel very different.

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(A little self-care sometimes means traveling to a place with lots of green, waterfalls, hiking, and maybe even some rain. ) 

In my village, going revolves around walking.  In Europe, towns, villages, and cities, are built so that you can walk everywhere you need to go.  And if not, there is adequate public transportation.  Without a car in our village, I walk everywhere, unless my teammate gives me a ride into the next town for a shopping trip. Without a car, my world is smaller, simpler. We walk to church, classes, the bank, to run errands, to the grocery store, to the market. At times this wears on me and makes me feel “stuck.” There is an entire country, and countless sub-cultures to explore, but in this season we have been mostly staying put.  A hard to swallow reality for this wander-lust spirit.

Staying connected with our friends, family, and support team looks different.  We’re constantly calculating between time zones, and messaging multiple times to find a good hour to talk. We crave videos and pictures of our nieces and nephew. We eagerly look forward to weekly phone chats with our parents.  I’m buying a physical calendar (you know, the ones with 12 pages and blocks for days? Yes, they still make those) so that I can mark the dates in bold pen when our parents and siblings are coming to visit.  Living life so far away and apart from them is the biggest hurdle I face, and even if it’s a year from now, I am already anticipating and “planning” their visit. And if I’m honest, holidays are usually a bit of a let down.

Community looks different too.  There are times when community seems more real, more raw, and more like it’s supposed to be. Other times, it frustrates the heck out of me. Our community may look like a block-party on our street with our neighbors one night.  It may look like our small church plant community- which is NOTHING like church in the U.S.  It may look like sharing a meal on a farm with our Spanish families.  It may look like bumping into and talking to the parents or kids we teach when we’re out. We have it, but it’s been hard adapting to what culture and community mean here.

Church is REALLY different.  I grew up in the Church, and thought I knew what it was supposed to be like.  Living here has thrown that notion to the wind. More often than not church drains me.  It’s long (like 3-5 hours long), sometimes boring, and we deal with a lot of peoples’ mess. In some ways it may more closely resemble what church ought to look like, and recognizing that the North American church is far from perfect or the ideal, I realize what a unique opportunity I have to be part of something different.  But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that I have come to love this difference…yet.  I must always come prepared to pour out.  The only way to feed myself spiritually is through my personal scriptural reading, prayer, listening to a sermon podcast, or having a faith-based conversation with a friend- in English.

My faith is different.  It’s ironic, how we worked so hard to get here, and felt it such an important calling. It still is.  But I struggle more with that calling now than before. Asking God- what is it about here? Wondering- will this ever fit me? Or will I keep having to change and adapt to fit it?  Am I just experiencing culture shock? The honeymoon phase has passed, so how long does this new phase last? Does God realize what I’m giving up to live here? When will it start to seem like it’s worth it? When will this start feeling like home?

These are questions I’ve grasped at before.  Sometimes the answers come with time, and sometimes they elude me.

For now, I still feel very much like a foreigner.  My own life looks like a stranger to me. There are some differences I embrace, even love.  But there are others that are harder to accept.  There is joy and blessings and even fun.  But more often than not, I have to wake up everyday choosing to welcome my new normal, rather than resent it.

I have to say to myself, it’s not right, it’s not wrong, it’s just different.

I have to remind myself that different is good for us.  Different stretches us, matures us, and refines us. It helps us see the world with more clarity, understanding, and empathy.

My life is different here. I just needed to say that out loud.

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(However easy or hard, beautiful or messy, thankful to be doing life with this guy right here.  He loves me so well and I would follow him anywhere in the world….well, most anywhere 🙂

 

 

 

 

Buen Camino, the good way

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(Early morning view from O’Cebreiro, photo cred Josh Walker)

You might be asking yourself what’s the big deal about a hike?

If you don’t know much or anything about El Camino de Santiago, then I get it.  You would wonder why it’s a thing.  You could call it many things: a journey, an adventure, an experience, a pilgrimage, a walk. But you can’t know something simply by knowing what it’s called. You have to participate in it.

(Between O’Cebreiro and Tricastela- photo cred Josh Walker)

I knew the Camino was an ancient network of hiking paths, diverging throughout the northern part of Spain, until all converge at the shrine of St. James in Santiago. What I didn’t know was the contour of those paths, the character of the towns and villages we would pass through or the subtle beauty I would see. I didn’t know the culture or ethos of the participants, the physical challenge it would present, or the lessons I would take away.  These things must be obtained throughout the journey. You can’t read about them before hand and know what they’re about.

