The Reality of Culture Shock

I’ve heard it said that ignorance is bliss.  After my summer in Spain, I’d have to say that ignorance is definitely not bliss.

With all the physical, mental, and spiritual preparation I did for my trip, I never once thought to research what it was like to live in a foreign country.  I heard of culture shock, didn’t really know anything about it except for the general term, and didn’t think for a moment that it was something I needed to be aware of.

Beautiful monuments, statues, cathedrals, and architecture--constant visual reminders that I wasn't in America. (Plaza Mayor, Madrid)

Beautiful monuments, statues, cathedrals, and architecture–constant visual reminders that I wasn’t in America. (Plaza Mayor, Madrid)

What is Culture Shock?

Merriam-Webster.com defines culture shock as “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.”

All the while I was in Spain; there were no outward signs of culture shock.  I thought I was adjusting well to all of the changes in environment (except the heat).  My host family repeatedly told me how well I fit in with the Spanish lifestyle.  But inside there was something much deeper going on.  I pushed the anxiety and the doubts about what I was going through aside.  I took each day as a new day to experience Spain, and document everything I could in any free moment I could steal away to myself.

Acting like a stereo-typical tourist, while also fitting in with the Spanish lifestyle, Madrid

Acting like a stereo-typical tourist, while also fitting in with the Spanish lifestyle, Madrid

My Quest for Answers

After I returned home, I did some research on what it is like to physically live in a foreign country.  I found out that culture shock is a real psychological phenomenon.  I stumbled upon it while doing research for some of my earlier posts about Spain.

There is a lot on the internet about culture shock, and this is not intended to a be a lesson about it.  I did find out though that there are four phases: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery.  Clearly I never made it to a point of mastery, but was definitely trying to quickly adapt through the other three phases.  Another source listed them as stages: wonder, frustration, depression and acceptance.  Just as surprising to me was finding out about reverse culture shock.  All of this explains why I had a hard time re-entering my life in the U.S. and also explains the bouts of depression I experienced.

The psychological effects of culture shock.

The psychological effects of culture shock.

In my quest for answers to what I had gone through, I started to follow blogs of other non-natives living in Spain.  I found sites from ex-pats living in Spain, ESL teachers, pilgrims journeying on the Way of St. James, and the like.  It was a relief to be able to observe their experiences, communicate with them, and most importantly to know that I was not alone in what I was going through.

I’ve also spoken with some missionary friends.  One pointed me to an article on “trailing spouse syndrome”.  I had never heard of that either, but reading that served as another relief for my emotionally weary soul.

Brave or Naïve?

Many people have told me that I was brave to go to Spain alone like that.  Every time someone said that I thought, “but I won’t be alone.”  I was going to live with people I already knew.  Little did I know how this would affect me.

I think that since Pedro, our Spanish host son, so easily adapted to family life in America, and never said anything or showed any evidence of his own culture shock, I just took it for granted that my transition would be smooth as well.  He fit in with us so easily; I think I forgot he was Spanish.

Being brave? No, it's just a unique way of mailing a letter. (Toledo, Spain)

Being brave? No, it’s just a unique way of mailing a letter. (Toledo, Spain)

I am so grateful to my Spanish family for hosting me and opening up my eyes to life in their country.  I miss Spain.  I miss my Spanish family—all 26 of them.  I know I’ll return someday and am already planting those seeds for a trip with my husband.

So was I brave or naïve in journeying to Spain for six weeks last summer?  It was definitely brave!  I have no regrets—only gratitude to my heavenly Father for the experience, the lessons, the love, and the hope He has given me for how He wants to use it for His glory.

Showing off my bravery by eating new foods--pulpo de gallego, a Spanish favorite (Octopus Galician style)

Showing off my bravery by eating new foods–pulpo de gallego, a Spanish favorite (Octopus Galician style)

Living in the Shadow of Mental Illness

It’s no secret that my mother was mentally ill—not now anyway.  I’ve written about it on my blog and was the basis for my published story in Journeys to Mother Love (Cladach Publishing).  Chapter 8 in the Table of Contents reads: Distanced by Mental Illness, Walking my Mother Home, by Ardis A. Nelson.  There it is; my lifelong struggle in black and white on the page for all to see.

Chapter 8 is my story.

Chapter 8 is my story.

I’ve heard from many people how they resonated with my story.  It is usually in regards to how they are caring for a loved one at the end of life or it touches an accord with those whose parent has died.  It gives them hope and encouragement for the journey no matter how recent or faraway the experience was.

Distancing Myself

My story isn’t just about how I re-established contact and cared for my mentally ill mother at the end of her life though.  The bigger story is how I distanced myself from getting to know myself as well.  At 53 years old, it is what I am still working through.  It is the theme of the memoir that I hope to someday have published.

The Bible tells us in Matthew 10:38 that as followers of Christ we all have a cross to bear.  My cross seems to be the legacy that I have of living in the shadows of a mother who had mental illness.  Even though I had amazing healing when my mother died (as mentioned in my published story), I can still revert to my negative way of thinking and seeing things through the filter of mental illness in my family.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Many people live in the shadow of mental illness.  They were raised in a family with a parent who was mentally ill.  Or maybe they grew up hearing stories about crazy Aunt Sue or Uncle Joe.  I know I did; and it wasn’t just about my mother, but others in the family as well.

When I was growing up there was a huge stigma attached to mental illness.  There were barbaric practices perpetuated on mental patients—witness the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” from 1975.

