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Monday, December 18, 2017

Happy Holidays! Felices Fiestas!

Happy holidays from Spain! 
For this special holiday blog, I'm giving my faithful readers exactly what you want: pictures of a fantastic castle. Minimal explanation. These are my snaps from my trip to Ponferrada earlier this month. Enjoy!

When the Pons Ferratus (iron bridge) was built here to help the pilgrims to Santiago
in the twelfth century, the Knights Templar settled in to protect and care for the holy travelers. 

Most of the castle we see today was built during the time of Isabel and Fernando. 

The town built up around the castle during a period of neglect. 

Let the end of the world find us dancing! 

How pedestrians manage the steep hills in Ponferrada. 

Knight Templar monument 

Caldo berciano: What they eat in Ponferrada. Yum! 

Your most trusted source for holiday gift-giving recommends Seven Noble Knights

Friday, December 15, 2017

Love or Money?

At the risk of obviousness, I love Spain.

I've loved Spain with blind faith since I first heard about its existence when I was about eleven years old. People have been telling me lately how hard it must be, away from home during the holidays. I've nodded and smiled, only to realize later that they were talking about me.

I can't understand why anyone would not love Spain.
Photo 2005 Jessica Knauss
No, I don't feel as if I'm away from home. If we must pathologize my experience, I've come up with the term nationality dysphoria, which is a form of psychological suffering on its way to being diagnosable, but I prefer to think of it as one of my defining characteristics rather than a disease. If you asked any one of my friends or family members to describe me, their first sentence would be, "She loves Spain."

Now that I'm here, what would it take to get me to leave? I underwent just such a test of my love and loyalty this past week. I'm exhausted!

A company I worked for in Massachusetts (one of my favorite places in the United States) had been trying to contact me about a freelance job. I welcomed this idea, because in order to live in Zamora, I teach English on a part-time basis. It pays enough to live frugally, but if I want to have money left over at the end of the year to pay student loans or buy a ticket back to the United States (that part's iffy), I have to maintain a healthy schedule of freelance editing.

The company had some trouble getting in touch with me because this came about when I was traveling in Ponferrada without much internet. We finally set up a time for a call via Google Voice on Monday afternoon. I should've suspected it was a big deal when they insisted on the phone call. Most of my freelance work never leaves the realm of email.

My favorite historical figures call me to Spain.
Photo 2016 Stanley Coombs 
Nothing could've prepared me for what happened. I had my notebook next to the computer to write down the specifics, and it only has one line of notes before all hell broke loose in my brain. A huge editorial project in Spanish packed into three months for one of the most famous publishers, I would have to live in Massachusetts while I worked on it.

But... I live in Spain...?

As we kept talking, the offer took on epic proportions.

* A round-trip ticket.

* A rent-free apartment equipped with ways to eat frugally.

* More pay than I've ever earned in a year as a freelance editor, and much more than I make as a part-time teacher assistant, for three months' work.

That quantity of money wouldn't seem like much to some, but it would offer me some exciting possibilities.

It turned my head. I felt I'd only ever seen job offers like this in movies before. However, inconveniences included no health insurance and no transportation allowance. I would have to give notice at school and my gorgeous apartment and be on a flight by Christmas Day at the latest. (This kind of last-minute scramble is routine in this industry.)

I requested twenty-four hours to decide, and put up the twenty-four-hour Facebook poll at the top  of this post. The poll is highly simplified, but that was what it boiled down to for me: Love = staying in Spain, Money = leaving immediately for three months. I wanted people's gut reactions, and I got them. I was impressed, but not surprised, when Love became the favorite from the start.

I also got advice from a few people whose opinions I trust. In my shoes, they would go for the money. In my circles, money is rarer than love and you must take it when and where you find it. And, after all, I've already experienced true love, the kind you always hear about and never think is real. How greedy would I be to demand yet more love now that my sweet Stanley is gone?

I went to bed thinking that in the morning, I was probably going to pack my winter clothes to head to Massachusetts. The English idiom "sleeping on it" is "consulting with the pillow" in Spanish. My Spanish pillow did a lot of convincing, because I woke up in the opposite frame of mind.

I got up and emailed to politely decline.

With the time difference, the company wouldn't read the email for several more hours, but I felt better instantly. With that strange interlude over, I had an unusual day at school that required every ounce of extroverted energy I'd stored up over the last six months.

