He shared a picture of her, beaming in front of Lake Louise in Canada. She had been a widow for maybe a year or two at that point, but she still traveled. That photo followed her from a home in Arizona to a home in Illinois, to her final room at a nursing home in Chicago.
She would often point to the picture and tell visitors, “See that? I used to be brave.”
I don’t think she ever stopped.
I repeat her words in my head some days, as I tread these waters of expatlandia. Because every day, in a big or small way, I have to be brave.
The small acts of bravery—parking, ordering a cafe y tostada, joining a conversation—are become mundane enough to be called life.
But then there are the bigger things, which make my insides twist and cause me to repeatedly wipe my palms on my jeans. Such as the piscina municipal.
Why would the local public pool lead me to assume the fetal position? I was mostly afraid of the Speedos. I had this image of a group of Spanish men, wearing Speedos, yelling in Spanish. And I would walk in, and they would sense my foreign intrusion, and….I don’t know….they would go Javier Bardem on me?
(Note: Not hot Javier Bardem. No Country for Old Men Javier Bardem.)
I just didn’t darken its door. Instead, I drove my kid twenty minutes away, to the naval base, to take more expensive swim lessons, which were taught by Spanish speakers anyway.
Dumb. You know, I used to be brave
I finally summoned the courage and asked my good friend to walk me over. It turns out that the pool is a sterile dome of solitude, in which all swimmers must have a Silkwood-style scrubbing and wear goggles AND a swim cap. Non-swimmers are not allowed to even enter the swimming area. And you know? I didn’t see a single Speedo.
We pretended to understand the lifeguard’s rat-a-tat Spanish, and the next thing we knew, Joel was signed up for swim lessons, two days a week.
All it took was a trip to city hall, extended conversations with two bickering city employees, a cash payment, and a full cavity search. I exaggerate. Only slightly.
But we did it. And we also signed up my oldest for Spanish futbol.
And yes, I will still have to actually speak with these coaches and clerks, which gives me a slight case of the vapors.
On my bad days, it helps to remember what I’ve already done, and how far I’ve come since I stepped off the plane.
I string these experiences together, like beads on a chain. I talked to my landlady on the phone. Clink. I took a city bus in Sevilla. Clink. I bought a full fish at the pescaderia. Clink.
And someday, when I am very old, I hope to metaphorically present this chain to my grandchildren.
I will hold them very close, and whisper, “You see? I used to be brave.”