2nd Missionary Month: Still Waiting for the Gift of Tongues

Image result for lucy's italian episode

Similar to how we washed our clothes.

You can find my first two installments in this series here and here.

My second companion was Hermana C who had also served in my first area. We both got transferred back to the city of Las Palmas together, to the horrible piso (apartment) I had seen during my first day in the mission. There were two bedrooms, one that was used as a dressing room and shared closet, a tiny kitchen, a living area with a telephone, and a bathroom. The bathroom didn’t have a shower head, and the shower hose didn’t connect to the wall. You just held it up and hosed off with it. There was also no curtain, and no real tub – you stood in a square basin that had tile built up around it, like a very small bathtub. We also had to wash our clothes in this, by hand, because we didn’t have access to a washing machine. Usually I would just put some shampoo in with my clothes and some water and stomp around on them like Lucy’s Italian episode where she is stomping the grapes. Then we would hang our clothes up on a line in the air shaft outside the window, on lines hung in our apartment, or draped over furniture.

The windows opened like shutters into a shared air shaft in the middle of the building. We had no open views in this piso. Large brown cockroaches would occasionally fly in through the open bathroom window and had to be dispatched. Sometimes we would crush them. Other times we would drown them in shampoo. They were sturdy and hard to kill.

The entrance to our piso had a locking gate, presumably for safety, which actually made me feel more unsafe. Right across from this gate was a giant graffiti penis that greeted us every day. It made it easy to remember which entrance was ours. It was definitely the worst place I had ever been in, let alone lived in, up to this point in my life, although I know some of the elders living in the port had worse situations. [1] We weren’t very far from the mission home which was actually in a very nice neighborhood, but there was clearly no zoning law governing the types of housing. The mission home was near the end of a street with spectacular views of the city and the port, in an area called Las Escaleritas (the Stairs). We sometimes would ascend or descend here if we were heading to the capilla (chapel). There was a shanty town constructed right at the end of the street of expensive homes with families crammed into small ramshackle constructions made out of corrugated metal and boxes pieced together into a community. There were probably 30 families living there in a small block that smelled of urine and feces.

Looking down the street from our piso in Schamann. It is much, much cleaner now (in this picture) than when I served there.

I was nervous about working with Hermana C after our time together in Lanzarote. She was very different from me, very emotional and serious. I didn’t know how to deal with someone who cried a lot. It made me very uncomfortable. She was mostly sweet, though, and I could tell that she loved the people and had a good heart. We developed a few habits like eating a chocolate covered croissant every day for breakfast, bought at a nearby bakery, and putting honey and butter on it. Breakfasts in the Canaries were always an adventure because the milk there is full of preservatives and sold off a shelf (not refrigerated) in a box. When you pour it out, it looks like white paint. They also didn’t have a lot of our familiar American sugary cereals. So I was always trying to come up with non-cereal alternatives. There was a bakery just up the block from our piso. [2]

When we got there, the exiting sisters (both Spaniards) handed off some investigators they had been working with which was great for us. They sternly warned us not to let things slip with these people they had been teaching. I could tell they didn’t trust us not to screw it up. We did pretty well at adopting their investigators, although we didn’t baptize that month. That, and the fact that I was only with Hermana C for 3 weeks is why I have no pictures of us together. [3]

In addition to me being in my second month, I quickly discovered that Hermana C had never been trained in Spanish, something that I hadn’t realized when we were in Lanzarote since I never did splits with her. Now it made sense why she was always saying “Puxa vida!” which was a Portuguese phrase, not Spanish. Our mission was newly created, less than a year earlier, and half of it was the Spain-owned Canary Islands, and the other half was the Portugal-owned Azores and Madeira. We also had another island nation, Cape Verde (also Portuguese-speaking). While our missionaries were divided between Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking, Portugal was not as fast and free with approving Visas for missionaries, so most of the Portuguese-trained missionaries had to serve in the Spanish side for at least several months. This was doubtless another reason the Spanish sisters were nervous about turning over their teaching pool to us!

We lived up one flight of stairs in this building, through this gated door.