So really, I had no idea what to expect. I just knew I was going on a really long hike. And that some people do it for spiritual reasons.

My own objective was to simply enjoy being outdoors, and carve out solitude for me and God. In spending six months learning a language, dwelling in a city, moving and setting up house in a new town, I felt an urge for extended tranquility in wide-open spaces.

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The beauty of northern Spain alone (Galicia) should draw you to the Camino.  Over mountains, through forests, past tiny almost ghost-like villages, around meadows and pastures, through city streets, and across bridges, we trekked over every sort of landscape you would expect.  The beauty is in the modesty and simplicity of an older, more natural way of life. It also vaguely reminded me of the Appalachian region in the U.S., bringing me closer to familiarity and home.

The views were unassuming, yet stunning.  A quaint old village church, antique farm equipment resting alongside the road, meadows of wildflowers, wild hydrangeas burgeoning from cracks in stone. Sheep, horses, and goats resting in their pastures. Panoramas from grassy balds. Celtic ruins lying hidden on the mountain top. Some blend of rock, soil, grass, wood, stone or concrete always beneath my feet.

I savored beauty while I could. I’m storing up those views, breezes, and smells to remind me of the gifts God lavishes on us through His creation.

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(What appeared to be a nearly abandoned village, claiming only a handful of residents)

I wasn’t prepared for the physical challenge. I did virtually no training. I carried a large back-pack most days, and my feet and knees weren’t used to the uneven, rugged, sometimes rocky terrain.  I wasn’t prepared for the steep inclines and let’s face it, I can’t remember the last time I elected to be on my feet for more than 8 hours on any given day. But some of the reward comes through the challenge. In total, I walked about 115 km (100 km is needed to obtain the official pilgrim’s credential) or 70ish miles in 8 days. I had a few blisters, achy feet, and sore knees to prove it.

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The Spirit of the Camino is very much in those who participate. The general attitude is that even though we may not know each other, we know what each other is going through.  There is comradry and solidarity in this.  People believe in leaving the trails and establishments along the way in better shape than they were found. There’s a spirit of helpfulness, kindness, and patience. People are willing to stop and ask if you need help with your bag, a new bandage, or some fresh water.  Local Spaniards sit outside their local bar, their pastime to look out for lost hikers. People set up stands with free food and drink to take something if you need it. Though the nationalities and languages are vast, the spirit is the same.

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(View of a lake at Portomarin, and a lovely hiker from Greenland, first person I’ve ever met from Greenland)

As I think about what revelations or “ah-ha” moments to share, I’m coming up short. We went with the intention of simply trying to be light and share our faith when we had an opportunity.  I had a few exchanges with people, but the joy for me was not in sharing, but in taking part.  As a missionary living abroad, daily life is just a little bit harder than it would be in my home culture. Here, I am more in danger of being emptied, drained, or burnt out because it requires much change, adaptation, energy, and lingual capacity just to live here. It’s where I am supposed to be, and I have no regrets.   This journey for me wasn’t about receiving some spiritual revelation, or having some great testimony to share (though I wish that were the case).  This time was meant to refuel and refill me in such a way that I could come back to where God has planted me and continue on.

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(Directly above, on top of a mountain at an old Celtic ruins site)

Overall reflections.

The days were long, but the journey was short.

The joy is in the journey, not the destination. Reaching Santiago was actually anti-climactic. No banners, no crowds cheering, no welcome sign, just a bunch of tired, limping hikers wandering aimlessly, searching for a nondescript building offering the official stamp of completion.

The reward of a hard climb was usually tangible: a stunning view I could capture with my camera, a hilltop village where I could remove my pack and untie my shoes, or a cafe offering freshly squeezed orange juice and baked empanadas.

Some days I barreled through just to get to the next destination. I couldn’t be bothered to stop.  Other days I was more relaxed and allowed myself time to stop, take a break, and savor what was around me.

There was always an option to take a taxi to the next point, and a few times I took advantage of this.  There were also bag services, and for 3 euros you could send your pack ahead of you to your next destination.  These options felt a little like “cheats” for me, but I quickly got over this.  Forget mileage for mileage sake, I wanted to enjoy this experience (and avoid injury). If I was killing it each day, I could be robbing myself of joy found in a slower pace.

