EIGHT: The Road Trip, A Photojournal 


Ten days. A dozen cities.

Last year I planned a European road trip with my friend Miguel from Germany and Taylor from Huntington Beach. It was a whirlwind, but it was such an incredible time. I’ll keep this post simple and share just one photo from each of the twelve cities and five cities (save a shot from a night in Heilbronn, Germany) that we stopped or stayed in. 

I’m happy to be back home in Spain as we work hard at the invitation campaign and gear up for Nisan 14, 2017. More soon!

Zurich, Switzerland

Lucerne, Switzerland

Augsburg, Germany

Dachau Concentration Camp, Germany

Munich, Germany

Kaiserslautern, Germany

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

Brussels, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

SEVEN: Un Aguja en un Pajar

My central focus since I’ve been in Bilbao has definitely been centered around being in service. (Random side note, I recently discovered that I actually live in a town called Barakaldo, which is actually just outside of Bilbao, ha!) I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve been able to get a good solid schedule, and I try to be there for just about every meeting for service, which ends up equating to about 5 or so days a week. It’s a schedule that keeps me busy, but focused.

Let me get back to those studies I’d started at the barber shop. I was looking forward to going back, and did, just as I’d promised. It was, naturally, time for a shave too. Seeing as this was the case, I figured I’d just go on my own; I didn’t want to make someone wait as I got shaved as well before the study. But Sylvester decided to come with me. And I was so glad he did.

We got to the shop after a morning of search work and took seats as I waited a few moments to get in my chair. I saw a Nigerian woman sitting next to me and figured, hey why not witness to her? I reached into my bag and pulled out the March Watchtower and asked her opinion on the title question, what she thought God’s greatest gift was.

She raised her eyebrows before uttering even a word in reply. “Jehovah’s Witness?”

They all knew who we were. I confirmed her thought.

“You are always giving us old magazines, last month, last year, this one says April, it must be old too.”

Whoa. I definitely wasn’t expecting that. It was pretty ironic considering the fact that that’s exactly part of the reason why we changed the numbering format on the magazines.

“This is actually brand new, just from this month! It says April 11 on the bottom because that’s referring to a special event coming up next month.”

She didn’t look convinced. But she finally replied that she thought “life” was that greatest gift. By this time, I was in Charles’s chair. But fortunately, Sylvester had stepped in to show the woman how John 3:16 gave the real answer to her question. Charles, overhearing the conversation agreed with our points. But she was not having it. She was strong minded, loud, misinformed and aggressive. She knew a lot of scriptural ideas, but in the wrong way. Sylvester was a champion at handling her. The Nigerian culture can be on the more abrasive side, and you have to be more direct and in their face when reasoning.

She had further issues with us. “Why would you want me to go to your church when you people won’t ever come to ours?” she retorted, in her thick African accent. I started reasoning with her from my favorite section of the Good News brochure, lesson 10 about how to identify true worship. I told her that Jesus himself outlines at least five marks of true worship, and after paraphrasing them briefly to her as tufts of curly hair fell to the floor, I made a simple statement. “If you find a church that does all of those things, let me know and I’ll go. But I only know of one, so that’s the one I go to.”

Her contradictions continued and Sylvester continued to do a great job handling her. I asked Charles when James would be there. Sylvester had set me up to study with them both. Charles had had to cancel the day before, so I was really there to see James, who walked in shortly after. I went planning to study, but this also turned into an intense discussion.

He went big right away, asking if I believed in hellfire.

“Well it depends on how you define that?”

“Well I asked you first, so you tell me whether you believe in it.”

“It depends on how you define it though! Because if you think it’s a fiery place of torment, then no. But if you think of it as the Grave, then yes I do.”

I knew he obviously ascribed to the first definition. Our conversation revealed that if a burning hell really didn’t exist, then he didn’t feel the need to live a good life. We reasoned on that for a while. Questions like, “So you only serve God out of fear of punishment instead of out of actually loving him?” “Would you punish your daughter by putting her hand on a stove?” (the classic) and “Do you actually like the idea of hell?” never truly resonated with him. He just wanted to do a back and forth that really showed me how much people have been blinded out there.

Before our time there had concluded, other Nigerian shop customers were getting involved, heaving false reasoning our way, leaving Sylvester and I to defends ourselves, which I think we did very well overall. It was a wake up call. I’m glad I didn’t go alone. I may have some experience doing this, but the Nigerians are definitely a tough crowd, and they’ll take you to town if you’re not ready. Sylvester was an awesome support, leaving the ratio 2 on 5 instead of just 1 on 5. I let him know how much I appreciated his help. We left unshaken, and ready to bring back more information the following week, to which James and Charles agreed.

 

Thursdays and Saturdays are the days I head out to do service in and around the village of Durango. Two members of the congregation that are really spearheading the preaching efforts out there are Mark and Sophie, who were recently assigned to the congregation fresh out of SKE as special pioneers. He’s from Barcelona (and speaks perfect English) and she’s from Wales and I’ve been able to really bond with them during my time here. It’s pretty incredible what kind of quality friends you can make when you’re focused on the same purpose.

