Talking to Strangers

I think like a lot of people, I felt a very real sadness over the death of Anthony Bourdain. Because he was brave- and true, at this stage in humanity, treating people with respect and using power for good should not so rare, but it was.He brought things into the light that often remain in darkness. He told the stories he wanted to tell and he really listened to people over foods that mattered to them. I always felt better knowing someone of integrity and with a sense of humor was out there representing Americans and travelers. There is so much fear of the “other” especially under the racist leadership of Trump. But Bourdain did his part to help people see each other.

We were in good hands.

The morning I found out he had died, Mela, the woman who takes care of our building and tidies up, knocked on my door.

 Normally I leave the windows open while I teach my online classes so she can talk to our cats in her high sweet voice. She is not allowed to have pets in her apartment, so it’s a small way she can connect her with her home in Morocco where she had a bunch of them.I gave her kids some books at the holidays and we have sort of shyly cobbled together a relationship while we go about our work since then. Maybe, after twenty years in Spain, she was still feeling like me- a little bit lonely and far from everyone.We talk about home and our families. She tells me a bit about her kids. We share our obsession with these furry little cats which watch her every move from the windowsill, just wanting to be around her. I have always believed animals can sense goodness.

But that morning it was pissing rain and my windows were closed. Mela stood in the doorway,talking quickly in Spanish in her voice that almost sings and thrusting a small pink package with white polka dots into my hands. I invited her in as I always do.She declined as she always does, gesturing toward her thin flat shoes, dripping from the rain.

This is for you. Something small, she said in Spanish. I have been thinking about you.

I tried again and offered her a tea or a coffee and she hastily waved my offer away, wanting me to get to the business of opening this gift.

Inside was a beautiful Moroccan tunic of bright orange and ornate gold thread designs. Mela went on to explain that it was for me to wear- just in the house– when it got really hot here in Madrid. I liked her instructions because it was clear she wasn’t entirely confident, maybe based on the jumpsuit and avocado stained sweatshirt combo that I was wearing, that I could be trusted to wear this dress the right way. She then gave me a box of sweets that her family had brought over during their last visit.

I just kept saying I love it. I love it, or possibly I love you because I am still very confused by Spanish pronouns. All of this while I swallowed the ball of tears knotted in my throat.

We hugged three times because I couldn’t get over the kindness of her gift and she kissed my cheek- this time only once, which is a good sign that we are getting more familiar. When I closed the door, I cried a really ugly cry. One of those where your mouth is just hanging open as your body catches up to your heart to release whatever is lodged there. It was because Mela had done something with that gesture that I haven’t felt since I moved here. She recognised me as a fellow outsider and invited me in to a world where we that live between countries can feel at home. She expressed love through the giving of a gift that meant something to her.

Since then I have been thinking a lot about friendship. What it really means to show up for someone. What it really means to need people to show up for you, even if you don’t realize it until they knock on your door. I thought of how much these gestures and kindnesses can add up to in the course of a moment or a lifetime and about how I can better support the people in my life.

My friend Mela had no idea I had been having a series of really bad days.Days of heavy conversations and big decisions.Questioning what I am doing wrong because it’s so hard for me to talk to new people and make real friends.I was feeling deeply sad.Missing my people, who are scattered all over the world and the U.S., in various stages of huge life events. I was reading way too much news all the time and feeling guilty for not being in the home when things are so chaotic.Wondering if I should move back home where it was familiar, where everyone got what I was saying and I felt understood. I was also newly sober and face to face with my powerfully raw and not numbed anxiety for maybe the first time.I was beginning to understand the roots of things.The frustrating, sad and often annoying roots of things. Sometimes you need distance to do that.

And yet with all this, I was doing just fine.

Here was a woman standing on my doorstep, offering me her friendship. A woman, like me, who talks to cats and sings to herself and laughs loudly and without reserve while she works and chats up our neighbors. A woman who has no doubt heard my many powerhouse performances of Moana’s Where You Are including such thoughtfully reinvented lyrics as Consider the kitty cat, (dunn dunn)consider her paaaaaaaws through open windows and still talks to me. She is someone who is trying to make a home far away from almost everyone she knows and loves, just like me. And we are allowed to start over here.We are the lucky ones and I realize that every day. Well, most days.

But this day, when I wasn’t tapped into feelings of gratitude, Mela simply showed up. She shared some of her local comforts with me and went on her way as if it were nothing.

I guess all of this to say that wherever you are, whoever is reading this (mom) I hope you are feeling appreciated and looked after. And loved. And I hope you get out into the world and connect with all different people.Because the world is full of some truly good ones.




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