Spanish and the new me

Since returning from Europe I haven’t blogged. First came jet lag, then the cold and cough, and then all the other activities that make up an ordinary life, but don’t always inspire me to write. Three weeks passed, and friends tired of asking me what was my favorite part of the vacation, probably because my answers were as exciting as a summary of a trip to the dentist.  Ultimately, I pieced together different experiences and realized what made our two weeks in Seville special for me, namely, making connections with Spaniards. This means I have a couple more Spain blogs in me.

There’s something wonderful about knowing a language that’s not your own, even if you don’t know it perfectly. When you speak the other language you become someone else. What a shock to meet the new me shortly after take-off on the plane from Amsterdam to Seville.

I am only outgoing with people I know.  I rarely talk to strangers on an airplane. (An exception occurred when I sat by a white-bearded man on a plane to Honolulu, who was a professional Santa Claus. He even had a business card to prove it.)  On the flight to Spain I sat next to two men comparing the length of their thumbnails, which was all it took to get the conversation flowing between them. (My poor husband was stuck alone in the back row because we didn’t ask for seat assignments quickly enough.)

Right way I knew the secret club the men belonged to. But that doesn’t explain why I didn’t open my book and ignore them as I would normally. Instead, I leaned over and said, “Do you both play flamenco?”

They smiled and said yes. One man was Spanish and the other Dutch. The latter spoke fluent Spanish, and the former spoke little English, so there was only one language available to all of us. I’d picked up enough information about guitars, players, and flamenco from forty-six years of marriage to a guitar maker that I could speak comfortably about the subject. The Spaniard played flamenco and classical guitar and sometimes traveled to the U.S. to play at events for his sponsor, Bose. He even gave me his latest CD. The Dutch musician was going to Seville to play at a memorial. I asked him how much time he devoted to flamenco, expecting him to say he had a day job to support his habit, since Amsterdam isn’t a flamenco hub. Instead, he said that flamenco was his life. Imagine getting something that personal out of someone on an airplane. The old me could never have done it.

When I boarded the plane I assessed my Spanish skills as adequate. As we landed I knew I was better prepared than I realized. Both of my seat mates were kind, friendly and willing to engage in a long conversation with someone at least one generation older, if not two. This made for a good introduction to Spain. If they were representative of the rest of the country, we would be fine. And we were.

I just checked out a book on flamenco at my library. The old me is back, but the interests that came from my weeks as the new me are here to stay.

 

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Picture perfect

One day remaining in our two week experiment of living in a Spanish city on our own and I hadn’t found the perfect setting for my annual travel photo.  Yes, I must be in the photo, ideally with my hair combed, but more importantly the picture must tell a story about where I am. Last year’s, from our trip to Scandinavia, featured me and a troll, a perfect couple and symbol for that part of the world.

I was stuck on how to represent Seville. I didn’t want to pose under a taxidermied bull’s head in a bar, or be dwarfed by a bell tower as tall as a football field is long, or ask a male flamenco dancer with no hips and weighing what I did in high school to pose beside me.

What else could I find that typified this beautiful Andalusian city? The answer came to me last night. Every street in our neighborhood has at least one small shop dedicated exclusively to flamenco-style dresses, none of which appealed to my middle-class or life-as-a-retiree clothing tastes. But the dresses were ubiquitous, which made them the perfect symbol for Seville. The next question was how to put myself in a picture with them.

“I’ll pose in front of a rack of dresses,” I told my husband, feeling uncomfortable as I walked into one of the hole-in-the wall stores knowing I had no intention of buying a dress, or even looking at one. I hid from the shopkeeper behind a pillar, he took the photo, and we fled.

“That doesn’t work,”  I said as I viewed the shot from a safe position in the alley. ‘It’s just me in a dress shop.”

In store 2 we found a single dress for me to stand next to. “No good, It looks as if I am asking how it would look on me.”

As I looked into the next store, with the shopkeeper sitting at a desk facing the door, I realized that lurking was not getting me anywhere. I walked toward her, glancing at the racks of dresses on both sides of me.