I was emotionally exhausted to the point of physical symptoms when I received a counteroffer.

The old offer still stood, with its plane fare and its quick time frame, but the new offer added:

* A generous food allowance.

* Even more salary!

* I would be picked up from the airport.

* I would work with people I enjoyed, as well as a new international cadre of brilliant experts.

* I would be a train ride away from all the wonders and friends of Boston.

I started thinking I would be crazy not to accept. As this blog post admits, I may just be a little crazy. Add nationality dysphoria to my normal, earth-shattering grief, and we can conclude that the only reason I'm not a complete basket case is that I'm successfully treating the symptoms of my pathology by living in Spain. I've also had some wonderful help with my grief.

I researched the details of what it would take for me to accept the offer. Sure, there were a few problems, but they all had solutions. Then the Facebook poll ended, with Love the clear winner. Why wasn't I as clear about it as my friends?

I had a coffee date that afternoon with my Zamora-native friend. It turned out that such an activity involves viewing the colorful sunset and the flight of the storks at the castle as well as a nice little walk past innumerable medieval and Renaissance architecture masterpieces that exert a physical pull on me to have tea in a cozy jazz cafe.

The storks just keep coming at Zamora Castle. (Not a photo from the coffee date.) 
I explained the extraordinary job offer to my friend, and he was impressed. "You must be really good."

"Of course, I'm the best. Didn't you know?" I replied with a sense of humor I'm not sure anyone understands but me.

All the beauty of Zamora had come out to meet me that afternoon. I savored the signature bergamot essence of Earl Grey tea in a jazz cafe in the small, unique city of my lifelong dream. My life since my true love died has dipped frequently into unbearable, but here and now, I can reach out and touch happiness, if only for the briefest moments.

"Spain will be here when you come back," my friend said. "It's not going anywhere."

It was true, but I wasn't convinced. Sure, I would have enough savings to come back in the springtime and resume everything but work at school, which I assumed wouldn't take me back after such a sudden departure. But once I was in Massachusetts, the paperwork alone would be daunting. Doubts surrounded the idea in my mind.

Some of the greatest moments of my life have happened in Spain. 
My Zamoran friend and I stopped at the supermarket (full of Spanish food!! I'll have to write a separate post about this aspect of life.) before heading to our separate homes, and we sang a few lines from Manolo García songs in the middle of the street. This is not something that ever happens in the United States. If he was rooting for me to take the job, he was going about it all wrong.

I got home, made a Spanish-style light dinner, watched some of my favorite TV in the world, and then called up an old friend. She asked me different questions than all the other wise advisors I'd called upon so far and helped me unpack what felt wrong about the "it'll be here when you come back" argument.

Her question was: Would I have left Stanley for three months to be with a rich man?

When I recovered from the copious tears that sprang up at the thought, I choked out, "Never." No question. No argument. Everyone pack up and go home.

Photo 2005 Jessica Knauss 
Maybe no one else would see it this way, and maybe it's not fair to focus so much of the meaning of life on any one thing, especially a country, but this is an accurate reflection of my psychological landscape. At a deep level, I questioned whether Spain would ever take me back after such a betrayal. Perhaps the country of my birth would latch onto me and never let go. It was as if Spain was testing my loyalty and asking me to define what's most important. I couldn't disappoint the surviving love of my life, even if it will never give me words of approval because it has no lips or vocal cords.

I suppose everyone has their price, but the offer didn't quite meet mine.

Listen up, Spain! I passed the test. I'm staying as long as you'll let me. Send money now. Lots of money!

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Dead Angels by Rafael Alberti

As I mentioned in the previous post, I joined a writers group shortly after my arrival in Spain. The first meeting made me feel incredibly welcome. During the second meeting, we analyzed some of the poetic works of surrealist Rafael Alberti.

I love surrealism, but I'm not sure I could ever write it well. So I'll do the next best thing and translate one of the poems. When you think about the images, they become less surreal. They point to whatever reality you're living at the time you read them.

