The Call

The swifts have returned to Madrid, or at least the first few brave harbingers among them have. Long before spring becomes a certainty for the rest of us, they set out across the Straits of Gibraltar, spurred by some mysterious inner working, a deep call only they can hear.

To witness their arrival — 140 kilometers a day, covering 11,000 kilometers — is to be buoyed up by wonder. Once they get here, have they come home? Or are they on the wing, home behind them in the rearview mirror?

Or is that asking the wrong question?

I used to be surprised by the swifts’ arrival and departure. One day they weren’t around; the next, here they were, cartwheeling across the cloudless Spanish sky. But four years later, I know to look for them. This spring, I’ve been waiting. Their presence reminds me there can be an order to the universe beyond the one we build.

This morning, I went to the pharmacy for one item, the store that stocks Goya black beans for another, and to the bakery for a third. My final stop was the spice store.

The spice store! Does such a place exist back home? Not exactly. Back there, back then, whenever I needed obscure spices, Whole Paycheck was happy to provide what I needed (for a price). But here, if I need anything besides paprika or pepper, the grocery store won’t cut it.

My favorite spice store, located halfway between the bakery and home, is an Aladdin’s cave of obscure spices, little bigger than a self-respecting American’s walk-in closet. When I walked in today, there were already two customers: the first thing I had to do was back out onto the sidewalk so one of them could leave. There wasn’t room for all of us inside.

The spice store’s proprietor is around my age, with graying, longish hair. The tattoo on the tender inside of his lower arm — I can’t be sure, but it might be spices. There’s a turntable beside the counter, a record always playing. One shelf is solely devoted to curry powders. A tiny refrigerator toward the back holds homemade kimchee, mustard, and kombucha.

None of these are really Spanish things. There in the spice shop, where a guy was taking a photograph with his phone of the long fingers of vanilla bean in a jar — I realized I might be among my people, curious rovers who, wanting to replicate what they’ve eaten elsewhere, need five spice powder and dried limes and harissa.

I’d come to the spice store for flor de hibisco because about the time the swifts get here, it’s also time to start drinking sugary ruby-tinted iced hibiscus tea. I drank it for the first time at the house of someone whose original place of origin was the Texas-Mexico border. She told me I needed a spice store for the dried flowers.

Since moving here, I’ve realized that, magpie-like, I steal what attracts me, especially when it comes to food. A while ago, someone served me a kir royale when I arrived at their house for lunch on a weekday afternoon. This is how Paris ladies lunch, she said, a notion I liked so much that finding cassis (there’s a shop for it, I know) is on my to-do list. I’ve bought a special frying pan to help me execute a Spanish Tortilla. We eat stollen, a German fruitcake studded with raisins and larded with marzipan, at Christmas, because of the two years we lived in Germany.

It makes me happy that my current life includes the spice store. It simultaneously makes me sad. Because someday, sooner or later, I won’t live here anymore. I won’t walk to the spice store through my neighborhood that smells of baking bread and chocolate (and sometimes of beer and dog shit).

This doubled-consciousness —that what I have, I won’t always have; that once I had things that I don’t have now — it feels peculiar to the expat, the immigrant, the wanderer. But aren’t we all of us all those things, when we consider life the journey?

They say people who live at the North Pole have a dozen words for snow. Living in an environment where people are perpetually either throwing in the towel and heading back where they came from or turning their back on what used to be home, casting it out of their hearts, I keep a running list of words related to the concept of home in my head. Someday, I vow, I’ll figure all this out.

Hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning “a blend of homesickness, nostalgia and longing, a pull on the heart caused by missing something irretrievably lost.”

Saudade, from the Portuguese, “a state of melancholic or profoundly nostalgic longing for a beloved yet absent something or someone, often associated with a repressed understanding that one might never encounter the recipient of longing ever again.”

Love of a place can be like love of a person, I wrote a long time ago, when I was too young to know much about — much of anything. I’m beginning to see that although romantic, this can be a wrong-headed approach to geography. Maybe that’s why I’ve been going out to the balcony to check for swifts so much this past month. Because the swifts don’t grieve Africa when they’re in Europe, nor the other way around. Instead, they stake their claim on sky — both things and neither, expansive and wide; the sight of them a paean to a life spent in between.


  1. Your lovely rumination reminds me of the famous poem by Bashō:
    “In Kyoto …”

    In Kyoto,
    hearing the cuckoo,
    I long for Kyoto.

    Proving that we are all a bit cuckoo about place and home and where we are, will be, and are not. Thank you for helping my mind on this path. I have just finished morning yoga during which my mind wandered from balance to somewhere I used to be.

Comments are closed.