Friday, July 19, 2013

Back in the USA :-(

From here, it gets somewhat mundane, but I’ll keep writing in hope that that changes and I can say something of interest. Wait! Stay with me. I promise to say something of interest. I’m back at work as a project manager at a major mobile phone company in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., working day-to-day, looking forward to weekends like the average American Joe, just surviving until the next saunter: Barcelona to Rome.

Truth is, I’m doing more than just surviving; I’m listening to courses on various subjects that I buy from The Great Courses, mostly on writing, but also photography (I bought the DVD for that one, since without the visual component it’s not of much use.) and other interesting subjects. My hope and desire is that I can write a significantly better travelogue of the next sojourn and accompany it with better photographs. To that end I’ve bought a better camera with interchangeable lenses. The wide angle lens compensates for the focal length so images at the periphery don’t appear to be falling toward the center of the photograph. I don’t know if I’ll be able to take better photographs after going through the DVD course, but if not, at least I’ll know why my pictures suck.

In addition to this blog, I’m also working on my first work of fiction: a crime novel that takes place in the town in which I grew up: Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I’m not a fast writer: after more than a year I’ve just about completed the first draft. It’s an interesting process; I try to think of what I’m going to write and nothing comes to me. Then I start writing and the characters tell me what they want to do. It’s a strange feeling, as if I’m just the medium for a bunch of people out there somewhere who tell me what to write.

Then, in my spare time, I practice Flamenco guitar, taking lessons from a very good and patient teacher, Marcos Carmona.

Back to the story…

I had an uneventful flight back to the States, leaving from the Granada airport on a flight to Barcelona, then on to Chicago via Philadelphia. I had concerns that I might have problems in Granada due to my expired visa, but the man at the airline ticket counter who checked me in said nothing about it, and I had no problem arriving back in Philly when I went through U.S. Customs.

The whole visa thing was a mystery to me anyway. I was told that I should register myself and my address at the Ayuntamiento in Granada as the first step to residency, even though I only had a three month tourist visa and no legal right to stay there past the middle of August. It seems strange that they would know where I lived and that I only had a tourist visa, yet there would be no problem with living in Spain past the 90-day tourist visa limit. I talked with many people, including a lawyer, who all told me that this was how it was done and that I wouldn’t have any problem, i.e., being asked to leave, as long as I didn’t make any trouble. I’m not the type to start bar fights and I keep a pretty low profile out of habit. Living in Granada on an expired visa wouldn’t have been a problem, as long as I stayed. I wondered what would have happened if I had had to make an emergency trip home and then try to re-enter Spain after being gone only a couple of weeks. I would suppose that the entry Customs officials would scrutinize my passport and attached visas more carefully, but I guess that question will remain unanswered; the next time I go to Spain I’ll have a retirement visa. At least, that’s the plan, but we all know what happens to the best-laid plans of mice and men.

So, there I was back in the U.S. of A, in Chicago at the studio/apartment of the famous artists Don Southard and Mary McCarthy. The next day I was back on the bus to my mother’s house in what used to be a small farm town in Iowa, but has experienced the unfortunate and unwelcome growth of so many other small towns situated within commuting distance of other, much larger towns throughout America. Such is life.

The homestead in Iowa
I busied myself with working on the outside of her 130-year-old house; practically brand new by Spanish standards, but very old in the U.S. I scraped, primed, and painted a bay window, cleared weeds, re-arranged rock borders, strained my back, and sweated in the heat and humidity of late summer Iowa. All in all, it was a good way to ease back into American life, a sort of decompression where I could physically exert myself and keep my mind occupied with something other than feelings of failure at not being able to make it in Spain, and the more depressing thoughts of being back in the world – a world that wasn’t the Camino – that I didn’t want any part of.

The box I made for Maria
I also worked on a small box with a scallop shell in the top, reminiscent of the Camino de Santiago, for my Camino amiga, Maria. In the past I had a full woodworking shop and enjoyed making furniture and anything I could from wood. Here, my tools and machines were extremely limited but I managed to make a nice little box anyway. 

