I made sure to get a lot of time with my close friends and family before taking off for my trip. As you probably know, I’m a very social person, so I wanted to be certain to get as much time in as I could before temporarily being on a social “island”. I’ll definitely remember getting my last Wind & Sea Mai Tai, my last round of chicken and waffles at Roscoe’s, my last BJ’s Pizookie, and my last In-N-Out burger on my way to the airport with my parents. You know, all the healthy stuff! I appreciated the time people spent with me on those occasions among others before I left. After some emotional goodbyes, I took off on Tuesday night, February 24 to head into Madrid, following a layover in Copenhagen. I’d reserved a spot for myself at a hostel near the heart of the city and, after arriving late at night by taxi, got to my room and quickly got to sleep.
I’m not a huge planner when it comes to trips. I woke up the next morning not really sure of what I wanted to do. “I mean, I’m in Madrid, there’s got to be plenty to do, right?” I thought. I’d downloaded some ebooks and maps about Madrid, but I didn’t want to get too bogged down with studying those. By about 10:50 the next morning, I’d made it to the lobby of the hostel and had gotten a basic, touristy map from the reception. As I perused it, I noticed a poster advertising a free walking tour throughout Madrid that started at 11am. Free? Starting in 10 minutes? Yes, please.
It was about a 10 minute walk to where the tour began, so I rushed down there through the bustling streets of Madrid, not taking the time to snap pictures so I could make sure I got there on time. I finally arrived at the Puerta del Sol, the very heart of the city. It was very reminiscent of New York. While the buildings weren’t as tall as New York’s, the plaza was crowded with people. The streets were riddled with Las Vegas-style street performers, Mickeys and Minnies, a chubby Spider Man, people floating in the air, even a headless figure. This had to have been a profitable line of work because they’re out here every day, looking to get a few Euro from the abundance of tourists.
Our tour guide was a young Latvian girl named Anastasia who guided a group of eight of us through the city. She was engaging, energetic, and made the city really come to life with her descriptions of its history. The most majestic of the sights we saw on the three hour walk was El Palacio Real (Royal Palace). The royal family used to live there in its—get this— 3,418 rooms! The palace is only used now for special events and ceremonies, but it was certainly a spectacle.
My highlight during the tour was spotting a familiar sight up ahead of our tour group. I could see four well-dressed people and four (thankfully non-singing) carts standing out among the crowd of people walking by. I was SO excited to see my brothers and sisters there, truly standing out as they carried out the metropolitan witnessing there in Madrid. Of course they were incredibly warm, and excited to hear of my plans to move to Zaragoza to help pioneer there. Speaking with them also helped me to continue practicing my Spanish. I took classes in the language for five years, from 8th to 12th grade, but I haven’t had a class since. I only occasionally use my Spanish back home, so by being in Spain, I’m excited at the prospect of becoming nearly fluent.
Anyway, spending a brief moments with my fellow Witnesses was so encouraging. It really impressed upon me how dependent I am on association with God’s people and talking about Jehovah; I could really feel it lacking with the busy weeks of packing and traveling preceding my departure. There is truly nothing like our brotherhood, and that made it clear. I jumped on any opportunity that naturally came up to mention that I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which often happened when any conversation veered toward the reason why I was in Spain. I talked to hostel-mates, taxi drivers, really anyone that I had an extended conversation with. I genuinely missed service, so I had to do whatever I could to fill that void.
I enjoyed a very reasonably priced three course meal with our starving tour group and made my way back to the hostel for a well deserved nap. I had to charge up my energy because I was very excited for what would be happening that night… my trip to McDonald’s.
“McDonald’s… Really?” might have been your first thought when reading that. But I didn’t have a Big Mac and fries on my mind. I raced around the corner as I came up to McDonald’s, and the purpose for my visit there sank in. Sitting out front was one of my really good friends, Sadie. We’ve been friends for years, and in September she had moved to Italy to work as an au pair for a family in the north of the country. We’d realized there was no way I could be as close to Italy as Madrid and not take the opportunity to hang out. That decision proved to be a great one. My Madrid vacation before settling in Zaragoza became a lot more fun. Sadie and I have spent probably 80% of the time cracking up about something. That evening, we met up with a receptionist from my hostel who took a small group out go grab food and drinks.
The first spot we went to was so awesome! Basically, you pay 5 Euro for a large beer. That on its own isn’t bad of a deal at all. However, the really good part of the deal came when our waiter started bringing out plates of tapas and pinchos (Spanish small plates). You basically buy a beer and get free food along with it. And man, was it a lot of food. Plates and plates and more plates continued to fly out of the kitchen, perfectly complementing the ice cold beer and sangria we enjoyed. The food was great, especially considering that it was just “bar food”.