Our area was also very steep and physically demanding, and I was in better shape than she was which made us both very tired by the end of the day [4], often too tired to look up the words and phrases we couldn’t understand. We were teaching one man who was very kind to us and gave us rides everywhere. He kept saying “No me quiero equivocar” whenever we would push for a commitment. We would assure him “No te vas a equivocar,” and then as soon as we were alone we’d say, “We really need to look up the word equivocarse!” Neither of us knew what he was saying! I thought it was probably like in English, meaning he didn’t want to be wishy-washy, but it really was more about not wanting to make a mistake. We never did get to the bottom of his issues.

I remember that when he would give us a ride downtown (a ruse we would sometimes use as an excuse to talk to him), there was a big billboard we passed every time that was a topless woman with her hands behind her head, looking relaxed. This was one of the most mild forms of ubiquitous nudity. The ports were also full of pornographic post cards, tee shirts, and souvenirs as well as sex shops. While I had a decent poker face, it was a little disconcerting the amount of graphic sex and nudity I saw on a daily basis–and not just the graffiti outside our piso! Nobody local remarked on it, and soon it stopped being very noticeable, although every once in a while it would just be there at an inopportune time. Things are actually much different now that I’ve been back. The shops are more discreet and clean with scenic postcards.

It might have also been a lack of language skills that led to us not realizing that one of our investigators, Mari Carmen, was going to feed us at our appointment. We had stopped in a bar for a pretty big lunch of sandwiches and fries, and then when we got to our appointment, MaCarmen had a full meal spread out. She didn’t have much money, so it was an honor to be fed by her, and I wouldn’t dream of offending her. She was a sometime prostitute with two tween daughters to take care of. She had prepared squid in a brown sauce served over potatoes. It was really good, although we were both already completely full, and I could also tell Hermana C wasn’t too happy about the squid which included leg clusters. I gave her a quick pep talk to just eat it and be polite, which she did. After I drank the glass of milk (milk! on a full stomach!), MaCarmen quickly went to refill it, and I put my hand over the glass and said I was very satisfied and didn’t want any more. She said I should drink it “por tu mami” by which she meant to make my boobs bigger. I laughed at that and said I was OK with my boobs as they were. I had to explain to my companion what she said after we left because she didn’t catch it. My language skills were finally starting to come around!

After we left, we were simply miserable from being so full. We did in fact have another appointment, but it was later. It took us 45 minutes to walk back to our piso even though it normally only took about 10. When we got there I said to Hermana C, “Look, we can’t work like this. We need to go make ourselves throw up or we’re going to miss that appointment.” I got a spoon and went in first. After, she did. We definitely felt better after we threw up, and we did make it to our evening appointment. It was a bonding experience.

This wall used to have a graffiti penis on it. Stay classy, Las Palmas!

The elders would call us every night to check in, which I thought was kind of asinine since we were always fine. Since they didn’t have a phone, they had to call from a pay phone, and we couldn’t call them. It felt like 19 year olds were being asked to babysit us when we were the older ones with more worldly experience. One evening, before they called, she mentioned she wanted to talk to them. When they did call I was in the kitchen and the phone rang and rang, so I finally went back to the hall by the bedroom to get it. The lights were out in the bedroom, and Hermana C was sitting in there on the bed in the dark. I couldn’t see her face, but I asked repeatedly if she wanted to talk to the elders. Finally I said to them, “I guess not,” and I hung up and walked back into  the bedroom to go to bed. She was upset with me and yelled out between sobs, “I wanted to talk to them!” I didn’t know what she was upset about, and she didn’t want to say. Eventually we just went to sleep, but I kind of had one eye open after that, unsure what to say or do to deal with her outburst.

We were only together for three weeks. Toward the end, she wanted to write a letter to Elder W from our Lanzarote district to let him know how much he meant to her, and how much he had helped her. She wanted to ask President’s permission to send this letter. I thought that sounded like a terrible idea and couldn’t imagine President would agree to let her send this letter. I figured she should either send it or not, but talking to President was a non-starter. But I also felt a little protective of her. Although I didn’t say this, it seemed to me that Elder W might think it was weird; he was someone I considered, rightly or wrongly, to be out of her league. She said “He needs to know.” I said “No, he doesn’t.” She did talk to the President, and he did deny her request to send the letter. I believe she gave it to him anyway. As it turned out, Elder W was a great guy who simply loved women and would never have judged her harshly for this. My fears for her were unfounded. I think he was even a little bit smitten with her, or at least flattered.