After about a week I got back on internet job sites, updated my resume, and began looking for a project management job. I would have preferred just about any other type of work, but project management is my skill set, where I can earn the most dinero, and my goal was to make as much of that stuff as possible for as long as it took to put myself in a position of financial stability, so that I can deposit enough money in a Spanish bank to allow me to apply for a retirement visa, return, and legally remain in Spain with enough money to survive while I built up an English teaching business.

Breaking news: No, I’ll hold that for the next post. How quickly things change.
Back in the Pacific Northwest US, hiking in my custom boots
(I'd rather be in the Atlantic Northwest of Spain.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Esperando: Waiting, hoping.

So, what did it all mean? I still haven’t figured that out. I imagine I’ll be lying on my death bed still wondering. Truth is, I think we waste a lot of time searching for meaning. A tragedy happens—the death of a child, cancer, an airplane explodes over Scotland. What does it mean?
Maybe, as Forest Gump said, “It happens,” or, as the reporter trying to keep up with him transformed it, “shit happens.” That’s the world we live in.
But otherworldly, unimaginable, unfathomable good happens also: Finding sixteen dollars laying on the ground when you have to take your daughter to the doctor and didn’t even have the money to pay for parking; having a little chat with Jesus during the night; fifty days of incredible, other-worldly peace, contentment, and happiness between Montserrat and Finisterre.
Maybe it’s a Zen thing: asking for the meaning of tragedy or beauty is an invalid question. Just as well, ask, “Is it as hot in the summer as it is in Chicago?”
We experience good and bad and everything in between. Better than look for meaning is to relish the experience, learn from it and grow into something different from what we were before.
As I walked just this side of heaven, with all the wonderful experiences and feelings, enjoying the interaction with other pilgrims from every part of the world, enjoying pulpo and the joy of a frigid beer in the shade from a 100-degree sun, relishing the freedom from computers and telephones and deadlines and deliverables and the virtual chain to a desk in a cubicle, still my feet ached like a son-of-a-bitch every day and I was incredibly frustrated by my lack of communication abilities. It may seem that there is no perfection, but as a Zen master might say, or at least I would say, in imperfection there is perfection. Everything contains yin and yang. In all things there is a balance. Walking on the border of heaven, I was still “grounded” in every sense of the word. My aching feet reminded me that I was still a slave to gravity; I was still Earthbound and dependent on my physical body as much as I was having a heavenly experience and enjoying the fruits of the spirit more than I ever had or even thought possible.
I had wandered in the desert of Aragon, having lost my way with a guidebook I couldn’t completely understand. I had discovered sights, sounds, flavors, smells, and sensations I never knew existed. I limped into Lleída literally cursing my feet. I had felt freedom, liberty, and ultimate happiness. I had felt extreme frustration at not being able to communicate to a bartender that I would like another beer or just, please, take my money so I can pay my bill and get back on the Camino. I had fallen in love. I had lost love. I had walked between Heaven and Earth. Yin and yang. Perfect balance.
I want nothing more than to experience all this again, but I fear that if I attempt another pilgrimage I won’t have the same, or even an equivalent experience and the disappointment will kill me. Was it Jesus or Paul who said, “You fear because you lack faith.”? It’s true. I do lack faith. I’m no different from the Jews wandering the desert. Even after the miracles shown them by God, still they looked away and worshipped the golden calf. Likewise, after being literally touched by a dove, I wonder if I should step out of the boat and into the lake. I fear the future.
As a way to keep my goal in front of me and maintain some small sense of sanity as I wait, I have created a countdown calendar, like an advent calendar, the difference being, rather than counting days, there is only one page per week to count down the time until I get to leave my job and start my next pilgrimage to Rome: Ninety weeks to go as of this writing. On each page, each week, I have printed a saying that gives me something to think about throughout the week. I searched books and the web to find sayings that I thought might be appropriate. On one page is an idea from a collection of Zen sayings:
Before enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water.
After enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water.
When I first saw that I read “…chopped wood and carried water” and understood that to mean that life continues regardless of who we are or what we do. We may learn, or not. We may grow, or not. We may change, or not. But whatever we do or whatever happens to us, whoever we are, mundane life continues. We have to work, to make a living, to produce at least as much as we consume. There is no out, no alternative, no existence outside of this earthly, physical life. One can experience the best that God has to offer or suffer the worst the devil can dish out, and still, one must continue to chop wood and carry water.
Recently, after having written a good deal of what I remember from my experience walking from Montserrat to Finisterre, I have reinterpreted that koan. Yes, before the Camino I chopped wood and carried water and after the Camino I still chop wood and carry water. But, and this makes all the difference, there is a trick of language in those two sentences. They appear to be parallel and congruent, equal except for the first word in each. But read more carefully: “I” is a metaphor, a sound, an utterance that stands for the subject of the sentence, which is an idea created by the mind. But is the subject the same in each sentence? It seems so, and might be. Then again, before and after enlightenment, before and after the Camino, am “I” really the same person?
I propose to the reader that the person chopping wood and carrying water before the Camino is not the same as the person after. The meaning of the koan is hiding in the noun which is really a verb; an action word. The stasis in the identical metaphorical subject implied in these two, short sentences hides the true meaning. Mundane life continues but it is experienced in completely different ways by different people. Those different people might inhabit the same body, looking like the same person. But they are not.
I wouldn’t presume that everyone was, is, will be changed by the Camino experience, but it is certainly possible and in my case it was a certainty.