I had quite a few memorable days with them out in Durango and its surrounding villages. They frequently took me to some really beautiful areas in their car, such as Mutriku and Deba. These areas were beachside, sunny port towns that felt like a nice change of pace from being in the city. It definitely gave flashbacks to California. Searching for English speakers in these areas really felt anything but monotonous.

One experience in Deba especially stood out in my mind. We were on the lookout for a man named Ralph. We’d been referred to him by one of his employees at the local English academy. All we were given was a general side of the town that he lived on, so we went to work. I teamed up with Sophie as Mark worked alongside us, inquiring at each building if they knew any English speakers. We were coming up empty until I spotted a woman up in her balcony. I pointed her out to Sophie who immediately jumped at the opportunity to ask her in Spanish if she knew Ralph.

And it was a success. She did! And she told us exactly what apartment to find him at. For the most part, people tend to be pretty helpful, especially in smaller towns like that one. Older ladies are the most knowledgeable as many of them have lived in their homes for a long time and have a good sense of who else lives there.

Sophie and I gave each other a determined look, ready to find this needle in the haystack. We rang his intercom.

Hola?

Hmm. He answered in Spanish. Had we gone to the right door?

“Hi, do you speak English?” I replied, hoping for the best.

“I speak a bit” he replied, with a sense of joking sarcasm.

“That’s great! We’re looking for English speakers to share some positive news about current events; can we bring something up to you?” He gladly buzzed us up.

He was standing at the open door with a warm demeanor. I introduced myself and Sophie, and asked his name, pretending not to already know. Ralph told us he was from New York. I was so excited; I was actually talking to an American. That is always such a rarity in Spain, especially while out in service in the areas I’ve been to. It was a relief to (kind of) hear my accent and talk totally freely. For that moment, I felt like I was back in my home territory, doing a “normal” presentation and getting right into the Good News brochure after we’d exchanged a few pleasantries.

He was very kind and polite. I’ll be honest, I don’t know that he would’ve spoken with us quite as much had we been in the United States, but I feel like he was quite happy to have the (rare) opportunity to speak to native English speakers and wanted to take advantage of it. I placed the brochure with him, and he was quite welcoming to the idea of us coming back, even to talk to other members of his family. You never know how that could turn out.

Sophie and I high fived. We were really excited at how that turned out. It was definitely the boost I needed at the time. Sometimes the search work could feel exhausting. It was a lot of work for what felt like few results. On some of my service days, hours of ringing intercoms resulted in grumpy Spaniards and no new addresses. But this day left me feeling so reinvigorated. It was great.

The meeting the very next evening was also such a great boost. There was a quote in the Kingdom Rules book that felt like it was written just for me at that very time. “We remain joyful workers when we keep in mind that Paul stated: ‘Each person will receive his own reward according to his own work.’ (1 Cor. 3:8) The reward is given according to the work, not according to the results of that work.”

Our Memorial invitation campaign got started soon after. It was nice actually doing typical door-to-door, where were going to addresses where we already knew that English speakers definitely lived, and getting opportunities to invite them to the event of the year! Service was feeling great. Usually, my most common reason for “rejection” while street witnessing was that person was already studying with or being called on by someone else—not a bad reason at all.

My attitude was adjusted. I felt happier. It wasn’t just about starting studies and having a ton of great experiences. It was the work that I was putting in that would get rewarded, and that’s exactly what I was so busy with, and what kept me so motivated.

 

Shoutout to readers: Thanks for the positive feedback on the blog. If you’re reading, please leave a comment and say hey. It’s nice to know who’s keeping up with things out here and I always enjoy hearing from friends and family back home!

 

SIX: Beards, Barbers and Bibles

I’ve been to Europe four times. Each of those times I’ve gone to Spain. Each of those times I’ve gone to San Sebastian, Spain. This time was no exception. I snuck away there for a couple days (it’s only an hour away!) to again meet up with my friends Tish and Malia from California. Additionally, it was awesome to catch up with my friends who live in San Sebastian, Iker and his brother Julen, Yoana, and twins Tamara and Jasmina. And it was a huge privilege to stay with my good friend Antonio, who’s the coordinator of his hall. He used to be a part of San Sebastian’s English group with Iker and Julen, but recently moved back to Spanish to alleviate his heavy load and focus on his health. He’s a great brother and is so welcoming whenever I’m in town.

I always get this feeling of nostalgia when I’m back in San Sebastian. It brings back memories of when my friend Derek and I went to go visit my friend Conrad, who lived out there for a few months back in 2011. The smells, the streets, the landmark locations, the food, the beach… it all felt like such a great throwback.

A tradition that I also always do in San Sebastian is visit a sidrería. It’s a cider house with huge barrels of fermented cider that you drink between courses of typical sidrería food, like cod omelets, cod filets, and the best steak you will ever eat in your life—no joke. Antonio took the girls and me there and the high expectations I’d set for their experience at the sidrería were met and exceeded.

After those brief days, however, I was excited to get back to Bilbao. I was looking forward to really getting integrated into the congregation. I wanted to get my hands on some territories. I wanted to start doing work in the hall. I wanted to cultivate some solid return visits and turn them into studies.

Studies may be my favorite aspect of service. It was hard for me to leave my four students back home, even though it’s just temporary and even though I made sure they were all in great hands. But coming out here, I didn’t have that. I needed that here. Teaching people directly about the truth is really fulfilling.