She must have sensed my amazement at the size of her stock because she said, “Una semana, We wear these for only one week a year.” She went on to explain that the occasion is the annual Feria, the Seville Spring Fair, an event that occurs every April. She said that everyone — rich and poor, old and young — dresses up. Maybe not too poor, I thought, as she showed me price tags on the least expensive and most expensive dresses, 250 and 500 Euros, respectively. She works alone now but keeps the store open for Christmas shoppers looking for next year’s dress. Starting in February, the shopping season begins and she hires eight others to help out. I don’t know how the eight could fit in the shop. Where would they put the customers?

I asked if she’d mind our taking a picture of me in front of her dresses.  “Wait,’ she said as she came out from behind her desk and walked over to one of the racks.  “Here. Put your arms through it.”  She moved my hands to my waist and signaled to my husband that I was ready for the photo.

All of a sudden, the dresses didn’t look so ridiculous. “It’s really heavy,” I said, still wearing a t-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes and my multi-colored polka dot compression socks.
“Yes,” she added, “and harder to walk in when you’re wearing high heels.”

I was thrilled to have my photo, but it now seemed less important than having made a connection over an important element of Sevillana culture. “I hope to see you again,” she said. Today’s our last day here, but if there’s time I’ll drop by again and ask what they do during those seven days while wearing their heavy dresses in eighty-degree temperatures.

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I should have stuck with Spanish

Maimonides

It’s not a surprise that I don’t remember much of what my high school teachers tried to teach me. Perhaps that’s just as well, given what I do remember: the never-ending reminder coming from an unsmiling English teacher, a character straight out of the nineteenth century, always to use “forbad” instead of “forbade,” though I’m not sure any of us ever needed to use either form; an assignment to team up  with a friend in my twelfth-grade health class to research and report on syphilis and gonorrhea; and a U.S. history class taught by the Vice-Principal whose job duties including paddling misbehaving boys, whom he then assigned to his history class so he could keep an eye on them. (I always wondered why I ended up in his class.)

What is surprising is how much I remember of one subject: eleventh-grade Spanish. Yesterday, as we wandered through the former Jewish Quarter of Córdoba, Spain, we touched the sculptured bronze feet of the scholar Maimonides polished by the hands of so many pilgrims told they would gain wisdom (still waiting), and saw a statue of Lucio Anneo Seneca, aka Lucius Seneca the Younger, both of whom appeared in early chapters of my Spanish textbook. Later, I saw a road sign to Ávila and thought of Santa Teresa de Ávila, which then triggered the memory of San Juan de La Cruz, two more characters in the book. Along with these historical figures, artists Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco also appeared in our reading. And their names are still with me.

Lucius Seneca

Why do these figures from fifty-plus years ago still come to mind?  It had to be the teacher. I can’t recall his name, but I can remember his enthusiasm for his subject. Every day he demonstrated his love for Spanish. Now I wish I had let his excitement push me toward more study, but at the end of the school year I decided I’d had enough Spanish.  In college, I didn’t have to take any more language, because I had completed the obligatory two years in high school. How many of us took the route of choosing to stop language study, just when it could have made an indelible difference? Nearly everyone I know. We told ourselves we weren’t going to use a second language, so why bother.

Since retirement, my husband and I have been traveling to Europe regularly, where we have met so many talented Dutch, French, Scandinavians, Belgians and others who spoke three or more languages.  Yesterday’s guide, Enrique, led a tour through Córdoba while telling the history of Andalusia in Spanish, Italian and English…for a group of six. Of course tour guides represent a high bar that the average person might not reach. Still, I think about what it would have meant for the size of my world today, if I  hadn’t waited so many years to absorb my teacher’s enthusiasm.

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Tracking down the elusive medical test in Spain

Hooray! Today, after a 6.94 euro cab ride, my husband and I landed at a medical laboratory in Seville, Spain where I had a blood test. And the results were in the acceptable range.I needed this for my doctors back home to properly treat the blot clot I developed in August.

