Not your Typical Exchange Student Experience

This week marks the 5th anniversary of meeting Pedro González Arbona, a short-term Spanish exchange student, and his adoption into our family.  Every year at this time, my internal clock reminds me and sends me down memory lane.  That’s because Pedro’s arrival in our home set a series of life-changing events in motion for me emotionally, spiritually, and with my writing.

While our adventures that first summer were fairly typical of the experiences of host families and their students, the relationship that ensued was not typical.  It led to a deep connection between his mother and me as we prepared for our mothers to pass away; it led to launching Pedro’s music and film composing career; and it led to my church mission to Spain last fall.

Welcome poster

Pedro’s welcome poster, July 2010.

Five Years of Celebrations

So for the last four years, I’ve deliberately marked the occasion in some personal way.

Five years later, and I realized I had never publically shared the behind the scenes story of how this all came to be.  Even the way in which Pedro ended up in our home was not the usual course of events that occurs when signing up to host a foreign exchange student. It was a whirlwind of surprises and quick decisions a few short weeks before Pedro arrived in America.

Pedro at the Nelson family piano, July 2010

Pedro at the Nelson family piano, July 2010

Rekindling an Old Friendship

The story starts in June 2010.  My oldest son was a senior in high school and auditioned to perform a classical piano piece at the Baccalaureate ceremony.  The evening of his audition, our son shared over dinner that one of the judges was Kris, a family friend from our old neighborhood.  We’d lost touch with each other through the years.  She remembered my son from way back when our kids played together.

After years of no contact, I decided to connect with Kris over email.  That started a nice string of replies back and forth and the rekindling of an old friendship.  My son passed the audition, and we made plans to see each other at the ceremony later that month.

Pedro in the recording studio, July 2011.

Pedro in the recording studio, July 2011.

Looking for Host Families

A few days later, Kris sent us an email about Education First (EF), the exchange program that she was in charge of for our area.  She asked us if we would be interested in hosting a student.  44 students from France and Spain were arriving in 4 weeks and they still needed homes for some of the students.

My husband and I had a Finnish exchange student through Rotary International in our home early on in our marriage (over 20 years ago) before we had kids.  It was such a fun experience; we were open to doing it again, and sharing the experience with our now teenage sons.

We had never heard about the EF program.  We learned EF was a short-term program, generally just a few weeks.  Some years the program involved students being in language classes during the day.  Other years the program entailed multiple planned field trips for the students, and lots of unscheduled time to be immersed in the culture and life of their host families. This particular year, was the latter program for 4 weeks in July.

We talked it over as a family and decided to give it a try.  We filled out the application, went through the home interview process, and had our references checked.  Since most everyone in my family had taken some Spanish in school, we requested to host a Spanish male student in our home.  We anxiously awaited word of who our host son would be.

Our EF leaders, Kris & Jan.

Our EF leaders, Kris & Jan.

Matching Host Families and Students

Ten days later, I eagerly opened the email that matched families with students.  When I read our host son’s profile, I was surprised to see that he didn’t play the piano.  During the initial interview process, Kris shared that there was definitely at least one student who played the piano and that we would be matched with him.

From the moment the opportunity to host an exchange student came up, I felt God was calling me to stretch myself outside of my comfort zone.  I was excited about welcoming a student into our home, but I was also nervous about it.

So when I noticed that the student assigned to our family did not play the piano, I prayed about what to do.  Was I to blindly trust that this was ‘the student’ for us?  Was I supposed to speak up and make our desires known?

I contacted Kris about our assigned student.  Her response was welcome news.  She made a mistake in assigning the students.  We were supposed to be matched with a young man from Spain who played the piano.  His name was Pedro!

Pedro in his studio in Madrid, July 2013.

Pedro in his studio in Madrid, July 2013.

First Contact

Our family had the advantage of knowing a little bit about Pedro and his family by way of the profile sheet that he filled out as part of the EF program.  Right away I sent Pedro an email introduction and family photo.  He quickly replied, sharing his excitement to visit Seattle, and about his love of music and cinema.  He had also looked up our location on Google Maps, said how beautiful it looked, and naturally asked about the rain.

Communication was also then initiated with his parents, Rosa and Rafa.  In our first email from his parents, they told us we “have friends in Spain if you want to come to visit.”  (Three years later I took them up on that offer.)

