Creative Nonfiction: Bridging Cultures (A Memoir: 2009-2012)
By Jose L Recio
My wife and I met by chance at the Café Paris in San Francisco on a windy evening in January of 2001. We became attracted to each other and started dating. We wandered the streets, shopped, danced, went to movies, had dinner in cozy restaurants—we fell in love. I was in my fifties, and she was in her forties.
Recently divorced, mother of two adult children, Deborah, my wife, lived alone in Oakland. I, nine years divorced, with two adult children, lived alone in Pleasant Hill, a small town in the East Bay. Four months into our relationship, Deborah moved in with me. Playfully, we teased each other that if we survived living under the same roof throughout the four seasons, we could make it as a married couple. While living together, we realized that we substantially differ in our way of being. I value intuition and coincidence; Deborah emphasizes planning ahead. I approach life challenges with little concern for potential risks; she moves with a cautious attitude and calculated actions. Her mind is mechanically oriented; mine often veers toward fantasizing.
Before I met Deborah, my lifestyle consisted of traveling, dating, dancing, and working. Dancing, in particular, became a passion. I had wanted to learn ballroom dancing for some time before I contacted a dance studio in the mid-nineties. After being introduced to the art of social ballroom dancing, one day, I saw an Argentine tango dance performed by a young couple from Buenos Aires and felt an irresistible desire to learn how to dance to it. Soon, I realized that getting the feeling for this particular dance was essential, that technique alone would not lead to the same enjoyment. The coupling of the two dancers guides artistic expression. Ballroom dancing activated in me unknown facets and provided a new social network—an enriching experience.
But I stopped dancing. Why? Since I learned how to dance the Argentine tango, I became increasingly better at it until I reached a plateau; afterward, my enthusiasm and enjoyment decreased. Deborah started to learn ballroom dancing, but after we married in June 2002, new family and social priorities contributed to the end of dancing.
After we married, we sold our houses and moved into a new home in Oakland. We wanted to adopt a dog and rescued a female mixed breed from the kennel, which we named Siba. The dog suffered from allergies, which caused us frequent trips to the vet. Despite her limitations, Siba adapted well to our home and lifestyle and became an invariable companion in our outdoor excursions. We worked hard and enjoyed life until new events several years later shifted our lives.
On August 7th, 2007, my wife and I dined in the company of a colleague physician and his wife at the Spanish Cultural Club in San Francisco. After dinner, we drove home to Oakland. The traffic at the East Bay Bridge was relatively light at that hour, and we had easy driving. We chatted about the enjoyable time spent with our friends on our way.
I brushed my teeth at home while Deborah turned down the sheets in our bedroom. Suddenly, I felt dizzy, and the walls whirled. I wobbled towards the bed. I leaned on Deborah’s shoulder for support, and she carefully helped me to lie in bed. I remained as quiet as a mouse, hoping the problem would disappear. But looking up, I saw the ceiling also spun, and I felt nauseous.
“We should go to the E. R. Check it out,” Deborah said.
“Let’s wait. It may go away.”
“Don’t tough it out until it is too late.”
I wanted to sleep, but nausea and throwing-up spells didn’t cease. I thought this was vertigo. So, I changed my mind and agreed with Deborah that she should drive me to the hospital.
In the Emergency Room, nurses moved in and out of my curtained-off space, placing an intravenous line and checking my vitals. The doctor on duty examined me and said I had vertigo and high blood pressure. He requested a battery of tests, which were all normal. However, I felt unsteady when asked to stand up and take a few steps; a nurse helped me stay up. The doctor then ordered admission to the hospital.
A hospital volunteer drove me in a wheelchair along the halls to a medical ward. Along that journey, my self-perception changed from being a physician to becoming a patient, like a sunset gives way to dusk. From it, I learned that our roles in life can easily change when the conditions that maintain our stability become truncated.
A male doctor in his forties came to my room, my attending physician. He examined me, ordered new tests, and reassured me I would be all right, touching my shoulder in a compassionate gesture before he left the room. The new set of tests was also normal. According to this doctor, my problem was most likely caused by a virus in my vestibular system. He recommended physical rehabilitation, and I was discharged home with hugs and an orthopedic cane.
I followed the rehabilitation program, taking baby steps and leaning on the wide-based cane in the backyard, having our dog as a witness while Deborah was at work. In the hospital, busy with the demands of being a patient, I ignored some weird sensations in my head, but at home, I had become fully aware of them. They came by surprise like unexpected visitors. I could be doing anything—reading, eating, or even being idle—and be stricken by a sense of resonance like a loose guitar string vibrating inside my brain. Each spell lasted a few seconds, but they happened at least a dozen times daily, and each occurrence triggered fear of the unknown.
“What do you think that is?” Deborah asked after she returned from work on a cloudless, serene evening, the sun setting behind the Oakland hills.
We sat on a bench in the backyard with a cup of tea, the dog lying on the ground.
“I don’t know.”
Deborah took a sip and gazed up into the sky, pensive. “I’ll cook some dinner,” she then said. She got up and caressed my hair with the tip of her fingers on her way to the kitchen.
