This year marks our second holiday season in Spain and our second Thanksgiving and Christmas away from family. That part is tough! When we were in Peru, it always just ‘worked out’ that family was able to come visit us at Christmas time, or we were back in Texas for furlough or a mandatory meeting or training in The States. So we hadn’t ever experienced truly being without family on the major family holidays until the past year.
Last week, we celebrated our second Thanksgiving in Spain. Newsflash… Spain does not celebrate Thanksgiving. I know, I know… some of you are astonished by that. ☺ So, Thanksgiving Day came and went with little fanfare. Sarah went to school. We worked: we held a Bible study in the house, we trained a missionary couple in coaching skills, Laurie led her disciple group in Campillos. Business as usual. We did take some time to phone family and talk to folks back home as they sat down to have their feasts. The highlight for us was getting to speak to both of our boys. One was having Thanksgiving with his grandmother. The other was eating with his girlfriend’s family. Both have jobs that required them to not leave town because they had to be back at work early Friday morning.
Now, before you get all upset thinking that we missed Thanksgiving, take heart… we hosted three other missionary families in our home for a feast on Saturday. One family is from Mexico, one from Puerto Rico, and one from USA/Canada, plus our family from the great country of TEXAS (hee hee!). We put tables together and made one long dining room table that stretched the length of my house. Everyone brought food. We ate, we laughed, we ate more, we laughed more… it was great! Between dinner and dessert, we each read a verse from the Bible on giving thanks, then we each talked about what we are thankful for. We discussed how difficult our first year in Antequera has been for each of us (3 of the 4 families have arrived here within the past year to 18 months) and how thankful we are to have found good friends and good community, both among each other as missionaries, and also among the Spanish people in town and in our church families. We are so thankful for each of these families and what they have meant to us as we work here.
As to Christmas… What does Christmas look like for us? Last year, we had only been in Spain for a couple of months by the time Christmas came around. We still didn’t have ‘community’ as far as a good friend group goes. We had the beginnings of friendships brewing. And church… well, the protestant church and Christmas are a whole other ball game here in Spain. Bottom line, there is a big division between distinguishing themselves from the Catholic church. Now this sounds silly to those of you in the USA, but it is a big deal here. Think of it as a type of denominational battle. Catholics think of all protestant churches as ’sects’ and the evangelicals are ‘strange’ and radical rebels. Evangelicals / protestants think that Catholics are all idol-worshipers and shallow and opposed to studying the bible or knowing much about Jesus. So, long story short, if the Catholic church does something, then the protestant church opposes it and does the opposite. Therefore, Christmas is a bone of contingency. Catholics use nativity scenes, so protestants do not. Catholics use Christmas trees, so protestants do not. I know - it sounds nuts!!! But, that’s the culture where we live.So, what do we do??? Well, we have a Christmas tree in our house. And we have a nativity scene. (Maybe we ARE radical rebels?!) Last year, the pastor came to our home and saw these things. He said, “Some people in the church wouldn’t like that. But I don’t mind it.” Whew! Good.
On that subject, the church is having a little bit of a coup this year. Our protestant church is going to do a Christmas play and have a Christmas service, complete with a re-enactment of the Christmas story and Christmas carols and (gasp!) they are decorating and using a Christmas tree! (Katy, bar the door! The world might end on Dec. 21st at 11 a.m. in Antequera, Spain.) There has been no shortage of grumbling and complaining by some members. But this pastor is bound and determined to celebrate the birth of Christ, and not just the coming of the Three Wise Men! (oh, PS… Spain doesn’t do Santa, either. They do Christmas gifts on Jan. 6th for the coming of the Three Wise Men.)
Our youth class is doing the Christmas story for the church. For the past couple of weeks, we have been preparing by making scenery and reading through the Scripture and practicing the different scenes of the story. It has been a fun learning experience for the kids! They wanted to put pigs in the manger scene, but one youth knew a little something about the Jewish culture and pigs… a small argument ensued, followed by the great learning moment about pigs and culture. I love that they are learning as they go, that they are reading Scripture carefully, and that they are teaching each other (with a little guiding and correction on our part).
