Where does one begin after a break in the action, an extended caesura, of more than a year? What can I say here as recompense for such woefully lackadaisical blogging? And apart from to my dear Bethany, is there anyone to whom I even need apologize for such flagrant cyber abandonment? Probably not—an inflated sense of self-importance, I’ve read, is only a tiny shuffle-step away from a personality disorder. And so, without further ado, hi. I’m back. Back to Madrid, back to the blogosphere, back to having enough brain space for matters non-academic to hear myself think (and to let myself think, too), I’m glad to be here, because while I’m back to many things, what I’m not quite back to—yet—is me. It’s going to take a little bit of practice for that one, too.
It’s been a plodding but turbulent summer, the details with which I’ll pepper this post when appropriate, and in addition to having grown unfamiliar with the tones of my own authorial voice, my body’s staged another plot to strip me of a sliver of self—the athletic half, the fomer NCAA rower, the girl who’s trained for three and run two 10Ks in the past six months. All of this sounds ominous in a billowy and melodramatic way, I know, but let me add this disclaimer: really, for the most part, I’m all right. Life in other arenas is so very good that it’s sucked some of the venom out of the parts that have been achy, and for that, I’m truly grateful. The light isn’t at the end of the tunnel now, but instead all around. I don’t have to wait for it. Reality’s beginning to catch up to dreams I didn’t know I had, and athletic injuries and worries about loved ones an ocean away form just a brief period of punctuated strangeness that will serve to underscore the goodness when it becomes a defining force once more.
I get that I’m breaking every internet rule in the entire universe here by writing what may be the longest post in the history of man. Please, at my urging, skip over the parts that don’t interest you (if you’re a prude about the sentimental and would rather not hear ecstatic and gushy reviews of a fine young German boy, for example, I’d skip The Part About The Boy; similarly, if you have a thing against Latin America, skip ahead and away from Mexico), I’ve included some subheadings, hoping they’ll render my transgression slightly less severe.
And So, Here’s The Part About Mexico
Emepezamos con Jalisco. Last I wrote, it was in Spanish and detailed memories of my mother swirling around the kitchen in a cloud of flour and love. By the time July rolled up in its shiny, low-riding glory, windows down and Reggaeton blasting, I found myself in a very different kitchen in the United Mexican States. There I acquired a taste for ajíed comestibles so unapologetically spicy as to bring on tears and messy, non-consensual sinus cleansings at the breakfast table under the affectionate tutelage of a woman to whom I also came to refer as “mom,” but to whom I’ll never be related. Enter Elba Flores and her vibrant brood, Elba Dos and Elia.
They are beautiful—all of them. In that deal I include, too, Francisco, the snowy-haired husband twelve years Elba’s senior who ambled the house in a merry, vague way, singing rancheros and settling dozens of yogurt cups he’d sell to various stores and in the streets into crushable coolers and bags by early morning sunlight. In that kitchen everyone contributed. Elba Uno stuffed us full of enfrijoladas and quesadillas and perhaps most deliciously, ceviche, made (for me) with soy and piled on top of crispy, reluscent corn tostadas, bracketed by thick white slabs of queso fresco. Francisco’s dish was the guacamole, tangy, studded with pomegranate seeds and bursting with liberal squeezes of key lime. And then there were the pancakes with fried plantains and sweetened condensed milk we ate for dinner a few times a week, always prepared at least in part by Elba Dos, the daughter who rarely ever stopped working. Elia contributed the more complex dishes—crispy, succulent filets of white fish, dressed up in a cornmeal coating and laid out beside a salad basted in lemony dressing, providing the opening act for gelatin molds full of tropical fruits and exotic flavors. In the markets I stuffed myself with glistening slices of mango and cucumber, smothered in limejuice, salt and chile. Although I acquired two intestinal parasites in a short six weeks, the culinary experience, now that I think about it, may have been worth it.