I stood to stretch my legs—two or three pink cirrus clouds now floated on the western horizon. Because our makeup seemed so different, I reflected on what kept us together. Chemistry was a leading force at the beginning of our relationship, but as time passed, other aspects, such as mutual respect, developed as solid links.
“Dinner is ready,” Deborah called from the kitchen door, and her call stopped my musing.
I entered the house—the dog leading the way. We sat one in front of the other across the width of the dinner table—the dog lying on the floor. My wife had cooked beef filets and baked potatoes. She made an intention of serving some wine.
“No. Thanks,” I said, covering the rim of my glass with my fingers.
The stereo played programmed music.
I looked at her while searching for words, my fingers still covering the rim of my glass. “I don’t know how to explain it,” I said at length. “I feel something weird in my head. It comes and goes.”
Deborah poured some wine into her glass and returned the bottle to its cradle. She served dinner on our plates and sat down.
“Something weird?” she said.
“Yes, like a resonance. It’s scary.”
I didn’t find better words to describe my experience. Besides, I was feeling tired, and, all in all, I wanted to finish dinner and go to sleep.
A month later (September 2007), I returned to work. The rehabilitation exercises helped me recover my balance, and simultaneously, the intensity and frequency of the weird sensation in my head diminished. I had joined a non-profit organization four years earlier as a full-time hospital psychiatrist consultant. Upon my return from leave of absence, however, I noticed that the workload had increased, and I struggled to maintain my standards of practice, given the demands. Still, my productivity diminished, my time at work increased, and insomnia, headache, and tiredness sunk in.
In the evening, I took Siba for walks, and on the weekends, my wife and I took her to one or another outing. But insomnia and headaches persisted, and I did not do better over the rest of the year. One morning in January 2008, while at the hospital checking a patient’s record on the computer screen, suddenly, I had double vision. A nurse checked my blood pressure, and it was high. The ophthalmologist diagnosed a small stroke in the brain stem. I went home and shared the news with Deb, who worried as much as I did.
My primary doctor prescribed medication to reduce my blood pressure. My vision cleared within a couple of weeks, and I resumed working. But the thought of quitting my job entered my mind at that time, even if my consciousness claimed that I should slow down the pace and adjust to the circumstances—a conflicted frame of mind.
In April of that year, I attended an international medical seminar in Los Angeles, where I met a Spanish doctor who talked to me about a private clinic in Alicante, Spain, with an interest in hiring bilingual physicians. I shared this news with Deborah. She seemed appalled by my impetuosity, and in the end, I decided not to consider that opportunity. For months, we debated moving to Spain. Ultimately, we agreed we would move to my native country after I retired, which I planned to accomplish at the end of the year. We had visited Spain on several occasions and had some friends. Following this purpose, we focused on selling our house and building a future abroad.
Finding a new home for Siba became a problem. For a while, we planned to bring the dog to Spain, but when we learned the complexity of doing that, we abandoned the plan. None of our friends was interested in adopting a pet. In the end, Siba’s groomer at the vet clinic offered to take Siba, and we decided to release the dog to her. For a long time, we missed our dog deeply.
In November 2008, we sold our house. Unfortunately, we lost money because of the beginning of the global economic downfall that lasted for years. We also sold our cars and saved the money to purchase another vehicle in Spain. Meanwhile, we signed a short-term lease on a furnished apartment in Berkeley, waiting to depart for Europe. The personal belongings we plan to move we put in storage, waiting for shipment to Spain. We would carry essentials in suitcases to travel.
While waiting to close the lease on our apartment in Berkeley, we traveled to Zihuatanejo, a small Mexican coastal town in Mexico. The beauty of the bay, the warmness of the beach, the pleasantness of the landscapes, and the unpretentiousness of the local people provided serenity and an invitation to look into the future calmly. When we left Zihua, as the locals refer to their town, two weeks later, we did it with a happy heart and an optimistic view of life.
Back in Berkeley, we contacted the Secretary of State's office to authenticate our American professional certificates using the Apostille of The Hague (Hague Convention of October 1961), which would justify our credentials abroad. We also turned our attention to our children. How did they feel about ours leaving the country? We discussed the issue openly with them, and although they struggled to find their way in life, each thought it would be okay. We flew to New England, where we visited Deb’s family in New Hampshire before flying to Europe and from there, we flew to Madrid.
However, at the beginning of 2009, at sixty-eight, I didn't see myself voluntarily leaving medicine. I was a physician for forty-two years and loved my profession from the moment I learned human anatomy from cadaver’s dissection. I would look for a new job in a new environment in Spain. As in all long-term commitments, dedication to medicine is not free of frustrations. Nevertheless, until then, I had enjoyed more moments of satisfaction than sorrow. Coincidently, Deborah’s last work contract had finished, and she decided not to renew it but use her skills to do something different. She was confident that we would survive with retirement funds until she found a job in Spain.
