Yesterday was cleaning day in our apartment. It was too early to run the vacuum cleaner and risk waking the neighbors below us, so I grabbed the broom and started to sweep. The repetitive movement of the broom bristles made a soft swishing sound which I found soothing and almost meditative. To sweep the deep red tiled floor with it’s many imperfections and the repetitive pattern of a smaller flower tile in the middle of the larger ones felt like medicine, not merely a chore. I carefully gathered little piles of dust and debris to pick up with the dustpan, and before I realized it, I had swept the entire apartment and felt really content.
I’ve been inspired by the daily ritual I see of the Gijon shop keepers sweeping in front of their stores every morning and the street sweepers spraying and sweeping the streets every morning and every evening. When the shop keepers are done sweeping, they start washing the front windows, methodically preparing to welcome their first customers. There are trash receptacles conveniently placed on almost every block and more recycling bins than I’ve ever seen in any city. Gijon takes its appearance seriously. There are quite a few cigarette butts on the ground but that is the only sign that not everyone takes cleanliness so seriously around here.
After my own sweeping, I gathered all of the woven throw rugs and shook them outside on the terrace as I had seen the woman do on other apartment terraces. I wondered why I had become so completely reliant on vacuuming in the past when this ritual was so calming.
The rhythm of our days has shifted dramatically since we arrived here just two weeks ago. In spite of these sweeping changes, we seem to have slipped rather effortlessly into our new life. I start as I have for years, by sipping my hot water with lemon, an Ayurvedic practice. Then breakfast begins with coffee made in the Moka pot, a silver colored Italian coffee pot with a cinched middle that sits on the stove top and resembles a camp coffee pot, a long ways from the fancy Nespresso machines with their plastic pods that are so popular with our kids now. The Moka pot brews coffee by passing boiling water pressurized by steam through the ground coffee. Rocky heats milk in a white ceramic pitcher and then uses a hand-held frother to mix it into a thick foam to pour over the coffee. In Tacoma, we would each have at least two cups of coffee every morning but here the coffee is so fuerte (strong), we only dare to have one cup. Any more and I might sprout hair on my chest!
It’s not uncommon for Spaniards to have toast, a pastry or a Maria Dorada biscuit with their coffee in the morning. Squeezing fresh oranges for a glass of homemade juice, called zumo, is also popular. If you order your coffee in a café, you will always be served a plate of churros (fried donuts,) or some tasty morsel when you order your drink. This is true not just for breakfast but when you have a glass of wine or gin-tonic (hin-tonik) later in the day as well. The drinks always come with a snack, even if it’s just a bowl of olives. A drink without food is unheard of!
We have welcomed the custom of eating the main meal at 2 pm as if our bellies had wanted this all along. Stores and businesses close from 2-5 pm so that people can eat a leisurely meal and enjoy some down time. Then they reopen from 5-8 pm and the streets fill with people strolling and shopping again. You can see and feel this rhythm as though it were as natural as a wave. The streets fill and then empty and then fill again.
Some days we make our main meal at home and other days we try the Menu del Dia (the menu of the day) at one of the many local restaurants offering outdoor seating. The practice of featuring a Menu del Dia is a hold-over from the Franco days when it was mandated that all restaurants provide a complete meal at affordable prices for the workers in town. By some accounts this may have been the best thing the dictator, Franco, ever did for his country. We certainly have been surprised by the value and variety available in the Menu (“Meh New”), as it is commonly called. They usually consist of two courses, bread, wine, and dessert and are often priced between $10-$15 for everything. The abundance of food means we get to take left overs home to enjoy the next day. Since the options are chosen by the restaurant, we have been introduced to delicious new foods we might not have tried otherwise.
The afternoon siesta is probably the custom we were most eager to embrace before moving to Spain and it has not disappointed. Having time to nap, read, write, work on our Spanish homework, or swing in the hammock is heavenly. Because of the 8 hour time difference between Gijon and Seattle, it has also been the perfect interlude after our midday meal and before I start teaching. My Zoom yoga privates are usually offered at 3:30 pm or 5 pm so that my students on the West Coast can do their classes in the morning. Even as I embrace our new rhythm, I cherish this sweet time that keeps me connected to my old way of life and my friends in the Pacific Northwest.
Dinner is really not a meal so much as a snack here and consists of some cheese, olives, jamon (ham), piece of fruit or salad and is eaten late by our American standards, anytime between 8 pm and 10 pm. Afterwards, people walk outdoors again although right now there is a 10 pm curfew so the streets empty earlier than they normally would. Rocky and I have been playing our nightly Scrabble games around 7 pm and having our dinner-snack at the same time. In Tacoma, we would play at 4:30 pm and then start making dinner. I really love not having to prep two meals per day! Sometimes we watch the BBC news to catch up on what’s happening in the rest of the world. We can also get movies in English on Netflix Espana if we need a brain break from trying to speak Spanish all day.
We have not been in a car or even needed one since giving up our rental car the day after arriving in Gijon. After breakfast we walk to any number of markets depending on what we need that day. In addition, we keep a running list of random items we are hunting for, very much like being on a daily scavenger hunt, and try to find at least one of those items every day. Where do they sell pens? How about a fan? Slippers? Since there is nothing comparable to Fred Meyer where everything from tables to yogurt is sold under one roof, we first have to figure out what kind of store will sell what we are looking for. When we find a friendly shop keeper, I usually ask them a question about where I might find the next item on the list. Then Rocky and I laugh while trying to follow the directions they’ve given us. Directions are one of the most difficult things to understand in a foreign language, I think!