Several emails followed over the next two weeks before his arrival in our home.  It was a crazy time for us.  Our son was graduating from high school and we had an out of town trip planned to a family wedding.  Somehow I managed to prepare the house and my spirit to welcome this young man into our home in short order.  (I’m sure prayer had something to do with it.)

We had a fun filled 4 weeks together exploring Washington State, and learning about each other’s countries and cultures.  And of course, Pedro played the piano every chance he got.  Unbeknownst to us, he was also playing some of his own compositions, like “Portman,” still one of my favorites.   A few months later, he sent us “Seattle,” a song he composed and dedicated to my family.  (Click to view studio recordings or listen to songs on the media player in right sidebar.)

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Pedro, at the keyboard at the VIP screening of Tempting Fate, Houston, July 2014.

Pedro, at the keyboard at the VIP screening of Tempting Fate, Houston, July 2014.

A Match Made in Heaven

I’ve never regretted opening up our home to an exchange student or specifically to Pedro.   We were so attached to Pedro, we invited him back the next summer for a personal visit.  Five years later our families still maintain regular contact via email, Skype, or Whatsapp messaging.

It was truly a match made in heaven.

The experience has expanded my definition of family and stretched my heart, my mind, and my faith in amazing ways.  Sometimes the geographical and language barriers make our relationship challenging.  Other times it brings such great joy.

When we agreed to host an exchange student in our home, I never thought I was signing up for this kind of long-term commitment.  But I was open to being used by God; and I trusted Him each step along the way.

I have been immensely blessed by Pedro, Rosa, Rafa, and the rest of his family.  They were a conduit for the Lord’s healing to be manifested with the passing of my mother several months after Pedro returned home.  (That is the story published in Journeys to Mother Love.)  Rosa is my Sister in Christ.  I am a proud benefactor of Pedro’s music (pgarbona.com), and relish our friendship.

Pedro & his American family from Seattle, July 2010, a match made in heaven.

Pedro & his American family from Seattle, July 2010, a match made in heaven.

Be the Blessing

We never know how God is going to use some small act of kindness to bless us or others.  I hope you will give heed the next time He nudges you to do something outside of your comfort zone.  The blessing may just be on the other side of obedience.

Pedro EF

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)

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

España Update 7 ~ Departing Spain

Everybody has a story to share about their travels—some comedic, frustrating, or scary. My return flights from Spain to Seattle, 3 flights covering 25 hours of travel, were plum with anecdotes to blog about.  One month after my return home, I’m ready to tell mine, and in hindsight, can chuckle just a little.

In comparison, my flights to Spain 6 weeks prior were very uneventful. I only had one layover and it was on American soil, so I was familiar with navigating U.S. airports, etc.  I was also met at Barajas Airport in Madrid by my Spanish family.  The language difference never really surfaced.  There were no stories to tell, only excitement to share and jetlag to overcome as I lived out my longest day and started my Spanish adventure.

Farewell Mallorca, Spain, my home for 2.5 weeks, summer 2013.

Farewell Mallorca, Spain, my home for 2.5 weeks, summer 2013.

The Best Laid Plans

The first leg of my travel home to America was an early morning one-hour flight from Palma, Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain, to Barajas Airport in Madrid.  It was a separate ticket from the roundtrip international portion of my itinerary.  That meant I had to physically claim my baggage and re-check it to the U.S., not something I was looking forward to doing alone.  I made plans to meet up with Victor, another Spanish exchange student, for help, and to reconnect since our last meeting three years ago in Seattle.

Determining a place to meet was one of the comical parts of my journey and opened my eyes to the differences with traveling abroad.  In a text conversation with Victor, I indicated I needed help with my baggage and requested that he meet me at the baggage carousel for my flight from Mallorca.  He told me he wasn’t allowed in that area of the airport.  I thought he didn’t understand my request and asked Pedro to explain where to meet.  In the end, I was the one who didn’t understand as the baggage claim area is a secured area in Barajas Airport, unlike in America.  So I had to initially claim my baggage, nearly 100 pounds of it, on my own.

Squeaking by the 23 kg weight limit with my luggage.

Squeaking by the 23 kg weight limit with my luggage.

A Scary Situation

With my bags in hand at Barajas, I patiently waited for Victor to show.  That was when my trip turned ‘interesting’.  While sitting outside the baggage claim area, a man walked up beside me and, without a word, laid down a backpack next to my luggage.  I watched in shock as he hurried off in another direction not looking back.  I realized immediately this was a safety concern.  However, being in a foreign country, and barely able to speak the language, I didn’t know how to report it.  Luckily others noticed it and called security.