She cried a lot when we were companions and was very easily upset which made me uncomfortable. I tended to think that the cure was always getting back to work, that any time wallowing in the apartment was only going to make things worse. I wasn’t very empathetic about emotional people on the mission, even on the rare occasion when I was one. This ended up driving a wedge into my pen pal relationship with my crush who was serving in the Netherlands where teaching opportunities were scarce and the mission culture was much more difficult than ours was, but that’s a tale for another day. At this point in my mission, things were still mostly rosy at home. I had a great boyfriend waiting for me back at BYU. I had a pen pal crush who gave me pep talks and listened to my complaints, sharing his own stories and wisdom with me and sending me cool keepsakes from northern Europe. And I had plenty of interesting people to teach who were trying to better their lives and needed our help.

  • If you served a foreign-speaking mission, when did you really start to pick up the language?
  • Were you surprised by your exposure to the unsavory, hidden parts of culture that you see as a missionary–things like prostitution, pornography, unsafe areas, shanty towns, etc.?
  • How did you find a way to bond with a companion who was very different from you?
  • How did you deal with emotions as a missionary?

Discuss.

[1] My husband who also served in the same mission was in a piso where they found a dead junkie in the hallway with a needle still in his arm, and their neighbor across the air shaft slit his wife’s throat one day. One of the missionaries mentioned this in a letter home, and was wisely told by President not to alarm his mother. (Sort of like “What happens in the mission stays in the mission.”) However, they did find a new apartment after that.

[2] From my tracker sheet dated June 5-11, 1989, my food expenses in pesetas (which preceded Euros): .555 (Basico grocery store), .375 (pizza), .125 (fries / fritas), .900 (Basico groceries), .200 (pollo y papas – chicken & potatoes), .300 (yogurt), .485 (cereal), .510 (croissanteria), .150 (bread), .150 (pollo), .120 (bread). US equivalent is roughly one decimal to the right, so the cereal would be about $4.85. Other expenses: .465 (Nivea lotion), .350 (chapa – new name tag), .300 (stamps), .750 (proselyting materials – to make teaching aids). Transportation expenses: .200 (bus / taxi), .100 (bus), .700 (bus tickets), .150 (taxi). Our piso in Schamann cost about half as much in rent as our piso in Lanzarote had, $200 instead of $400 per month.

[3] From my tracker for the week of June 5-11, 1989, here’s what we accomplished: 6 people in our teaching pool, 5 Books of Mormon given out, three 1st discussions, three 2nd discussions, one 3rd discussion, one 5th discussion. We were busy! By contrast, missionaries in northern Europe sometimes didn’t have any teaching appointments in a week.

[4] I’m a fast walker, and slowing down to match her lethargic pace made me feel tired and impatient; this was an occasional problem I had with companions. Even now I hate having to walk slowly. In our family we call it the “museum crawl” when you have to shuffle along with a crowd of tourists who are languidly looking at things. It drives me batty. Living in Asia much later (from 2010-2013 as an expat) was tough–people there are used to slow walking in a crowd.

Comments

  1. EnglishTeacher says:

    I have loved reading these stories! I was in the Spain Barcelona mission 2008-2010 and find myself nodding along to much of what you write about–including the chocolate croissants (napolitanas) and the sort of casual displays of nudity and sex and how jarring that can be for (American) Mormons out seeing the rest of the world for the first time. My second area, Benidorm, was very similar, culturally, to Las Canarias, from what you write about. I am looking forward to more mission recollections!

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    These posts are fantastic, it’s like being there.