So I got specific about it. That’s something I’ve tried to work on over the last year or two—being really specific with my prayers. So I decided to put a very detailed request in. I prayed to start one study by the end of the following week. That gave me about 11 days to do so. Doable right? I hoped so.

I made my way on the metro that Wednesday morning, following the details of the address that a brother had texted me, leaving ample time for the metro rides. I rang.

No answer.

I was nervous. Did I go somewhere wrong? Was the time different than 10:15? Was there simply no one who was out today?

I looked up. I was at 28 instead of 26. Ok good! I thought. I rushed down to the proper apartment building and rang again.

No answer.

I was nervous. Did I go somewhere wrong? Was the time different than 10:15? Was there simply no one who was out today?

I texted the brother who gave me the information. He responded moments later. And he did so in true Spanish style. Here in Spain, people love to “spam text” as I call it. Where one text message could easily be used to get a point across in my opinion, they’ll use about 5-6 messages to convey that information.

(shocked emoji)

(shocked emoji)

I mixed Tuesday and Wednesday morning!!!

Sorry!

I will ask the brother conducting to call you now!

I’m so sorry my friend

I assured the brother that it was not a problem at all. It wasn’t. I had to laugh at the barrage of texts that I’d become so used to out here.

His wife ended up getting in touch with me minutes later and explained to me where I could meet the group. I rode the metro a few stops down and got to the intersection where I’d be meeting the group. Since I beat them there, I figured I might as well get my day started. My eyes were peeled. I was looking for Africans. I reflected back on my time in Zaragoza and the ability to distinguish English speaking Africans (primarily from Nigeria and Ghana) from the French-speaking ones (from Mali and Senegal).

There! Found one.

He looked to be in a rush but I figured I’d try anyway. He was on his way to the metro but politely listened as I went through a rather hurried presentation of the Suffering tract, doing my best to gauge how much more time he had to talk. At the moment I was going to go for it and ask for his contact info to follow up, his phone rang and he took off. Ah! SO close to getting my goal, but not quite.

Moments later, the group arrived. The one taking the lead was an older Spanish brother named Jon, as well as two brothers and a sister from Ghana and Nigeria. I was paired with one of those brothers, named Sylvester, and we took off to engage in the search work. My time with him was really enjoyable. I enjoyed getting to hear his story of finding the truth later in life and making his way from Africa to Europe. I told him about my background too and about my goal to start a study. He expressed confidence that I’d be able to achieve that goal soon.

Our search work was something I was getting more comfortable with. Even though most inquiries didn’t end up in new addresses, it was good being able to have a presence in the neighborhood during our “spy” work. However, day one in service had gone by since I’d made my specific prayer for a study, and I’d come up empty. No big deal, I still had time before the end of the following week would be here!

It turned out to be a shorter day for the group. But there was one thing I needed to find… a good barber. On my first day in Bilbao, I’d walked to the predominantly African part of town to get a shave. Since my electric shaver doesn’t work in Europe and I can’t use a razor (perhaps you remember this dilemma from my time in Zaragoza), I’ve decided it’s best to go get shaves once a week at the barber shop. It’s cheap, and more cost effective than buying a shaver for my time here.

Anyway, that first experience was one I was looking forward to. “Ok he’s a homie, he’ll know what he’s doing” when I walked into the shop. I thought back to Godwin in Zaragoza who hooked it up big time. But THIS guy. Different story. He shaved me alright. But I felt like he was trying to shave OFF my face instead of shave my face. It was like he was shearing me like some wild sheep. I would’ve rather gone to the slaughter. I was so mad. I was frowning. I was muttering expressions in my mind that I shouldn’t have been. It was bad.

So, fast forward, it’s time for another shave. Sylvester told me that he knew of a place. We walked right past the last place and went to another barber shop. They were Nigerian as well and introduced themselves as James and Charles. This seemed better. I sat down prepared for either misery or a fresh cut.

Sylvester knew these guys. He’d obviously been there before, and waited to hang out as I got my shave (which I decided to couple with a haircut as well). Early in the process he said something that took me by surprise.

Slipping into a thicker accent, he told the barbers “I brought Eric and he will study the Bible with you.”

The bold statement took me by a bit of surprise. The barbers quickly nodded in agreement, “OK”.

It was that simple. As soon as the cut was done (by the way, it ended with a fresh cut), I grabbed my service bag and got out two Good News brochures. I showed them how the brochure is laid out. I asked them when they were free; one agreed to get together Sunday, and the other on Tuesday. I got their numbers and texted them mine. The deal was sealed.

I kept my cool as we left, but had to break character when I was with Sylvester. I appreciated his direct approach; his bounce-pass turned into a solid layup. Yes, not only had Jehovah answered my prayer a week and a half early, but he gave me what I was asking for and DOUBLED it. I’d started two studies on the very day I’d asked for just one.

The day might’ve started off feeling like a bit of a mishap with the meeting for service mixup. The search work presented no new addresses that morning. But that was no sign of defeat for the day. I’d ended the day on a win, and by no means was that on my own.

