Rain, Dog Poop, Coffee: Arrival in Alcorc贸n

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

The minute I arrived in Alcorc贸n, I had some problems.

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

This shouldn鈥檛 have come as a surprise, since I was two hours early, but I felt stumped. I had not anticipated this being a problem 鈥 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 Alcorc贸n. It was raining.聽

I ended up sitting on a bench in a nearby park 鈥 there’s lots of parks in Alcorc贸n. The parks are generally quite nice, but Alcorc贸n 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聽felt like an idiot, sitting outside in the rain,聽but there wasn’t anywhere else for me to go 鈥 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聽seek shelter in聽a restaurant.聽

Instead, I sat on the park bench and tried not to cry. Everything was different, and I didn鈥檛 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聽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?”聽

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

He asked me how I鈥檇 like my coffee, and I didn鈥檛 know what to say 鈥 I hadn鈥檛 thought to brush up on my coffee lingo. 鈥淲ith milk?鈥 he prompted, and I quickly agreed. I like coffee, and I like milk, so that seemed like a good combination.

I soon learned that caf茅 con leche is the drink in Spain 鈥 half espresso, half milk.聽It took about one sip of caf茅 con leche before I was聽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?鈥, giving me a little pat on the back. This was the first of many times I would be touched affectionately by a complete stranger. 鈥淎re you studying here? On vacation?鈥

鈥淣o,鈥 I said. 鈥淚鈥檓鈥 I just鈥 um鈥︹

That was when I realized that I didn鈥檛 know how to say 鈥渢o move鈥 in Spanish, as in, 鈥淚 just moved here鈥.

鈥淚 live here now,鈥 I said lamely. 鈥淎s of two hours ago. The plane just landed.鈥

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

鈥淎nd you only speak a little Spanish,鈥 the waiter said, coming back over to me. 鈥淲hat else do you speak?鈥

鈥淓nglish,鈥 I said.

鈥淥h,鈥 he said. 鈥淚 don鈥檛 know any English.鈥

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聽me another coffee, and free food! First he brought out bread and cheese, then a Spanish omelette 鈥 tortilla 鈥 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!鈥 he said every time I tried to protest.

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

But guess what?

Ugh, this is so cringe-worthy, I don鈥檛 even want to write about it, but 鈥 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聽聽didn鈥檛 accept foreign cards, and not to worry about it 鈥 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聽anyway.

This was my first real interaction with the Spanish people, and since then I鈥檝e only encountered more of the same 鈥 the astonishing聽kindness of strangers.

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La Vida en Alcorc贸n

聽 聽As of last Wednesday, I am now living in Alcorc贸n, a small city just south of Madrid聽鈥斅爄t’s about a 20 minute drive from Alcorc贸n to the Madrid city center. And it is absolutely beautiful here!

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Alcorc贸n 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 鈥 there are no traffic lights or stop signs in Alcorc贸n! 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 Alcorc贸n flows smoothly along like a river.聽

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The way of life here seems more peaceful overall, too 鈥斅爏hops really do close for the siesta, and people take the time to enjoy聽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 鈥擨 have spent an inordinate amount of time in the parks 鈥 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 鈥斅爓ish me luck!

In Between

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

It鈥檚 especially bizarre聽to me that people don鈥檛 know what cataplexy feels like, and that they can鈥檛 relate when I talk about it. There really is no description that can make cataplexy more accessible to someone聽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 鈥渓oss of muscle control鈥.

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.聽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鈥檙e not moving your leg? Like nothing, right? Cataplexy feels like not moving. It feels like nothing.聽

Well, that鈥檚 not entirely true 鈥 for me, at least, there is an emotional component to cataplexy. 聽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鈥檛 look right, and for some reason, that’s terrifying. It feels like being afraid to talk because I know I won鈥檛 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聽somewhere alone right now, a place where nobody can see. It’s聽a fear so strong I can’t think of anything besides聽“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聽Virginia聽to North Carolina, and then from North Carolina聽to Madrid. The flight to North Carolina聽was terrible because I was afraid of flying. I hated taking off 鈥 it was scary, we could die! 鈥 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鈥檛 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.聽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鈥檛 roll around.聽

I didn鈥檛 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鈥檛 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聽after that聽I was able to calm myself down, because I knew how to handle it. I wasn鈥檛 stuck on an 8-hour flight to Madrid with no way to escape this awful, terrifying heaviness 鈥 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聽awake, not asleep, but in between.

Me voy pronto…

I leave for Spain tomorrow 鈥 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鈥檒l struggle to communicate, especially in a second language 鈥 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鈥檚 existence is that I respond with 鈥淲hat?鈥 automatically, even when I鈥檝e heard what was said 鈥 I know it’s annoying, but I need those extra seconds to wake my brain up!). Sometimes, I鈥檓 too tired to speak or even to read simple signs 鈥 BAKING NEEDS, AISLE FOUR 鈥 and it can be so difficult to put words together in a coherent way, with a normal rhythm and inflection. I don鈥檛 know where I鈥檒l find the聽mental聽power required to do all that in a foreign language. I鈥檒l learn, but I鈥檒l probably also spend a lot of time looking incredibly stupid.

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

Syncopation

鈥淎ll my friends are tall, thin, and blonde,鈥 my best friend said, laughing good-naturedly as we ate lunch. 鈥淚t鈥檚 like I鈥檓 the DUFF no matter what group I鈥檓 in.鈥

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鈥檛 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聽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.聽I worry that it’s obvious聽that I am not mind-body-spirit but mind-and-spirit-against-body.聽

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

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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鈥檝e never liked dancing much, to be honest; I鈥檓 no good at it, and I feel stupid when I try. But I聽did聽dance, hand in hand with one of my friends, who was as tall and blonde and awkward as me. We didn鈥檛 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.聽My body can鈥檛 keep up.

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But my friend said nothing, and the music swung on. For the life of me, I couldn鈥檛 nail that returning spin, stumbling every time, relying on him to straighten me out.聽

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鈥檛 help it 鈥 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鈥檛 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 鈥 聽what’s the proper way to do that sort of lift? We were never sure 鈥 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聽body, the way those stuttering eighth-notes fit smoothly inside the beat. I felt beautiful.

Just to be clear 鈥 I didn鈥檛 feel beautiful because I felt free. I felt beautiful because in that space, I didn鈥檛 want freedom. I didn鈥檛 feel like somebody聽who needed to be healed. I just felt like myself, like I was dancing in a body that didn鈥檛 quite fit with my mind to music that didn鈥檛 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鈥檚 strange 鈥 what鈥檚 the right way to look at things?

I鈥檓 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鈥檚 population.

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

I鈥檓 trying to cultivate a genuinely positive attitude, and to appreciate what I do have without guilting myself into gratitude. It鈥檚 difficult, though, because it鈥檚 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鈥檓 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聽and be thankful all at once?聽

I don’t mean to be overly negative 鈥 just to be clear, I don’t wallow in misery. I know that our world聽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 鈥 I’m just trying to figure out how.