  3. Happy Hubby says:

    I love how much detail you are able to capture from your mission. I mainly remember just days and days of knocking on doors in the heat with the only break would be finding a members home to get a drink of water (not that we were EVER inspired as to where to tract based on where members lived, no – never).
    I do remember the ZL’s driving us around in one of the larger towns and taking us to see the red light district. It was quite sleazy. It didn’t create any “bad thoughts” and in fact I think the only thought it created was, “I am glad this isn’t my area.”

  4. My mission was one of those “much harder to teach” ones. (Don’t we all say that? :) ) I think I caught on to the language pretty quickly; the Sicilian accent threw me for awhile, but I picked up on the nuance before too long. The openness of nudity and porn did shock me, having grown up in small-town Minnesota, but a lot less than it shocked my comps. I was somewhat less than lily-white innocent in the college years before my baptism, too, so it wasn’t nearly as much a mystery to me as it was to them.

    Open irreverence, like the big spray-painted phalluses which were ubiquitous, I actually found more shocking. Including one in Trapani with the caption, “Christ is the [organ] of God,” using a crude term that I had to ask my trainer to translate, and which left my jaw slightly unhinged for the remainder of the day.

    From your photos, it looks like the Canaries are very similar in architecture and so on to Sicily, which makes sense. Those pics look “homey” to me. :)

  5. Mortimer says:

    Wonderful memoir. It was so nostalgic that it brought back my own memories and PTSD flashbacks of mission life. I am grateful to have served and would choose to do so again, but there are painful memories as well. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

    When did you really start to pick up the language? – About 5-6 months I started becoming more conversational, but I felt I jumped to another level at about a year. From a year to a year and a half, I learned more quickly and felt I was into the best learning ‘stride’. Then, as a sister, I went home.

    Surprised by the filth? No. I have traveled internationally before, had been poor, and worked for many years in impoverished communities. I wasn’t as protected as many suburban youth today are.

    How did I deal with emotions? Like any good missionary, by a big dash of denial, two scoops of optimism, and a heaping helping of spiritual guilt of course! Physically I developed depression and an ulcer. Missionaries need to be more thoroughly vetted . . . OMG bishops have got to stop sending out people with massive personality disorders. Hint: if this person is annoying and obnoxious to you and the ward when you only see them on Sundays, do not inflict them on a companion 24X7. Here’s a great idea. If a ward sends out a really obnoxious or immature person, they must work in the mission office as a special buddy to the president. They do not go out in the field where they can get their companion killed. Just a thought.

    Seriously, since missionary service is culturally a right of passage and everyone is supposed to go (well, all men and now many women are feeling the call) can we create special service missions? Can we have senior missionaries continue to parent small groups of “unique” missionaries? This has been modeled with missionaries who have more visible disabilities, but can we expand the definition of ‘special needs’ to include emotional and social issues or simply those who are simply spiritually/emotionally/socially “young” or “unique”? For the love, stop assigning crazy, er- um- I mean “unique” missionaries to innocent companions who end up being full-time baby-sitters. RMs. . . tell the truth- you knew who these missionaries were and everyone pitied their companions.

  6. Seriously, since missionary service is culturally a right of passage and everyone is supposed to go (well, all men and now many women are feeling the call) can we create special service missions?

    Whether at the behest of the stake or the church I know not, but I do know several young men and women in my ward/stake who have indeed been called on special service missions, either in distant areas (inside the US) or within our stake. One in my ward spent every day for two years helping at the bishop’s storehouse, preparing and delivering orders, and counted it a great experience.

  7. I just lost my FHC companion to a service mission at the Family History Library. They are sometimes sending young people with less visible challenges on appropriate missions.

  8. Angela C says:

    I tend to think Hermana C might have been depressed or at a low point, but I’m not sure she needed a special service mission or anything. We just didn’t click, and I had no patience. In fact, when we returned, it was a bit of a blow to me that we both applied to work teaching at the MTC, and she was hired while I was not! I had another encounter with her later in my mission when we were in a trio for a few days while she waited for her transfer. Things were actually worse that second time around, although it was short-lived. I’m pretty sure she was not a fan of mine. She had strong feelings about how things should be done, and by that point, we had completely diverged in our views. She might have actually been more correct than I was. She was much more slow-paced and serious in every aspect of the work, and I was energetic and pushy. That translated into very different approaches to missionary work.