FIVE: Spies

I was having flashbacks as I spent my first full day in Bilbao. I thought back to my first night in Zaragoza. That night two years ago, I’d come off a fun trip to Madrid with a good friend, then came to my place in Zaragoza feeling alone. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know where I really was in relation to anything. I had never really felt like that before.

Those feelings started to come back as I was in Bilbao. My roommate Pawel was very friendly and welcoming. But as he left for a day of work and I stayed at the apartment, I felt this strange sense of being out of place. Again I didn’t really know anyone. Again I didn’t know where I was in relation to anything. I honestly was itching to get out in service and get to the meeting in Bilbao so I could get to meet my congregation. That was a huge part of what really made me feel at home in Zaragoza, and mentally I knew that’s what would make the difference for me in Bilbao. It was a bit of a waiting game that I knew I had to play. I sat home for the most part on a sunny Thursday, briefly stepping out to enjoy the (rare) sunshine. But I just wasn’t vibing yet.

I took some time to try to sink my teeth into Bilbao some more. I got a gym membership and got back to working out, something I’d definitely been missing after the preceding period of a bread and beer diet. I went to IKEA and bought some things to make me feel more at home (side note: I never go to IKEA back home but WOW that place is an experience… so huge and overwhelming… I need a year before I take on that beast again).

But then came what I was waiting for: the chance to go out in service. I couldn’t wait. I’m not trying to sound corny, but I genuinely like service and I was really looking forward to using that as a way to get to know people in my new congregation. Pawel had told me that this week was the first time for a brand new meeting for service arrangement in the hall: Friday afternoons right before the meeting.

So I got to the metro and started making the trek to the Kingdom Hall. And I use the word “trek” purposely as the rain was starting to pour—just in time for my journey to the hall and first time in service. My umbrella and water resistant jacket were put to very good use as I rushed into the hall, about 2 minutes past the 4:30 start time.

img_3622Inside were two sisters, Marga and Leire, who warmly greeted me. We started to get to know each other, and it was nice getting to meet two of my fellow pioneers in my new congregation. Soon thereafter in walked Fabian, who was married to Leire and led our meeting for service. I stocked up my service bag and prepared to brave the storm.

To these three brave pioneers, this rain was just the order of the day. It’s so common in Bilbao, so they don’t have the luxury of just not going out in service when it’s a bit wet outside. Grab an umbrella and jacket and they’re good to go! We spent the afternoon doing search work, as I’d gotten a little experience with in Portugal with Taylor. We’d go to a building (keep in mind the territory in Spain is ALL apartment buildings), ring the intercom, and ask in Spanish if the person who answered knew of any English speakers in the building. We also are on the lookout for those speaking certain other languages like Tagalog and Urdu.

Most people replied that they didn’t know any English speakers, that they weren’t going to buzz open the door for us (did I even ask you for that??), or that only Spaniards lived in the building. Fabian would make detailed notes on the territory to keep track of what we were finding. We finally did end up finding one African family, who buzzed us in and allowed Fabian to present the Truth tract. It was neat watching a return visit be set up right then and there on my first service day in Bilbao. The two sisters were working the street with us (which isn’t too common here; often pairs of two are sent into completely different territories) and they had quite a bit of success finding English speakers. It really feels like detective work, but obviously the most fulfilling kind. Spies for the Lord, ha!

But after a while California boy over here was getting cold and wet. When they finally suggested a break, I tried to contain my elation. We grabbed coffee and tapas (typical Spanish style), and from here took off for the next thing that I was excited for: my first Bilbao English meeting.

*                                                                      *                                                                              *

I was still cold. I was still wet. But those facts quickly escaped my mind as soon as I stepped in the Kingdom Hall after the evening of preaching. I could barely get to my seat thanks to the warm welcomes of publishers in the congregation. The hall was a lot… hmm, how should I put this… blacker than my last hall in Zaragoza, haha. There were tons of African publishers, mainly from Nigeria as well as Ghana. I’d learned the special Ghanaian handshake/snap back in Zaragoza so I quickly put it back into use as I met brothers and sisters that night. There was a warm, palpable buzz and the hall quickly filled up as the meting prepared to start.

I sat off to the side, where I’d be in an ideal position to see people as they were called on, so I could begin to learn names (which I’m generally terrible with… You could tell me your name was “John” and to me your name will be “Hey how’s it going?” for at least a couple weeks). I knew that I had to be on top of my commenting game, because with so many non-natives in the congregation, solid English are much appreciated. I decided to leave that typo I just made out of pure irony. Solid English SPEAKERS are much appreciated haha!

The greetings only intensified after the meeting, and it was nice to see people light up when they heard I wasn’t just there on vacation, but was there to help the congregation for a few months. I was really happy to get an invitation to go out to dinner right there after my first meeting. It was after 10pm by that point, but that’s how they do it here in Spain. After a brief consideration, I thought, of course I’d go, why not?

I was happy to join new friends form the hall, my roommate Pawel, and our three bonus roommates to grab dinner. It was funny because some were asking if I wanted to split a burger, because they were big here.

Uhh yeah, I’m good, I scoffed mentally, I think this American can handle a “big” burger in Spain.

“I think I’ll probably grab my own, but thanks!” I replied out loud.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how right they were. This was literally the biggest burger I had ever seen. It was probably close to 8 inches across in diameter, no lie. It was “YUUUGE”.