As to Christmas in our home, I’m not quite sure what that will look like yet. Last year, we hosted a young lady from the USA who worked and lived in a Middle Eastern country (sorry - I can’t give details for security reasons). We had Christmas for her here in a Christian context and provided ‘family’ for her as she was far from home, too. On the issue of pork… living in the ME, she couldn’t ever eat pork. So when she was here, we had a ham on Christmas day. We had bacon for breakfast. I think she ate a ham sandwich every day! On her last day, she made a baggie of leftover ham to take with her to eat on the train before she got to the airport. Too funny! For us, being away from our boys and families was hard, but hosting someone in our home and making ‘family’ for her somehow eased that sorrow.
This year? Who knows… maybe we will find someone else to host! Or maybe we will share the holiday with friends. We’re not quite sure yet. I do know that we look forward to next year, when we KNOW that we will be going home for a visit at Christmas time!
Back in August, Billy and I were walking in town doing our errands (we walk everywhere in town - Spain does not have good parking in the cities) and we passed a fabric shop. We had passed it several times before and I always looked in the window and longed for the days when I used to sew and quilt and do all kinds of handcrafts.
This time, Billy encouraged me to go in and ask if they have quilting classes. Yes, I already know how to sew. Yes, I already know how to quilt. But this seemed like a good way to meet some new people and build some relationships in some new social circles in town, as well as a great way to learn culture. In case you hadn't noticed, women talk... a lot. So if you sit in a class full of women, you are bound to learn something about life in a small town! ;)
The owner of the shop was really sweet and she said that I could join in the Monday quilt group. It isn't so much of a class as it is a 'circle' or a community. For two hours each Monday, eight or nine women gather around a big table with their individual quilting projects and we work and talk and laugh and help each other out. I always learn new vocabulary in Spanish. And I am sure to learn some special intricacies of culture in the process. They talk about what they are going to cook that day (I learn about the typical foods that people are eating and where they get grocery items). They talk about the upcoming holiday weekend (I learn about a Spanish holiday that I didn't even know exists and about how people will celebrate it). They talk about the new project they are doing and about which colors they will use and why (I learn that color preferences are cultural, too... did you know that baby blue and brown are girl colors? And that rocking horses are only for boys? Even if they have a pink bow?) They talk about what they are getting their children and grandchildren for Christmas (I learn about the kinds of gifts people buy. I learn about budgets. I learn about appropriate giving and receiving.) They talk about faith and the Catholic church (I learn about what they like and what they don't like about their church. I ask questions for this part!) Yes, the quilt group has been a treasure trove of cultural learning for me!!!
At first, it seemed like I wouldn't ever fit in. It seemed like a pretty tightly knit clique that wasn't going to let a stranger waltz in without batting an eyelash. I have to say that the key, I think, was the day that I cried in class. I messed up my quilt block and my mentor/teacher made me rip it out. I was a little fragile that day, a little wounded that I hadn't done it 'good enough', and probably just a little hormonal, too. I tried not to cry, but silent tears spilled over as I ripped out the seams. I tried to cover it up and not let others see me cry, but I'm not THAT good... they saw. No one said a word, and I felt even worse. But at the end of the two hours, my mentor put her hand on my shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. One of the other ladies gave me a big hug when I left. No words, just physical gestures.
Ever since then, I have been accepted. I don't know why. Vulnerability? I don't know. But I'm "in". We talk. We laugh - A LOT! My opinion is asked, and valued. It is a little family of ladies sharing a couple of hours each week. There have been lots of physical gestures, lots of hugs and pats on the back, since my crying day, as well as lots of loving and kind words spoken between me and my new friends.