Jack Nicholson's character receiving shock therapy, a barbaric practice, in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Jack Nicholson’s character receiving shock therapy, a barbaric practice, in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

I saw that movie in the theater when I was 15.  The movie hit way to close to home as my mother was in and out of mental hospitals and had shock therapy when I was in elementary school.  Watching that movie scared me and maybe even scarred me emotionally.

Last November when I started work on my memoir as part of National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo, I watched that movie again for the first time in over 30 years.  It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, but I think that was because I watched it more for historical reasons and for context in my memoir writing.  In other words, I detached myself from my emotions.  I thank God that wasn’t my fate.

Emotional Highs and Lows

At this stage of life with hormones raging out of control, it is hard at times to not let that dark cloud and fear of mental illness grab a hold of me.  It seemed to hit me particularly hard after my time in Spain.  It’s no wonder.

The movie is still playing, although at times it may feel like it's over.

The movie is still playing, although at times it may feel like it’s over.

I’ve been on an emotional high the last few years as I stepped into the world of publishing as a first time author, launched Pedro’s professional music career, and prepared for my trip to Spain.  It has often felt like a dream to me—or as I’ve openly expressed—like a movie with Pedro’s music as the soundtrack.

Three months after my return home, I’ve finally re-adjusted to life in America.  As I slowed down and re-focused my attention on my own self-care, at times it felt like the credits scrolled by on the screen and the music stopped playing.  Just like in the theater, all that was left was the mess on the floor to clean up—most notably a body that was exhausted and sometimes depressed.

Rejecting the Lie

I’m discovering some profound things about myself as I work through this next layer of healing.   I know it is what God is requiring from me so that He can more fully use me for His bigger purpose.  As I do, I am clinging to my identity in Christ and not some worn out lie or stigma.

Are you believing a lie from your past?  Who will you believe—our heavenly Father who loves you, or the Evil One, the thief and father of all lies?  What are you doing to flip the switch in your thinking? 

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10, NIV)

Turning to the Dark Side

I’ve been blogging for over two years and recently reached a blogging milestone of 100 posts.  I started out slow, blogging when the mood hit me and now consistently post once a week.  That may not sound like much, but at times it has been a chore—to either fit it in my schedule or to force the writing to come out.

100 postsThe Growing Pains of Blogging

My blogging has grown a lot over the last year.  I’m now starting to see that my focusing on Spain for so long was mentally draining on me.  I pushed myself physically while traveling and also mentally to blog while there.  I don’t regret it because at least for me personally I’m glad to have documented my trip in that way—not the standard travel log.

I’m starting to get my writer’s sea legs back now with inspiration that comes from deep within.  That is what led me to writing and blogging in the first place so it feels good.

But blogging isn’t always a feel good thing for me.  I think if bloggers were really honest with themselves, they’d have to admit that they’ve felt some anxiety or tension at one time or another when it comes time to publish a post.  It is a scary and vulnerable position to put yourself out on the internet for all the world to see—especially when you are sharing your personal story.

Then there are the voices within that tell us that the number of followers we have or the number of ‘likes’ on our posts somehow dictates our value or is a true indicator of our writing skill.  (I know I’m not alone in my thinking.)  It happens I’m sure in any creative endeavor.  We have to be sure of ourselves and our message.  That is where my identity in Christ helps me.

Publish IconPublishing Humiliation

In my quest for healing, I recently discovered that my publishing fears were deeper rooted than just the typical “will people accept me” or like my writing.  I was having a particularly hard time releasing my worries in publishing a post, and then it all came back to me.

When I was in college, I turned from my desires to be a journalist to something much more analytical—an accountant.  Sometimes I hung out with the crowd at the college newspaper, never writing stories though.  My first semester communications courses brutally killed that dream.

My extracurricular passion was serving as the music director at the college radio station.  During a period of transition in management at the radio station, I wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper.  I don’t remember what it was about specifically, but it wasn’t a flattering piece.  I got a lot of flak for that letter.  Worse yet, the station manager wrote a rebuttal to the editor in the next publication.  I was publically humiliated in front of my peers.

I could go on and on about how I might have felt justified, or whatever.  The point is that when I publish a post on my blog, sometimes that humiliation is triggered in me—the deep fear of saying or doing something that will be misunderstood or land on someone the wrong way.  Recognizing that trigger has helped me to release that fear.

Getting comfortable behind the mic again at WMCR (25th college reunion)

Getting comfortable behind the mic again at WMCR (25th college reunion)

Writing Crossroads

At my one year blogging milestone, I wrote a piece about writing for “An Audience of One”.  I like to think that audience of One is my heavenly Father.  Realistically though, I sometimes get in the way of that.  I know that my writing serves to inspire some of my friends and family.  I’m very grateful for their acknowledgments of that.  In my darker days, it is just what I need to encourage me to keep going.

Now that I’ve passed my second year blogging milestone, I feel like I’m at a crossroads with my writing.  I enjoy blogging, but realistically I’ve felt more like a blogger than a writer this past year.  I’ve been so busy and focused on Spain that my memoir has sat dormant on my computer since November 30, 2012—the last day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  It was a labor of love to churn out over 30,000 words in 30 days.  It was also very intense and emotionally draining.  Oddly enough, I’m considering picking up that work in progress in November, but not with that kind of intensity.

I need a writing discipline in my life in order to tackle the huge project ahead of me.  NaNoWriMo was that last year.  So I am preparing myself for the next leg of my writing journey.  If my memoir is ever finished and sees the light of day, I’ll have much bigger fears to overcome.  Until then I’ll keep training that ‘publish’ muscle one post at a time.