Within a week of arriving in Madrid (we had booked a room in a hotel in advance), we rented a car and drove to Las Rozas, a small town near Madrid, to look at another job opportunity. I had learned on the Internet about a senior facility advertising the opening of a Dementia Ward and needing a medical director, and I wanted to check it out.
In Las Rozas, we met with the administrator of the facility, a man in his forties, dressed in a suit and tie, friendly and enthusiastic about his plans to expand medical services. He gave us a tour through the facility, a private assisted-living setting for older people, located in a peaceful area by a small river and equipped for comfort. After the tour, he brought us into his office and engaged us in a lively conversation about his plans for the future. His office was spacious, bright, and equipped with functional, Scandinavian-style furniture. He sat behind his desk, where his laptop, family photos, and business-related papers lay, and motioned for us to sit across from him. I got the impression that this man was not only the facility's administrator and director but also its soul.
“Would you like a coffee? He asked.
Deborah declined the offer, but I accepted it.
“May I ask why you want to work with the elderly?” He addressed me.
“I specialize in geriatric psychiatry.”
“Do you work with dementia patients?”
The administrator then spoke again of his plans to create a Dementia Unit. He praised my good disposition and appearance as a senior doctor and said I could be in charge of that Unit.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll think about it and let you know shortly.”
We said goodbye to him and left the place. On our way to the car, Deborah said: “I don’t think you should take the job.”
The certainty of her statement surprised me. Although I still had to read the post’s description, I left the facility intending to take the offer.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Well, if you take that job, you might have another stroke.”
I realized that Deb’s words hit the target, and before we reached our car, I had it in my mind that the job was not for me: building a dementia unit from scratch within a luxurious assisted-living setting meant a task above my, at the time, energy.
“I see what you mean and won’t take the job,” I said on the half hour drive back to Madrid.
“I’m glad you won’t. Perhaps you can find an easier job.”
I nodded, and Deborah smiled. Then, she opened the glove compartment, got a map of the Sierra near Madrid, unfolded it, and said she wanted to visit the mountain towns. I complaisantly agreed.
Over the next few days, we drove on steep roads and visited quaint mountain towns with pine trees and ski resorts. We returned to our Madrid hotel in Puerta de la Moncloa, so named in remembrance of one of the original Puertas (gates) that existed in old Madrid, such as Puerta Toledo, Alcala, San Vicente, Moros, Puerta de Hierro. We enjoyed walking to the nearby Parque del Oeste (The West Park), where we caught beautiful sunsets. We visited many places: the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), the Retiro Park, the Prado Museum, and many Madrid neighborhoods. We ventured into some charming quarters, such as Lavapiés, a multi-ethnic and multicultural mixture of residents, with streets full of color, music, and scents, and we ate homemade food in century-old restaurants.
While we walked about at our leisure in a welcoming and engaging urban atmosphere, I shared with Deborah memories from the époque when I lived in Madrid in the late sixties and early seventies during my postgraduate medical training. The city looked to me as expanded and built up since, the old and the new blended in harmony and other times in disharmony. Of course, Madrid (like most European capitals) had problems: The traffic turned rough at rush hours; the downtown streets became overcrowded or closed to the public due to a broken pipe or other eventuality. But Deborah and I approached our surroundings with a rosy frame of mind, which made us oblivious to the external negatives. However, after a while, we both admitted feeling like we needed to settle.
“We need to settle somewhere,” Deborah said one morning on February 2009. We were having breakfast at the hotel.
“Yes, but where?”
She dipped a toast in her coffee and spooned it into her mouth. “What about Salamanca?” she said as if the thought had just come to her.
I was born and raised in Salamanca, a relatively small city, and my mother—then ninety-three and a widow for twenty-five years—lived there. Over the last decade, a niece lived with her and helped with housekeeping, but we had come to Spain thinking we could also help.
“Of course, Salamanca would be an appealing place for us.”
We finished our breakfast and went out. Deborah wanted to see the inside of the bullring on Calle Alcala. We walked there. On our way, we discussed the prospect of making our home in Salamanca.
In early March 2009, we traveled a hundred-and-twenty miles from Madrid to Salamanca by bus. We stayed in a pleasant hotel familiar to us from previous occasions, decorated with a touch of Italian taste, located on an avenue with gardens, water fountains, and wrought iron benches along the sidewalks. From the balcony of our room, we could see the hospital building across the street, where my father had died. Thinking about my father’s death reminded me of my mortality because I was then at the same age my father was when he passed away twenty-five years earlier. But I found consolation being active, happily married, and my wife was my best partner in life.
The first week in Salamanca was marked by stormy weather, the rain beating the pavement. But we ventured to go out and sense the city’s pulse and atmosphere on foot under an umbrella. Near our hotel, a public employee swept pools of water from the sidewalk with a wicker broom—fruitlessly, for the raindrops would quickly fill them again. Salamanca has always been a historical, conservative, Catholic, and walkable town. A Baroque-style Main Square (Plaza Mayor) has been at its heart for over five-hundred years. Surrounded by boutiques, restaurants, and coffee terraces, it serves as a point of reference for city distances and departure for city walking tours. So, we aimed our steps towards the Plaza, for as the locals like to say, no matter where people are in town, they always end up at the plaza. The terraces were empty because of the rain, so we stepped into one of the cafés that align along the arcades, sat on a stool by the counter, ordered coffee, and while waiting for the rain to abate, we planned our day. We chose to start by visiting the city’s old quarters.