Today, as I was giving everyone a goodbye hug and kiss, I turned to head out the door and I overheard one of them say to the others, "I just love Laurie. She is so good for us." I don't know how 'good' I am, but I know how good it felt to hear that!
We just got asked THAT question again... you know, the dreaded "What does a typical day look like for you guys?"
Never fails. A well-meaning, really interested person asks THAT question and I can't contain the laugh that always follows. Then I feel horrible because the person really does want to know, and they have no idea that it is an impossible question to answer. There just is NOT an answer to this one.
Billy responded with, "Well, we wake up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. and have our quiet time and coffee before Sarah wakes up. Sarah gets up at 7:30 and we have breakfast and get her ready for school. We drop her off at school at 9 a.m. That's the end of 'typical' in our lives. After 9 a.m., it's a free-for-all. Who knows what each day will bring?!"
It's true. That is about the end of 'typical' or routine for us. It's hard. It's hard to never know exactly what the day will bring. Sometimes, I really long for my life back in the States when I knew that every day had a schedule that I could predict and count on. My mom-duties were defined each morning. My career job had a definite beginning and ending time. My afternoons were defined by more mom-duties or scheduled events for school or sports or church. Scheduled... as in an event that has a time frame! Guess what folks - the majority of the rest of the globe does NOT function like that! Sometimes I really miss that part of my culture.
In the USA, I could pretty much count on the fact that the outside-my-house world stopped turning in the evening. My family counted on dinner being at 7 or 7:30. Family time, hanging out in the house... all evening-time things that were routine and normal for us.
Not so in I'm-A-Missionary-World. At least it hasn't been that way for us, no matter where we have lived. Costa Rica, Peru, or Spain... there isn't anything routine or normal about any day except for the fact that you can count on it NOT being typical or routine! Atypical IS our normal!
So, what DO our days look like if they aren't typical? Well, we usually start out by having our day loosely penciled on our calendar. And I mean loosely in the most loose way. We don't hold much of anything too tightly, as far as schedules go. An actual meeting time is definite, but other things are flexible and floating.
In Spanish culture, many important things happen over coffee in a street cafe or in someone's living room. Therefore, if we are asked to have coffee with someone, that will most likely take high priority. Relationships are built or broken over your availability for coffee! Or in the evening, over your willingness to sit and talk over a glass of wine or a beer. Spain... gotta love a culture that does business over coffee (a.m.) or wine (p.m.)!
If we don't have a coffee date, and if we don't have pressing business to attend to in town, we try to hit the home office for a couple of hours in the morning while Sarah is at school. This usually consists of Skype calls or computer conferences with other missionaries who we are caring for in one way or another - coaching, mentoring, or counseling. But morning conferences can only consist of people who live on 'our side' of the Atlantic (Africa, Europe, Middle East, or Asia) because of time zone differences.
We pick up Sarah from school at 2:00, then head back home for lunch - the Spanish generally eat lunch at 3pm. Sarah hits the books after lunch, and we hit the office again for calls and conferences with peers on the other side of the Atlantic (USA, South America, and Central America). Because of the time difference, these meetings might take place any time between 3pm and 9pm for us. Those 9pm meetings make for a LATE night and a LONG work day for us. If there are no conferences to be had for a particular day, we catch up on paperwork, study, or preparing our lessons for disciple groups and Sunday School classes that we lead.
Somewhere in there, Billy will meet up with his language helper and culture tutor for a couple of hours each week. We will run different errands in town. We'll have a Spanish coaching session or a meeting with the pastor. We'll have an hour or so with another missionary couple - peer encouragement, community time, mentoring, etc. I will drive to Campillos to work with a women's cell group bible study. A prayer meeting or two will occur. Sarah will have extracurricular activities that we will need to attend. And I will spend a couple of hours once a week with my Spanish quilting group (always a huge lesson in culture and women's issues!).