I was long gone by the time security arrived.  I had already eaten up a lot of my layover time waiting for Victor and so I quickly turned my attention to getting to my next flight—praying as I rushed from the terminal dragging my luggage behind me.  I never connected with Victor, later hearing that his phone died and he couldn’t contact me.

While I was a bit fearful about the bomb threat, I was reminded that if I died in that moment that God had answered a prayer I’d had for the last three years—let me see Spain before I die.  Somehow that was comforting to me.  I never heard anything about that mysterious package on the news or while traveling.

A comedic moment, spying the overflowing pile of water bottles at the security checkpoint.

A comedic moment, spying the overflowing pile of water bottles at the security checkpoint.

Navigating Barajas Alone

With no personal Spanish translator, except my phone app, I began texting Rafa, Pedro’s father, for help along the way and keeping him posted on my status.  They had warned me that T4, the international terminal, was a long distance from T2, the terminal where my Mallorca flight landed.  I didn’t realize until I was on site that meant actually riding an airport shuttle bus.  I dragged my luggage onto the standing room only bus to T4, a few miles away along the highway.

Checking in at the Barajas main terminal was another learning experience.  Pedro and Rosa helped me at Palma, but now I was alone.  I asked each airline worker or friendly looking traveler within earshot, “habla Inglés?”

Since I had my boarding pass for my flight to New York, I was directed to a self-service kiosk to check in my luggage.  That kiosk spit out my luggage tags.  Then I had go to another line to actually deliver my baggage and send it on its way.  It was in that line that I met my first Americans.  What a relief!  We shared a few pleasantries and our itineraries.  Then they graciously took my photo—the last one on Spanish soil.

Navigating Barajas Airport on my own with 100 lbs. of luggage.

Navigating Barajas Airport on my own with 100 lbs. of luggage.

Security Checkpoint and Boarding

With my baggage out of my hands, I headed to security, which is less restrictive than American TSA rules—no removal of shoes, no dealing with plastic zip-lock baggies, and no x-ray body scans.  However, they were a lot more thorough with their baggage search—or at least it seemed that way as they took a lot of time with the x-ray machine and going through the carry-ons.  I had also heard other travelers mention a worldwide security alert was issued for air travel the previous day, so that could have been the reason.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Barajas is a huge airport.  It is the 4th busiest one in Europe.  That became very apparent to me on the way to my gate (puerta).  Shortly after leaving the security line area, I saw signs that gave estimates of the amount of time to get to the gates.  Mine read 22 minutes!  Yikes, I thought as I realized the flight was boarding soon.  My 3-hour layover had whittled away to nothing.  My laptop bag grew very heavy as I continued on multiple escalators, moving walkways, and a tram to reach my gate, naturally at the end of the terminal.  The timed signs were actually quite handy as they decreased in value along the way, but the initial estimate was a bit alarming.  I virtually walked right onto the plane with no waiting.

Travel times from the main terminal to outlying gates were posted on overhead signs.

Travel times from the main terminal to outlying gates were posted on overhead signs.

Adios España

As I settled in to my window seat and watched the landscape of Spain soar by below, I was filled with many mixed emotions.  I missed my American family.  After 6 weeks in Spain, I was ready to go home.  My trip of a lifetime was ending.  I didn’t know when or how I would ever return to Spain or physically see my Spanish family again (and still don’t).  It is an uncertainty and pang of the heart that I live with daily and trust God to lead me back in His timing.

My final hours and minutes on Spanish soil were scary and stressed.  The late night before, lack of sleep, and early morning were all starting to catch up with me.  It was early afternoon.  I still had 18 hours of travel ahead of me.

Farewell Madrid, my home for 3.5 weeks, summer 2013. I miss you already.

Farewell Madrid, my home for 3.5 weeks, summer 2013. I miss you already

Re-entry to America was anything but fun.  You can read about my remaining flights home on my next update in this series.

What’s your most memorable travel story?  Feel free to share it in the comments below.

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 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.

España Update 2 ~ Adjusting to Life in Spain

Writing doesn’t come easy in Spain.  In fact, it seems that not much of anything comes easy for me here.  That isn’t at all an indictment of the family I am staying with or the Spanish life.  It is just an indication of how different everything has been for me to adjust too.

Grateful to be reading chapter upon chapter of this part of the world.

Grateful to be reading chapter upon chapter of this part of the world.