When the rain mellowed, we set out to our first destination—the College of Irish Nobles, with a world-admired Renaissance courtyard. This institution previously served as wealthy Irish college students’ living quarters. In modern times, though, the building is used for cultural events. Next to this building stood a nursing home which in my time had been a teaching hospital, where I attended practices as a medical student. ‘I can see you as a medical student sitting there, mesmerized by the teachers’ lessons,’ Deborah said. In truth, I became captivated studying anatomy through the dissection of the cadaver from the beginning of medical studies. This method of learning human anatomy had been in use since the Renaissance. Computerized imagery, such as MRI, entered the world of medicine in the early seventies. Still, even after these tools became commonplace and we physicians got used to looking at anatomic components differently, I remembered the experiences in the dissection room with a sense of fervor.
As we had done in Madrid, in Salamanca too, we visited monuments, churches, parks, and whatever else was appealing; we moved on beneath the rain and returned to the hotel at night soaked and hungry. Then one morning we got up to the sunshine, and that day, we focused on finding an apartment to lease. One of the apartments a real estate agent showed us was located on the third floor of a four story building of golden stones in a desirable area of the city. Recently remodeled, looking bright and spacious, it captivated us. The living room had wonderful French windows from floor to ceiling that enchanted Deborah. We signed a five-year lease that same day.
In April, the rain ceased, the temperature remained warm, and the streets became animated. Our priority now was to furnish our apartment. A particular carpenter, recommended by one of my mother’s old friends, built two night tables and a perfectly matching bench. My mother suggested we visit a family-run furniture shop in town where she and my father bought their furniture when they married. Deborah and I went to this shop, where we met a new generation of family owners and purchased a couple of bookstands and other furniture pieces. On our own, we explored our neighborhood: grocery stores, hardware and appliance shops, a local bank, and so forth. A cousin introduced us to a local car dealer from whom we bought a pre-owned Audi-3, which served us well.
Soon, we found ourselves comfortably installed in our new home and immersed in a different culture. I was feeling much better, only bothered by occasional and usually short-lived headaches at night. Spring was in full swing, and life smiled at us. One morning, I opened one of the French windows in the living room with a view of the Old Cathedral to breathe the fresh breeze. Pigeons roamed on the roof of the buildings across the street, and other birds glided above the rooftops. I recognized the kind of birds they were, and I called Deborah to see them too. She joined me on the opened balcony.
“Look up into the sky. What do you see?” I said.
“Nothing in particular except those little, white clouds there.”
“Look nearest us.”
“I see pigeons on the roofs.”
“Now look above the pigeons.”
“Is this a game?” she said. But she looked in the direction I had indicated. “I see dark birds flying in all directions like crazy.”
“They are swifts,” I said. “They come from Africa in the spring and leave at the end of the summer, pretty much as swallows do in San Juan Capistrano, in California. Watching these birds brings old time happy memories.”
Deborah gave me a sweet smile and went inside the house. I remained standing on the ledge of the balcony, my eyes following the seemly random circuitries of the birds, which I knew were determined by the presence of insects they tried to catch in the air, and I thought about happy childhood times.
The cousin who had helped us buy the car, knowing my interest in finding a suitable job in Spain, spoke of an assisted living facility in Ciudad Rodrigo, a small, historical town bordering Portugal where he lived with his family. He arranged a visit to the place and introduced me to the chief administrator of this facility. It had been a palace, now converted into a modern, luxurious residence for older adults. I liked the looks of it and the idea of caring for older people in such a fantastic setting. However, the ongoing global economic crisis affected public social programs, and a budget deficit forced the administration to stop hiring new staff.
Another day, while strolling the streets in town on a warm evening, we bumped into one of Deborah’s new acquaintances, an American woman. Because we stood in the middle of the Plaza Mayor, I suggested we move into a terrace for coffee to get acquainted. This woman had come to Salamanca seven years ago to learn Spanish. Interested in learning more of the language, she decided to stay and complete a master’s in translation. Then, she met a doctor in town; they married and had a child. While she told us about her experience, my wife asked if Translation would interest me. ‘That’s a thought,’ I said.
Later, at home, my wife and I discussed the issue further. She opined medical translation would allow me to contribute to my profession. Her words made sense, and I promised to think about it. By then, I became discouraged about the chance of finding a position in medical practice, given the socio-economic crisis the country was going through.
Before taking any action, though, we traveled south of the province and visited picturesque villages, which maintained their medieval-looking charisma. We met with local people, learned about their joys and concerns, and tasted their food and wine.
In June 2009, I started a master’s program in translation at the University of salamanca with great enthusiasm. I attended classes, seminars, and field trips with two dozen other students from different countries. Some of the teachers were Spanish, and others were British. Mingling and learning with a group of young international students, I considered myself fortunate.