Shakespeare blogger

PS.  If you want to know what I learned from my second year of blogging, it is to not be concerned about the length of my posts.  When I started blogging I followed all the suggestions about size, content, etc.  But I’ve noticed that my favorite author blogs don’t publish short posts.  That doesn’t stop me from reading to the end.  I’m not concerned about my word counts any more.  I read for quality and depth of story, so that is what I am shooting for here as well.  Thanks for your interest in my work and reading to the end!

Breaking the Silence & Letting Go

Two months after my return from Spain I still haven’t been able to piece together what to write about how my trip relates to the continuation of my story in “Journeys to Mother Love”.  Over the last few years I’ve openly blogged about it and told my friends how significant this trip was for me.

I was meeting Rosa after three years of waiting, praying, emailing, Skyping and planning.  She learned English to facilitate our face to face communications.  Except for the post I wrote about my first day in Spain, I have been silent about that part of my trip, and the writing in general.

At the Alcala Gate with Rosa, Madrid.

At the Alcala Gate with Rosa, Madrid.

As a writer, that silence on my blog feels deafening.  I had so much expectancy for this trip and so much riding on the outcome.  I even wrote a post on journeystomotherlove.com, A Match Made in Heaven, on my anticipation for this journey.  But now I am struggling with what and how to write about it.  Writer’s block?  Maybe, but I’m inclined to think there is more to it.

Letting go of Expectations

Early on in my trip, I realized I had to let go of the expectation that I would write about Rosa’s side of the story—what happened in Spain when prayers were sent from America in the midst of her sorrow.  While Rosa showed me places that were significant with her side of the story, like her parents’ home (which was also her childhood home) and the church where her mother’s funeral was held, God revealed to me that the story I am to tell is more about my journey.  Rosa was a conduit for my healing.  We were both blessed by our mutual encouragement and prayers. 

Taking the tram with Rosa from Soller to Palma, Mallorca, for a day of sightseeing.

Taking the tram with Rosa from Soller to Palma, Mallorca, for a day of sightseeing.

When I stepped on Spanish soil I was ready to experience the trip of a lifetime.  I was open to experiencing God in a new way.  I had already let go of so many expectations—like not professionally speaking while there and not having the Spanish translation of my story published in advance.  I decided to trust God for His purposes for this trip.

While I was in Spain, the Lord slowly stripped me of much more.  The biggest thing for me to surrender was how much my identity has been wrapped up in my writing and the publishing of my story.  I went with the expectation that people in Spain could relate to my story, like they have in America.  I was grateful for the few opportunities to give away copies of Journeys to Mother Love.  Outside of those times, I felt very invisible as a writer and in my faith.  A lot of that was also because I didn’t know the language well enough either.

One copy of my book graces the book shelves at my apartment in the Port of Soller, with the best reading view of the Mediterranean, August 2013.

One copy of my book graces the book shelves at my apartment in the Port of Soller, with the best reading view of the Mediterranean, August 2013.

Before I was a published author, I knew God wanted to use my story.  I knew He was making me bold (witness my blog name).  But being in Spain led me to question much of that and my writing.

In hindsight, I think a lot of it had to do with the cultural and spiritual differences between our countries.  They became more real and visible to me.  I know now that the only way I could see that and understand it was to be stripped of that part of me and my voice.  It was a painful process—one I’m still trying to integrate.  I know He is transforming me again.

Moving Forward

42 days is a long time to explore a country.  I had the most amazing escapades while in Spain with my host family.  I had wonderful adventures in Madrid, Toledo, Segovia, Granada, Cordoba, Seville and on the island of Mallorca.  I have 5,000 photos that bring my trip and so many special memories back to life for me.

In time some of that will show up on my blog.  I don’t doubt that God wants to use my story or this trip in some way.  He has given me new insights into my journey.  He has given me new insights into the writing process.  Meanwhile, I am clinging to my identity as a child of God and learning to let go (again).  I am grateful for the journey—the good and the bad—and what lies ahead.

Do I want to know what that is?  Am I nervous about it?  Do I want to control it?  Absolutely!  I can only take one day at a time and trust that He’ll use the story He is crafting in me to inspire others to turn healing into hope.  As He does, I know He’ll release me to break more of the silence along the way.

Farewell dinner at my apartment in the Port of Soller, Mallorca, Spain.

Farewell dinner at my apartment in the Port of Soller, Mallorca, Spain.

España Update 9 ~ Home Sweet Home

Homeward bound—Seattle, Washington.  My day of travel started over 16 hours earlier with a bittersweet farewell between me and my Spanish family.  Now I was at JFK International Airport in New York after completing two flights, surviving a bomb scare in Madrid, and avoiding an international incident on my transatlantic flight.

Re-checking my Luggage

As I departed the U.S. Customs area with my 100 pounds of luggage, minus the confiscated Iberian ham, I had a decision to make.  Do I immediately re-check my baggage for my final flight or do I follow my suspicions and search my luggage to determine if anything was stolen?

Seeing the Starbucks at JFK airport was a welcome reminder that I was almost home.

Seeing the Starbucks at JFK airport was a welcome reminder that I was almost home.

Why do I think I was robbed?  During the inspection by the U.S. Customs agent, I noticed my belongings were strewn around in my suitcase with receipts scattered amongst my clothes.  When I packed my suitcase the night before, they were wrapped up in a jewelry bag.  The thought of it gave me a sick feeling in my gut.

