When I stepped into the courtyard of my small apartment, café con leche in hand, a petite woman with curly hair was hanging laundry. I had just arrived in the quiet working-class neighborhood of Triana in Seville, Spain, where I hoped to calm my crushing anxiety and maybe even start writing my next book.
I watched as the woman arranged and rearranged her colorful blouses. She introduced herself with a big smile, as her green and yellow house dress swished around her knees.
I asked in Spanish whether she spoke English. She shook her head. My Spanish was nominal at best, having learned mostly from reading advertisements on the New York City subway. I caught only that her name was Carmen.
The night before, when the Airbnb host showed me around the apartment and pointed to a laundry rack in the back of the bedroom closet, I laughed. I hadn’t come to Seville to do housework. In fact, it was something I was actively trying to escape, along with the rest of my life back in New York.
I had tragically lost a close family member, was struggling with writer’s block, and my marriage was going through a rough patch. I no longer slept through the night, often waking in a panic that inevitably turned into overwhelming sadness. Barely making it through each day, I waited for the moment I could collapse on the sofa and mindlessly watch Netflix.
It felt like I had forgotten how to breathe. So when my teenage son was invited to Seville to play soccer, I jumped on the opportunity to rent a place nearby for two months.
Making a new friend
Three days after my arrival, I discovered that the washer-dryer unit in my apartment didn’t dry. When I attempted to run the drying cycle, it lasted for hours and left my clothes soaked through.
Carmen, who must have heard the machine running all night, knocked at my door the following morning and handed me a bag of clothespins. She was talking rapidly in Spanish and there was a lot of gesturing.
Within moments she was inside my apartment showing me how to not only set the temperature on the washing machine with its new-to-me symbols that I still hadn’t deciphered, but also how to run the dishwasher, yet another enigma.
She found the metal clothes rack in the closet and then pointed to the clothespins she had just given me. I thanked her as she left, and then stood in the middle of my living room, clothespins in hand, wondering what to do next.
With my son living on his own for the first time, I was even more stressed than usual, but I was here to enjoy Seville. I wandered out into the cobblestone streets and began putting one foot in front of the other.
I walked five miles that day, and 10 the next, and every day after that, exploring all this vibrant city had to offer. I watched flamenco dancers performing in Plaza de España and strolled through the gardens of María Luisa Park, stopping by the duck pond to visit the hatchlings. Moving my body, being in the sun, and discovering new places felt like a warm embrace. I knew I had made the right decision to be here.
The next time I saw Carmen in the courtyard I was staring at a blank computer screen, struggling to write. She motioned me to follow her and gave me a tour of her flowers, which were lovingly placed around the patio in blue-and-white ceramic pots.
Then we sat together at the little table next to my sliding glass door and she began chatting. I nodded and started to download Google Translate, saying: “Habla despacio por favor,” meaning: “Speak slowly, please.”
For the first few weeks in Seville, Carmen was the only person I communicated with, and while I was lonely and homesick, I was also starting to feel a small shift in my body as the tightness in my neck and shoulders began to soften.
One afternoon, I opened the sliding glass door with one hand while balancing a pile of wet sheets and the metal laundry rack with the other. The sheets were much bigger than the rack and I didn’t know how to hang them without draping them on the courtyard’s tile.
Carmen saw me struggling and rushed over. She gestured that I needed to move the rack closer to my door so I didn’t block the walkway leading to the other apartments. Then she helped me position my sheets in a fashion that I am still unable to replicate. She was an expert at laundry hanging, sun position, and the mostly unspoken nuances of rack placement.
Transforming my look
Not long after, I was sitting in the courtyard when I realized that all my clothes were pretty somber compared to everyone else’s. Black tops, black leggings, black underwear, white pants, white gym socks. I glanced over at Carmen’s rack—orange, purple, floral prints. As a New Yorker, black was my uniform. In Spain I looked like I was in mourning.
I took a calculated risk. Clothing was permanent, but painting my toes a bright red instead of my usual dark blue seemed doable. A few days later, I purchased a pair of pink, blue, and white flare pants. I’d never owned pants with a pattern. It would take three more weeks to find the courage to wear them.
When I finally did, I was so self-conscious I almost changed my mind. I tried on three shirts before I settled on a navy blue one that matched. And then I remembered that no one in Seville knew me. I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could be someone who wears wild clothes and takes fashion risks. Maybe I could even be someone who laughs sometimes and doesn’t worry so much. But for now, I would just wear the pants to a dark theater.
My anxiety started falling away
When the pipes in my rental backed up and flooded the bathroom, I used every single towel in the apartment to sop up the water. The owners fixed the problem immediately, but the load of towels was left for me. Carmen once again came to my rescue.
“El sol es el más brillante aquí en la tarde,” she said, pointing at the cloudless sky. I understood: “The sun is the brightest here in the afternoon.”
I carried the rack with her guidance to the spot she had chosen, positioning it for optimal drying. As we stood side by side arranging the towels, time stopped. Hanging laundry felt good.
Afterwards, I tried writing at the little table in the courtyard. I could hear the clink of dishes coming from the apartments above and the smell of stews and meats. I usually had cheese and bread or a piece of creamy quiche from the bakery on the corner for lunch, but everyone else was cooking.
My anxiety was beginning to fall away, but it happened in such small increments—like an archeologist chipping at a stone woman to reveal something softer underneath. I was finally getting a glimpse of the person I used to be before the pandemic, before life became so difficult, and before time began to speed up and take those we love.
In the middle of the day, when the sun lingered without being chased, my sadness and anxiety hardly existed, and in the courtyard it was a ghost that had faded entirely.
Slowing down and doing simple tasks like hanging laundry, walking along the Guadalquivir River, and browsing shops filled with colorful clothing gave me the gift of mindfulness. I had time to think, to clear my head, to remember how to breathe again.
Lessons I took with me
One early Monday morning, I had somehow managed to hang my laundry before Carmen had watered her rose bushes. I stepped back to admire my handiwork. I took my time, fussing, switching around my tank top with a colorful dress, knowing that I was no longer existing in black and white. I was finally living in color.
In a few weeks I would be heading back to New York, but I promised myself I would take the lessons I learned in Seville with me. I had unearthed the woman buried beneath layers of anxiety, and I felt confident and secure about what the future held. Perhaps most important, I was genuinely happy.
Later that morning, Carmen’s voice traveled across the courtyard: “Buenas dias! Tu ropa!” she said, meaning: “Good morning! Your clothes!” She pointed at my rack, smiling with approval as she began sorting and hanging her dresses.
“Buenas dias!” I replied, and then, glancing once more at my own new colorful clothes, I opened my laptop and the words began to flow.
Aileen Weintraub is the author of Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir, about marriage, motherhood, and the risks we take. You can find her at aileenweintraub.com or follow her on Twitter @AileenWeintraub.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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