The master’s program had initially been designed to last two years. Still, because the Plan of Bologna was recently implemented to homogenize European university studies, it was later reduced to one year. Consequently, the curriculum became loaded with theory (classification of law documents, review of scientific-technologic language, learning of computer programs for translation) but little practice. Despite my positive attitude to learning about translation, three or four months into my studies, I felt overwhelmed with work, and disillusionment took root in me. I graduated a year later but lost my interest in becoming a medical translator.
Meanwhile, Debora had started Spanish lessons at a private academy, but not free of trouble. For she could quickly assemble a complicated assemblage of hundred pieces wrapped in a box from IKEA but lacked the patience to go through the syntax and grammatical rules of the Spanish language. She attended classes with a bunch of young people, many of whom were there on their famuly’s money and didn’t give a damn about learning the language by the books because they had every chance to meet Spanish-speaking natives in their age bracket who would share their language with them and, along with it, have fun together, she said. Her enthusiasm to learn Spanish through formal classes faded out, but not her interest to learn more of the language on her own.
After I finished the master’s program and Deborah quit the Spanish classes, we found ourselves with leisure time on our hands again. It was June 2010. Coincidentally, we had invited our ten-year-old granddaughter on my wife’s side to spend her summer vacation with us in Salamanca. Deborah flew to New Hampshire, where our granddaughter lived with her mother, and from there they traveled together to Spain. In summer weather, musicians, jugglers, and other street artists exhibited their skills on streets and plazas throughout downtown, and we took our time watching the performers and having fun. When summer ended, Deborah took her granddaughter back to New England, and she returned to Spain.
And fall entered the scene. Dark clouds appeared in the sky, and we wondered what to do with our free time. We hoped to find a fulfilling activity and make some money to supplement our retirement funds.
“It won’t happen,” Deborah said a day we discussed our circumstances.
We were at home, in the kitchen, washing dishes.
“I want to do something,” I said.
From the sink, Deborah went to the kitchen table where she had spread bills to pay.
“Love, it’s not your time to work,” she said.
When she finished paying the bills, she asked me to help with the laundry. But later that day, she returned to the theme of our previous conversation and said that some Spanish business companies looked for native English speakers to coach them on how to do business in English. This information made sense to me, for my wife possessed the credentials to exercise such a function. However, because of the galloping global economic crisis, businesses were shrinking and unemployment was high. The exchange ratio of the euro’s value remained about fifty cents above the dollar’s value. Nothing seemed to work in our favor any longer, and we began to doubt the wisdom of our decision to come to Spain.
Added to the bleak socio-economic situation we lived through, Deborah expressed disgust about the wrong behaviors she witnessed from some of the people she came across: cheating in the market while waiting their turn in the queue, spitting in public, and so on.
“You can’t justify those behaviors!” she said.
“Some things people do are not nice,” I agreed. “But we’ve also seen these behaviors in downtown San Francisco.”
“Those were from homeless people, but here it is different.”
I didn’t see where the difference lay. Still, I didn’t reply because these discussions weren’t productive, and they happened quite often—at home, on the subway, while driving, shopping, or visiting my mother. On the contrary, these arguments set a distance between us, altered our intimacy, and made us unkind to each other.
One day that fall, tired of our complaining but not taking action, I remarked that we should return to California. We walked to a public office to request utility services (I can’t remember which) and kept whining about the socioeconomic situation.
“Too late,” Deborah said.
“Then, please, let’s try to adapt to these times in this country.”
Surprisingly, my saying those words appeased my wife.
“This is a small city for us. We should move to Madrid,” she said.
Hearing her suggestion, I started walking faster for no apparent reason, as if called to extinguish a fire. Hence, Deborah, usually a faster walker than me, had a hard time keeping pace. Since that day, we focused on moving to Madrid.
The apartment owners in Salamanca, honest and reasonable, consented to let us end the contract before the deadline. We put the furniture we had acquired in storage and moved to the capital city in October 2010, where we booked a room in Hotel Cortezo, in downtown, a place familiar to us because we had stayed in it on our way to the Canary Islands for our honeymoon eight years ago.
Next, we focused on finding an apartment to lease. Renting in Madrid, however, proved to be a complex task. Every single day, we compiled a list from a website called idealista.com of the apartments available for leasing—an overwhelming number. Because our mission required much energy and emotional balance, we promised not to burden our shoulders with more arguments. We wanted to find a dwelling that was worth our effort. Following California standards, we made the price, size, and location of a property our premises.
Of all the real estate agents we met, Kristen Bolton was the most charismatic. A tall, attractive middle-aged woman with a happy smile and fluent communication skills, Kristen felt proud of her Germanic descent, although she was born and raised in Buenos Aires, she told us. She and her husband, an engineer, had lived in Madrid for the last five years, ‘and we both love living here.’ I thought she also loved making money through her real estate business.
Kristen had shown us three apartments before she became excited about a particular one she labeled ‘a jewel’—her blue eyes shining with the anticipation of success. Deborah and I liked the place. But we all soon found out that other people had made an offer just ahead of us, and we lost it.
