I sat across a coffee table from a 12-year-old, staring at my hand of Uno cards. If only I had a blue card or an 8, but it was not meant to be. My cards looked like the Spanish flag, all reds and yellows. I drew. I don’t remember the official rules, but we were playing that you keep drawing until you can put a card down. The cards in my hand multiplied before my very eyes faster than the cases of corruption being opened against members of one of Spain’s major political parties.
A smile crept across my cousin’s face, one bright enough to make the afternoon sun look like a flashlight with a dying battery. If only I could stretch this Uno game out forever. Judging by the number of cards I was now holding, I just might get my wish. And I couldn’t have been more content. Finally, I drew a blue card and flopped it down on top of the pile.
The rounds went on one after the other. Time slowed until it stopped altogether. She won some. I won some. And everything was right in the world.
I arrived in Spain like a desert traveler stumbling into the water of an oasis. The water could have been hot and muddy, and I would have jumped in head first regardless. The longer I spent in the water, however, the more I noticed the distance between the unattainable ideals I had painted in my mind’s eye and the reality of the world that surrounded me. I began to notice the temperature and color of the pool, and it left me longing for spring water as clear as crystal and just a few degrees above freezing. In other words, the place I had longed to visit to refresh my sunburned skin and tired feet couldn’t supply the longing of my heart.
You see, Spain has potholes, too. Perhaps not to the degree of a typical Kyrgyz highway, yet budget cuts at the governmental level have real life consequences at the street level. Literally. Unnecessary bureaucracy hinders what should be relatively simple banking transactions here, too. Even in Spain corruption like a cancer threatens to strangle an entire society. Navigating relational dynamics in Spain is just as complex and potentially tiring as doing it anywhere else. There are weeds poking their heads out of cracks in the sidewalk outside a palace the Spanish royal family keeps in a city called Aranjuez outside Madrid. Time and weather have wielded their unassailable power on the statues that adorn the 300-year-old cathedral in Salamanca, Laura’s hometown, resulting in faces that lack noses and hands that lack fingers.
In short, my oasis wasn’t the pool of clear, cool water I was hoping for.
It was then, playing Uno with a little girl as beautiful inside as she is without, that it struck me: What the heart longs for with the force of a thousand hurricanes is not found in good food, smooth roads, or easy living. (Though let’s be real: Spanish food is so good it should be illegal or at least regulated by legislation.) In fact, the place has nothing to do with it at all. No, the lifeblood of the human soul is found in relationships, those mystical connections of love and acceptance formed between two eternal beings crafted in the image of their eternal God. And there is no substitute.
You can get used to new food, a new language, and even a new worldview, but you can get used to living outside the warmth of trusting, loving human relationships about as easily as you can get used to breathing under water. To love and to be loved—now we’re talking about the deepest, most fulfilling realities in the universe. Love will heal my aching feet better than jamón serrano and cobblestone streets ever will. And I know that now because I tasted it. I tasted it sitting across from a smiling little girl as I searched for a blue card or an 8.
Thank you, cousin. Thank you for the insight you afforded me, but thank you a thousand times more for your unconditional love, the single gift able to satisfy the thirst of a desert wanderer like me.