So, I’ll make another pilgrimage, walking in faith. I may not get lost in the desert. I may not experience new sights, sounds, flavors, and smells. I will not find another Maria. But I will experience and find whatever God has in store for me. And afterwards, I will not be I.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


July 13th, late morning. Granada bus station.

In Santiago, Montse, a fellow pilgrim and new friend, had given me the name of a youth hostel in Granada and had even gone so far as to call them for me to make a reservation. I still hadn’t much confidence in my Spanish abilities so I was grateful for the help to ensure that I had no misunderstandings concerning availability, arrival date, price, and location. The hostel is near the cathedral, so I easily found the city bus that would take me near my next stop, Funky Granada.

What, you may ask, is a 55-year-old man doing in a youth hostel named, very appropriately, Funky Granada? I wondered that myself. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel out of place, but feeling out of place is something that you have to get accustomed to when traveling or embarking on a new life. The hostel staff was friendly and very helpful, even indulging me in my attempt to communicate in Spanish, only breaking into English when it was absolutely apparent that I was becoming hopelessly lost in translation. Funky Granada is a clean, well run, and inexpensive place to stay for a couple of nights. I was assigned a room of two bunk beds, sharing a refrigerator and cook top stove with another room of equal size on the other side of a door that separated the two rooms. The bathroom that the two rooms shared was clean with a window to the courtyard for ample ventilation and light. One floor up, on the third floor, fourth if counting American style, was a patio with tables and chairs for outdoor dining, although July in Andalucía is only amenable to enjoying the outdoors in early morning and late evening.

Even at 21 Euros a night, cheap by tourist standards, was feeling financially strapped. My money situation was already getting tight after over-spending my budget on the Camino and I needed to immediately cut my expenses to the bone, so I set about finding an inexpensive apartment. Given the economic situation of Spain, and the fact that I had arrived in Granada in July when the university students are away, the only difficulty in finding a suitable arrangement was figuring out where I wanted to live, making the phone calls in Spanish to arrange viewing, and then finding the apartment amidst the winding medieval streets of Granada. Out away from the old
Near the room I rented in the Jewish museum
part of the city there are plenty of high-rise apartment buildings, but I wasn’t interested in living in one of those. I constrained my search to the Albaicin and the Barrio Realejo, the first being the Muslim area across the Rio Darro from the Alhambra, the latter being the old Jewish quarter just to the south of it. After only two days of looking I decided on a room on the top floor of an ancient house that was now a Jewish museum on Cuesta Rodrigo del Campo, only about 15 minutes’ walk from the Alhambra. It had two gardens, one of which was outside the window of my room, with grape arbors, orange trees, and a fountain. There were two other rooms for rent on my floor, so eventually I’d have to share the kitchen and bathroom with two other tenants. As this was summer, and university was not in session, I had the whole floor to myself.