A few days after we arrived in Spain, I walked into a pharmacy and asked where I might take a blood test and get the results analyzed quickly.  “The only place is a hospital emergency room; otherwise, laboratories will take one to two weeks to do an analysis,” said one pharmacist.  Great.  Nothing I like more when on vacation than sitting for hours in an emergency room. Then, the first pharmacist checked with a second one who said he had heard of a pharmacy that offered blood tests with fast analyses. He looked up a name and number and wrote them on a post-it note.

Two days later, I called the number hoping for an English speaker on the other end of the line, but with no luck.  It’s not easy to talk about blood clots and anticoagulants in English, much less Spanish, but somehow my explanation was successful enough that the woman I spoke to could assure me her pharmacy didn’t do tests. Then, as an afterthought, she gave me another phone number, and that phone call led to a private lab – Rider Laboratory — that would perform the test.

At the lab, the receptionist and Dr. Rider were reluctant to show off their English skills, leaving me to bumble my way through the initial explanations.  My husband and I were an anomaly, a curiosity. I don’t think they see many vacationers there. But they drew my blood, and afterward Dr. Rider and I had a long conversation. He was curious about what state in the U.S. I was from. I spoke with some fluency, missing proper verb tenses, but able to blab away.  He spoke slowly, thinking before every word that came out and making no mistakes. Regardless of our different styles we understood each other completely.

As we left, Dr. Rider came into the reception area to look over the email address I had given them (last name Oxrieder). He pointed to his name on the wall.  “Like mine.  Are you German?”

My husband said yes and explained that we had heard that his family name was once Ochsenrider. Then I said that I too had an ancestor by the name of Rider who was from England. Dr. Rider ended by saying, “Maybe we are family,” and we all laughed.

I started this blog by saying how much we paid for taxi fare.  I mentioned that because of what we paid for my blood test: 6 euros, slightly less than the fare for a 20-minute cab ride. Later we noted that we had spent more time socializing with the doctor and his receptionist than we ever spent with our own doctors.

 

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Lost in the labyrinth of Seville

The Mushroom

If it weren’t for the mushroom (see photo), our word for what is known as the Metropol Parasol, we would be lost. It is our guidepost. We are staying in an apartment in an old part of Seville, Spain — not just a few years old but centuries old — in a warren of narrow streets accessible only on foot. Yesterday, while looking for the square where the off-site apartment manger to leave our trash — Plaza de Alfalfa — we discovered a shortcut to the mushroom, which was good to know but also in the opposite direction of the trash bins.

Five days ago, we arrived in Seville after dark.  The taxi driver let us off at the entrance to this street, called Calle Siete Revueltas.  “A la izquierda” he said.
“What do we do after we turn left?” I asked my husband, who shrugged.

I first learned the adjective “revuelto” in Mexico in the context of “huevos revueltos,” scrambled eggs.  In this case the street name means “seven turns,” but scrambled describes it just as well.

One nice thing about this neighborhood without cars is that it’s dead silent. Back home, we live near a freeway and we’re used to car traffic and planes flying overhead. I woke up the first night here and wondered what was wrong.

Within the streets of this maze and everywhere else we go, strangers are not safe…from us. Asking for directions of people just stepping out their front doors, resolutely crossing a plaza, or sitting quietly on a bench in a public square occupies much of our days. Today, on our own, we discovered several new shortcuts, successes which always give us moments of rejoicing.

many carriages and horses for                         tourists to  choose from

Our Spanish is improving quickly.  It has to, because few people seem excited to test their English out on us. I’m thankful that Spanish words buried deeply in some storage bin in my brain are popping out. Usually these words make sense to the hearer. However, today, a man I was talking to kept backing away. He was trying to sell me a ride through the city in his horse-drawn carriage. I told him I’d taken this ride  years ago, and it had rained (llover) during the entire ride, just poured down on us. A few hours later I realized that the word I used wasn’t quite what I intended to say. I was talking about water falling, but didn’t mean to say I was crying (llorar) during the carriage ride.