But your boy put that whole thing down. 😎 I’ll admit I was scared though.

Nights like this were what would help me to start feeling even more in sync with my new surroundings. The next day helped to cement things for me even more so. That would be my first weekend meeting the next evening. (And yes if you did some deductive reasoning, YES my meetings are Friday and Saturday nights haha 🙃). The way it works here is interesting. The congregation has about 60 publishers or so (with more attendance than that with all the interested ones who visit), and of them a portion are assigned to a group. This group focuses their preaching on a village called Durango, that’s about 45 minutes outside of the city. The whole congregation meets together on Friday nights. Those in the city have their weekend meeting on Sundays. Those in the group in the village have a long service day starting at 10:15 Saturday mornings, followed by a rotated hospitality at someone’s home in the village, and culminating with the meeting at 5pm.

I decided to check out the village Saturday the first weekend and I was glad I did. I rode out there with Jon and Maria, a young engaged couple in the hall. Again, we were focused on search work. It was a bit of a slower morning, but I still got the chance to know some more of the brothers in the congregation as we worked together in the ministry. We stopped by a family’s home for hospitality (I hate to admit it, but at the moment, all of their names are still “Heyhowsitgoing”), and after some time to wind down, headed to the meeting.

It was nice to be with a select few from the congregation in a more intimate setting. Our coordinator, Sam, came to give the talk that day. Typically speakers will give the talk in Durango on Saturday and also in Bilbao on Sunday. It was great to get to know his speaking style.

The little kids in the hall are quite… active! Let’s put it that way, haha. I thought I’d pick a few out and do a little big brother action with them. I’d pull them aside, get to know them a bit, and give them a positive challenge. I asked one, since he was the older of the kids (he was about 7 or so), to help set an example among the other kids in the hall. I tried to ask questions like “Why does Jehovah not want us to play in the hall? Do you think he wants anyone to get hurt?” I was nice but really wanted to help him, and others, to see how we want to act in the hall. I could sense that they respected what I was saying, and I saw their behavior improve. At the time I’m writing this, I haven’t been to the next meeting yet. But we’ll see how that mission goes haha.

I was starting to get in my groove. I was learning names (kinda), figuring out my way around town, making friends. But there was something missing. Something very specific that I loved from back home that I knew I needed here. So I asked Jehovah for it.

And he definitely delivered.

 

FOUR: Lisbound

Yes, the whole charge through the night and get no sleep thing was something I was getting all too used to. But it was never for a lame reason! Two great friends from my hall in California were in Spain, Malia and Tish. They’re sisters and Malia had a work conference in Madrid for the week. How could I not meet up to hang out? I gotta admit, the circumstances weren’t necessarily the most ideal.

I’ll rewind a bit. From Zaragoza, I took a train to Bilbao. It was there that I was able to finally see my new place. My roommate Pawel is from Canada and had his friend Ryan staying with him from back home. It wasn’t just Ryan though, his wife Kath and sister Lana were with him too. So our two bedroom apartment was soon to house five temporarily. I knew that would be a sight to see, but I had a few days before I needed to worry about that. I was only in town for a few hours to drop off my stuff and get back in the air. However, I had to say I was really happy with how my apartment-to-be looked. Clean, recently remodeled, well-furnished. It looked great. I got to know Ryan and his family for a bit, as well as my roommate Pawel, who arrived shortly before I left for the airport.

So I was heading to Lisbon, Portugal. However, in order to get a flight at a reasonable price, I had to endure the worst layover ever… I flew from Bilbao to Madrid, then from Madrid to Lisbon. Not bad right? Not until you consider the overnight layover form 10pm to 6am.

Sure, most people would just go sleep as much as they could during that time. But if you know me, you know that’s not me. I wanted to hang out, and I figured hanging with Tish and Malia for a few hours would be perfect. It took a bit of convincing to get them out of their desire to stay in and sleep. But when I finally made it to their hotel, they were up and ready to roll!

It took a bit of time to sink in that we were really on the other side of the world hanging out. Pretty surreal! We got tapas and sangria (stereotypical Spanish tourists, I know) and then stumbled across a place that seemed to have some life. It was an Irish Pub. Super fun! Great live music and a ton of energy. It was just a few hours, but meeting my friends in Madrid for a bit was 100% worth it.

I got back to the airport, trying to catch at least a little nap before my flight departed. And then I was off!

The time came to head to Portugal. My friend Taylor had spent a few months assisting the English group there and my friend Mark got me set up to stay with his sister, Aeriel and her husband, Jareth.

Portugal quickly won me over. Well, after my first hour and half of time there it did (the overnight layover in Madrid, 2 hours of sleep, landing in Lisbon, two metro rides, ferry ride across the river and additional metro ride weren’t the most ideal start to the experience, haha). It was easy to see why it attracted me. It reminded me so much of California! There were port areas that felt similar to Long Beach. Hopping in an Uber to head to trendy, hipster cafes gave me flashback of similar scenes in LA. Walking along the beach with a lively downtown bustle steps behind me felt like I was in Huntington Beach. The central bridge was completely reminiscent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The warm sun that shone over our scenic hiking trails were reminiscent of Laguna Beach. It really just felt like home.