Kristen reminded us of her Germanic blood and determination to continue searching until we found what we sought. Two days later, our enthusiastic real estate agent urged us to see another apartment, ‘another jewel.’ Unfortunately, on this occasion, we found the piece was too small. Kristen didn’t like our reaction. Her tone of voice—hitherto persuasive but charming—turned into an imposing one, reflecting her disagreement: “You have to like this little apartment!” But neither of us liked it, and we never heard from Kristen again.
By then, though, we had learned that while looking for an apartment to lease in Madrid, the elements we had included in our premises constituted only the skeleton of each potential deal in Madrid. But we felt confident enough to keep searching on our own. In our quest, we encountered an apartment of our liking whose leasing price was reduced because of the economic crisis, and we signed a leasing contract. It was on the fourth floor of a classic building of five stories, with magnificent views of the entire central city area. We contacted the moving company in Salamanca to transfer our furniture, and within a couple of weeks, we found ourselves installed in a privileged location in Madrid.
Although living in a bright, well-located apartment was a source of satisfaction, Deborah and I still struggled to adapt to a social milieu quite different from the one we had left in California. On the other hand, living one’s life free of professional ties and mandatory duties meant a pleasure. Yet, eager to pursue some creative activity, I took up photography, an old hobby of mine. Also, around that same time, I came across a dancing club by chance, and I felt like it meant a calling to start dancing again, even if the voice of my consciousness nagged that I was acting in a juvenile manner.
“Do you think I’m selfish?” I asked Deborah one evening. I was brushing my dancing shoes, preparing to attend a dancing event.
“Do you mean because you sometimes go out on your own?”
Deborah sat comfortably on the couch with her Kindle book—reading has always been her fondness.
Deborah had repeatedly said that it was okay with her that I went alone to dance. Still, I needed reassurance.
“It’s called trust. That kind of confidence we put in others that lasts until they cheat,” she said half seriously, half joking, and returned to reading her book. I kissed her goodbye and left for my dancing.
Although I was proud of my wife’s attitude toward me, on my way to the club that night, a walking distance from home, I thought I was enjoying my hobbies while my wife seemed stuck with what direction she should take in her life. I knew Deborah needed structure. Every time she found herself between jobs in California, she was at a loss of how to occupy her time until she signed a new contract. In Spain, she wanted to find a suitable alternative.
A Sunday morning, Deborah was driving us to a regional park in the northeast of Madrid to go hiking when she surprised me by saying that she had applied online for a job as a native English speaker consultant with a Spanish bank. ‘I’ll give it a try.’ I looked at her from the passenger seat and noticed her expression was that of a person expecting success. When we entered the park, we forgot our chatting and got ready to hike and enjoy our time with nature.
Deborah got the job. For a while, she came back home thrilled with her occupation. She liked the people she taught—high-level employees from a prominent bank—and the settings where teaching took place. But her initial enthusiasm did not last.
“I’ve found that my students are not there of their free will,” she told me an evening a few weeks later when she returned from work.
To distract her mind, I invited her to have a bite and a drink at one of the café-bars in the neighborhood. While there, she said the employee-students were there because their bosses asked them to do it for the company's benefit, but they felt held hostages. “I'm angry,” she said.
“I see that.”
“You see it’s unfair, don’t you?”
She was eating fast. When we both finished dinner, I was convinced she would quit her job shortly, which she did at the beginning of December.
Although I believed Deborah was right in quitting, she turned moody afterward and spoke of not belonging to our social environment, ‘just paying our bills, buying groceries, and touring around.’ She missed our friends and activities in California. Her reaction made me think that one departs from a familiar place and shoots for the future hoping everything will go as planned. But we had to rectify our course on the go as reality demanded.
Soon after, Deborah joined an international women’s club whose members were single and married women of different cultures and skills, and I was happy for her. She assumed the responsibility of coordinating charity events, such as going to shelters for homeless women and helping them with their struggles. I thought she had found a way to structure her life and become part of our new social fabric. She gave herself fervently to her task until it became apparent that volunteer work was soul but not ego satisfactory: ‘It’s important to me now to do something else.’ She wanted to contract with an American company and work from home, using her computer skills. But nothing happened. She persisted but became discouraged by the lack of jobs, and finally, she changed her strategy.
“I think we should create our own company,” she said one day bluntly.
That day, we left home in mid-morning to attend an unusual sheep parade. This was a colorful, annual event in which shepherds, dressed in costumes, led flocks through the streets downtown as a symbolic reminder of their rights to do so, which they claimed they had acquired in the Middle Ages when Madrid was just a village. It was a fun and funny parade to watch.
“Create our own company? I asked.
She replied—as we found ourselves in a crowd of spectators, watching dozens of healthy-looking sheep and other farm animals traverse the streets—that she wanted to become a freelance consultant as project manager to business people.
“Then you mean your company.”
“But I want both of names on the stationery, just for image.”
It was an innovative idea. “Let’s talk about it when the parade is over.”