  9. This is fabulous stuff, Angela.

  10. Jared vdH says:

    Angela, this has been a wonderful series so far, and I hope you continue it.

    If you served a foreign-speaking mission, when did you really start to pick up the language? I was one of those who was blessed with the gift of tongues – while I certainly was not fluent once I hit the field, I was able to hold decent conversations, teach, and learn new words/slang pretty quickly. My trainer and other missionaries I went on exchanges with often remarked on how good my Spanish was.

    Were you surprised by your exposure to the unsavory, hidden parts of culture that you see as a missionary–things like prostitution, pornography, unsafe areas, shanty towns, etc.? I served in New York City, Spanish speaking, so while there were some things that were surprising I was spared the complete culture shock of a different country. There was still plenty of culture shock for this California boy though. My first area in Brooklyn was split between two primary neighborhoods/cultures: Orthodox Jewish and the Projects. The meeting house was a rented first floor of a building owned by an Orthodox Jewish organization on the outskirts of a pretty large Jewish neighborhood. Most of our members either lived in or close to the Projects. That first area was also where I realized that if my family had grown up in Brooklyn, we probably would have been on the lower-middle class types of buildings with a relatively small apartment, whereas I grew up in a modest but nice suburban home with a small pool in the backyard. It was the first time in my life that I realized what “cost of living” really meant.

    How did you find a way to bond with a companion who was very different from you? Not sure I was ever really good at that. I eventually learned to let the less important things go and just do my best to get along and find some kind of commonality. Sometimes I wonder if I was too accommodating with some of my companions.

    How did you deal with emotions as a missionary? For the first half – bottled them up. Around 9 months into my mission the president moved me into the mission office – not an AP, just one of the “office elders”. My companion and I were in charge of the cars, mission mail, recording ordinances, compiling mission statistics, and phone bills. We were a test mission for “Preach My Gospel” so I got to be the lucky elder who got to re-work all of our internal reporting to focus on the Key Indicators. We were also a test mission for giving all companionships cell phones rather than landlines. So we had to go over the monthly phone bills for each phone in the mission to make sure no one was calling random 1-800/866/877 numbers or calling area codes outside of the mission (aka calling home). It was a lot of work and we were expected to essentially work a 9-5 office job and then immediately go out and proselyte, except there was often so much work to be done that it would carry us past 5pm and we wouldn’t even notice. Then two months into that my companion got sick, to the point that for a week I actually moved one of the office computers into our apartment so I could get work done while he was stuck in bed. Then he went home a week or two into the six week transfer period. The mission president couldn’t find anyone to replace him, so I did the work the both of us were previously responsible for – the other companionship I shared an apartment with would drop me off at the mission office where I would spend the day with the senior couple assigned to the mission office, and would pick me up around 5ish and I would then spend the evening proselyting with them. This was the most stressful time in my life, before or since, and I believe I nearly had a mental breakdown near the end because as I said above I was bottling all of these emotions and stresses up. However it was also the time when I had multiple spiritual experiences confirming to me that the consecration of my efforts was noticed and appreciated by a loving God. Those were the only things that kept me going through that month. It was through this experience that I began to learn that I needed to accept, process, and express my emotions rather than bottling them up and becoming an unfeeling automaton. I was much better at handling emotions for the rest of my mission.

  11. Joshua G H. Smith says:

    Mortimer – I too was blessed (saddled) with unique companions.

    Angela – Love this series. Served domestic so some of the experiences don’t resonate, but many do.

  12. Mortimer – Your reply has made me feel guilty.

    Being an adult convert I did not serve a mission, instead spending those tender non-Mormon years in the Marine Corps. Decades later I was called to serve in a YSA Bishopric where we had a male individual whose “unique” personality simply wore the Bishop down over a long period of time as well as all the rest of us in the Bishopric.

    A stated goal for any YSA ward is to get as many “straggler” young men out on missions before the cut off age of 25. We were able to do just that with this individual at his age of 24.