The quiet places. An empty cathedral, a rusty bench in a town plaza, a flat stone in the middle of a wood, a grassy embankment in the shade; there sometimes I prayed, there sometimes I sat in quiet, there sometimes I nursed and massaged my wounds. I touched the path with my feet, sometimes my whole body.  I am blessed by these quiet moments of unity with a centuries old road, where many others have gone before me.

The way is hallowed not because of the countless pilgrims and saints who have consecrated its path.  It is hallowed because it is earth, created by God, as its trekkers are made by Him and in His image. It is hallowed because through the journey, you find just a little more of what you’re made of.  And if you have eyes to see and ears to hear you may just discover this likeness.

While you’re on about wandering and seeking, you may stumble upon the Way Himself.

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(People pay homage to the cross in their own way, leaving items behind)

OUR ITINERARY & SOME FACTS (in case you’re interested in such things)

  • June 20- Madrid to Piedrafita by bus; Piedrafita to O’Cebreiro on foot: 3,6 km or 2,2 miles; time it took- 2+ hours
  • June 21- O’Cebreiro to Tricastela: 21 km or 13.5 miles; time it took- 8+ hrs
  • June 22- Tricastela to Sarria: between 21-24 km or 13.5-15 miles (*I took a taxi because I didn’t sleep at all the night before, and was feeling a bit under the weather with, ahem, female issues*)
  • June 23- Sarria to Portomarin: 23 km or 14+ miles; time it took- 9ish hours
  • June 24- Portomarin to Palas de Rei: 22-23 km or 13.5-14 miles; time it took for me- 5ish hours (* I stopped at 13 km/or 8 miles, and taxied the remainder because I was in some serious pain from the day before)
  • June 25- Palas de Rei: Rest Day
  • June 26- Palas de Rei to Arzua: 29 km or 18 miles; time it took for me 5.5-6 hours (*I stopped at 16 km/10 miles and taxied the remainder*)
  • June 27- Arzua to Amenal: 23 km or 14 miles; time it took- 8ish hours
  • June 28- Amenal to Santiago: 16.5 km or 10 miles; time it took- 9ish hours
  • June 29- Rest Day in Santiago: 2 km or so, 1.2 miles in and around the city
  • June 30- Left Santiago, flew to Madrid, Madrid to home

Total km walked: 115    Total miles walked: 72   Total days on the trail: 8   Total hours on the trail: 50ish    Total injuries: 0 

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(Sunset at O’Cebreiro, a mountain top village, and my favorite spot on all the hike)

Twenty Things: Spain

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During the past 6 years, I’ve lived in Asia, Africa, Europe and the U.S. I’ve worked as an English teacher. I’ve worked for a faith-based NGO, and simultaneously as a general studies teacher. I’ve worked as a missionary. My years abroad have not only stretched me professionally, culturally, and spiritually; they have also had a profound impact on my perception of home.

For those of us who travel much, or live abroad, our sense of home is key to our identity.  If we always see home as “back there,” then we will never truly be able to adapt here, to call this home. We will always be foreigners in a strange land. And it will always wear on us.  

But if we can find home here, or better yet, choose to make our home here, then we have much to gain by staying, and a much better chance of lasting.

As I went about daily life, made new observations or had new insights in each of my homes abroad, I compiled a list of twenty things.  Twenty things I loved, and twenty things I was “getting used to.” These lists helped me to appreciate the uniqueness of what I had found in each place, while at the same time giving me a space to vent about the things that were hard.

There will always be things about a “home” that are incredible, and always things that are hard.  The same is true even in our passport countries (joys of home-ownership, anyone?) Justin likes to remind me that I’m usually nostalgic when I talk about the places I used to live. I reminisce about the good things I had, the once-in-a-lifetime-experiences, when the reality was, as I was living in the thick of it, I complained or vented about the hard stuff…a lot.

It’s always about perspective. As Tsh Oxenreider puts it in her book Notes from a Blue Bike: living well doesn’t mean not doing hard things.

These lists have proven cathartic, a form of therapy, a simple method to orient myself to the tangible and quantifiable things I both love and lack in a new culture.

Perhaps too, through this routine, I’ve unearthed an ability to cope with just about anything, given the right perspective.