Coincidently, in those days, I learned about a writing school not far from home. This finding had an insightful effect on me, like an epiphany. I would be pleased to learn to write literary pieces well in my native language. I enrolled in a workshop on composition in Spanish.
But men plan and God laughs. While we focused on our new endeavors, my mother-in-law fell in her house in New Hampshire and broke her hip. My wife traveled to Manchester to see her and stayed there for a few days. When she came back, she was in a gloomy mood. She said her mother was frail, discouraged, and expressed a death wish. We anticipated difficult times forthcoming.
Meanwhile, a Brazilian-American friend, a retired psychologist, emailed that she and her Chinese-American husband, also retired, wanted to come to Madrid for Christmas. That was their first visit to Spain. We invited them to stay with us and took them around town and to the enchanting Sierra towns with the whimsical shapes and silhouettes snow provided at the site. We cooked Chinese and Spanish dishes at home, drank cava, and chatted about life after retirement.
Despite Deborah’s frequent trips throughout most of the year 2011 to see her ill mother and help with her care, she managed to obtain a business license, register her agency with the Spanish equivalent of the IRS, and design a website and office stationery. But she postponed the actual startup of the business operation until she could stay in Madrid more steadily. I accompanied her on some trips but was not subjected to the same stress level as her.
Deborah’s mother died in November (2011) at eighty-nine. After the funeral, we flew from New Hampshire to Los Angeles and spent time with our children. Circumstances of different nature for each of them had affected their lives. But we thought they would overcome their problems.
Back in Madrid, I enrolled in another workshop on fiction writing. I was moving along in tune with the local manners, but Deborah struggled to find a way to yoke the two cultures. Her battle reminded me of my effort to blend lifestyles when I arrived in California for the first time. As time passed, though, I tried to discern my new phase after retiring from a long career as a physician. But this new identity toward which I was heading eluded a precise envisioning. I reflected that some people find a new identity soon after they retire; others erratically navigate the sea of life in search of another social dimension. And still, some others may search for new routes leading to familiar destinations. Who can predict the outcome of any of these situations?
All in all, the year 2011 brought new challenges to our marriage. In Manchester, Deborah dealt with their mother's failing health and late-in-life issues. In Madrid, she tried to start her business, but her feet needed to be solidly planted in the local culture. In California, our children, we found out, were not doing as well as we had expected they would do, and we missed our grandchildren. We debated our priorities. Should we split our time between Spain and the States?
In Spain, the economic crisis continued worsening, unemployment had climbed alarmingly, and protests flourished on the streets. Deborah's business did not prosper, and her frustration increased. We understood that civil and political unrest wasn’t exclusive to Spain but a global Western phenomenon triggered by the global economic crisis, and it would take time before the governments amended the situation.
“It is ugly,” Deborah said one winter day about the general social discontent.
We walked home from a neighborhood market. She loved to walk to the grocery store, rolling her shopping cart along. I brought back the suggestion of returning to California.
“Are we going to undo everything we have done? She looked sad.
We entered the lobby of the building where we lived. “Our happiness comes first,” I said in the elevator.
At home, while putting the groceries away, Deborah conceded that going back to California was something we should consider very carefully.
For days, weeks, and months, we deliberated the advantages and disadvantages of returning to California. We wanted to live near our children. However, the choice was not easy because our children lived scattered within the greater Los Angeles area. In the end, we agreed the city of Pasadena offered a proportional distance from the places where they lived.
Thenceforth, Deborah re-established contact with her former coworkers to explore available jobs in California, and I concentrated on how to help my mother at a distance again. She had turned ninety-six, and although reasonably healthy, her mind began to weaken. My brother, two years younger than me, who lived in Valencia, Spain, was the first to notice it. Since we had moved to Spain, my brother and I strengthened a relationship that had been loosely maintained till then. Deborah and I were examples of biculturalism: She had been an all-American woman until we moved to Spain; I had been an all-Spaniard man until I immigrated to the States. Both tried to reach a comfortable balance by bridging the two cultures, something that is not measurable.
On my part, creative writing became a dedication and artistic expression. The process of undoing, therefore, brought up uncertainty and sadness. What we had built could not be disassembled as we pleased, like the furniture we bought from IKEA.
“I feel I’ve achieved little in Spain,” Deborah said on a day we were waiting at the IRS office to cancel the consulting agency, a business that never took off, but we had to prove it.
“What you have done is hard to measure,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Learning about a new culture and language and building up a business from scratch in a new country are difficult tasks to accomplish.”
“You may be right.”
Just then, a loudspeaker called her name to go into the office.
Amid our busy days, two unfortunate events further filled our spirits with sadness. In the spring of 2012, a retired physician, married to a woman friend, died of a stroke and his wife of terminal cancer a few days later. Deborah and I attended their funerals. The deaths of these friends, so coincidental, intensified Deborah’s grief about her mother. She frequently cried and talked about her in those days. These deaths also raised questions about priorities in life. I felt grateful my wife and I were healthy.