While I can’t say that Guadalajara is on my top ten lists of places to which I’d like to return, (I never really felt safe there, always slightly hunted in the streets and never comfortable alone in the dark), I will miss my host family (and their cooking!), always. I’ve never met people with so much love to give and, on the part of Mama Elba, so much quiet wisdom and worldly calm. How beautiful a thing to know people like those, and how lucky a girl I am to have shared some of their lives.
Here’s The Part About Home
After Mexico it was back to West Hartford, where I spent more time with my own wonderful mother than I have in many years. Every night I cooked her dinner, something new and healthy found on the virtual foodie treasure troves of Foodgawker or Tastespotting, and we chatted, getting to know one another again. There were many culinary stand-outs this summer, among them these outrageously delicious lemony chickpea cakes, a chocolate and cardamom zucchini bread that had every bit of business being as rich and scrumptious as it is considering the fat and sugar content barely bridled by those molten walls, fat free, peppery little gingersnaps that conversely had no business whatsoever boasting all that tastiness if we take into account their nominal dent in a day’s calorie tally, and many a panful of shakshuka with goozy, yolky poached eggs. My favorite meal, breakfast-for-dinner aficionado that I am, may have been these protein-packed, post-run pancakes that I did, indeed, eat after my 10K, covered in fresh fruit salad I made with a dressing of lime juice, honey and poppy seeds.
Indeed, I ate healthily and well this summer (healthily post Mexico, anyhow!), but perhaps the best part of doing so was spending time with my mom. Being perpetually Busy People, and by that I mean creatures who don’t cotton well to sitting still and doing nothing identifiable as legitimately industrious, cooking and eating together is the perfect bonding activity for us. While I measure rice and cascade obscene overdoses of unlikely spices into unsuspecting batters, she minces garlic and tells me about her day. We sing. I prattle on and on about The Best Boyfriend in The Universe. We have a glass of wine and we relax our busy-ness for just a titch. I love cooking with mom and eating with her, too, because there’s no one as good a guinea pig for exotic flavors and new recipes, nor is there anyone so appreciative and interactive an eater. It’s also the only way I get her to sit down and relax. So, as we’ve discussed, post-Master’s-graduation August was filled with lots of mom time, fun with my Fathom friends and those formerly of it (plus special visit to and of Fulbright buddy, Charles). I reconnected with high school friends, spent time with one of the most wonderful women I know, Irene, and got some quality time, cucumber martinis and dancing in with former co-workers. Summer at home was a lot of fun.
Until all of a sudden it wasn’t.
Here’s The Part About Unfortunate Circumstances
If you know me out here in the real, non-virtual world or have read over the years the blogs I’ve called cyber-homes, you might know that I tend to overdo it, which for some reason makes me feel that I need to apologize. So here it is: to those of you who have to pick up the pieces, I’m sorry. I’m… a little extreme. I do things to the max when I decide to do them, sometimes with an intensity and endurance that borders on the unhealthy. I have a proclivity towards hurting myself in this process, because, really, debilitating pain is the only excuse to stop, whether we’re talking about rowing, running, writing or loving. But even this quickly on the heels of said apology, I’m fighting the urge to rescind it. To be honest, I’m kind of proud of my insanity. When I decide to excel and be a badass, I usually do, even if that comes at my own expense. In matters professional and academic, this has worked out very well for me. I’m an achiever with high expectations of myself, and some serious goals, too. Happily enough, my brain has not as yet short-circuited due to overuse. The unfortunate element in this whole mix is that, apparently, somebody was asleep in the chromosomal studio when my blueprints were being drafted. I was not, in a physical sense, extremely well designed. Despite clocking in at a robust nearly-six-feet, I was not built to last. My hips fell apart and required two surgeries in 2006, and I’m waiting for their bionic cousins to be spliced in once I hit my early thirties. I’m badly fused in general, all things osteo just a tiny bit off. I am the Ikea furniture of the homo sapiens world: pretty to look at and functional for a time, but hit it at the wrong angle after a few years of use and you’re liable to end up on your ass, rubbing your tailbone and wondering what went wrong.