But of course, nothing about Portugal’s lively capital city made me feel more at home than being with the friends from the hall. The English congregation was diverse and filled with both foreigners, native English speakers and Portuguese brothers and sisters who’d switched over to help out. I was blown away by how skilled the Portuguese brothers and sisters were with their English. It was incredible how fluent they really are, despite their own self-doubts.

I was able to visit the English congregation in Lisbon, the only one in the city. I began to get ready to take the metro there, but after I read Aeriel’s instructions on how to get there, which involved multiple metros, the ferry and culminated in a “10 minute uphill walk”, I texted her back, “yeah… Uber it is!”

As could be expected, the congregation was so warm and welcoming. They’re used to having visitors, and looking like I do, there was no blending in for me. I was already getting recruited to stay and help in their territory, even after only having been there for a few minutes.  That was the kind of greeting I liked to see.

I was quickly able to make friends in the congregation. I went out in the city with Taylor and her friend Jessica from her congregation back home. Sure, it felt a bit touristy, but that’s exactly what I was! After some time downtown, we met up with Vito and Daniela from the congregation me went to an area outside of Lisbon called Cabo da Rosa. This had to be a huge highlight of everything that I was able to see in the country.

The lookout points we were able to see took us to peaks overlooking the water, as the waves crashed and the sun kept us warm  we found an inviting trail and figured we’d follow it and see where it lead us  the pictures do the views a little bit of justice, but it’s definitely one of those things you just have to see for yourself. It was really stunning  and such a huge testament to the Creator.

The following day I got to spend with Jareth and Aeriel, who served as another set of great tour guides throughout Lisbon. Although we had met only in passing back in the old days (2010 or so, back when there was a party at least every month, and everyone would go no matter where it was, ha!), I quickly got to the point of feeling like they were longtime friends. We caught up about mutual friends back home, raved about last week’s episode of This is Us, got to know each others’ stories… I was really excited to have some connection back to California by staying with them. They had a group of younger ones over to their house that night for a delicious homemade dinner, after having made sure that I got to try all the traditional Portuguese food while we were out for the day (such as cod croquettes and pastal de Nata, which is like a little pastry filled with custard)

Another definite highlight was getting to do a day in service with Taylor. She was such a pro when it came to the English search work that was going on. It was so obvious how much here time there had affected her as a person and developed her spirituality. “Bom dia,” she began whenever someone answered the intercom, “Posso perguntar alguma informação? Há alguém neste edifício que é estrangeiro?”

The householder would then reply to her inquiry as to whether any foreigners were in the building. Sometimes there were, sometimes there weren’t. But we’d go into the building when possible and try to talk to such foreigners face to face. We img_3574.jpgwere able to track down a few English speakers, which Taylor proceeded to add to her territory card. It really felt like detective work. I loved it! I’ve heard that my preaching work in Bilbao will be centered around search work activities so I’m excited to start doing it there; this was an awesome way to whet my appetite for what was to come.

Jareth and Aeriel had more people over from the hall the following night. They had a solid crew of twenty-somethings in their congregation. You could sense a good level of spirituality, coupled with personality, among them. Getting to spend time with people like Vito, Daniela and Vanessa (I know it sounds like the cast of a mafia movie) really helped me to cement bonds with even more great people from the other side of the planet.

Overall, Portugal was amazing. I loved the time I got to spend with friends, both new and old, all while getting to expand my international family within the truth. Jehovah’s organization is definitely without comparison.

And just like that, it was time to shift out of vacation mode. It was time to head to Bilbao for real… to meet my new friends, my new congregation, my new way of life.

I was ready.

 

THREE: How to Get a 10 Cent Discount

“Are you coming back to Zaragoza?”

The text message caught me by surprise. I was busy on my romantic stroll with myself in Barcelona, not expecting to get a text like that at all. How would he know? I mused, thinking I had been a pro at keeping that information surprise.

“What in the world makes you think that?” I replied.

However, Aitor was persistent. And observant. He and I became good friends during my time in Zaragoza two years ago, so he could tell something was up.

img_3494He explained that a group was “randomly” getting together at “El Tubo”, a downtown tapas/bar spot in Zaragoza that I liked to frequent while I was living there. Apparently that place was immediately associated with me, because when he heard that our friend Guillermo was getting a group to go there on a Tuesday night out of the blue, his senses went off.

He’s good, I thought, but I can get around that.

“That would be so cool! I miss you guys! Hopefully I can actually make it there soon!”

Ok, I was pretty proud of that text. Completely lie-free and helped to maintain the surprise.

The three iMessage dots immediately began to dance across the screen. “I thought it was a surprise of you coming!” he replied, letting me know that he probably wouldn’t go in that case, so he could finish his service time.

Deflected (insert sunglasses emoji). That was close.

I thought it would be cool to roll through my old city as a surprise to the hall. Just show up unannounced and visit for a few days. I was so excited to get back there; my time in Zaragoza proved to be 3 of the best months of my life, no joke. Reliving it for a few more days would be awesome.

I’d only told two people that I’d be in town, mainly so I could find a place to stay. I ended up staying with Guillermo, who’d since moved out of his parents’ place into MY old apartment there. So not only did I find myself staying in my old apartment, but in my old room!