Our next move was to initiate the pathway that would allow us to retain the status of citizens in Europe. We unsubscribed from the census in Madrid, canceled our medical insurance and the lease in our apartment, sold our car, stored our furniture with an international moving company, and said goodbye to my mother, who, of course, couldn’t comprehend any reasoning about our departure. We felt physically tired from the tasks associated with our preparedness to leave the country and emotionally drained by the losses we had experienced. We needed a change of environment to restore peace of mind, so we decided to take a short trip.
We traveled by train to Brussels, where one of my cousins’ daughters lived. She was a woman approaching thirty, married to a Flemish man. She gave us a tour through the European Parliament, where she worked, and later, we dined in their home. From Brussels, we flew to Amsterdam. We mingled with strings of cyclists and visited its museums. At sunset, sitting on a café-terrace, we enjoyed the colorful Dutch buildings reflected on the canals.
On our return to Madrid, we felt energized. In the next month (June 2012), we left for California, where we leased an unfurnished apartment in Pasadena. As we had done in Salamanca and Madrid, we shopped for household necessities: a table, chairs, lamps, a bed, sheets, and blankets. In time, we hoped to buy a small house, ship our belongings from Spain, and make it our home. However, about two weeks after our arrival, I felt itching and pain in my chest.
“You should check it out,” Deborah said.
Her words brought back to my mind the scene of the vertigo attack I had in August of 2007. But on this occasion, I hadn’t updated my Medicare coverage in California yet, and I didn’t want to incur a medical expense immediately.
“Let’s wait. It may go away.” I said. My concern with our financials overpowered my common sense.
“Don’t tough it out until it’s too late.”
The chest discomfort didn’t go away. My consciousness whispered to me that I should check it out, and I asked Deborah to please drive me to the hospital. ‘It has to be checked,’ I said. The doctor at the E. R. proceeded to rule out everything life-threatening, from a heart attack to an aorta aneurysm. It turned out the pain was due to shingles. I was discharged home with peace of mind, a big bill, and an unresolved problem. I suffered post-herpetic pain: any contact on my chest triggered a flare-up of the painful feeling, and even the sweeping of air from the air conditioner at home would be enough to take me to the roof. Neither medication nor relaxation exercises helped. I spent hours, days, and weeks on a couch, inducing myself to sleep. All projects: writing, visiting our children, looking for a house to buy, exploring our community, all went down the tubes because my brain shut its doors to everything except sleeping.
Fortunately, Deborah remained active throughout the summer on behalf of both of us. With a real estate agent, she visited open houses in Pasadena until she found a small one of our liking that we could afford. It was October of 2012. We ordered shipping our storage furniture from Spain and soon found ourselves installed in our new home. Now with a backyard, we wanted to acquire a dog again, since by then Siba was only in our memory, and we brought home a four-month-old whippet, a dog that still lives with us and we love.
I started to test the waters by going on walks with the dog and joyfully found out that physical exercise helped decrease my chest discomfort. At first, I thought it was an autosuggestion, but I led the dog to longer hikes, and I invariably felt better with the increased exercise. The dog and I used to return home perspiring and tired after these long hikes, but uncannily, I felt physically and intellectually energized, and eventually, the chest discomfort went away.
When people are in the prime of life, they think a decline in cognitive function is unlikely to happen in the short run, but in old age, they know it is more likely to happen. Consequently, I considered potential limitations, such as illness or brain dysfunction, that would interfere with my productivity. Nevertheless, along with age also came an inclination to do voluntary work, and I started a Spanish conversational and grammar group at the local library, which lasted for five years.
In Madrid, I wrote in Spanish; in Pasadena, Deborah encouraged me to switch to English. I began by auto-translating the work I had done in my native language. Writing a literary piece in English became a challenge, but I was willing to undertake it. I took a couple of online workshops in creative writing, and writing became my postretirement goal. I didn’t see it as a new career in the sense I may use this phrase when referring to my trajectory in medicine, for that categorization would be pretentious. Changing one’s orientation in scientific or artistic domains requires courage, endurance, risk-taking, time, and readiness to accept failure.
My interest in finding ways to be creative was familiar. It was that creative drive that led me to enter medical research, switched to neurology and then psychiatry, become a social dancer, play soccer as a child, and join a theater group in my teens. I had always pursued a systematic approach throughout the endeavors in which I engaged; writing wouldn’t be different. Although publishing is essential to most writers, I must say, in honesty, that I set out to achieve the primary goal of learning how to write better. Or in other words, understanding the intricacy of the process is, in my case, as important as the outcome. Within two years of living in Pasadena, Deborah worked as a project manager, and I started publishing fiction in English.
José L Recio was born and raised in Spain, where he studied medicine. He came to the States young and practiced medicine in California for decades. He also developed a parallel interest in creative writing and has grown to become bicultural. He writes both in Spanish and English. In 2021 he published a book of fiction, “Transitions: twenty-four bilingual short stories.” He has also written several short memoirs and essays. Currently, he and his wife live in Pasadena, Los Angeles. They enjoy hiking with their whippet and traveling.