As I mulled over my options, I followed the crowd and queued up in the line to re-check my baggage.  The line was moving swiftly, and it was looming large behind me.  Before I knew it, I was at the head of the line.  I was so exhausted and emotionally beat up after my Customs experience, I just didn’t have it in me to re-open my suitcase and face my fear.  I plopped my suitcases on the conveyor belt and pushed any thoughts about my jewelry and personal belongings being stolen out of my mind.

The Last Leg

Thankfully the layover at JFK was void of any further airport hassles or problems.  The time passed quickly as I ate, then emailed, phoned, and texted friends and family while charging my mobile phone.  I was exhausted yet thrilled to speak in English and connect with the voices of people I hadn’t communicated with in six weeks.

My flight from JFK to Seattle was uneventful, but it seemed to last for an eternity.  The 5½ hour flight was on a Boeing 737 where I was squished like a sardine.  Compared to the Airbus A330 from Madrid, I was feeling very claustrophobic, and sleep was very haphazard.  I missed the start of the movie and my mind was done with writing after hammering out seven pages on my flights.

Seattle welcoming committee

Seattle welcoming committee

It was nighttime as the plane descended into SeaTac International Airport.  I’d been chasing the sun for the last 24 hours of travel.  And now I was watching the city lights of the beautiful Seattle skyline below.  “Almost home”, I thought as I fought the tears welling up inside of me.

A Musical Reminder of Spain

On the way to meet my family at the baggage carousel, I made a stop in the ladies room.  While in there, I was totally caught off-guard when I heard one of Pedro’s compositions playing.  “Oh my gosh,” I thought as my adrenaline spiked through the roof.  “How is it possible that his music is playing on the sound system?”

I laughed out loud when I figured out that it was really just the ringtone on my cell phone.  I hadn’t heard my phone ring in six weeks.  On top of that, I had inadvertently changed my ringtone while in Spain.  Laughter aside, it reminded me of the potential of his music and that being broadcast more publicly is just a matter of time.  After all, he signed his first contract to compose for an American full feature film while I was in Spain.

Family Homecoming

I was a puddle of tears when I met my family at the baggage claim.  I clung to my 16-year old son and hugged him lovingly.  “Hola” may have been the first words out of my mouth, but I reverted back to my American hugs versus the European double cheek-kiss that I’d become accustomed to over the last six weeks.  I needed those first few lingering hugs from my son and my husband.

Although I was exhausted and more than ready to head to bed, I knew I had a big surprise awaiting me at home.  While I was gone in Spain, my home was undergoing a major renovation.  My family endured a complete remodel of the kitchen and two bathrooms.  They had been putting the finishing touches on the house in time for the big unveiling when I walked in the door.  It was a beautiful homecoming gift.

Welcomed home and back to America with a bouquet of flowers and a new kitchen.

Welcomed home and back to America with a bouquet of flowers and a new kitchen.

Facing my Worst Travel Fear

After a restless night of sleep and an early awakening by the sunlight, I knew I had to face my fear lurking inside my luggage.  Was anything stolen from my suitcase?  The quick answer to that is yes.

Almost everything was gone from that jewelry bag—nothing of great monetary value, but the pieces were from places I’d traveled in my life that had significance to me.  Thankfully I was wearing the necklace Rosa gave me while traveling (the one I reference in my published story).  I was also wearing a special charm bracelet that connects me to Rosa.  I was relieved when I found out that the thieves missed a second bag of jewelry buried in my clothes and some new jewelry pieces I bought in Spain.

My new Mallorcan pearls survived the theft.

My new Mallorcan pearls survived the theft.

It took me a few weeks of phone calls with the airlines to file a claim and find out that none of my stolen items were covered by insurance.  Going through that process was like being robbed and defiled all over again, but it gave me the closure I needed so I could put it all behind me.

Final Travel Thoughts

Returning back to America on day 42 of my travel adventure had nowhere near the excitement I had when I ended my flights in Spain on my first day.  There was no adrenaline rush to keep me going—only exhaustion, physical illness, and unpleasant travel memories.

My trip to Spain changed me internally and now it was as if these external factors—a bomb scare, my confiscated Iberian ham, and finally my stolen jewelry—were trying to rob me of my joy and leave me with an unfavorable parting impression of Spain.

These physical events have served as fodder on my blog, but they also have much deeper significance.  I hope it serves as a reminder of the choices we have to make when things don’t go the way we expect.  We can blame others, ourselves, or even God.

I know that my circumstances don’t define me.  It is my identity in Christ that does.  While the thieves physically robbed me of my jewelry, my identity in Christ remained intact.

My trip to Spain has changed me in ways I can’t even fully articulate yet—with emotional and spiritual insights and healing.  I am being made new and choosing to boldly follow him in the adventure.  I hope and pray you will too.

My final day in Spain and the view from my apartment, Port of Soller, Mallorca

My final day in Spain and the view from my apartment, Port of Soller, Mallorca

~ This completes my “España Update” blog series, but not my intermittent writing about Spain.  If this is your first time visiting my blog, you can start reading about my Spanish travels here

In the Blink of an Eye

Three months ago when I stepped on Spanish soil, I had to make many decisions about how to live in that country. I had to quickly adapt without the benefit of having my American family or friends with me. I chose to fully immerse myself in everything Spain.

I put aside my allergen sensitive diet and ate most everything I was offered. At first I didn’t notice any dramatic symptoms. I was fighting the heat, dehydration, and jet lag. I guess I was dealing with culture shock as well, but didn’t realize it at the time.