The next day, Sadie and I met up to see the Bethel headquarters in Madrid. This was no quick trek. We had to take a subway, to a train station, to a bus stop, to the branch. It took us over and a half to get there, but we finally made it. A few years ago, all of the Spanish translation for the organization was done at the branch in Puerto Rico. However that branch closed down about two years ago, and all production moved to Spain. When I visited Puerto Rico in 2011, I was able to make some contact there, to include a sister named Mirielle. She ended up being our tour guide the day we went to the Madrid branch. Talk about a small world! It was nice catching up with her for a bit.
The Madrid branch felt pretty mellow in comparison to those in New York. We went at a time when there weren’t many around. But, despite its quiet nature, Mirielle shared that it would soon be remodeled. It just goes to show how much work is still needed to keep the ministry progressing. Before leaving we got to meet with Carlos and Henriette Parra, and Joaquin Sanchez, all members of the Spain Bethel family who’d made the move from the translation department in Puerto Rico. Sadie and I made it back to the city on Friday night, got some dinner at a local spot and spent some time cruising down different parts of town.
We met up on Saturday morning and had a pretty interesting experience over lunch. We went to a (subpar) place to get some (subpar) paella. Although, what are you to expect in such a touristy part of town. Anyway, it’s common to see beggar ladies who are very forceful in their petitions for your money. Their persistence can usually be countered by ignoring them, but the locals are none too impressed by their antics. While enjoying our paella on the beautiful outdoor patio (which is a little more expensive, but definitely worth that “Spanish experience”), one of these beggars came up to our table to ask for money. Sadie and I ignored her, but she kept at it. Our waiter saw what was happening and started going off on the lady. In past times I’ve seen employees and shop owners in Europe shoo these women off. But our waiter was really letting this lady have it. They got into quite a shouting match. They were speaking such fast Spanish that I couldn’t really pick up on what they were saying.
Then it went to another level. Our waiter snatched the beggar’s cup of coins out of her hand, stormed across the street and slammed the cup down on a porch over there. Sadie and I were laughing and gasping at the same time out of shock over the point to which this confrontation had escalated. “Why am I not Snapping this?” I lamented to Sadie, still too enthralled to take my eyes off what was going on.
Beggar lady was not down with the waiter’s drastic move. She was going ballistic yelling at him. Her rugged bare feet waddled across the crosswalk in a rage as she collected her money and came back to yell at the waiter and give him a piece of her mind. However the waiter just stood there and ignored her with a big smirk on his face. He reminded me of that emoji of the girl with her hand up in the air who just can’t be bothered. Yeah that one… you know the one I’m talking about. He was like a living version of that with his lack of concern over her rampage.
We spent the remainder of the day doing some more sightseeing, connecting with more Witnesses out doing public witnessing, and trying to get some more photo ops. By the afternoon though, Sadie had made an exciting, spontaneous decision. Her flight was the next morning out of Madrid, however my train ride to Zaragoza was that evening. As opposed to staying in Madrid another night, she decided she would ride the train out to Zaragoza for the night with me. We’d had such a rad time to this point, so why end it now?
Getting from the city center to the train station was no small feat. I had two huge bags to lug around, and making sure to catch the right metros to the train station wasn’t easy, but we did it. One of my least favorite things in life is being lost, missing my exit, going the wrong direction, making a wrong turn, etc. But I had to laugh at our experiences of racing across to the other side of tracks multiple times to ensure that we got on the right train. I remember one time we specifically racing to get to our arriving metro. Man, those doors show no mercy. If you make it, you make it. If you don’t, it leaves (cue that emoji again). But your boy was NOT about to miss the upcoming metro that took us to the train station. I picked up my massive bags, and followed Sadie as we raced to the other side of the station and got our last metro RIGHT on time. Sweaty, panting, and laughing we exchanged a high five at this incredible victory.
Despite the seeming mishaps, we finally made it to the train station. We were ready to begin the hour and a half journey to my new home in Zaragoza.
Part 2B: Arriving in Zaragoza
ARRIVING IN ZARAGOZA
Waiting for us as we disembarked was Alex. He and I had exchanged emails over the previous weeks. He’s the secretary in the congregation and he and his wife, who are in their 30’s, have collectively spent about two decades in the pioneer service. He and his wife, Maria, were gracious enough to let Sadie stay with them for the evening before she had to take off in the morning for her train back to Madrid. The instant bond we all felt was such a huge testament to the incomparable love that we have as Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s really unbelievable.