I really need to get my Spanish straight tomorrow when I have to call a pharmacist to explain that I have a blood clot and need a blood test with an immediate analysis of results.  If this doesn’t work, it’s off to a hospital emergency room to ask for the same procedure, another potential scramble in this labyrinthine world. So far everyone I’ve asked for help has come through, except for two teenage girls who didn’t know where they were and even they tried.

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How not to pack

PACKED AT LAST

What to wear? What to wear? I’ve been packing a suitcase for nearly a week, which makes me well qualified to speak on the topic of how not to pack for travel. Today marks my fourth round of taking everything out of one suitcase, hanging one or two items of clothing back in the closest, removing one or two new things from said closet and repacking. I should mention that while I’m still repeating this shuffle, it’s not with the same suitcase I started with.

Ah, I loved that first suitcase I packed, compact, easy to wheel around, seemingly roomy enough for everything, and best of all, purple. After four days tucking, squeezing, and flattening my clothing with my hands, followed by jumping up and down to close that purple beauty, I transferred everything to suitcase two.

Why is it so hard to decide what to put in a suitcase?  Our more recent trips have taken place in cool climates among cultures that value the outdoors life. These lend themselves to easy packing decisions: one pair of clean jeans per week, a few sweaters, a coat and an umbrella.

Our upcoming destinations start hot and dry and end cold and wet, which makes planning more difficult. But I can’t blame my indecision entirely on the change in climates. I hold up this blouse to these pants, these pants to those shoes and this tank top to that pair of shorts and ask myself, will I be pegged immediately as coming from the U.S.?  The answer is almost always yes. I remind myself that these days clothing may not distinguish one traveler from another throughout much of the world. Who doesn’t wear jeans?

Maybe what’s more worthy of examining than whether my fashion sense matches anyone else’s is what our other suitcase contents say about us, either when we’re leaving home or returning. For example, I’m taking a Spanish language book to Spain, where you’d think I might happen upon something to read in that language. Last year, my husband and I bought brown Norwegian goat cheese (gjetost) to bring home, only to find it in our local grocery store. What I should remember when I’m packing is that the world is smaller than we realize, and I am bound to blend in with at least a few of the 11 million tourists who visit Andalusia each year or the 17 million who go to Amsterdam. And, hey, if I’m too cold in Amsterdam, I’ll take a wild guess that they sell sweaters there.

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How to stop watching TV

shot from a PBS documentary

In my last post, I mentioned wanting to eliminate TV watching as a way to pare down habits that interfere with accomplishing… not sure what, but accomplishing something.  At least it would offer a way to keep me out of a mindless stupor a few more hours a day. We already read at night, but surely there’s something else we can do.

My husband and I watched TV as a way to relax after work. Now that we’re not working, do we need this particular form of relaxation?  One evening a week ago, we didn’t turn the Tube on. The next evening I went to a meeting and he stayed home, and, again, didn’t turn it on.

Two consecutive nights: it felt like a record that needed breaking. I was thankful that we had recorded the last episodes of two series we’d been watching, and since we had to find out how they ended…well, you know what happened.

I decided to seek friends who might have solutions to breaking the TV watching habit. My informal survey proved that my friends are not normal.  Two of them have no television sets. In response to my question about how they spent their evenings, one said she did housework. A third friend said he watched sports, our local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) channel and news on three stations.

“That’s a lot of news,” I said “especially these days. Do you have to drink after the news is over?”
“No,” he said, “I begin drinking before I watch.”

Watching three news programs as an evening pastime ranks right up there with housework: not an option. His choice of PBS, however, is a good one.  It does offer programs that help keep the synapses firing and is often our second choice, if not the first. Maybe if we limited ourselves to one channel?