It was pretty surreal arriving in Zaragoza. It really felt like being back at home. The streets looked the same. The bus routes hadn’t changed. My barber Godwin was still there (I stopped by his shop immediately…he edged me up better than anyone!) and he still let me leave a few magazines on the table.

I was just rolling through the city (literally with my suitcase rumbling across the gridded sidewalk) with a big grin and great attitude. I was home! I couldn’t wait to see everyone that night.

Guillermo and I headed downtown that evening where I got to meet up with everyone. As img_3492we walked up I saw Aitor with his fiancée Bea, Alex and Maria (who’d just returned from serving in Paraguay), as well as Daniel Manuel (DaniMan as we all called him). It was a perfect case of nostalgia these were the exact people that greeted me on my very first night in Zaragoza when I arrived two years ago, nervous and unaware of my surroundings. It made me really happy to see the expressions on their faces as I walked up. The hugs were long, the excitement was palpable. It felt so good to be reunited with family. We went inside to a new dining hall called Puerta Cinegia (Anaheim Packing House style) and got a table, and new waves of excitement came as more brothers and sisters from the hall showed up. And showed up. And showed up. Probably 20 or so were there; that’s nearly half the hall. My favorite reaction was that of Vanessa’s, the wife of an incredible elder in the congregation named Ruben. She was SO excited to see me, and the feelings were mutual. She was shocked! It made me feel so good to get such warm greetings from everyone. I know I’ve said it plenty of times already, but I really felt so at home.

I got a good laugh that night as I went to pay for a tapa. I was about 10 “cents” (is that what Euro coins are called? I don’t know, but they are for MY blog) short for the one I wanted to buy, so I offered to just use my credit card. The lady behind the counter wasn’t too thrilled at that idea, so I said “Oh well!” with a big smile and walked away.

“Wait!” she called out, in her broken English, “I give you discount. I show you why.”

It took her some time as she went through her phone, trying to find a picture. I waited patiently.

“You!” She held the phone toward me and showed me a picture of a black man. “I looooveimg_3491 black man!”

I was cracking up! She was definitely older, probably in her 40’s and very sweet, and knew how to win me over with her comical flirting. I promised her a selfie and took me 90 “cent” tapa with pleasure.

My next few days quickly got booked up that evening, and I was really looking forward to spending more time with everyone. I was able to go to their meeting that following evening. It was there that I was able to see more people that hadn’t made it the night before. Again, everyone was so welcoming and excited. It was interesting to see how the congregation had changed. I was often asked why I wasn’t coming back to serve in Zaragoza again on this visit, but my time at the meeting made it abundantly clear why. They didn’t need me!

f8fca41d-1e50-44ab-8acd-b903b0f42718The letter the branch sent back to me about my inquiry on going to Spain didn’t include Zaragoza. The hall had really grown. Some had come and some had gone in the last two years. But they had double the number of elders they’d previously had, and the pioneer ranks had increased notably too. Their congregation was in a much better place than it was before and that made me really happy to see, as bittersweet as it was, since I wouldn’t be staying there.

The following days were filled with quality time with my friends…really I should say my img_3500family in Zaragoza. I spent time having lunch with Aitor’s family at their home, which felt nice and cyclical, as they were the first ones to show me hospitality when I first arrived last time; that had meant so much to me then and it did now. I got to see Miguel and (the now pregnant) Ashlee, the then-engaged now-married couple who I’d had so much fun with on my last stay. I met up with Lydia, another great friend who’s done well with keeping in touch over these years. I also got to do service with Eva and Dory (found her, yep), two of my fellow pioneers there. And there were even more I got to see. Catching up with old companions, and briefly forging friendships with new ones made that a more than worthwhile detour. Only in the truth.

img_3499I got to the train station, fortunately in much less of a rush than last time, and said goodbye to Guillermo, so appreciative of the time I got to spend. I walked into the station and had another bonus. There was Aitor yet again, my Spanish brothers from another mother, there to give me a final sendoff. I wasn’t sure when I’d be back to Zaragoza. But I left with nothing but prime memories.

I left on the train to head to Bilbao. But I wouldn’t be there long. I had to brace myself for another night of no sleep and charging.

But I was ready.

img_3515

TWO: Sleep When You’re Dead

I hated Tuesday afternoons as a kid. Why? Because NAPS. They were the worst. My mom made me take them before every Tuesday night meeting and I hated that! Six year olds have much better things to do than SLEEP. Rugrats wasn’t gonna watch itself.

But wow, how I came to appreciate them as an adult. For real. So, combine that sentiment with my longtime skepticism about jetlag. I don’t really believe in it; I think it’s very beatable. But man, was I in for a surprise when it came time to leave.

I had a theory. Since my flight was leaving so early in the morning local time, and I’d be arriving at 7am Barcelona time, I figured that if I slept very little the night before I left, I’d be nice and tired for the flight, so that I could wake up in Barcelona ready to take on the day.

So I carried on with that plan to get very little sleep the night before. Then I proceeded to get very little sleep on the airplane too. That wasn’t the plan.

So I landed in Barcelona on, let’s call it about 3 hours of sleep in what had been 19 hours of travel. Obviously that wasn’t ideal, but I figured I’d make the best of it.