The fountain in the garden outside  my room
I had called Judi, whom I met on the Camino, and her husband, Pablo, as soon as I arrived in Granada and arranged to meet them for coffee and churros at a café near the cathedral. They told me about Totes y Amigos, a bar where people met twice a week for intercambio to practice English and Spanish, as appropriate, where I was to spend most Tuesday and Thursday evenings. (Sadly, Totes is retiring and the bar is for sale. If I had the money, I think I’d just buy it myself.) They also invited me to their apartment for dinner a few times where I met other friends of theirs – some Spaniards and some, like themselves, from the States, simply following the path that Jesus had shown them. Pablo and Judi became my best friends and instant support group in Granada. A nicer couple you’ll never meet. Pablo even loaned me his guitar so I could get back to practicing while waiting for mine to arrive from the States. Of all my memories of Granada, spending time with Pablo and Judi remain my fondest.
A pedestrian mall on the way to Totes y Amigos and
Pablo and Judi's apartment

My plan, financially, was to find students for English tutoring, so I began putting up flyers advertising my services. As in so many endeavors in life and business, timing is everything. I had arrived in Granada in the middle of July, when the university students are gone and, for the most part, life seems to pause for the summer. Unfortunately, I had also just about run my bank account to zero. Except for a car payment I had no debts, but I did have the car payment, no income, and I was quickly running out of money. The car was in storage back in the States. I owed more on it that it was worth and I had no choice but to continue making loan payments. I began taking cash advances on my credit cards to pay living expenses – never a good option. I had hoped that that would be temporary, but as July turned into August, and then September, and I had found only one student – for conversation practice only at five Euros an hour – it became apparent that I was on a trajectory to severe financial hardship, if not absolute ruin.

In the meantime, I was trying to live on faith. I was a stranger in a strange land. I had no idea what each day would bring, but hoped for phone calls from prospective students, and tried to fill
The view from a patio on the top floor of the museum.
my days with learning the lay of the land and figure out what I could do to fill each day without spending any more money than necessary. My main objective, outside of finding English students, was to find an authentic (read: non-tourist) Flamenco tablau. Sadly, I never found it. There are some good performers at Le Chien Andalou, just up the street from the Plaza Nueva, but the venue is too close to a hotspot for tourists. I heard some excellent tocaores (guitarists) and cantaores (singers) there, and saw some very good bailaroas (dancers), but the audience was distracting; one time filled with children that ruined the atmosphere to the point where I had to leave only thirty minutes into the show. 

One of the many cats of the River Darro

The effects of what might be best understood as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, were beginning to show themselves. Normally PTSD is thought of as a psychological condition that one experiences after a particularly distressing experience. But I wonder if you could also use the term for what one experiences after a particularly incredible, magnificent experience. If there's another name for this I don't know of it. I read of people who have had "near death experiences," which seem to me to be better described as actual "death and resuscitation experiences." Those who experienced the other side and then come back often feel out of place, disoriented, incredibly sad to the point of depression. Their life may seem pointless, without purpose. They don't interact comfortably with others; society seems foreign and not understandable. That is exactly how I felt, and still feel. As much as I tried to continue with my life, to look at the Camino as a learning and growing experience, I found it difficult to relate to my current reality. I had wanted to move to Granada, to live here for years, ever since my three-week Spanish course in 2006. Now I was here and I felt out of place and without purpose. I didn't want to return to the States where I have felt a foreigner for many years, but I felt just as foreign here, and the feeling had nothing to do with the language or culture. I felt like a foreigner vis-a-vis other humans.  

