Rain, Dog Poop, Coffee: Arrival in Alcorcón

(NB: Since stepping off the plane, I have not had a single conversation in English. So just assume that all dialogue from here on out takes place in Spanish.)

The minute I arrived in Alcorcón, I had some problems.

I was staying with an Airbnb host, Juan, for a week, but once I arrived at his apartment complex, nobody was home!

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since I was two hours early, but I felt stumped. I had not anticipated this being a problem — I am never early for anything.

The guard at the apartment complex said sorry, he couldn’t let me in until Juan came, so I took my bags and started exploring Alcorcón. It was raining. 

I ended up sitting on a bench in a nearby park — there’s lots of parks in Alcorcón. The parks are generally quite nice, but Alcorcón has a dog poop problem. There were poops everywhere. There were poops on the pathways in the park. It was a lot of poops.

I felt like an idiot, sitting outside in the rain, but there wasn’t anywhere else for me to go — all of the restaurants in the area looked somewhat fancy, and it was the siesta, too, so people were all dressed up and eating with friends at these nice restaurants in their nice work clothes (siesta means “long lunch break with pals” and not “nap” these days, turns out). I was by myself, still in my airplane clothes, and soaking wet, so it didn’t seem appropriate to seek shelter in a restaurant. 

Instead, I sat on the park bench and tried not to cry. Everything was different, and I didn’t know what to do or where to go, and I felt like an idiot with all my luggage, and my pale skin and blonde hair screamed outsider, and I was certain I was going to do everything wrong. Why had I even come to Spain? Who does that? Nobody, because it’s a dumb idea.

After a while, I got depressed at the thought of spending two more hours in the rain with all my luggage and all the poops, so I decided I’d just go to a restaurant and accept that I looked like a wreck and that I’d stand out as behaving culturally inappropriately.

One of the restaurants in the area had a friendly-looking waiter about my age standing outside in the sheltered patio area, so I went up to him and asked, somewhat pathetically, “Do you sell coffee here? Could I please get a coffee and sit down?” 

I must have looked terrible. I was soaking wet and tired from my flight, no makeup, all teary because I’d spent my first few hours in a foreign country in the rain, trying not to be overwhelmed. In short, not my best look.

But the waiter said of course I could sit down, and he got me a table on the covered patio, finally out of the rain!

He asked me how I’d like my coffee, and I didn’t know what to say — I hadn’t thought to brush up on my coffee lingo. “With milk?” he prompted, and I quickly agreed. I like coffee, and I like milk, so that seemed like a good combination.

I soon learned that café con leche is the drink in Spain — half espresso, half milk. It took about one sip of café con leche before I was hopelessly addicted. It was perfect!

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The waiter checked up on me a few minutes later and said, “Feeling better already, huh?”, giving me a little pat on the back. This was the first of many times I would be touched affectionately by a complete stranger. “Are you studying here? On vacation?”

“No,” I said. “I’m… I just… um…”

That was when I realized that I didn’t know how to say “to move” in Spanish, as in, “I just moved here”.

“I live here now,” I said lamely. “As of two hours ago. The plane just landed.”

The waiter thought about this for a second and immediately went over to the bar area, where a peppy red-haired waitress was smoking, and told her everything I had just said. This became a theme — every time I talked to a waiter, whatever I said was immediately shared and analyzed among the rest of the staff.

“And you only speak a little Spanish,” the waiter said, coming back over to me. “What else do you speak?”

“English,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “I don’t know any English.”

Then he ran back over to the waitress and told her what I had just said, and they both watched me drink my coffee. This was quickly becoming annoying.

As I sat there, trying to breathe and relax, the waiter got me another coffee, and free food! First he brought out bread and cheese, then a Spanish omelette — tortilla — and then the most amazing meatballs I’ve ever had, covered in sauce and sitting on top of french fries.

I tried to tell the waiter that he was being too nice, and that I couldn’t eat all this food because I’d already had lunch, but he was very dismissive of that idea. “No, no, you can eat it, just eat it already, come on!” he said every time I tried to protest.