I landed on the one year anniversary of my friend Ella’s move to Barcelona. We’d been friends over the years back in Orange County, so it was cool to be able to catch up with her while I was there. She was kind enough to set me up with a place to stay with a brother in her congregation who was my age. His name was Ruben and he was in the English congregation there in Barcelona together with Ella. He picked me up from within the city and showed me to his apartment.

So there I was at about 8:30am, still on 3 hours of sleep and finally with the opportunity to put my luggage down. Ruben told me he’d be going in service at 10. What else do I have to do right now? I thought. I’m sure most would say “sleep”. But that wasn’t my answer! I got dressed right away and hopped in Ruben’s car to head to service too.

It was at the meeting for service that I was able to reunite with Ella for the first time in over a year. I was also able to meet some other brothers and sisters there in the congregation, all of whom were super warm and welcoming.

Ruben and I went with two other brothers to do a bit of street work. While it was a bit of a slow morning, it was still nice to be back out in service and to be doing so in a city where I’d never preached before. I was looking forward to taking a brief siesta after this, but there was no time… right after service we changed and headed right out for a hike.

img_3375We met up with about a dozen other brothers and sisters from Ruben and Ella’s congregation and hiked up in an area about an hour outside of Barcelona called Matadepera. It was grueling from the get-go. Steep, sunny, rocky… the works. After about two hours of hiking, we got to a crucial point… do we continue or do we go back.

One sister explained, “We could go back to the cars and be there in 10 minutes if we go back, or it’ll be a 2 hour round trip to the next peak if we go forward.”

The group shared opinions. “I’m up for whatever!” I shared (not true).

“Ok, let’s keep going!”

“Sounds good!”(also not true).

Well here we were, locked into two more hours of hiking. The exercise was good, the trails continued to be intense, but it was all worth it. At one part we climbed up a stack of rocks with a tiny waterfall flowing through them, and climbed into a network of pitch black, wet caves. Have you seen Cloverfield? Remember the part where the friends are underground in a sewage system and those monsters come out and attack them. I was definitely ready for them to come and get me, and prevent me from seeing my momma in a few months. Fortunately that premonition proved false and I survived. We literally hiked above the img_3386-1clouds in time to catch an incredible sunset. It was a race against the sunlight, as by the time we got back to the cars it had gotten totally dark outside. But after 4 hours of hiking, I was super excited we’d done that. It was such a memorable experience, and definitely a testament to creation. However, I was starting to remember that my hike had lasted longer than the amount of sleep I’d gotten in the past 28 hours.img_3380

But time to charge! Ruben and I raced back home and showed up an hour and a half late (CPT alive and well) to our dinner plans with Ella and the rest of her group, out to celebrate her year anniversary of Barcelona living. We enjoyed a great dinner, and went to a cool bar afterward that had a real LA-speakeasy feel to it with some really awesome looking (and tasting) cocktails. We finished the night at an Irish style pub. But Barcelonans stay out late. Really late. By the time I got back to Ruben’s it was far into the wee hours of the morning. A quote my friend Khristian and I would use during our travels has often been “Sleep when you’re dead!” But after being awake for 33 out of the last 36 hours, I was finally, FINALLY able to get to sleep…

img_3399-1But not for long. The meeting was just after 12 noon the next morning, so it was time to rise, study the lesson, and get to the Hall. Here, I was able to continue meeting brothers and sisters, including a brother named Omar, whose family was originally from my area in Orange County. It was nice to come in contact with some more people from my area. It was great getting a chance to connect with those in the congregation, during the meeting and over a (really tasty and really cheap) Chinese lunch afterward.

The night was a bit interesting. I ended up being on my own for the night, as everyone happened to be busy. So I ended up doing something that I would probably never do back home… I basically took myself on a date haha! I went to a nice dinner and got myself some lamb and red wine, went on a nice romantic evening stroll, went and grabbed something to drink and danced. I showed myself a great time! Hey, I was in Barcelona on the weekend… I wasn’t gonna just let myself sit around and do nothing.

Between fancy drinks at the W Hotel in Barcelona, strolls down the expansive beach shore, and a final morning in service with Omar and my new friend Tom, my final day and a half in Barcelona did not disappoint.

I felt that this was a much better visit to Barcelona than those previous. I was quickly able to determine why. One, I was able to hang with locals–people who knew what they were doing, what places to go, and what to go see. Before I’d been with other travel buddies who were just as new to the area as I was. Two, I was able to connect with people in the congregation. Getting that taste of the brotherhood by being at the meeting and going out in service kept me feeling refreshed, since it’s such a big part of my normal routine.

And suddenly, a wave of stress was upon me. I was running, I was sweating and panting. Being late and rushing for a train is never fun. It makes for a decent laugh after, but in the moment, nothing else matters. Omar had taken me out to a really cool tapas bar, but we ran a bit close on time. But I made it. As I sat down in my seat, huffing, puffing and visibly stressed, the lady next to me spoke to me reassuringly that it was alright.

And she was right. I plopped down, threw in my headphones, and sat there with a huge grin on my face.

I was over-the-top excited for my train’s upcoming stop.img_3393-1