So without further ado, here are:

Twenty things I love:

  1. Doing life & ministry here with my husband
  2. Fresh. Baked. Bread.
  3. Jamón ibérico
  4. The Spanish language (actually 4 official languages recognized here)
  5. Learning Castilian Spanish
  6. They have IKEA
  7. PT is mostly reliable and affordable
  8. There’s, like, castles here and stuff
  9. Always stunning architecture to marvel at
  10. The incredible history (and a crazy number of UNESCO world heritage sites)
  11. Wine. It’s cheaper than every other beverage.
  12. A four-season climate
  13. Spanish olive oil
  14. Balconies & terraces full of flowers
  15. Drying my clothes in the fresh air and sun
  16. It’s totally normal to eat pastries EVERYDAY and not be considered a glutton
  17. Queso oveja (sheep cheese)
  18. The neighborhood bar or cafe is the center of life
  19. Walking everywhere for everything is normal
  20. How international this place is, and how many languages I hear on any given day

Twenty things I’m getting used to:

  1. Most everything shuts down during the afternoon for “siesta”
  2. The late-night culture
  3. The buzz of youthful “fiestas” in the cities
  4. Spanish breakfast portions (a crusty piece of bread with jam or tomato puree is NOT breakfast)
  5. Customer service, or lack thereof
  6. Exorbitant International postal fees
  7. Not relying on a car to get around
  8. The lack of Tex-Mex restaurants
  9. A culture that shrugs off work easily
  10. Empty cathedrals
  11. High fuel prices
  12. The coffee (just not a fan of café solo or café con leche)
  13. Still struggling with the language barrier
  14. Feeling self-conscious (the women here are soooooooo pretty)
  15. Missing family & friends
  16. Missing important milestones with my nieces and nephew
  17. A culture that at best seems cavalier about matters of faith
  18. All the blockbuster movies are dubbed over in Spanish (just, nope)
  19. Air conditioners, dishwashers, and dryers are NOT the norm
  20. Corruption at every level of government (only because it’s western Europe, I didn’t expect it to be this bad)

Justin would like to point out that it took me twice as long to come up with a list of 20 things I’m getting used to.

We’ll call that growth.

(Speaking of growth, check out these crazy trees that grow into and out of each other)

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Here’s my previous post from Twenty Things: Japan

 

Here’s my previous post from Twenty Things: Africa

 

This is Spain

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A view of the old roman bridge from the river on my walk 

Friday we went to pick up bank cards. Justin asked for our cards to be sent to the bank closest to us, but he received a text from the bank saying the cards had been sent to a branch outside of town.  It’s not a big deal to go outside of town if you have a car.  But when you’re relying on public transportation, that changes your strategy.  So we got up early, got a taxi and rode the 20 or so minutes outside of town to the address provided. Only, there was nothing there.  Justin realized the address we received from the bank was incorrect.  They made an error and we needed the main office. Which is where we wanted our cards sent in the first place.  Because that’s the office closest to us (a 5 minute walk from our apartment).  So, we explained this to the taxi driver, said sorry for the mix-up, and 15 euros later, were right back where we started. The best part was when the taxi driver said, “No te preocupes, por esto es Espana.” Or “Don’t worry about it, this is Spain.

This is Spain. Ha!

 

We learn new things about this place every day. Some stuff is fascinating, and other things frustrate the heck out of us. Some days we say “wow, how amazing is that!” and other days say “what?!? why?”

This is living outside your passport country. Some days you think ‘wow I’m so lucky to live in this place,’ and other days you’re like ‘why did I come here again?’  It’s helpful to know that these bipolar feelings are NORMAL and all part of the ebb and flow of cross-cultural assimilation. We have been living in Spain 4 months now, not naive to think we’re done making adjustments, but overall, settling into our life here.

You may wonder what living in Spain, or any other country for that matter, looks like for two Americans? In short, it’s creating a healthy blend of new culture stuff while attempting to keep a few comforts from your home culture. In my experience, you need both.

Some things that are still “new” to us. Meal times! The Spanish eat a very lite breakfast, a lite snack a couple hours later, followed by their main meal at 2 or 3. “Cenar” or dinner isn’t until after 9. While we’ve been following this pattern, I think my body is still adjusting.  I get up each day around 7:30, have my coffee and breakfast, do some reading & studying, then get ready for the day.  We are at language school from 10-2, with a short break in the middle.  We get home around 2:30 and by the time our meal is prepared, it’s 3 o’clock. I’ve gotten better at preparing snacks to take, but some days I still forget.  It’s hard not be starving by the time we eat again at 3! And there have to be others like me, where after you eat a large meal, you feel tired or lethargic. I’ve been trying to force myself to walk after our meal, and not lay down, which is what the Spanish do. Siesta!