When it was time for me to pay, the waiter only charged me a single Euro — enough to pay for the first coffee.

But guess what?

Ugh, this is so cringe-worthy, I don’t even want to write about it, but — I had forgotten to withdraw cash at the airport.

I told the waiter that I knew it was dumb, but could I use a card to pay and to give him a tip? He took my card, but came back a minute later and told me that they  didn’t accept foreign cards, and not to worry about it — it was all on the house!

I offered to come back later with cash to pay and to tip him, but he insisted, and as I thanked him and the red-haired waitress, I started to cry a little bit, I was so grateful. I had almost certainly done everything wrong, but they had been generous and hospitable anyway.

This was my first real interaction with the Spanish people, and since then I’ve only encountered more of the same — the astonishing kindness of strangers.

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La Vida en Alcorcón

   As of last Wednesday, I am now living in Alcorcón, a small city just south of Madrid — it’s about a 20 minute drive from Alcorcón to the Madrid city center. And it is absolutely beautiful here!

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Alcorcón is full of parks and wide, well-kept sidewalks. And there are actually people in the parks and walking around at all hours of the day, unlike in the States! And get this — there are no traffic lights or stop signs in Alcorcón! Every intersection is a roundabout with a fountain or vegetation in the middle, and roads tend to curve in and out of these intersections instead of meeting at rigid, perpendicular angles. The structure of the roads creates the impression that everything in Alcorcón flows smoothly along like a river. 

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The way of life here seems more peaceful overall, too — shops really do close for the siesta, and people take the time to enjoy the parks or sit at an outdoor patio and drink coffee, or just relax on one of the many benches around the city.

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So far, I love it! I love all the trees and parks —I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the parks — and I love being able to walk wherever I need to go.

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In the past few days, I’ve opened a Spanish bank account, purchased a phone plan, explored the city, gone out to eat, recovered from jet lag (kind of) and found the school I’m going to be teaching at. Now the only thing left is to find a permanent place to stay! Apartment hunting is very stressful — wish me luck!

In Between

  One of the strangest things about having narcolepsy is learning that I experience the world differently than most people do — that the things I take for granted as a normal part of life are not normal at all. You mean your eyes don’t burn when you’re tired? You mean when you wake up, you can move right away? You don’t wake up with your brain first? You don’t spend several seconds fighting to move your unresponsive body, eventually gasping for air like you’ve been startled awake, like you’re coming up from underwater?

It’s especially bizarre to me that people don’t know what cataplexy feels like, and that they can’t relate when I talk about it. There really is no description that can make cataplexy more accessible to someone who’s never experienced it; cataplexy has no equivalent and no words to describe it, because what language invents words for a phenomenon experienced by just 1 in 3,000 people? Unless you have narcolepsy, you can only imagine what I mean when I say “loss of muscle control”.

So what does cataplexy feel like?

Honestly, that question is almost nonsensical. Cataplexy doesn’t have a feeling. It’s what happens when you get caught somewhere between the waking world and the world of dreams, when your mind is grounded in reality but your body is dreaming. It feels like being in between.

I don’t know, maybe that’s too poetic. Let me try again. How does it feel when you’re not moving your leg? Like nothing, right? Cataplexy feels like not moving. It feels like nothing. 

Well, that’s not entirely true — for me, at least, there is an emotional component to cataplexy.  Cataplexy feels like fear.

It feels like suddenly being afraid to smile for no reason other than that I have a vague knowledge that my smile won’t look right, and for some reason, that’s terrifying. It feels like being afraid to talk because I know I won’t sound right. It feels like being afraid to stand in the middle of a room with nothing to support me but my own unreliable legs.

It’s visceral, like needing to escape to somewhere alone right now, a place where nobody can see. It’s a fear so strong I can’t think of anything besides “I need to get out.” If you’re not careful, cataplexy will shrink you into a small, fearful thing. It will control you.

