Rolling Out the Welcome Mat: At Home With the Locals

Zsa Zsa, on the lamb

Don’t think. It complicates things. Just feel. And if it feels like home, then follow its path. — R.M. Drake

The natural world plays a very big role in my feeling at home in the world. Getting to know the terrain, the vegetation, and the animals around me is critical to my happiness. It’s the same for my husband, and it’s one of the many reasons that we’re so compatible. When we moved to Spain a year and a half ago, we made it our mission to learn our surroundings. Through our daily hikes, runs, swims, and bike rides, we explored Jávea and its environs much more deeply than we ever could have by car. 

Few places are as iconic as the Mediterranean coast: the blue skies, the bluer sea, rocky beaches tucked between dramatic cliffs, and seemingly endless sunshine. Almost every vista we encountered was breathtakingly beautiful. But while Tom found joy and delight in each new discovery and the differences between Spain and the United States, I found I was hesitant about it all. I am the type of person who is deeply rooted to place. Having spent almost my entire life in Virginia, all of a sudden, the world I had grown up in and known so well was gone, and I felt destabilized. Instead of the lush, humid greenery of Virginia, here the landscape was dry, desert-like, and seemingly barren. Instead of beautiful, towering hardwoods, there were yuccas, palms, and twisted, scrubby-topped Stone Pines. Instead of May Apples, Skunk Cabbage, and Mountain Laurel, there were bizarre, almost other-worldly-looking succulents; one, the Black Rose, so alien looking it was as if it had come from another planet. Instead of cardinals, chickadees, robins, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, there were seagulls, swifts, and swallows. There were no chipmunks or raccoons, and very few squirrels. I didn’t like it. It didn’t feel like home. 

Stone Pine, high atop a sea cliff

Then one day, a few months into our new life, my adventurous artist friend, Julie texted me: “What does it smell like there?” Her question brought me up short. I really didn’t know. So, although it may sound funny, I started sniffing the air everywhere we went, tuning in to that most basic, evocative, and grounding of senses: the breath. I smelled the wild lavender, fennel, and rosemary that covers much of the landscape. I smelled the piney forests, including the humid peatiness rising from the needles that fall from the trees onto the clay ground. I smelled the headiness of the orange blossoms that burst forth in unison each spring. I smelled the different varieties of jasmine as they take turns blooming throughout the year, permeating the air with their divine bouquets throughout the seasons. 

Rocky beach at Playa Ambolo

And In the process, my other senses awakened and deepened. I learned to discern the difference the sound of the wind made as it rustled through palm fronds and pine boughs. I watched how the yellow of the limestone cliffs in the morning sun gave way to a bleached tan in the afternoon light. I felt the smoothness of the rocks on the beach under my feet, polished to an almost satin-like finish by millennia of wave action. And in a flash I realized: it’s funny what we think we know. We may understand it cognitively, but to really know something we need to feel it in our hearts, in our gut, in our bones.  

Black Rose succulent, at home in our garden

And it hit me: I didn’t feel at home because I was resisting feeling at home. Instead of allowing myself to appreciate the differences between my past and current homes, I was comparing all the ways Virginia seemed “better” than Spain. I wasn’t open, I wasn’t discovering, I was just ranking. And if I am really honest, maybe there was a part of me that wanted to like it less. Maybe I was feeling guilty for even trying to enjoy or appreciate my new life too much; that it was somehow a betrayal of my home, my heritage, my family, and my friends. In short, I was allowing fear to hold me back: fear of the unknown, fear of difference, and fear of acceptance. 

Limestone cliffs

So I stopped. I stopped resisting. I stopped closing myself off from my experiences. I stopped focusing on the perceived lack. Instead, I softened into curiosity. And in doing so, I began to notice the abundant beauty of the natural world that surrounded me. I admired the tenacity of the delicate wildflowers thriving in the seemingly inhospitable cracks of cliff rocks that bake all day in the sun. I marveled at how the pine trees, stooped and bent from years of weathering by the sea winds, still managed to grow full and strong. I came to admire how agaves, right before their death, send up a shoot which can reach over 20 feet high before toppling over to scatter their seeds — a tragedy so beautiful and dramatic it is almost operatic. 