Anyhow, after Mexico I decided I’d train up for a 10K in, oh, about twelve days. Already a very active person, it wasn’t that much of a stretch, and while I willingly admit to not having been in the best shape of my life (finishing a rather demanding Master’s program in Mexico and having battled a month’s worth of intestinal parasites is not what one might call conducive to adequate sleep, exercise or quality health), I ran it, and with not-too-terrible results. Still on a high from this miracle success and also invested in getting toned up and moderately amenable to the accompanied nudity certain to take place upon my now-rapidly-approaching return to Europe, I tried a new lifting regime. And that’s where the damage comes in.
The exercise in question here is called The Renegade Row (see live demonstration of awfulness here), and if you DO attempt to bang this one out, be advised that, even if you are capable of pumping out 100 from-the-feet pushups, do not choose five pound weights to start. Go with one to two, or perhaps as little as half-pounders. There, on the floor of my local NYSC, I did three sets of fifteen of this atrocity, and then, on the third set on the left hand side, I heard it: a sickening, deadening set of snaps and a consequent burning that extended from the base of the shoulder blade up into my neck. I wish I could tell you I stopped then, friends, but that would’ve been too sensible. I merely switched to the other side and finished.
Flash forward a few hours into that night, and I was sure I’d need to be taken, without health insurance, to the emergency room. The pain was so intense, so complete, that I had tears rolling down my face. I am an emotional creampuff, but not at all one to cry in the face of physical duress. The next morning I was laid out, immobile, on the floor, in substantial pain. I was also scheduled to return to Europe, to the arms of a man I’d been missing for months, in a scant four days. This was kind of an emergency, kids.
Thank God for friends, I tell you. My mother’s homie, Phil, with whom she’s worked at the bookstore for nigh on five years, came to the rescue. Phil (or My Surrogate Brother, Phil, as I like to call him, given my mom’s fondness for him and his being roughly my age), has just graduated with a degree in massage therapy, and being a lifelong athlete, a triathlete, and all studied up to be a personal trainer, understands sports injuries. He rushed over on Saturday morning in his truck, bringing with him an albatross of a massage table and his magic hands. I helplessly cried as he palpated my back, assessing the problem as having been a rhomboid and vader scap strain, and felt better enough afterwards to go upstairs to pack.
Because that’s a good idea, right? I mean, with repetitive motion and lifting immediately after minimal recovery from blinding pain, what could go wrong?
Day two with Mystery Injury was so intense that I began discussing with said long-longed-for boy the possibility of not actually catching my flight to Frankfurt in now only three days. We would miss a concert to which he’d bought us tickets. I wouldn’t meet his family. We might not actually go on the Galician vacation we’d planned together just a month before. I was so delirious with pain and so frightened by it that all of that actually sounded acceptable. Until, that is, other scary financial wheels in my family began to turn and I understood that the best place for me would be in Germany, being taken care of by someone who loves me, who doesn’t have problems much larger than my delusions-of-being-Wonder-Woman inflicted injuries with which to contend. Ultimately, my jones to be back overseas and beside him outweighed the throbbing.
So, my darling Charles, Fulbright Friendie extraordinaire, drove before class from New Haven to WeHa, bringing me his left over muscle relaxers (thank you, Flexeril), and on the 7th of September, I was able to board (in a wheel chair, pushed by a sweet Jamaican woman named Rosie), my flight at JFK. After a drugged and hazy eight-hour flight, I creaked out, accompanied by two stewardesses and sporting a neck brace, into the arrivals lounge at Frankfurt Flughaven and into his arms. He was wearing his orange jacket and that all-encompassing Cheshire cat smile (and also pants. He’d agree that pants are important). I had missed him for more than three months, and as he’d promised when I left, upon my return he was there waiting.
