My Spanish Valentine(s)

It's Valentine's Day, a holiday not celebrated in this country.  The fresh snow has kept the city attractive in the midst of winter, but I always feel that a few pink and red hearts are a welcome dash of colour amidst the cold.  In a country where February 14th is just the day before payday, you can imagine the surprise I had when I found apples in Kaufland with hearts in their skin--not stickers, not carved, but in their skin.  It seemed that some sticker was applied to the flesh and blocked the sun exposure, bringing a colour change.  I cheerily bought some to share some Valentine love.  Though some of you are probably already rolling your eyes, wondering whether this will be an overly lovey-dovey Valentine post or an anti-Valentine tirade, I challenge you to read on.  This is really an I-travelled-to-Spain-last-week post disguised as a Valentine post.

Audra and I back in 2006
What drove me to Spain was my dear friend Audra.  I've known her since high school, where we studied Spanish and played golf together.  Seeing as she plans to return to the States after this school year, the opportunity to visit her in her recent home is fast retiring.  So, I travelled about 2800 km (1700 miles) to visit her in Cáceres‎, Spain.  Audra's recouping from a skiing accident, so I didn't have any grand plans or expectations.  I figured I'd be with her a lot around her flat.

I had no idea how many beautiful people I would meet during my week there.  As much as I love traveling to see beautiful architecture and landscapes, it is the people who really make travelling so dear.  My first full day with Audra, she had a few Spanish friends over for tapas (a munchy evening meal).  The next day, we went to her church, where everyone greeted me with dos besos (two kisses) and the warmth was immediate.  The worship songs were linguistically similar to English, and the same in spirit.  I felt an instant connection to the body, and Spanish that had been neglected for years flooded back.

Photo from Sara Lugarda Vallejo
A woman graciously translated the sermon, and after the service it was off to one of the pastor's homes for a delicious (and huge!) lunch of paella, which was preceded by empanadas and jamón and followed by a specially made carrot cake with café con leche.  But better than the food was the camaraderie instantly felt among this group.  The family members had various levels of English, and the hosts graciously waited on our Spanish.  One particularly bubbly member of the group eagerly spoke her English.  We left satisfied in heart and body.

Little did we know that another such blessing would come that evening.  That evening I walked with Audra, her roommate Hannah, and Hannah's freshly baked apple crisp over to the home of an Australian basketball player who leads a Bible study.  Already there were an American female basketball player, a Peruvian, a Brazilian, and another American.  One of the most beautiful things about living in Europe is the presence of people from all over the world.  There is so much richness to be found in the diversity of the cultures.  At the same time, I felt such a oneness with these people who shared the same faith, who read and cherished the same principles, though we read them in Spanish, Portugese, and English.

The night was rich and paved the way for a week full of similar encounters.  Monday night we met with students and teachers visiting for the Comenius project. Croatia, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and more were represented (yes, I spoke Czech with the Czechs--to their surprise).    As we discussed cultural differences, I felt so blessed to hear such fresh and various perspectives.  (Video from the Comenius meeting below.)

Tuesday and Wednesday I found a new friend in my tour guide (a stand-in for the temporarily coja [one-legged] Audra) as I toured the Roman ruins of Mérida and the historic part of Cáceres‎.  Thursday I got to spend a long afternoon and evening with my Bible study friends (Allann-Brazil, Miguel-Peru, and Nicole-USA).  It began with smiles and pleasantries over churros (deep friend flour that is then eaten either dipped in rich chocolate or sprinkled/doused with sugar) and café con leche.  This was then followed by a pleasant walk with Miguel and Nicole and a meeting of some more of their team.  When Allann returned, he hatched a plan to make some Brazilian desserts for us all.  So, we headed to Audra's and then Allann prepared beijinho and brigadeiro.   Both had a base of condensed milk and butter.  The former had coconut added, and the latter cocoa.  I preferred beijinho, even moreso when Allann gave the translation from Portugese: little kisses.  Though the night was cut short, it was pleasant, and I enjoyed the encore the next morning when I met Nicole for coffee.

Nicole and I post-coffee.

With a new sister, Maria, at the prayer meeting.

Friday was to be my last day in Cáceres‎, and after coffee with Nicole I went to a prayer meeting.  Once again, I experienced such a closeness in spirit with those gathered as we prayed in a mixture of Spanish and English.  A Chinese lunch was followed by a much abbreviated hasta luego as I rushed for a bus.  Even then the fellowship didn't end.  A cool-looking 20-something-year-old sat next to me, and before we even left the station she offered me some candy.  After about an hour, she asked me where I was from and was thrilled to hear that it was Los Estados Unidos.  After a long semester break in Spain with her family, she was eager to speak some English again.  It turned out that she is studying medicine in Bratislava, Slovakia.  The next hours flew by and soon we were exchanging contact information and walking together to the metro.

My Panamanian guide to Madrid.
The transit time was short, and soon I was at the stop where I was to meet Glenn, a Panamanian friend that I made in Munich last year at a birthday party during Easter holiday.  As I waited for his arrival, I snacked on an apple, which was blessed by the passing "Que aproveche, Guapa" (Bon apetite!) of some Spanish man.  After the apple, I meditated ont he strangeness of my upcoming meeting with someone I'd only met once over apfelstrudel in Munich.  But any hesitation was quickly washed away as I saw Glenn's smiling cherubic face approaching.  Soon it was like being with an old friend.  The next 36 hours passed naturally and comfortably, through meeting his Spanish roommates as well as a mix of people at a birthday party (apparently a necessary part of any international travel).  The attendees were from various parts of Spain, Germany, Britain, Italy, India, and more.  I left Spain full with the satiety of good company.

So, this post is neither lovey-dovey nor anti-Valentine.  Rather, this post is a celebration of friendship, a few paragraphs to express my gratitude for the fellowship of old friends and newly-met kindred spirits.  So, dear friends (new, old, and yet to be), I hope that this Valentine's Day you haven't neglected to pause and enjoy the truly refreshing love to be found among friends.


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