At Totes y Amigos I had met Derek Dohren, a man I had a lot in common with and author of the book linked to at the right. His life experience, work, marriage, divorce, finances, and so much more seemed to parallel my life in so many ways. He was now living in Granada as an English teacher and author. He introduced me to the head of the school where he was teaching and I went through the motions of giving her my resume, even though I was an American and I knew what that meant for my chances of securing legitimate employment in a language school in Andalucia. Derek is an EU citizen with the legal right to work in Spain. I, sadly, am not and it looked like finding work was going to be an impossibility, at least, finding one before my money ran out and my credit cards were charged to the max. 
My writing desk , a glass of wine, and an extra chair - just
in case I had a visitor.

I wanted to stay in Granada. I remembered the dream I had on the Camino where I was sure I was told that I was on the right track. I also remembered another dream, one that had immediately followed the one I described earlier, where I was showing someone around my mother's property in a horse-drawn carriage and telling her that there were two wolves on my mother's property that I had to deal with. That dream was less definite in meaning to me, but no less important in my estimation. The fact that it immediately followed the "music" dream seemed to have importance, but I didn't know how to interpret it. (Wouldn't it be nice to have a Joseph hanging around for just such an occasion?) Still, I wondered, if I was doing the right thing, would I feel so out of place? Was the feeling purely attributable to my own brand of "PTSD," or were my guardian angels telling me something?

After seven weeks in Granada I made the difficult decision to return to the States, find work, pay off all debt, and save everything possible for another "attempt at the summit." This was about one week after receiving, and paying the shipping and customs duties for all the possessions I'd need for my new life in Spain: clothing, English language teaching books, and my guitar. I thought it ironic (is that the right word?) that I'd paid import duties on the guitar that I bought from the guitar maker in Jaen when I had it imported to the States, then had to pay import duties on it a second time when I had it shipped back to Spain. That's government, I guess. They get you coming and going. 

I read Derek's book and admired his persistence, remaining in Granada after his money had run out, having to live with friends and work through an incredibly difficult time financially. But I had to be honest and realistic with myself: Derek had the legal right to live and work in Spain. I was an illegal alien. His family was an inexpensive flight of a few hours away; mine was a $1500 ticket and 15 hours of flying in addition to ground transportation. My mother is not young and I knew that there was a real possibility I would have to make the trip to the States at a moment's notice. I have two unmarried children, but they are both of marrying and child-bearing age. What would I do if circumstances required that I return to see them? 
Entrances to cave dwellings in the hills under the Alhambra.
If I had enough faith I suppose I could have lived here.

I would like to think that I can live on faith alone, but even after all the experiences of the Camino, I'm not there yet. The lilies of the field grow and they neither toil nor spin, and the birds of the air neither sow nor reap nor store away in barns. Who am I to consider tomorrow or what happens to my mother or children?

But I do. Again, my lack of faith reared its ugly head and I bought a ticket for a flight to the States. 

I felt sick. Defeated. Like the person who attempts to swim the English Channel and, half way across, decides it's too difficult and turns around. 

But maybe, just maybe, God gave me the gift of discernment. Maybe I did the right thing in returning, to rebuild my finances and prepare for the next pilgrimage and a return to Spain and Granada. I've been able to help my mother and my children since I've been back. I don't know if I was able to keep the wolves from my mother's door, but there were two occasions where the purpose of that dream may have been fulfilled while I lived with her upon returning and while looking for employment. I've almost completed my plans for the next pilgrimage from Barcelona to Rome, and, Dios quiere, God willing, in ninety-one weeks from this writing I'll again see my employer's office complex in my rear-view mirror and be on my way to the next adventure. 

God willing.