To get to Spain, I had to take two flights, one from Virginia to North Carolina, and then from North Carolina to Madrid. The flight to North Carolina was terrible because I was afraid of flying. I hated taking off — it was scary, we could die! — and I hated the feeling you get when flying, how looking out the window at the far away ground makes you so heavy that you can’t hold yourself up, how every small bit of turbulence is accompanied by fear and a drop of the head, neck snapping down towards your chest. I hated the feeling of being stuck in your seat, pinned down by a gravity that is suddenly too strong, and trying to move make you nearly vomit with effort, and it just doesn’t work.

I felt the plane turn slightly to the right and my head dropped, hitting the woman beside me before falling to my chest, so low I couldn’t breathe. I tried to say sorry, but the word wouldn’t leave the back of my throat.

It’s the change in air pressure, I thought. It feels like torture, but everyone else is dealing with it fine, so I need to stop being a baby.

When the heaviness receded for a minute, I pulled out my neck pillow to support my head, so it wouldn’t roll around. 

I didn’t even consider that not everybody felt this way on an airplane until I looked at the flight attendant. She was bustling around, checking papers, making calls to the pilot, doing her job. She didn’t seem bothered by the heaviness in the least. In that moment, it kind of clicked that there was no way she was feeling what I was feeling, because if she was, she wouldn’t be able to move at all.

That was when I realized, this is cataplexy. I’m not afraid of flying. This is cataplexy fear. And after that I was able to calm myself down, because I knew how to handle it. I wasn’t stuck on an 8-hour flight to Madrid with no way to escape this awful, terrifying heaviness — I simply needed to let go of feeling anything at all, and I would get better.

So I breathed in and breathed out and thought of nothing until I was blank, until I was stuck in between dreams and the waking world, in between Europe and America, a girl who exists not awake, not asleep, but in between.

Me voy pronto…

I leave for Spain tomorrow — currently feeling a strange combination of incredibly excited and scared out of my mind.

I am most excited for the opportunity to develop myself this coming year. My work schedule is not overly demanding, and Spanish culture is more laid-back than America’s, leaving me plenty of free time to practice my Spanish, explore Madrid, write, think, rest, or whatever else I may need to do in order to become a better person. Who am I when everything is different? We’ll see!

I am most scared that I’ll struggle to communicate, especially in a second language — my mind is so slow these days. It often takes a long time to process what is being said around me (the bane of my mother’s existence is that I respond with “What?” automatically, even when I’ve heard what was said — I know it’s annoying, but I need those extra seconds to wake my brain up!). Sometimes, I’m too tired to speak or even to read simple signs — BAKING NEEDS, AISLE FOUR — and it can be so difficult to put words together in a coherent way, with a normal rhythm and inflection. I don’t know where I’ll find the mental power required to do all that in a foreign language. I’ll learn, but I’ll probably also spend a lot of time looking incredibly stupid.

But that’s alright — I’m going to stand out as a non-native Spanish speaker anyway. I’m too pale and Slavic-looking to pass for a madrileña! Hopefully, if I’m nice and smile a lot, people will forgive my slowness. We’ll find out!

Syncopation

“All my friends are tall, thin, and blonde,” my best friend said, laughing good-naturedly as we ate lunch. “It’s like I’m the DUFF no matter what group I’m in.”

DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend.

I looked at her, her deep-set green eyes and long lashes, her freckles and wavy brown hair. I looked down at my white, papery hands, lined with blue veins, which had minutes earlier struggled to open my wallet to pay for my coffee. My damn hands, which can’t hold things or turn the pages of a book or fingerpick my guitar with any sort of reliability.

My appearance makes me feel exposed; I worry that everyone around me sees my thinness, my cheeks scooped hollow by medication, and thinks sickness, the way I do. I worry that they see the scabs on my face and think nightmares. I worry that they see my fumbling hands and think cataplexy. I worry that it’s obvious that I am not mind-body-spirit but mind-and-spirit-against-body. 

I looked back at my friend. You are not fat or ugly, I wanted to say. Not in the least. You are perfect

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That night, my friends and I went swing dancing at a jazz club in Pittsburgh. I wore a skirt that was too big around the waist, falling towards my hips, and I worried that everyone could notice. I worried about having cataplexy on the dance floor, about accidentally making a scene and revealing, however briefly, that something is wrong.