Sure I am having the time of my life.  I am seeing amazing historical and religious sites.  I am living with a family that I adore.  But with a mid-life body, an American way of life that is entrenched in me, and having a 5,300-mile and a nine-hour time difference between friends and family, it has been hard to adapt.

I have come to realize that there are so many things that we take for granted in the US.  We don’t think about how different everyday life is in other parts of the world.

Most Americans don’t get an opportunity to experience living in a foreign country.  Those that do are generally doing it through a work requirement, a missionary trip or as part of an educational exchange program.

In light of that, I thought it would be of interest to share some of the adjustments I had to make to live in Spain and a few differences between our two countries.

Mediterranean Food

One of the biggest adjustments for me has been the food.  A few months prior to my trip, I made radical changes in my diet to get healthier—doing a cleanse and eliminating allergens like wheat and milk.  I was amazed at how much better I felt.  I knew it would be difficult to maintain this new diet, especially since bread (pan) is such an integral part of the Spanish diet.  The first few days I declined the bread, but that didn’t last.

Drinking gazpacho, a chilled tomato based soup.

Drinking gazpacho, a chilled tomato based soup.

Now I am embracing and experiencing all of the Mediterranean food I can, eating things I’d never dream of trying in America.  I have many favorites including some that Pedro prepared for us in his previous stays in our home, like gazpacho.  My food adventures will be fodder for another full blog post though.  İEs muy delicioso!

It’s Hot in Spain!

Another radical adjustment for me has been adapting to the heat.  Thankfully I leave for the Balearic Islands and cooler temperatures in two days.

The first week of my trip, the temperatures were in the 90s.  Pedro’s family kept telling me how lucky I was to be here with the cooler temperatures.  Last week, the mercury in the thermometer rose past 100 degrees and has remained there most days.  (I’ve also had to adjust to Celsius versus Fahrenheit temperature readings.)

Hace calor! 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hace calor! 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

For me, it hasn’t been just a matter of adjusting to the heat, it has also been staying hydrated.  We have been out sightseeing almost every day.  I finally wised up to carrying a bottle of water (aqua) with me whenever I leave the flat.  By the time lunch rolls around at 2PM—another adjustment—a chilled beer (cerveza) or glass of summer wine (tinto de verano) is in order to quench my thirst.

Unlike America, air conditioning isn’t as available–including the cathedrals and monuments I’ve visited.  At night I sleep with the windows open and a ceiling fan running—the same as I would at home in Seattle.  A shower doesn’t seem to help during the day either as I’m sweating as soon as I dry off.

Avoiding the Heat

One way women keep refreshed in the heat is by carrying a fan (abanico).  I carry my fan with me everywhere I go, a gift from Rosa a few years ago.  I’d probably stand out like a sore thumb in the States if I used it, but here, it is a common site.

The best way to avoid the heat though is by taking a traditional siesta (afternoon nap).  The siesta doesn’t necessary require sleeping, but is used to relax in other ways as well, to read the paper, watch a movie, etc.  It is a way of slowing down and not doing activity during the heat of the day.

Abanicos in a Spanish shop window

Abanicos in a Spanish shop window

Most shops even close a few hours in the afternoon due to siesta.  Only tourists and those unfamiliar with Spanish custom would dare be out in the streets at that time of the day.  I love siesta and how recharged I feel when I awake.

Hopefully that gives you a feel for some of the differences.  Stay tuned for more information about the Spanish lifestyle and sights of this amazing country–my home away from home for three more weeks.

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

España Update 1 ~ The Longest Day

I knew that dealing with a 9-hour time difference and jet lag would be a difficult process.  I had watched Pedro do it twice before when he visited our home.  Both times he was a real trooper, immediately attending welcome parties and staying up late on his first night in America to do a gift exchange with our family.

During the first few days of my stay in Spain, several times Pedro said to me, “Now you know what it felt like for me.  It was horrible.”  And now I agree.

The Longest Day

Actually I think I did quite well, all things considered.  I managed to get 30 minutes of sleep, basically a cat nap, the night before I left.  When my alarm clock went off at 3:15 in the morning, I felt ready for the day.  I had dreamed of this day and meeting Rosa many times in the months, weeks and days preceding my trip.  I hoped for lots of sleep on the plane and knew my adrenaline rush would get me through the day.

Approaching Madrid from the air.

Approaching Madrid from the air.