Since friends were no help, I turned to the internet for advice, which, by the way, is another habit worth breaking, especially when it adds up to more daily screen time. What I learned about how to kick the TV habit was to begin by recording how many minutes we watch every day and then cut back. No need to go cold turkey, but watch for fewer minutes, then fewer days. Next, we can limit the number of shows we see, which means stopping before watching any more reruns of M*A*S*H* or Raymond or the Big Bang Theory.

The fall TV season has begun. With each new season, television has gotten darker and darker, airing shows mostly about  satanic cults, serial killers, or alien takeovers of our planet, none of which inspire or work well as sleep aids. Not only can we save time, but also avoid nightmares by ignoring the new fall lineup altogether.

I’m now feeling more confident that we can gain a few more hours a day by cutting back on television series.  I am taking a blood thinner that does not permit drinking, so more than one news program a day is not in the picture.

 

 

 

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Paring down

A sign of the times: a recent issue of “Cooking Light” magazine gives tips to improve readers’ ability to handle stress. These include 1) moving your focus away from undone tasks, 2) limiting your fretting to situations you can control, and 3) not aiming for perfection.

The article directs readers to several sources, which I checked out from my neighborhood library. The one I’ve skimmed is, “SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life.” As I opened the book I thought, here we go again. Another useless guide to cleaning out my closets, useless because I never do anything the experts prescribe for getting organized.

But reading about shedding turned out better than I expected. Yes, the clutter focus is here. Author Julie Morgenstern lists ten  example of “physical burdens,” two of which I know I’ll be able to shed. “Excessive memorabilia” is the first on my list of contenders for tossing, old recipes is the second. And this morning, after trying to find something in my kitchen “junk drawer,” I decided that will come next.

What’s more interesting, is that the book also speaks to shedding “time burdens” and “habit burdens.” Both made me stop and think. Under the former, I admit that more often than not, when asked to volunteer, I may mouth the word “no” but no real sound leaves my lips. My problem is worse than just saying yes. Recently, I finished a volunteer project for an organization I belong to and within minutes came up with ideas for two more.  Luckily, I didn’t share them with anyone, so I’m safe…for now.

The list is shorter for habit burdens — for which I’m thankful — but eliminating some of the behaviors on it will require serious work. I’ll start with “mindless escapes,” which includes “TV, email, internet.” I imagine “internet” applies to Facebook, Instagram, and checking news websites daily to learn what new perils our national leaders are dragging us into. My husband and I started talking about giving up on TV. I’m investigating that option by interviewing friends who have made the break, while I still keep up my nightly TV watching schedule. Meanwhile, I’ll work on the other stress reducers in the Cooking Light article.  I’ll start with avoiding attempts to do things perfectly.  That should be easy.

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Who is the real you? Ask someone else

just a pretty picture

Recently, a newcomer appeared at my monthly lunch with former work friends: a daughter-in-law who was visiting from another state. In other words, a younger person.

While aging is not a focus of our conversations, when we meet the topic is always under the surface, and as one member of the group put it, “We have to get our organ recital” — meaning a report of injuries, surgeries and ailments — “out of the way before we can move on to our normal conversation.”

As the meal was ending, said daughter-in-law asked a question. “Now that you are all of, shall I say, a certain age, what do you see yourselves wanting to accomplish or do over the next 10 or more years ?” Pure brilliance on her part to find a way to engage in our conversation and ask a question that called for reflection.

I said something I’d been sharing with others for months: I’d like to let go, stop volunteering, do less, wind down. I’m not sure what I had in mind when I said wind down. Lie on the couch for the rest of my life? Definitely not. Lack of mobility after my ankle fracture is what gave me the blood clot.

Later, I thought about my answer. How badly did I want to stop doing the things I’m accustomed to doing and mostly enjoy. Have I been kidding myself? Have I succumbed to the Buddhist notion of dukkha, that is, never feeling completely satisfied with…any number of things one can find unsatisfying in life, even if it’s just the bad dinner you paid good money for at a restaurant last night.

A recent experience added to my uncertainty about the assertion that I was going to change my life.  I’ve been getting physical therapy for my injured ankle. After seeing the therapist, he assigned me to a particular PT assistant I saw years before.  I assumed he wouldn’t remember me, but he surprised me by acting like we were old friends. On my second visit, he said, “I’m assuming you did the maximum number of sets for these exercises.”