I’ve never liked dancing much, to be honest; I’m no good at it, and I feel stupid when I try. But I did dance, hand in hand with one of my friends, who was as tall and blonde and awkward as me. We didn’t know the proper steps, and were by far the worst dancers on the floor, but he gamely twirled me around anyway, first out and then back towards himself. I laughed, excited, and then stumbled as I spun back to him, my feet hitting his, catching myself awkwardly against his side. This is it, I thought. I shouldn’t have come dancing. My body can’t keep up.

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But my friend said nothing, and the music swung on. For the life of me, I couldn’t nail that returning spin, stumbling every time, relying on him to straighten me out. 

As the night went on, we picked up some more legitimate moves; during one, he turned me quickly, first to the left and then to the right. As he turned me to the left, we came face-to-face, and he bugged his eyes out at me. I laughed; he turned me then to the right, widening his eyes again, and I collapsed.

He still held one of my hands limp in his own, while the rest of my body laid in a pile on the floor. Get up, come on, come on. I couldn’t help it — it was funny, the face he made. I focused on thinking of nothing, on being blank, until finally I could squeeze his hand, pulling myself up, hoping he couldn’t feel how badly my arms shook with the effort.

We resumed our dancing to the brightly syncopated beat as if nothing had ever happened, trying to do a dramatic dip, made all the more fun as my neck went limp and my head fell back like it was about to touch the floor. We did the left-and-right turn many more times, and I kept my eyes squeezed tightly shut.

We even tried an overly ambitious pick-up-and-twirl move which I loved to the point of cataplexy; every time he went down on one knee, signaling to pick me up, my body froze, refusing to move closer to a sure cataplexy trigger. I would awkwardly step towards him, not even attempting to dance, and he would pick me up —  what’s the proper way to do that sort of lift? We were never sure — and spin me around and around as my eyes closed and my head dropped and I held on with arms that rapidly lost their strength because it was so deliriously fun to be flying, spinning with the jumping jazz music, the cataplexy as jarring as syncopation, loose and rigid all at once, and it was all right. I felt like I fit perfectly inside my too thin, disobedient body, the way those stuttering eighth-notes fit smoothly inside the beat. I felt beautiful.

Just to be clear — I didn’t feel beautiful because I felt free. I felt beautiful because in that space, I didn’t want freedom. I didn’t feel like somebody who needed to be healed. I just felt like myself, like I was dancing in a body that didn’t quite fit with my mind to music that didn’t quite fit with our age. And it was good to exist there, in that messy glorious reality and the stumbling round in the dance.

Perspective.

It’s strange — what’s the right way to look at things?

I’m moving to Spain. I went to college, my parents are still together, I have a home and I have enough food to eat and I have a phone and a computer. I have people that love me. I am living better than 99% of the world’s population.

The only thing I’m missing is a few neurons in a small part of my brain. Why does it matter so much?

I’m trying to cultivate a genuinely positive attitude, and to appreciate what I do have without guilting myself into gratitude. It’s difficult, though, because it’s so easy to feel guilty about everything. About being too sick. About not being sick enough. About having the nerve to feel pain when there are people on our planet who are refugees, as if there’s not more than enough suffering to go around.

Sometimes I try to will myself into a more functional body, as if there’s a relationship between health and attitude. Don’t you have enough? Then why do you still feel sick? Why can’t you just be happy and make it go away? If you were less spoiled and more appreciative of the good things, you wouldn’t feel so bad.

I’m not sure where the balance lies. Is there a way to acknowledge my own suffering without downplaying all the blessings in my life? Is it alright to feel bad and be thankful all at once? 

I don’t mean to be overly negative — just to be clear, I don’t wallow in misery. I know that our world is beautiful; I can see it, and I want to appreciate that beauty as much as I possibly can. I want to have the right attitude, and I want to rise to the challenge that life is asking of me. I think I can do it — I’m just trying to figure out how.