The flight and my first days in Spain are a complete blur in my memory.  What I can clearly recall is that it felt like the longest day of my life—and it was.  By the time my head hit the pillow for my first night’s sleep in Spain, 40 hours had physically passed.

Touchdown Madrid

The anticipation grew as I negotiated the Spanish airport signs, long corridors and what seemed like an eternity waiting for my baggage to slide down the carousel.  I expected long lines to get through Customs as well, but the agent barely gave me or my passport a second look.

I was so excited to communicate my first Spanish words to someone—even just a passing “Hola” or “Buenas dias” would’ve been enough to confirm I was on Spanish soil.  But no, he was just pushing paper and not at all interested in the journey I had physically, emotionally and spiritually traveled to get to this time and place.

Navigating Barajas International Airport in Madrid

Navigating Barajas International Airport in Madrid

With Customs cleared and baggage dragging behind me, I knew my next stop, per se, was connecting with Pedro’s family.  More importantly, it was meeting Rosa face to face for the first time.  My camera was ready in hand and somewhere in Madrid’s Barajas International Airport, Rafa, Pedro’s father, was waiting with his camera perched to capture this moment for me.  The only problem was I had no idea around what corner we would meet.  And then it happened.

Meeting at the airport

Meeting at the airport

Meeting Rosa

A large set of opaque sliding glass doors opened wide to reveal a group of people standing behind a gated area.  I heard cheers and saw smiling faces.  I think I even heard my name; and then I made visual contact with Pedro and his family.

Rosa was definitely excited.  She was shouting my name in her thick Spanish accent and didn’t let the metal barricade keep her from rushing up to greet me.  I reciprocated with the standard European hug, a cheek kiss on both sides of the face.  All of our initial words and greetings are now gone from my memory, but the excitement of those first moments are still lingering.

First Hours in Spain

When I got to their home, all I wanted to do was eat and go to sleep, but travelers are recommended to get on the new time zone by forgetting the time difference and embracing the current hour of the day.  My body knew it was after midnight back home, but at my new home the day was just starting.  Ay, (Spanish for ‘oh my gosh’)! I dreaded the thought of getting through this day without sleep.

Pedro and family outside his former school.

Pedro and family outside his former school.

My host family did allow me to take my first siesta later though.  It was sandwiched between two walks in the neighborhood.  On our first walk I was delighted as we toured the Catholic school Pedro attended from 1st-12th grade.  The halls were lined with the framed first communion photos from previous year’s classes.  What a treat to see Pedro’s young face and proud moment plastered on the school wall along with some of his friends, who at this point I only knew by name.

Our second walk was to Retiro Park, similar to Central Park in New York City.  I found my first geocache here—one I remembered Pedro telling me about two years prior.  Now it was my turn to “log a smilie”.  That’s geocaching lingo for finding a cache.  My camera, and my feet, got a real workout on both of my outings.

My first geocache in Spain, Retiro Park, Madrid.

My first geocache in Spain, Retiro Park, Madrid.

Priceless Memories

The real highlights of this longest day were the heart connections that confirmed my love for this family and why I traveled around the world to be here.  My first was watching Pedro play the piano minutes after my arrival to their home.  No words could describe the pride and joy that filled me in this moment—three years in the making.  And then when Rosa joined us, well, the tears naturally came too.

Later in the day when I awoke from my siesta, Pedro’s music was filling the flat again, and my senses.  Rosa and I had some quiet time together with his music playing in the background.  It was all so surreal to me, like a movie soundtrack was playing in the background.  It was priceless.

Pedro at the piano

Pedro at the piano

After 12 days in Spain, I have adjusted to a new way of living and my beloved Spanish family. What I haven’t adjusted to though is how and when to write.  I originally thought I’d be writing during the traditional siesta time, but I have fallen in love with my siesta.  Today I have foregone it to finish this post that was started days ago.

There is so much happening, so many sights, and so much emotion.  I am pushing myself hard to keep up with all we are doing.  What my mind and fingers don’t have time to capture on the computer, my camera is capturing ‘on film’.  That is enough to keep me writing and blogging back home for the months to come.

I am sending much love to my family and friends back home and beyond who made this trip possible.  It is a dream come true.  It is especially for them that I am writing today.  Tomorrow I will siesta again.

Until we meet again, que tenga un buen dia. (Have a good day.)

Rosa & me beaming over Pedro's music and the delight of finally meeting.

Rosa & me beaming over Pedro’s music and the delight of finally meeting.