As for the food, I’d say we’ve done well at trying new things.  We like Spanish food, as the fare is simple, hearty, and prepared with quality ingredients. They love fresh fish and pork. Oh the pork.  Those black-hoofed, acorn-fed, black Iberian pigs are the heart and soul of Spanish cuisine. It’s quite a tasty treat, and we enjoy sandwiches, varieties of cheeses and meats, and traditional dishes like paella, cocido madrileño  and tapas. But at times, it’s important to make our comfort foods.  I make tacos about once a week because Justin LOVES him some tacos. I make pancakes on Saturday mornings, because breakfast foods are the bomb. And when I need a little pick-me-up I enjoy baking my favorite batch of cookies or scones.

From L-R: Tapas- small portions of appetizer type foods, Cocido Madrileno- stew of chickpeas, chorizo, & vegetables, Paella- saffron rice with shellfish & veggies, and Iberian ham. 

We love our walk-able city. We literally walk everywhere, there’s no need to take a bus. it takes 30 minutes round trip to the city center for language classes, and I’ll try to get in at least another mile or two later in the day. The farthest I have to walk for a store is 20 minutes. The hypermarket is like Walmart, only a European version- so not as sketchy, and I can find everything I need in one place. Although, I’m walking with items on the way back, so it limits what I buy in one trip. My handy cart can carry about a week’s worth of groceries. It’s kind of like a stroller, but for your groceries or stuff! Sometimes I miss having a car because it would be easier to drive to the parking lot and load whatever we need in the trunk.  But I’m getting used to making more frequent trips and enjoying the time spent walking solo- Justin hates shopping! When I don’t have the stamina for a long walk or a big supermarket, there are plenty of little neighborhood markets within 5 minutes of our place.

Europe is different from the U.S. when it comes to cars and driving.  Most people prefer to live in cities where they can walk or bike. And if they have a car, they only use it to go to the other side of town or outside of town.  In general, people walk their kids to school, to the store, and to restaurants or cafes to meet friends. The pace of life here is different. We will eventually get a car, when we move to the smaller village.  It’ll be necessary for our sanity to have a way to get out and about, to travel to bigger towns when we need more options for food and supplies, and to the airport when people need picked-up.  Now, the crisp, cool air invites us outside, and we enjoy giving our bodies more excuses to move.

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Sometimes you need to leave the sidewalks and let your feet touch the earth

We love our apartment, and using it as a space to welcome people.  Justin says he enjoys watching me play hostess.  For example, last night he invited his friend Miguel Angel (Michealangelo!!- how awesome is that name?!) over. He’s a fun, older Spanish guy who helps Justin with Spanish.  The invitation was for coffee, but he came in to find lots of snack & beverage options and I think he was a little surprised. Justin tried to explain the concept of “southern hospitality” in broken Spanish, and we all had a good laugh.  We’re grateful for this homey, little, inviting place, where people feel wanted. Even though it’s a 1 bedroom apartment, we have enough space & a dining table on our terrace, so we’ve had as many as 10 over at a time. We strive to host a meal a week, and share what’s been given to us. It’s also kind of a game for us to see how many nationalities we can have in our home. So far: Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Egyptian, English, American, Russian, & Brazilian. That means there’s a wild array of beliefs, world-views, and orientations. Our ministry right now is to the people God brings our way, and we love all the wondrous variety and color!

For the next 2.5 months our “job” continues to be exclusively learning Spanish.  After that, when we move, we’ll add other things to our plate, and still continue with some kind of language builder. We’re thankful for the experiences and challenges of living cross-culturally up til now, and look forward to more of what God has in store for us this year.

 

some cheerful neighborhood art near our street

 

 

A language learner’s reflections

We’ve been in Spain just shy of 3 months, almost halfway through our language program. In terms of language, it’s crazy to think how far we’ve come in a short time, but in another sense, we still have a long way to go. Justin & I are in different classes, which is probably healthy for our marriage! He tested into a higher level than me, but likes to say that I am a better student and will soon pass him up. Well, we’ll see. We have different strengths, so in a way we complement each other. Justin likes to speak, and is fearless when it comes to practicing WITH ANYONE.  I comprehend a lot more, and am getting to the point where I can read quite well. However, speaking fluidly will take a while to develop. Basically when we talk to people in Spanish, I listen & understand, translate to Justin, then he replies.  It’s been a good system! But we both have to be able to stand on our own.