“You made it to Spain! You are experiencing the trip of your life. Don’t miss a second of it.” Those were the words that kept me going. Adapt, adapt, adapt. Push, push, push. “It’s only six weeks,” I reminded myself. All the while that I partook, my body registered everything that was happening.

My trip of a lifetime, seeing sights like the Roman aqueduct from the 1st century, Segovia, Spain.

My trip of a lifetime, seeing sights like the Roman aqueduct from the 1st century, Segovia, Spain.

Now That I’m Home

I returned home from Spain in early August and was again dealing with adjustments back to my American lifestyle and diet. But after the first few weeks, I didn’t bounce back to my old normal self. I knew something was physically wrong. A trip to the naturopath confirmed what I suspected. My Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) was in relapse.

I’ve been here before. I know it is a slow process to get back up and running to a normal pace—one that includes lots of self-care, body work, and giving myself grace to not push so hard. I have no regrets. It just goes to show that you never know when or how things can suddenly change in your life.

Back in Spain

Case in point, a few weeks after I left Spain, Rafa, Pedro’s father, had a stroke. It came as a big shock to me and, of course, to their entire family. Thankfully Rafa got treatment right away. He is doing much better and a full recovery is expected.

Queen for a day, with Rafa as my escort at the Royal Palace in Madrid.

Queen for a day, with Rafa as my escort at the Royal Palace in Madrid.

Naturally it took me back to the fears I had after my mother’s stroke. She never regained her speech or use of the right side of her body. It also felt like déjà vu to me as I lit a candle in the Catholic Church for Rafa and fervently prayed for this family. My heart ached for Rosa again, and for the burden that fell upon the family while still caretaking for Perico, Rosa’s father.

On the bright side, I was so grateful to have personally met Rafa before this happened. I was thankful for the many special times I had with this family, and Rafa in particular.

Rafa was a wonderful host and tour guide while on my travels throughout Spain. He is an avid shutterbug like me and took lots of great photos of my trip.  He was also my protector in many ways—even going so far as to escort me one Sunday morning on the subway so I could attend a Protestant Church service. I am thankful for his generosity to me and am praying for his continued recovery.

GOD-NEVER-BLINKSIn the Blink of an Eye

A few years ago, I used to have a tag line as part of my email signature block that read: Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry; God never blinks. (Regina Brett) It was a little reminder to trust God when things didn’t go as I expected.

Nothing surprises God. He knows what lies ahead for us. It is up to us how we are going to respond to it.

As I am coming out of denial and learning to accept what I did to my body again, I am believing in God’s promises and clinging to the hope that He offers. His words to me, and others who are hurting in physical and emotional ways, are from a familiar Bible verse: “but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31, NIV)

I can blink without worry because my hope is in the Lord.

España Update 6 ~ The Language

Obviously the Spanish language was another major change for me to adapt to during my six-week trip to Spain.  The one regret I have about my trip is that I didn’t spend more time learning the language.  I think it would’ve made a big difference—especially in group settings.

Preparing for the Language Barrier

Back when I was in high school, most colleges required two years of a foreign language for admittance.  So that was exactly what I took—the 2-year minimum, in Spanish.  Nowadays, most universities are requiring three or four years.  I would’ve hated that at the time, but in hindsight, I can see how two years of a foreign language is not enough to really communicate.  After all, when Pedro first arrived at our home, he already had eight years of English behind him.

ShortcuttoSpanish.com, my favorite online study tool.

ShortcuttoSpanish.com, my favorite online study tool.

Over thirty years after my high school language classes were completed, I came face to face with the reality that I was going to need to speak Spanish for my summer travel to Spain.  I spent three months in advance of my trip listening to Spanish audio CDs and studying the language.  With that, plus a translator app on my mobile phone, I hoped and prayed that would be good enough.

Immersed in the Language

A true exchange student is normally immersed in their new language without much opportunity to speak in their native tongue.  That was not the case for me.  My Spanish family was very accommodating of my language deficiencies as they all spoke English to some degree.

My biggest challenge was communicating with Rosa, Pedro’s mother.  She had an English tutor for the last year to help her prepare for my visit.  Although our initial communications were somewhat clumsy, her English was surprisingly good.  We both relied on electronic translators to help us fill in the gaps.

I would've been lost without my trusty Bing translator on my Windows 8 phone.

I would’ve been lost without my trusty Bing translator on my Windows 8 phone.

Early on in my trip, I embraced the language and tried to communicate with my family in Spanish.  I wanted to learn the language.  I know I butchered it at times, but was rarely corrected.  They knew what I was trying to communicate.  I eventually limited my trying except for some basic phrases that I routinely needed.

The Emotional Side

While everyone spoke English with me, all other conversations were in Spanish.  Prior to my arrival in Spain, I hadn’t given that much thought.  I knew the household would be a mixture of Spanish and English.  It was rather disorienting to live in a home and an environment and not understand what was being spoken around me.  Of course, I asked at times or was filled in occasionally, but over time, I think it started to wear on me and fed into feelings of isolation.

The truth of the matter is that not knowing the language myself limited who I could talk to, when I could talk, and what I could say.  There were times I felt lonely and invisible—even in a room filled with people.  The emotions around this totally caught me off-guard.  Back in America, I would be able to process all of these feelings and cultural adjustments with a trusted friend or in a support group setting.  While in Spain, I mostly turned to my journal and to prayer.

I was very grateful for the occasions when I was able to speak English for an extended period of time—like having Pedro’s uncle serve as my personal tour guide throughout Seville, befriending a young Mexican woman who spoke fluent English, or spending a Sunday afternoon with English speaking Protestants.