The Road to Spain, Update 6 ~ The Music

The last time I physically saw Pedro González Arbona we were waving each other goodbye at the security checkpoint at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport two years ago.  He arrived that summer as an aspiring composer.  He left America that day with 50 professionally recorded CDs of his original compositions, eager to share his music with friends and family in Spain.

Managing Pedro’s Music

Our relationship changed that summer, not intentionally, but it went from one of family connection (as a result of a short term exchange program, Education First) to a music partnership.  When I offered to take Pedro into the recording studio in July 2011, he started to affectionately and jokingly call me his manager.  As I caught his dream of composing movie scores, I came to take that responsibility more seriously, as did he.

Since that time, his music found a home with CD Baby, an independent music distributor, giving him an online presence on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and other retail music sites, and giving him worldwide exposure.  As fantastic as this may sound, online access doesn’t automatically equate to fame and fortune—although I was naturally concerned it might.

Introducing Pedro at his debut American performance, June 2011

Introducing Pedro at his debut American performance, June 2011

Carrying on our relationship across 5,300 miles has not been easy.  But like the online translator has helped bridge the distance between his mother Rosa and me, Pedro’s music has helped to connect us as well.  When Pedro left in July 2011, he had a repertoire of 18 songs; 13 of them were recorded on his CD, Introducing Pedro González Arbona.

Since then he has become quite prolific with his music, growing from simple piano melodies to fully orchestrated pieces.  Last month, he reached a major milestone by composing his 100th piece, sending each song to me via email along the way.

And Then it Happened . . .

One day out of the blue several months ago, Pedro emailed me an incredibly beautiful composition that seemed to stretch his music to a new level.  I made a mental note on that day of this shift, prayed about it, released it to God, and even wrote in my journal how it felt like his music was truly ready for the big screen.  The very next day, I received an email from Pedro that he got noticed by a Spanish film production company who was interested in hiring him to compose for a full feature film.  This was incredible news!

Pedro informed the company that I was his manager and the international communications began with the producer.  Things progressed very rapidly after that.  Pedro was offered the chance to compose for a short film to test his talent—which he passed with flying colors.  He was then offered the job to compose for the full feature film next year.

The last few months have been a whirlwind of musical commitments for Pedro and a steep learning curve for me.  I have been blown away by his beautifully orchestrated compositions for the short film.  Throughout the production process, he has demonstrated his maturity and creative genius in working with the producer and the director.  It has all paid off well for him as the trailer for the short film, “Sed de Amor” (Thirst for Love), below, was released last week.  (By the way, the song I mentioned above was the basis for the song featured in this trailer.  It really was meant for the big screen and answered prayer!)

It’s a Small World

What is so interesting to me in all of this is how the connections for this film came to fruition.  It wasn’t because the film company stumbled upon Pedro’s music.  It was through a high school friend, Chani Bas, who is the director and screenwriter for the short film.  He heard of Pedro’s musical pursuits and shared Pedro’s music site with the producers.  Pedro’s music spoke for itself.

Putting Pedro’s music online was never rooted in financial motives.  It was all about sharing Pedro’s music and getting him exposure.  We just had to be patient for the right circumstances to materialize and God’s timing.

6 DaysReunion on Spanish Soil

When I arrive in Spain in one week, I will be reunited with Pedro—no longer an aspiring composer, but a professional one, with the score of his first professional film under his belt.  The timing couldn’t be better, as we will be able to partner for his music promotion, the release of the soundtrack on July 1, and the premiere of the movie.  I’m also anxious to watch him perform the dozens of songs he sent me over the past two years.

I couldn’t be happier for Pedro.  His dreams are becoming a reality.  I fertilized the seed that was planted in my home when we met three years ago (when he first played the piano for us).  The hard work has paid off.  Now it’s time to enjoy the fruit of our labor, and thank God for the abundant blessings He has bestowed on us.

Update 12/18/2013:  To read about my music related adventures in Spain, check out “Lights, Camera, Action, Part 1.”

  • WELCOME to my site!

    I'm an author, writer, speaker, mentor & mom. I've struggled to find my voice all my life as I lived in the shadows of a mother with mental illness. Thankfully that was not the legacy that she handed down to me. It took a lot of recovery and deep healing work to rise above it.

    I am thankful to God for Making Me Bold in the process. Now I use my writing and speaking voice to help others on their journey to turn healing into hope.

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    Arrival on Spanish SoilApril 29th, 2018
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