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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Beginning a New Life in the Basque Country

Photo: anar

My friend Barbara commented on my “blogaversary” post that she’d like to hear more about what our lives are like. As the Sound of Music song goes, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” We'll go back to the summer of ’84.

Our family left New York City and flew across the Atlantic Ocean, landing the next morning in Madrid, Spain. As we arrived, we were awed at the lighted highways stretching out in every direction. Madrid was gorgeous in the early morning! On entering the old airport, we followed the crowd and got our bags, our baby in my arms. The adventure had begun!

Soon, we saw our co-workers and piled into their little Siata van. (A Siata was just about literally a tin can on four wheels.) We were packed into the van with four other people. Our luggage tagged along in a trailer behind us.

Bumping down the poorly maintained highway—before Spain was part of the European Union—and trying to pass truck after truck after truck, we made our way north. I never imagined Spain would look like what we were viewing! (We’d only seen our co-workers’ pictures, beautiful slides of green hills and blue skies, similar to where we grew up. We had done some reading and seen faded World Book photos, but this . . . .) We never thought it would look like a desert, be so hot—no air-conditioning in the van—and seemingly non-peopled. We drove by villages consisting of a church, a handful of houses, and a donkey tied out front in a little plot of grass. We drove by quite a few villages like that! I don’t know if my husband was thinking the same thing as I was, but I was feeling pretty awful. Did we work so hard for two years, leave our families and country, and fly all night to end up in a place like this?

Finally, we entered the Basque Country. In Vitoria, our co-worker turned to us and said, “See, it’s green up here.” I guess the city park we passed was green, but it was far from the postcard slides we’d seen in their missionary presentation. All around that park rose tall apartment buildings and concrete.

A couple of hours later, we drove through the town we had prayed and planned for. Old buildings were caked in black soot. A woman was sweeping the sidewalk. The woman’s broom only moved the puff of soot from the sidewalk to the street. I was shocked! Except for a couple of port cities in the States, I’d never seen any place as filthy.

Call it culture shock or two nights’ lack of sleep or even a bad attitude, but my emotions sank lower than low. Did I bring my baby here to live in black dirt? I started praying. It was a sincere prayer, like a statement, “Lord, You will need to make me happy in this place.”

He did!

I look back more than thirty years later. The Basque Country is our home. Our kids think so, too.

There were adjustments, to be sure.

The biggie was the language. We knew not one word of Spanish. Not one! Those were a humbling first two years. It’s like being a baby again—only you’re an adult. The phone rings, and you pray like crazy no one's going to speak Spanish to you! Your baby sitter doesn’t speak English—and neither do any of the people at church. You can’t read labels at the supermarket. You can’t tell people at the stores what you want.

The second big adjustment (for me, personally) was the smells. My nose was assaulted with everything from outdoor bathroom smells (don’t ask for explanations) and body odor to dried sausages, hams, fish, and strong cheeses.

One of the wonderful things about living in Spain is the people. They are always ready to help, guide, advise and do everything they can to communicate. What a blessing! Of course, it was especially nice in the church, since people genuinely wanted to talk to us. But, it was also great that people in shops and on the street would gladly find what we needed—from drawings, at first—and take us a block or two away in order to point out the address we sought.

Oh yes, we finally found the green hills and blue skies. Our first year was the rainiest and snowiest of all the years, but the sun does come out from time to time. When it does, this is one of the most gorgeous places on earth!

People ask us all the time whether we like Spain or America more. It’s hard to answer. We have now spent more years here than in our birth country. There are positives and negatives anywhere on earth. The good things about Spain are:
  • Friendly people
  • Delicious food
  • A beautiful country with different views around every curve
  • A variety of cultures and languages
  • Its history (There are over 2,000 castles still standing. Spain even has Roman ruins, arches, and cities. Every village and city center is old and beautiful. Many of its ancient buildings are well preserved.)
  • Its art, music, architecture, age-old customs
  • Almost no street crime
  • Late hours (The big meal of the day is from 2:00 p.m., and many restaurants open for “supper” between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m.)
  • Relaxed pace of life (People take daily walks, have coffee with friends, and stop in the middle of supermarket aisles to talk.)
  • You can buy one drink or snack and occupy a table for hours. No one will hurry you up or shoo you away. (One night, we were eating supper with friends. After midnight, the owner of the restaurant stopped at our table and said, “I’m going to bed, but feel free to stay as long as you want.”)
  • Great coffee and chocolate (Oh yeah, I guess they’re classified as food, too.)

We’re at home. Yet, we’re pilgrims. (Hebrews 11:13)

(Watch for future posts on living and working in the Basque Country—and why it’s called the Basque Country.)


  1. Thanks for sharing your first days with us! I can feel, smell and imagine the rest. So glad that God gave you the grace to stay on and continue. I remember some of my earliest experiences in church, praying for the Kaiser family in Spain (through Good News Baptist Church in Chesapeake, VA.) It's so nice to get to know you now and see where God is leading you on your journey.

    1. Thank you, Susan! It is so great to have our churches behind us. Thank you for your prayers over the years and for your willingness to go, yourself. Thank you for your comment. God bless!

  2. Thanks so much, Lou Ann! I enjoyed this. I don't travel well - stomach issues - but my husband has been to China, Austria, and Brazil for his job and enjoys the experiences. He loves to haggle over prices (I hate it!), and was able to do that to his heart's content in China. I got really excited over his bringing me Austrian chocolates until I tasted them - very bitter!

    I can't imagine being in a place where no one speaks my language. That gives me more empathy for people who speak other languages here. I hear some people griping that if they live here, they should speak English, but if I lived in another country and was with English-speaking people, I'm sure I'd be speaking English. Though I'm sure, too, if I was going to live there any length of time I would need and want to learn the language.

    Thanks again! Very interesting and a window into your world.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Barbara! Thank you for the inspiration. God bless you!


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