So, there you have it. Our 'normal' (ha ha ha) life. :)
Oh, the joy that visa time brings! (I hope you are catching the sarcasm here.) Time and time again, missionaries around the globe rank visas and work permits among their top stressors each year. Some of us live in places where we must renew our visas every 90 days (nightmare!). Some of us renew once a year. For some of us, it means that we must leave our country-of-service in order to re-enter under new visa paperwork (frustrating, time away from our lives and work, expensive, etc). For some of us, it means staying in country until the process is complete, which could mean months. And for others of us, it means holding our breath and praying that this won't be the year that we aren't non-renewed and told that we must pack up and leave.
I know and work with people in ALL of the above situations.
Some of our best friends are living the daily 'unknown' right now as their visa rejected due to some paperwork mistake. They are now fighting for that to change. Other friends have recently had to face the fact that they will never again enter their beloved country because of non-renewal... they have recently changed fields and now serve another country. And yet other friends have been waiting for approval since July, only to find out that they were rejected because the office never received their paperwork in the mail. They have just received word, last week, that all is back in order and they are 'legal' again.
Living in a state of feeling like you are an illegal immigrant is not easy.
One year, our Peru visa was only supossed to take 7-10 days for the renewal process. In reality, we waited in limbo for 7x10 days... a total of 70 days... before we heard that we could stay in country.
Last year, as many of you know, our visas to Spain were approved and granted and affixed to our passports, only to be revoked later the SAME DAY and our passports were confiscated and held for 2 weeks until it could be resolved. This entailed our being held out-of-country without passports, awaiting word as to whether or not we would be able to return to Spain.
You just can't imagine the stress. Completely out of your control. In limbo. Just waiting. Absolutely nothing you can do but wait and hope and pray. Stomach aches, head aches, worry... it's crazy!
So now we are in 'visa time' again. The countdown began 60 days prior to the date of expiration. Exactly 60 days out, you can begin the process of reapplication and renewal. Paperwork in hand, all the t's crossed and i's dotted, copies made, head cocked exactly right... we turned in the files. About a week or two later, we received the first of the gazillion notices requesting more. More proof of financial stability, more proof of insurance coverage, more proof of residence, more proof of educational attendance for Sarah, more proof of invitation to work for the church... more, more, more. Every notice comes as a certified letter. Every one requiring us to go to the post office, wait in lines, sign to receive the notice. Then the trying to read and decifer the legal Spanish. Then a trip to the lawyer to find out exactly what we need to do this time. Over and over again.
They actually sent a request to Sarah (she's 11 years old) asking for proof of financial stabiity and average income in a bank account! She's eleven! But we complied.
Our visas actually expired Tuesday. According to the lawyer, we are okay as long as we are still 'in process'. He looked us up in the computer system... looks like Sarah's is doing well and they don't need more paperwork for her. As for us, there is a document still outstanding. It has to come from the Ministry of Justice. It's is out of our hands, out of our control, which doesn't make it any easier to deal with.
So we wait.
The last thing I wanted to do when we got off that plane was go to a big lunch. I was so exhausted. We had been at an intense conference for 2+ weeks. My brain was completely wiped out. We left the hotel in Turkey at 4:30pm the day before and were taken to the airport to await our 11:30pm flight (this was our only available ride to the airport). Our flight took us to Istanbul for a connecting flight that wouldn't take off until 10am the next day... a long night in the airport! We finally arrived back in Spain at 1pm, only to find that we needed to go out to lunch with the head of the church denomination and our pastor. Ordinarily, this would have been awesome. But today, all I wanted was a shower and pajamas and a spot on the sofa for the next day or two.
So, still in the clothes we had been wearing for over 24 hours and still looking every bit as disheveled as you can imagine someone who just slept on 2 planes and in an airport would look - yes, just like that we went out to lunch. No stopping at the house first, no brushing our teeth, no nothing.