Agave with its death bloom

I watched the cormorants, sleek and athletic, elegantly fishing in the sea. I gazed at the seagulls as they rode the wind currents, making micro-adjustments until finding the exact point where they could hover in a headwind without flapping their wings. I marveled at the vast multitude of forked-tailed swallows and swifts that swarm in the morning and evening skies, eating insects while in flight, almost never stopping to rest. I watched as entire “conspiracies” of ravens played in the air, calling to each other in their distinctive caws, as they swooped and dove high above their rocky sea cliff homes. I came to know the Hoopoe: a species of bird new to me, with their striped wings and the beak-like appendage on the back of their heads that they can fan out into a brightly colored mohawk. 

I spotted the multitudes of lizards and geckos as they scooted over the rocky walls and walkways, changing from green to brown to match the color of their surroundings, before disappearing – in the blink of an eye — into a crack in a stone. We have hundreds just in our yard. We even recognize a few, including one we have named Johnny Two Tail. On our morning runs and hikes through the piney woods, I see places in the red clay earth where the wild boars have dug the previous night, foraging for roots and grubs. Mostly nocturnal, I’ve never seen one, although Tom once spotted a mother and baby late one night. Sometimes, especially if it has rained the night before, we see their hoof prints, which range from full-grown adult to baby “squealer”-sized. 

Tom with Spiny Norman

Then there are the red tufted-ear squirrels. Smaller and less numerous than their grey counterparts, they are still squirrel to their core: racing along the tops of fences, leaping from branch to branch, and loudly chastising any cat below who dares to show a bit too much interest. We have three that live in a little grove of pine trees a few streets over from ours. We have named them after NBA Hall of Famers for the way they continually astound us with their athleticism: Sir Charles, the ringleader; Clyde The Glide, who runs so fast along the telephone wires it’s as if he’s ice skating; and The Glove, for his dare-devil leaps from tree to tree which he manages to stick each and every time. 

Besides the squirrels, we have given names to many other animals we see on an almost daily basis and with whom we have come to feel a kinship. There are The Beagle Brothers we call Big Boy, Little Boy, and Señor Scruffy. Whenever they hear us in the part of the woods that abuts their property, they come bounding down their backyard hill, barking and wagging their tails. There’s Spiny Norman, the wild European Hedgehog we rescued, and who has chosen to make his home in our garden ever since we found him over a year ago in the middle of a nearby road, listless and confused from heat exhaustion and an injured foot.

The Mayor, greeting a constituent

There are a lot of cats. One, my husband calls Spray Tan for the white rings around his eyes in an otherwise orange face, lives near our neighborhood post office. Then there’s the large, affable tabby who hangs out by the Portixol Cross. We call him “The Mayor” for the way he trots up to greet visitors, purring loudly and rubbing against their legs, in search of a head scratch. There’s also the feral cat colony we feed at the Cabo de la Nau lighthouse which includes such regulars as Left Eye Lopez, Mama Cats, Buck, Godfrey, Cheshire, McCloud, Spaulding, Drain Pipe, King Floyd, and Cool Papa Bell. There’s the red hen just a few blocks away, who, from time to time goes rogue, breaking out of her coop to strut her stuff around the parking lot of our local. We call her Zsa Zsa. Seeing them all makes my day. 

Wildflowers in the rocks

A primary tenet of Buddhism is that when we resist, we suffer. The irony was that the very thing I was resisting — the natural world — was the one thing which, no matter what, always grounds me, comforts me, and brings me peace. And with that awakening, I finally let myself step fully onto the Welcome Mat: the one that had been unfurled for well over a year; the one laid out for me by the palms, the succulents, the pine forests, the jasmine, the lavender, the fennel and the rosemary; the same one extended to me by the wild boars, the ravens, the cormorants, The Mayor, Zsa Zsa, Johnny Two-Tail, Sir Charles, Spray Tan, Lefteye Lopez, Cool Papa Bell, The Glove, and all the rest. 

And you know what? It’s finally starting to feel like home. I can feel it in my bones.


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