My own personal tour guide in Seville, Pedro's Uncle Francisco.

My own personal tour guide in Seville, Pedro’s Uncle Francisco.

The Fun of Learning a Language

On the brighter side, I have some very humorous memories related to the language.  Pedro used my naivety with the language to coach me into saying embarrassing things.  I quickly learned and regularly repeated the phrase “no confío en ti,” which means “I don’t trust you.”

Rosa also mixed up the English words “kitchen” and “chicken” early on.  We never let her forget that mistake and reversed those words in our future conversations.  That led to Pedro and his father trying to confuse me on giving directions—to the left (izquierda) or to the right (derecha).  Our friendly teasing was always good for a laugh.

I loved how learning Spanish stretched my mind in new ways—even at my age.  I loved how at times we all mixed the Spanish and English in our conversations.  I enjoyed and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly my mind started to think in Spanish, and sometimes subconsciously in my dreams.

Pedro and his family commented several times how much my Spanish had improved over the course of my visit.  I was just as surprised, although disappointedly so, that it all disappeared as soon as I was back in America.

Many restaurants had bi-lingual menus, like Casa de Valencia in Madrid.

Many restaurants had bi-lingual menus, like Casa de Valencia in Madrid.

Lessons Learned 

I have logged dozens of hours of Skype calls with Pedro since we met.  Not once did I ever feel like I needed to learn Spanish.  What I learned about the language from all of this isn’t really about the Spanish words or the grammar.  It is that we truly do live a world apart, and the language, no matter how much I learn, will always be a barrier between us to some degree.

I also learned many things about Spain, my Spanish family, and about myself on this trip of a lifetime.  After two weeks back home, I am still processing much of it.  One thing is for sure, I would not take learning the language so lightly for a future trip.

~ If this is your first time visiting my blog, you can start reading about my Spanish travels here.  To read the next update in this series, click here.

España Update 5 ~ My Host Family

My trip to Spain came to an end several days ago.  Hopefully the blogging about my travels will continue here intermittently for quite some time.  I couldn’t let another day go by though without writing something in appreciation to the family who hosted me these last six weeks.  I hope you enjoy getting to know them a bit as well.

The Importance of Family

From the start of our relationship with Pedro three years ago, I watched him interact with family members back home over Skype and heard stories about his family gatherings.  I was impressed to hear how important family was to him.  On his initial student profile (filled out as part of his application process as an exchange student), Pedro didn’t mark “family oriented” as one of his personality characteristics.  I remember later telling him that was an oversight on his part.  I knew it then and lived it firsthand myself these last six weeks.

Rosa, me, Pedro, and Rafa, my host family for 6 weeks in Spain.

Rosa, me, Pedro, and Rafa, my host family for 6 weeks in Spain.

Over the last three years I’ve heard family member names come up in Skype conversations, received photos of new babies born into the family, and prayed through their trials and tribulations with them.  So besides Pedro’s parents, Rosa and Rafa, I knew I also wanted to meet his other relatives.

The Family Tree

One of our early conversations when we first met Pedro was about his family tree.  It was a very memorable conversation because as he tried to explain the familial relationships, we kept getting confused with the family labels he used.  It was really quite comical as we couldn’t understand how Pedro, who had no siblings, could have nieces and nephews.  It turns out that in Spain, his 1st and 2nd cousins are considered nieces and nephews.

Within days of my arrival in Madrid, the family visits started.  After the first one, Rafa, Pedro’s father, kindly created a family tree to help me navigate all of the names and relationships.  By the time I left Spain last week, I met almost everyone from Rosa’s side of the family, from her one year old great-nephew to her 93-year old father.  I met 26 relatives in all, from Madrid to Seville to Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain.

Rosa, outside the summer home in Soller, Mallorca, Spain--for 3 generations.

Rosa, outside the summer home in Soller, Mallorca, Spain–for 3 generations.

Living in a Large Family

Not only did I meet them, I also lived with many of them, at the family summer home in Soller, Mallorca.  This home has been in the family for three generations, and is set up to accommodate sleeping arrangements for over 20 people.  Pedro has spent every August of his life there.  Everyone extended me a warm welcome and treated me like family too.  It was an amazing gift.

In Soller, I got a bird’s eye view into living in a large family.  I witnessed the fellowship amongst adults and friendship between the children.  I observed their gatherings at meals, at the pool, at the beach, and at play.

I was immersed not only in Spain; I was immersed in family living.  Coming from a background of divorced parents and few relatives, there were times I felt inadequate around this large family, not knowing how to fit in, while also trying to overcome the language barrier.

A fond farewell with Pedro's grandfather.

A fond farewell with Pedro’s grandfather.

What I saw day in and day out was a family that put a high value on the children and was bonded in love.  With Carmen, the family matriarch gone, the grandfather is the glue that holds this family together.  It will be a mixed blessing with his passing, as the caregiver role that this family carries is quite heavy.  It was truly a gift to meet him. Although our communication was hampered by the language barrier, he was always trying to communicate with me—repeating the same questions over and over.  I didn’t mind though.  His attention was welcome, and it helped me with my Spanish too.

An Evening to Remember

My final night in Spain was spent at the family home with 19 other people.  It was filled with precious memories as part of this large family: help with my online flight check-in, hanging around the pool, meeting more family, playing board games and late-night Charades.