Our favorite food market, Mercado del Sur, is actually a combination of many smaller markets under one roof, not unlike a smaller version of Pike’s Place Market in Seattle. After only two weeks, I am excited to have my own “fish guy” and “veggie lady.”
The fish market boasts so many varieties of fresh seafood that initially it felt very overwhelming. We knew we liked merluza, the Spanish name for a white fish called hake, so we started with that. It was only displayed as a whole fish on ice so I had to ask my fish guy to filet it, descale it, and remove the spine, head and tale, all new vocabulary words for me, even in English! The next visit, I worked up to getting everything Rocky needed to make cioppino. In addition to merluza, I bought clams, scallops, mussels and shrimp. While it is easy to point to whatever I want if I don’t know a word, I am learning how to use grams and kilos for weight as well and that is a bit trickier to figure out. As it was in the States, Saturday morning tends to be the busiest time to shop. I’ve learned to be there right when the market opens at 8 am to avoid the crowds so that I don’t feel so pressured by the people waiting in line behind me while I struggle to make myself understood.
I could kiss my veggie lady. She greets me with, “Hola, Reina!” (Hello, Queen) when she sees me. She could call me anything she wants, but to be recognized from week-to-week when we don’t know anyone else here is really heart-warming. She knows a little bit of English and practices it on me, grinning so big when she gets a word right. I was looking for basil the other day which is called “albahaca.” She wanted to know the English equivalent and when I told her, she was tickled that it sounded just like the word Basilica. It reminded me of the holy basil from India called Tulsi, known as albahaca sagrada or sacred basil here. No wonder we love basil so much. It is sacred the world over.
The weather here is similar to the Pacific Northwest. We dress in layers to be prepared for anything but have been caught in an unexpected rain shower a few times. Unlike in Seattle, which is known for it’s anti-umbrella culture, people use umbrellas, called paraaguas (literally means, “for water”) in Gijon. For some reason though, very few ladies wear hats. Most of the women also do not let their hair go white so I suppose wearing a hat will not make much difference for me! With my white hair and baseball cap, I’m not going to blend in very well even if I wanted to.
I’ve noticed that the women mostly wear sensible shoes in town. Very few fancy high heels in site, not that I would be tempted anyway. Tennis shoes and walking shoes are popular but they do love their bling, opting for sparkly walking shoes when they can. I’ve been grateful for my comfy Brooks tennis shoes with all of the walking we’ve been doing although some cute Spanish Pikolino brand walking shoes caught my eye the other day as we passed the shoe store. March 19th was Dia del Padre (Father’s Day) in Spain. Rocky was eager to be celebrated so he picked out some very stylin’ Panama Jack (also a Spanish brand) walking shoes to celebrate. No doubt he will celebrate American Father’s Day in June with another pair of shoes! Double the holidays, double the gifts, right?
After spending three years downsizing, selling and giving away most of our possessions, it feels strange to want to buy things again. We have been in a major state of contraction for so long but are starting to welcome a bit of expansion again. Our apartment has more storage space than we’ve had since selling our five bedroom house. I can’t remember ever living anywhere where we had empty closets, drawers and cupboards. That said, we also do not want to fill them up either! We left our most favorite artwork in a small storage unit in Federal Way. It would be lovely to have a few of our favorite things on the plain white walls here but the expense of shipping them outweighs our desire to have them. Instead we will find other ways to make our place feel like home.
Admittedly, we made one very substantial purchase this week: a bigger bed. As much as we tried to embrace our new lifestyle, we have not been able to get used to our smaller bed. After 35 years of sleeping in a king-sized bed together, anything smaller felt temporary. Every night since arriving here, I have given myself a pep talk before climbing into bed. “You can get used to sleeping in a smaller bed. Really! Just give it some time. Anyone who can fully embrace hanging their clothes to dry and sweeping their floors instead of vacuuming can surely get used to being more cozy at night, right?” And then every night around 2 am when I’m still tossing and turning and trying to get comfortable with my feet hanging off the end of the bed, and Wilma’s paws pressing into my back, the conversation in my head changes to “I can’t stand it one more night! Tomorrow I am buying a new bed!!”
Well, that 2 am voice finally won out this week and we went to the mattress store to see what our options were. Living on the 8th floor of a historic building with a narrow stairwell and a very small elevator is not conducive to moving in a king-sized bed. Not to be deterred, we bought two extra long twin beds and a bed belt that will hold them together to make our desired-sized bed fit for a king and queen! It will take two weeks before the beds are delivered but already I am sleeping better just knowing they are on the way.
One of the most unexpected delights of our new routine has been waking up to messages from home. While we are sleeping, you are commenting on our posts, our photos, and the blog. Every morning feels like Christmas morning as we carefully unwrap each message while sipping our coffee together. The connection that Rocky and I feel to all of you and the enthusiasm with which you have embraced our adventure helps keep the inevitable home-sickness we feel from time to time, at bay. Of course we long for a time when you can join us on our adventure in person, but until then, we are filled with gratitude that we can stay in each other’s lives in this way.
The next time you pick up a broom, consider moving it more slowly across the floor. You never know what sweeping changes may be coming your way.