And Here, Dear Readers, Is The Part About The Boy
His name is Niels. How we met isn’t important now, but suffice it to say that this is the person, the relationship, for which and whom I’d been waiting, largely unawares, up until 2010. He is all of the things I’d always wanted and never really believed I’d find, in addition to being many of the things I never understood I needed until he stepped forward to offer them. He is generous. He is loving. He is intelligent and sweet and kind. He knows what the right thing is and does it, regardless of whether or not it’s the most convenient or comfortable thing for him. He is bilingual in German and Inglés and, despite German being his nominally first language, is every bit as deft a practitioner of the English language as am I, which in anyone else would bother me, but in him I find thrilling. For someone so calm and steady, so trustworthy and responsible—somebody who really values a cup of dependably good joe—he’s set my heart on fire in a way nobody else has. He is stability and passion in one. He’s the place where goofiness and dignity of soul meet. He’s a partner in the truest sense of the word. I know I’m waxing maudlin, here, but what I mean to say is this: sweet mother of mercy, how did I get so lucky?
What happened after I got to the airport wasn’t easy, and probably even less so for him than for me. Niels took care of me, uncomplainingly hauling what amounted to probably more than 100 pounds of luggage, for almost three weeks. He carried everything heavy. He did most of the cooking. He rubbed my back and merrily jockeyed around heating pads and icepacks. He was patient with needing to stop and rest (and, being the sensible one, often enforced it). Not once did he make me feel ashamed for letting him help me, never an easy thing for me to manage except for with him, and magically anticipated so much of what I’d need, taking off the stress of having to be a nuisance, of having to ask, as to make the whole experience extremely palatable. Sure, this is all amazing, but it’s also not a shock if we consider its source: the boy who once flew from Germany to Madrid and back again, just to spend a few hours with me; the man who presented me with what he termed a “layer birthday present” of homemade toasted pecan butter, almond butter, and raspberry jam. He also included a favorite tee shirt of his, a pretty scarf for me, vouchers for four plane tickets that will nourish our relationship when my student debt comes crushing in come February, and two little brown hair clips to push back the thick forelock that he knows full well sends me into a frenzy when I just need it off of my face nownownow and my beloved clippies are nowhere to be found oh GOD. He’s that kind of person, and he also likes runny eggs. He’s a keeper.
Given the recurring themes of this post, perhaps it won’t prove in the least bit curious that this is important: we cook well together. While I affirm that I enjoy cooking with my mother, it is sometimes a struggle to be in the kitchen with her. She wants to be the boss, to direct and to, largely, do everything herself on account of some inefficiency of mine or unshakeable drive of hers. Niels and I work well together in the kitchen, providing culinary consultations, recommendations, and opinions when solicited. He always knows what to cut and how (I knew I was in love when I saw the boy dispatch an onion with the gusto and skill of a bona fide Iron Chef), and how to be helpful. We orbit around one another in the kitchen like a trained team, a partnership that doesn’t end when we sit down to eat whatever we’ve just created together. And this example embodies beautifully what I’ve found in Niels: a partner in every sense of the word. I feel so freakishly fortunate, so achingly blessed, that I don’t really know how to express it to him sometimes. All I can do is hope that he understands how much I love him, how very much I give thanks. The light isn’t at the end of the tunnel anymore; largely because of him, it’s all around. My life last year was great without Niels, but it’s infinitely better with him in it. There is no bad day as long as I can count on that enormous smile, those glowy eyes broadcasting their affection, be it via video chat or over a hot cooking range. He’s got my heart, in case that wasn’t clear, and I hope he wants to keep it for a good long time.
And For Those Weak of Stomach, Here’s The Less Gooey Part About The Job
Hi. I’m Professor Schiller, faculty of the English Department of a private university here in Madrid. My students are in their late twenties and early thirties, and all Graduate students in their fields. I always said I’d be an English Professor someday. This was not, I admit, exactly what I had in mind upon making that assertion at any point at which it I did make, but look, it happened.
And to Conclude…
Classes start Monday, October 18th, and until then, I’ll be doing prep work, getting adjusted, unpacking and writing here more. I’ll maybe tell you a bit about Madrid now, maybe include the post I began to write from my flight home in June during a Heathrow layover. Or maybe I’ll just start from now, run with the here, and chronicle life from a breezy corner bedroom on a sixth floor in Madrid.
Expect more. ‘Til soon.