We arrived at a 'campo house' (a small house in the country) were we were immediately thrust in to what seemed like a giant family reunion. Lawn chairs were circled up under the grape arbor and bowls and plates of all manner of nibbly foods were passed around with abandon. Every food was completely homemade... olives that were grown and pickled by the owner, ham that was raised and killed and cured by the owner. Even a white wine that came from the grapes of the very vines that we sat under, crushed and fermented and bottled by the owner.
We must have looked like deer in the headlights, because we were asked on several occasions if we were alright and if we needed to go home. "Oh no. We're fine. Just a little tired from travel. And trying to adjust our ears and brains back in to the Andalucia Spanish dialect. But this is wonderful! Thank you." Expert liars. We were physically fading away.
The campo house was surrounded by vegetable gardens. Cabbage and broccoli, onions and lettuces and spinach were everywhere. Fruit trees were covered in the last of this year's harvest. The quince trees were about to break from the abundance.
It was finally time to eat lunch (3:30pm), so we all headed in to the house to sit at the longest table you have ever seen. I've only seen longer ones on TV, like at Downton Abbey! Food seemed to come from all sides. All homemade. It came to the table in butter tubs and repurposed coffee cans, plastic buckets and foil and saran wrap. And just when you thought you couldn't eat any more, they would announce the next onslaught of foods. We had seafood paella and homemade bread and roasted goat. Fresh salad. Little pastries filled with goat cheese and quince jelly. Cookies and desserts just poured to the table. A carrot cake. Dried and candied figs (from the trees outside). And just when you thought it was all over, out came the fruits. Fresh fruits, harvested from the trees on the family property. All the while, the matriarch is continually coming to our end of the table and saying that we haven't eaten enough.
Somehow, even though we were exhausted, we were having a blast! Watching all of the interactions. Listening to all of the chatter. Laughing at all of the jokes. Kids were running in and out of the room, playing chase and going in and out of the house. We were having so much fun! Billy and I sat back and just watched for a second, and at the same time we had the same thought. This is my grandmother's house!
Billy's grandparents in Sudan and in Rowlett, my grandparents in Arkansas, and my great-grandmother in Waco... this was how we remembered things being. Home grown food, homemade everything, everything stored in whatever container could be repurposed and recycled for the job. Lots of bustle and chatter and laughing around the kitchen. People talking about the crops or the gardens or the state of this year's weather. Lots of jokes. Women sharing stories and recipes. Food that just kept coming, and a grandmother that never felt like you had eaten enough yet.
This felt like home.
It was after 7pm when we finally made it to our house. A full 26.5 hours after we had left our hotel the day before. But I wouldn't trade that afternoon for anything! Yes, we were exhausted. But it was also the first time that we really felt like living in Spain was something like 'home' for us. So blessed!
Who am I? In my USA life, I was a teacher in Texas for 15 years. I was also a professional photographer, a Southern Living / Martha Stewart wannabe, a soccer mom, and a short term mission team coordinator / intern director for missions in Mexico... you name it, I probably tried it!
In 2006, my husband Billy and I became cross-cultural workers (CCWs) with TMS Global. For five years, we served in three rural Quechua Wanca villages in the Andes of Peru. And when I say rural, I mean RURAL - like no potty! We have three incredible children... two adult boys who live in Texas, and the Sarah (14) lives with us in whatever country we are serving. I'm still teaching, still taking photos, still leading teams and mentoring, I just do it all in full-time service now! And I'm working hard at giving Southern Living and Martha Stewart a run for their money! I spent my days in Peru learning to live a Quechua lifestyle in a rustic adobe house - cooking Peruvian foods, sewing with Quechua women, raising my chickens and goats and pigs, and planting my gardens. Now I live my life in small town Spain, serving other cross-cultural workers and immigrant peoples, writing, and trying to figure out what life looks like for a Texas girl serving Christ in Southern Europe. Life in His service is AWESOME! I'm happy to share it with you here... Enjoy!