Language learning is a humbling process, and it’s interesting to be on the other side of it after my previous work in TEFL.  I still remember the faces, expressions, victories, and struggles of my students learning English in Japan and Myanmar. Now, I have some idea of what I put them through!

The 4 languages of Spain. If you’ve never visited Spain, it’s anything but homogeneous.  For starters, they actually speak 4 recognized languages in Spain:  Castilian (the official language), Catalan (a blend of Spanish & French spoken in the east & along the coast), Basque  (completely unrelated & distinct, spoken in a small region in the north of Spain & the western mountains of France), and Galician (spoken in the western most tip). On top of this, there are regional dialects that make communicating even among Spaniards difficult. And if you think that Spain Spanish and Central/South American Spanish are the same, think again.  People can generally understand each other when communicating, but the vocabulary and accents are very different. And given the state of migration all over Europe, Spain is becoming an international hub, with many Arabic-speaking North Africans in the south, Germanic speakers dispersed all over, and in a university city like Salamanca, a stew of European, Asian, and English langauges.

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Language makes up a big part of our world right now. In learning a new language, we are literally re-wiring parts of our brain. So after 5 hours of immersion each day, we’re zapped!  We’re constantly translating, conjugating, and asking each other, ‘which tense do I use?’ or ‘what’s the word for <blank>?’  Even though it’s challenging, Spanish is a beautiful language, and it’s fun to practice and gauge our progress. It’s exciting to think about where we might be after 6 months, 1 year, or 3 years.

Awkward moments. Yes, I’ve had plenty of awkward moments with Spanish.  For one, on my 2nd day of class, I CRIED in front of everyone. I was overwhelmed and felt like a complete idiot because I didn’t understand anything! And to be honest probably jet-lagged and reeling from the transition of uprooting our lives. Then there was the first time I went to the grocery store. Apparently in some markets, you ring up and label your own produce before checking out.  So I got to the counter with all my unlabeled bundles of vegetables & fruit,  only to have the cashier say a lot of stuff I didn’t understand really fast while using a ton of gestures. Not to mention, lots of hurried, anxious looking people behind me, waiting to check out. Did I mention it was right before siesta/comida? Essentially, the busiest time of day. And there are the many times I got strange looks asking for “el baño” because in Spain they don’t really use that word (it actually refers to the bath tub), and they use “aseos” or “servicios” for bathrooms.

Clearly I’m used to having the upper hand in language (I mean c’mon people who travel, English is spoken EVERYWHERE, and we’re so coddled). Ok, well there are places where English is spoken more widely than others.  But Spain is not one of those places. Compared to other European countries, they are far behind and hesitant to speak English. Which is actually due to their history. For years the dictator Franco outlawed things like American movies and Spain was very closed off from the rest of the world. Things are changing now, especially with young people, but your average Joe in Spain does not know or speak any other language. Hey, just like Americans!

Things we don’t normally have to think about in our native language, can be sources of stress in another language. Here, things like receiving mail, filling out paperwork, finding a doctor, going to see a movie, ordering at a restaurant, talking with your landlord, etc., can be stressful while you are learning a language. It influences everything, including your ordinary, everyday activities. And as I eluded earlier, even going to the grocery store can be stressful. Soothing this stress often requires planning ahead, translating or googling some phrases you think you might need, and moving forward with patience.

Language, or lack thereof, can also cost you money and time.  I’ve tried twice now to ask for a grocery store’s discount card, and both times left in frustration without it.  We’ve had to pay expensive taxes on receiving mail (Christmas gifts!), because we didn’t know how to navigate the postal system. Another time, we ended up taking the “slow” bus (4 hours instead of 2) because we didn’t read the bus website correctly. In the moment these things are stressful, but looking back we try to have laugh at all our newbie fails.

You make rookie mistakes when you move to a new country. You just do.  Some days are easier than others.  Some days are super challenging. Some days we just want to be hermits, because it’s comfortable.  But, we know we won’t assimilate with that attitude.  We’ve learned to celebrate the small victories, like ordering at a new cafe, and actually getting what we want. Or the other day, I successfully gave an elderly Spaniard directions. And just yesterday I ventured to the phone store solo and talked to a clerk about potential phone plans.

We keep going and keep trying each day because we know so many people are behind us. And we know there are sweet souls here that God wants us to talk with. He gives us grace, even when we find it hard to extend it to ourselves. In His grace we are here, and we truly are grateful to be here, cultural/lingual faux pas and all!