My parting gift to this family was a signed copy of Journeys to Mother Love, that includes the published story that brought us all together.  It was a poignant and sentimental moment for me—traveling 5,300 miles across the world and coming full circle with the story in my mind.

With my Spanish family on my final night in Spain.

With my Spanish family on my final night in Spain.

A Fond Farewell

I know that God gives us what we need in so many unexpected and special ways when we chose to follow His will and His ways.  When we opened up our home to Pedro, and made him part of our family three years ago, I never dreamed that I would one day be the recipient of that same hospitality.  When I traveled to Spain, I didn’t realize what kind of effect that would have on me—never having a close family or many relatives growing up.  Their kindness touched me in deep ways that even now brings tears to my eyes.

I left Spain with a bigger heart for this family and a deep appreciation for them opening their home and their lives to me.  I miss Spain.  I miss them.  But I know our goodbyes were not the end of this relationship.  It is just adios for now and on to the next chapter of the story that God is weaving between our families.

A parting gift from one of the grandchildren who touched my heart.

A parting gift from one of the grandchildren who touched my heart.

On a Personal Note

I am closing this post with a special thank you to Pedro, Rosa, Rafa, and my entire Spanish family.  Muchas, muchas gracias!  May God richly bless you for the many kindnesses you have shown me.  With love, Ardis

~ If this is your first time visiting my blog, you can start reading about my Spanish travels here.

España Update 4 ~ The Food

For the most part, eating is an experience in Spain.  The way they approach meals is very cultural.  In America, our meals are often a rushed experience.  In Spain, lunch and dinner are a sit-down family experience, or one reserved for gathering with friends—especially dinner.

The Spanish Cuisine

Americans consume vast amounts of fast food.  We also use a lot of pre-packaged or prepared foods in our cooking.  In Spain, the ingredients are fresh from the market.  For instance with so much bread in their diet, they buy a fresh loaf almost daily.  (Bread is to the Spaniard like rice is to the Chinese.)  The bread comes from a bakery—no Wonder Bread, or other similar sliced and mass produced bread.

Fresh food in the local neighborhood market, Madrid.

Fresh food in the local neighborhood market, Madrid.

Since olive groves are plentiful throughout the country, it is only natural that they use olive oil in so much of their cooking.  The main use of olive oil in my American home is in the summer when we douse our vegetables in olive oil before grilling them on the barbeque.  It is a taste sensation.  In Spain, I use olive oil to fry my very American egg breakfast, to drizzle on my bread at dinner or for a vinegar and oil salad dressing.

Olive groves in the mountainous region of Andalucía, southern Spain.

Olive groves in the mountainous region of Andalucía, southern Spain.

The most common meat in Spain is ham.  But don’t picture the traditional American Thanksgiving or Easter ham.  This is a totally different type of ham (jamón).  This ham has been cured in special seasonings and is then thinly sliced—like paper.

I can only remotely explain it as a sort of cross between bacon in flavor (but not cooked like bacon), and salami in consistency.  It is everywhere and visible in restaurants or markets with the leg of the pig hanging upside down from the ceiling.  I ate this delicacy before ever realizing how it was prepared, etc.  The ham and bread (jamón y pan) are a staple of the Spanish diet.

Ham, Spanish style, a frequent site in restaurants and markets

Ham, Spanish style, a frequent site in restaurants and markets

Other popular Spanish foods are paella—a Spanish rice dish usually prepared with seafood or chicken and gazpacho—a delightful chilled tomato based soup (my personal favorite), and one that Pedro introduced to our family on his first trip to America.  I occasionally add this to our American summer menus.  I was delighted to find gazpacho available in refrigerated cartons in the market so I can still enjoy it while living on my own these last few days in Spain.

My first authentic Spanish paella, Madrid

My first authentic Spanish paella, Madrid

The Food Experience

I’ve done a lot of traveling during my five weeks in Spain.  It has given me a feel for the food in different parts of the country and lots of opportunities to have tapas.  Tapas are similar to what Americans would consider appetizers.  Most restaurants have a full tapa menu as people order multiple tapa dishes and share them amongst the table.  It is a feast of tasting different flavors, and different types of food.

San Miguel Market, Madrid, a popular tourist location for tasting Spanish food.

San Miguel Market, Madrid, a popular tourist location for tasting Spanish food.

I bravely decided to try everything I was offered—even if I didn’t know what it was.  It made for some interesting food experiences.  I’ve truly enjoyed some foods I never would’ve considered trying if I knew what they were—like black pudding.   On another outing, I ordered bull’s tail for lunch.  I’ve also had octopus (not sushi like in Seattle), Vichyssoise, a French soup served cold, made from potatoes and leeks and foie pate, a meat paste made from duck liver.

Sangria, a refreshing wine drink with fruit.

Sangria, a refreshing wine drink with fruit.

The Drinks

The Spanish also like their alcoholic drinks.  I’ve sampled and routinely drank many of these.  One of the main surprises to me is the way Spaniards consume their wines.  I had heard wonderful things about Spanish wine.  Living in the wine country of the Pacific Northwest I expected to taste many wines—as a compliment to my food, like I do in Seattle.

In the circles I traveled and parts of the country I visited, that was not the case.  In other words, wine was not ordered based on what food we were eating.  The alchoholic beverage most served with a meal was either cerveca (beer) or tinto de verano (summer wine).  Summer wine is basically a red wine with a 7-Up type of cola added.  It was very refreshing.