“Why do you say that?” He was right, but I wanted to know if it was a lucky guess.

“Because I know you. You go for the max.”

This made me want to read his old notes about me, but it also told me that if I really wanted to slow down, it was going to take a lot of work. A complete personality change is not the metamorphosis I’d expect at this stage in life, as in defying nature and converting from a butterfly to a cocoon.

I’ve seen many recommendations lately to spend time thinking and meditating about who you are at the core. This advice is usually for younger people. At my age we’re supposed to know who we are. But if we’re not sure, maybe we should just ask the people who know us, not only long-time friends but those we only see for 30 minutes at a time for a few weeks or months.

 

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Happiness around the world

Happiness on warm day in Copenhagen

Lately, when I’m not in doctor’s offices or the emergency room, I’ve had a bit of time on my hands, some of which I’ve put to reading. (All these medical adventures relate to small fractures on my ankle and a blood clot resulting from them.) And some of my reading has been in Spanish.  I studied Spanish in school as a teenager, in Mexico as an adult, and years later had to re-learn it for my job.

Now, as my husband and I prepare for a future trip to Seville, Spain, I’m lucky to have met two Mexican friends on the job who can help. One is hauling books, DVD’s and magazines to our house weekly, only a few of which have we actually looked at. (As retirees, we don’t feel the same pressure to study as we did as students.)

I latched on to “National Geographic en Español,” November 2017, which fits my reading level and went directly to a piece on what Denmark, Costa Rica, and Singapore have to teach us about happiness.

What is happiness?  The article suggests that it can mean different things to different people and may have varied definitions depending on the culture.

Denmark always seems to land high on the lists of happiest countries.  When we visited there last summer, our Danish guide told us that all that happiness comes from its residents taking more antidepressants than those living in any other country.  We hoped it was a joke and from this article it seems that it was.

What the National Geographic tells us makes Danes happy is that they are well-cared for from cradle to grave in terms of health, education, work, and community.  They pay a large part of their income for this, but believe it’s worth it for what they receive in return. Apartment cooperatives are popular and most adults belong to a club. The last line was what brought me to a halt. Clubs?  But then I remembered that one criticism about people in the U.S. is that we stopped joining clubs, were too busy to socialize, and know our neighbors less.  (Bowling Alone)

Happiness in Costa Rica does not depend on financial wealth, but on a strong government healthcare system, a high level of literacy, a strong sense of community geared toward helping each other out, and great deal of socializing.

Singapore’s story is different.  Most people live in skyscraper apartments built by the government. Beyond that, it is a meritocracy where happiness and success come from studying hard in school, working hard, and living according to traditional — mostly Chinese — values.

In the U.S., about half the people say that money can buy happiness and the rest think it can’t.

From Money magazine: “Wealthier people are happier than poor people. Wealthier countries are happier than poor countries. As countries get ­richer, they get happier. The relationship between income and happiness is extremely strong.” I suppose a magazine with this title wouldn’t suggest otherwise.

Something I read in a newspaper a few weeks ago, that may have been based on research from 2010, said even if people are not earning a great deal of money, they’re happier if they know they are making more than someone else. In other words, if you don’t earn much, but your colleagues earn less, you will feel happier.  If you earn a billion and you hang out with people who earn $2 billion, you are less happy. Somehow we can’t get away from comparisons.

The National Geographic has a world map covered with smiling and frowning faces, based on how happy its citizens say they are.  I don’t want to live among the frowners (think some countries with names that end in ‘stan.’) Better to live in one of the happiest countries. But Denmark’s days are short and dark much of the year. Unlike Costa Ricans, I’m enough of an introvert to want quiet time alone, and from my putting off Spanish language lessons it’s clear I don’t want to study hard or work hard, which eliminates Singapore.  I guess I’ll just have to keep reading about happier countries for now.

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