The Dead Angels

Look, look for them:
in the sleeplessness of forgotten pipework,
in the courses of rivers interrupted by the silence of garbage.
Not far from the puddles unable to hold a cloud,
some lost eyes,
a broken piece of jewelry,
or a star that's been stepped on.
Because I've seen them:
in the momentary debris that appears in the mist.
Because I've touched them
in the exile of a deceased brick,
come to nothing from a tower or a cart.
Never farther than the chimneys that fall to pieces
nor those tenacious leaves that get stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

In all this.
Even more in those vagabond wood chips that get consumed without fire,
in those sunken silences suffered by dilapidated furniture,
not far from the names and signs that grow cold on the walls.

Look, look for them:
under the drop of wax that buries the sense of a book
or the signature in the corners of a letter,
which it comes stirring up dust.
Near a lost bottle cap,
a shoe sole gone missing in the snow,
a shaving razor abandoned at the edge of a precipice.

Alberti wrote this poem during a crisis of faith. Everything they'd taught him about God, angels, heaven, hell... he just didn't buy it anymore. This is an unpleasant thing to have happen to you, but if you make it through, it can lead to more and better art in the future.

Here Alberti sees dead angels (lost innocence, our better natures, or faith) in things rotten, dead, or forgotten. He sees a world full of useless, cynical items, and not a single chance at redemption.

It's a pretty good description of someone going through deep, comsuming grief. None of it is pleasant. Without unpleasantness, would we appreciate the good around us?

It's been therapeutic to translate these images and I hope it's been therapeutic to read and think about them. Thanks for reading! With this out of the way, there's plenty of room for fun stuff in the weeks to come.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Buying Fruit in Spain

A selfie with the Romanesque Bridge in Zamora 
Everyone in the auxiliares de conversación program has had their first week of teaching now. In some online groups, there have been rumblings of homesickness and culture shock. It's a perfectly normal reaction to coming to a place where the language, culture, values, and even the time schedule are different.

With the cathedral 
To me, things are different in a good way. What's the opposite of culture shock? Culture cushion, perhaps? Definition: the feeling upon entering a country that everything at last makes sense, causing an intense sense of relief, like lying down on a cushion of the perfect softness; occurs only in people who suffer from nationality dysphoria.

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I was in the country of my birth, I always had a sense that something wasn't quite rightthat I should be somewhere else. I'm in Spain now, and that tragic feeling lifted some time after I landed, perhaps while I was on the train, looking out the window at a castle I'd visited twelve years earlier.

At the Duero with the cathedral atop the rocky outcrop 
For me, it's natural that I should skip over culture shock. Spain has been the site of my longing for 30 years, I've studied Spanish almost that long, and I've been to Spain ten times beforeten of the best times of my life. I met my personal hero in Spain and he was more present and kind than I imagined he could be. I've won a few people over to loving Spain, including my sweet Stanley, who I'm told was stubbornly against trying new things when I wasn't around.

At my new favorite place,
San Pedro de la Nave 
When I arrived this, the eleventh time I've been to Spain, I immediately got a great apartment, had fun, got complimented on my Spanish, and met some fascinating people. I was walking down the street one day, and a lady started talking to me, as you do. After a few minutes of chatting, she asked if I was a writer, because of course that's what you ask people on the street. It turns out, she's the presidenta of a writers group here and she invited me to join them! They've published tons of books, won prizes, and give readings throughout Castilla y León. I went to a meeting last week, and I've never felt more at home in my life. I told them I was going to try writing stories in Spanish. Quite the goal.

Thrilled at the Center for the Interpretation of Medieval Cities 
So now you know why I look a little crazy in these selfies. Sometimes, happiness looks like a psychotic break with reality. But the photos are evidence: I'm really here!

At the castle. Who doesn't
love a good castle? 
What does the title of this post have to do with anything? The one time I felt like a foreigner in the past three weeks was when I attempted to buy fruit at a large supermarket the way I'm used to in America. No! In Spain, you do not let the cashier weigh and price your fresh fruit! What were you thinking? You have to weigh it and get a price printed out at the scale. You must be a foreign idiot, rejected by your country for being so dumb. (No one said this, just my active imagination.) I abandoned those tangerines in a hurry, ready to never eat fresh fruit again.

With the tapestries at the cathedral. I remembered to take off my
glasses for this one. 
The next time I was at the store, I was less overwhelmed by all the exciting Spanish food for sale, and focused enough to see where I had to weigh my apples and grapes. It makes perfect sense.