Other alcoholic beverages included Sangria, Mojitos and Valencian Water.  But beware, the latter two carry quite a punch.  One of my favorite drinking experiences was witnessing family members drink summer wine (tinto de verano) from a flask type of bottle called a porron.  It almost reminded me of something one might witness at a fraternity party, but was demonstrated by Pedro’s grandfather.  Pedro demonstrated it as well and I obliged to their initial urging to try this too.  (Like I said, I embraced this lifestyle and tried to fit in.)

Drinking summer wine from a porron bottle.

Drinking summer wine from a porron bottle.

A Virtual Eating Tour

Everywhere I travelled and every time I tried something new or unusual I took a photo of the food or the setting.  So I’m including some of my food adventures for your virtual eating pleasure.

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Eating On My Own

My last week in Spain is already here and I’m living on my own in an apartment with views of the Mediterranean.  It is amazing.  I am writing this at a Chinese restaurant (for a change of pace and taste) along the beach overlooking the Port of Soller and my apartment home across the water.

I’ve enjoyed the Mediterranean and its food, but after five weeks away from home, I am ready for American food.  Bon appetite!  (Oops, that’s French, but you get the idea!)

The food is Chinese, but the view is Mediterranean.

The food is Chinese, but the view is Mediterranean.

~ If this is your first time visiting my blog, you can start reading about my Spanish travels here.

España Update 3 ~ The Lifestyle

Like other Mediterranean countries, the Spanish lifestyle is steeped in tradition—from the pace of the day, to the food they eat, and more.  It is so very different from America.  Living with my Spanish family has given me a bird’s eye view into the typical Spanish home.

Thanks to hours of Skype calls and dozens of emails with Pedro and his family over the past three years, I knew a lot about the Spanish lifestyle and culture prior to my arrival.  I was ready to blend right in—or so I thought.

For all of the prep I did, language, exercising, dieting, etc., the one thing I didn’t consider was my hair color.  With my red hair, it is like I am wearing a sign that says “Soy Americana.” Other than that, I am doing everything in my control to live like a Spaniard.  Here’s an idea of what that is like.

Standing out with my red hair and enjoying the laid back lifestyle Spanish style (with Sangria).

Standing out with my red hair and enjoying the laid back lifestyle Spanish style (with Sangria).

Pace of Life

The Spanish lifestyle is much slower paced than in the U.S.  However, my personal pace of life has been very hectic as we tour parts of the country and sightsee almost daily.  The Spanish are hard workers, putting in a full day’s work, from 9AM to 7PM, but also fitting in a long lunch for the traditional summer siesta.  In the summer, families usually take a month long holiday (vacation), like I am now.

The Spanish pace of life revolves around their scheduled meal times.  With no set time to wake up in the morning in my family, breakfast (desayuno) for each of us has been on our own.  The mid-day meal, lunch or almuerzo, is generally at 2:00 in the afternoon.  Unlike America, lunch is the main meal of the day.  It is served in courses, with all family members finishing each course before moving on to the next.

Rosa wheels a cart with the family dinner to the dining area.

Rosa wheels a cart with the family dinner to the dining area.

The Siesta

With a big mid-day meal and an uncomfortably hot summer climate, the traditional siesta is definitely in order after lunch.  In America, I usually get a bit drowsy after lunch, but I fight the urge because I always have so much to do.

Before I arrived in Spain, Pedro asked me if I was going to participate in the Spanish tradition of siesta.  I laughed and told him I was planning on writing during the daily siesta time.  He jokingly told me the siesta is the best invention since electricity.  And now, four weeks later, I have to agree; I love the siesta.  Sadly that means my writing has suffered.

30 minute siesta to rest and rejuvenate.

30 minute siesta to rest and rejuvenate.

When I awake from my siesta, I feel refreshed and ready to continue on with my day.  The siesta splits my day in two and makes me feel like I fit more into the day.  The next several hours of the day are always very productive.  While in Madrid I tried to spend this time of the day with Pedro working on music projects or we would go out exploring.

When was the last time you answered your body’s call for an afternoon nap?  The equivalent in America would be the power nap—a rare luxury—something I am seriously considering instituting when I return home.

End of the Day

In America, the late afternoon hours are a sign of the end of the day. In Spain, there are still many more hours of productivity left in the day.

Between 9 and 10 PM when Americans are settling down for the evening and getting ready to call it a day, the Spanish are coming alive.  This is the normal time for dinner.  In my family home, dinner is followed by a late night movie, ending the day at midnight or later. (My tired body would normally fall asleep shortly after the start of the movie.)

Outdoor seating is common at restaurants in Spain.

Outdoor seating is common at restaurants in Spain.

For the young, or young at heart, the night is still early.  Many nights Pedro would go out late with his friends. I have experienced a few late night evenings while traveling in Spain with Pedro’s family.

I haven’t experienced the disco or bar scene per se, but I have been privy to the familial connections that transpires at these outings.  They aren’t necessarily drunken parties that the American news channels love to exploit.  They are times to relax with friends and family over a light and long leisurely dinner, usually tapas (appetizers), and drinks.

Two More Weeks

Today’s post marks the end of four weeks in Spain.  My time on the mainland is now complete, leaving Madrid and Pedro’s piano behind a few days ago.  I have captured nearly 3,000 photos on my adventure.

Blogging on the Wifi in Puerta de Soller, Mallorca, Spain

Blogging on the Wifi in Puerta de Soller, Mallorca, Spain

I am currently on Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain, on holiday with my family.  I will return home directly from here two weeks from today.  ¡Hasta la vista!

~ If this is your first time visiting my blog, you can start reading about my Spanish travels here.

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