Well the big moment was here… time for me to see my apartment for the first time. Maria’s brother Carlos, who owns the apartment, met us there to let me in. I’d seen pictures. I’d read descriptions. But nothing compared to that moment when I first opened the door and walked in. “WOW!” was my first thought. It was so nice. I walked in and to my left saw a spacious living room, with a brand new television whose protective film Carlos peeled off right in front of me. To my right stood the kitchen, fully equipped with an electric stovetop, washing machine, and a fridge that Alex and Maria had stocked up for me with some basics. Alex even had a pasta dish that Maria had made for me; it was Saturday night and most of the stores would be closed the next day, so they didn’t want me to go hungry the next day. SO NICE!
Just ahead were the guest room (where you’ll stay if you come visit!), the bathroom (complete with a bidet… ohhh man), and my room! It’s such a perfect setup and I was given such a deal on it. It’s really more than I need, but I can see it’s an obvious blessing from Jehovah.
After I got a brief moment to set my stuff down, Alex took Sadie and me to the city center so we could meet up with some of the younger ones from the congregation. We met 18 year old Aitor and his girlfriend, Beatriz, as well as a 24 year old brother named Daniel. And once she got off work, Alex’s wife Maria was able to meet us as well. It was nice to meet a group of people from my new congregation.
Zaragoza is a historical area, with aspects of modernity coupled with that “old town” feel. With 700,000+ people, it’s no small city (it’s Spain’s fifth largest, in fact), however it lacked the major hustle and bustle that you’re bound to experience in a city like Madrid or Barcelona. But I’ve come to determine that I like that. Cities like San Sebastian and Malaga have been more appealing spots for me to visit in comparison to Madrid or Barcelona, and I feel like at least part of that can be related to the fact that the former two aren’t riddled with loads of people. That was part of my initial appeal about Zaragoza.
One of the most majestic sights we saw while touring that first night was the Basílica De La Virgen Del Pilar. Admittedly, thoughts of Babylon the Great immediately came to mind (ha!), but I must say that it was a true architectural feat. The designs were ornate, the sprawling expanse of its white exterior glowed by the evening lights. The plaza in front of it was a huge open space, which sometimes is used for large gatherings of people. Continuing on through our evening tour of the town, we came to la Puente de Piedra (Stone Bridge). This bridge is really spectacular looking. It’s a key landmark of Zaragoza, connecting the area of the basilica to a neighborhood of flats nestled in among one another. But something was especially unique that evening, even to the Zaragoza locals who were showing us around.
The river below the bridge was racing. As opposed to be the calm, flowing river that usually adorns the Puente de Piedra, the waters roared past us below. Full grown trees and street light poles were submerged by more than halfway! The river was flooding and looked like a valid prospect for white river rafting. Apparently the snow from distant mountains had melted and had dumped a more-than-usual amount of water into the river. It was pretty cool to watch, especially when seeing how excited even people from the area were about it.
Some of the group needed to leave by this point (it was getting pretty late, close to 11), but Maria, Alex’s wife, met us after work for dinner. We had calamari sandwiches (how has the United States not made this more of a thing already?) at a place where you throw your trash on the ground. Sound gross? Maybe it was a little bit haha. But you do the same thing at Joe’s Crab Shack, right? It just worked, and I enjoyed myself (and my sandwich). Our dinner afforded us more time to really get to know Alex and Maria, and hear about their true focus on the ministry above anything else.
Being as Sadie’s flight out of Madrid was at noon the next day, and she needed to take a 1.5 hour train ride in the morning to get back there, it was definitely getting toward time for us to get to sleep. Alex and Maria dropped me off at my apartment, before driving off with Sadie back to their home.
“Ahh, here I am,” I thought, “in my own place!” I’ve never lived all on my own before. After moving out from my parents’ house, I moved in with roommates. So needless to say, I’ve gotten so used to always having people around me at home. But here, I was by myself. I FaceTimed a bit with my parents, but then it was time to wind down.
I got all settled in my room and ready to go to sleep. I’d spent so much time with friends and family before I left. I’d had a ton of fun hanging out with Sadie in Madrid for the days prior. What was this feeling sinking in? What was coming over me? It was something that I just wasn’t at all used to. But then it hit me.
I guess I was lonely.
“Was this going to be a good move for me? How could I stay here three whole months if I’m already feeling lonely after ONE night here? I don’t know how I’ll figure everything out here, it’s completely different than California.” Such thoughts continued to cross my mind.
But then I caught myself. “No, it’s the FIRST night!” I thought. I knew that I had to give myself time to acclimate. I went to sleep with hopes of a better tomorrow.