    The Sunday after he left on his mission we were a very happy Bishopric. Our happiness had little to do with sending out another servant of the Lord. We were happy because this young man wouldn’t be sucking the life out of each one of us anymore.

    That was 10 years ago and never once did I have any guilt about helping to send this young man out on a mission. Until today when I read Mortimer’s excellent reply.

  13. wreddyornot says:

    Germany ’67-’69.

    It took me about 6 months and a 1st companionship to become somewhat confident in understanding and speaking the language.

    I don’t remember seeing any prostitution, pornography (maybe my standards for that are lower than others), unsafe areas, or shanty towns. I did visit Dachau.

    My most challenging time and companionship came toward the end of my junior companionship period. For some reason, I became the last junior companion to four consecutive seniors, each with just 5 or 6 weeks left. While I was junior to the 3rd of them, the Mission President came one Sunday and told me my mother, who had been in good health and was 46, had died in her sleep. Shocked and despondent, I decided staying in Germany and trying to work hard might be best for me in my grief and to honor my mother as much as I could. With that same companion, I had the one and only baptism of my mission, a young German man.

    The 4th of the series of companions I sent home came just after the news of my mother’s death. M, as a senior to another junior, had previously proposed to a divorced woman with kids. He had almost been sent/gone home. He didn’t however go, but served out his time. That info all remained unbeknownst to me when I became his last junior. I didn’t learn of it at all until after he had left. Then, after he had gone, I learned that he had also proposed to two more ladies, both singles never married, in those 6 weeks while I had been his junior. One gal, a beautiful, lovely young member of the branch, was about our age; the other was a little older, an investigating relative of another member.

    I then became a senior to a new missionary. Still trying to work hard to work through my mother’s death, I felt heartsick to find out about M’s proposals during our 6 weeks. How clueless I had been. My morose came also partly due to the fact that I had already been secretly smitten myself by that same beautiful, young member. After the confessions came out , I became closer and closer to the beautiful young member and she to me. One night we kissed and made allegiances. I told the MP about the kiss and our plans, and he transferred me. The young member emigrated from Germany to the U.S. Before she left, the MP let her come to visit me. I finished my mission and returned home, meeting the beautiful young woman in an airport where she was sponsored before going home to my family.

  14. New iconoclast and Ohc, I’m glad to hear that alternative service opportunities for missionaries are becoming more available. Matching unique gifts to unique needs instead of one-size-fits-all sounds fantastically more productive.

    Angela C, I love ya as a fellow blogger, but you probably would have strangled me as a missionary, and I you. Mwaaah! (Insert kissy emoticon). Glad I’ve learned to chill. We would probably be friends in a ward now. Life’s lessons suck.

    Joshua GH Smith, I just removed my hat and am covering my heart with it as I hang my head low and say to you, “I’m so sorry”.

    Thom,
    Dude, so sorry to bring you down, but you’ve got to clean up your karma man… You need to do something big like save a missionary’s life or spend a lifetime taking the obnoxious elder in your Ward out on regular splits (giving his comp precious free time). Good luck ; )

  15. wreddyornot, that’s a great story.

  16. Ryan Mullen says:

    Loved this post Angela. Reading along, I was surprised to find myself thinking back fondly on my own missionary service–and that’s rare for me these days. My mission memories have largely soured as I reflect on how judgmental I became due to the constant refrain of “Follow the mission rules.” So thanks.

    I confess I’ve long been perplexed by the attitude of “If we don’t eat, we’ll offend him/her.” My confusion is undoubtedly a combination of serving stateside, being a picky eater, and not really being one to easily form strong relationships. So I’m genuinely curious, if you had the meal to eat at Mari Carmen’s again, would you do it the same?

  17. “I’m genuinely curious, if you had the meal to eat at Mari Carmen’s again, would you do it the same?” Yes, I would do the exact same thing.

    Actually, living in Asia from 2010-2013, this attitude served me well. Culturally, in a lot of Asian countries, fellow business leaders (particularly clients) want to test your mettle by seeing if you can hold your liquor. As a non-drinker, the best alternative is to show them that you aren’t afraid or too “western” to eat anything put in front of you. I’ve eaten lots of really strange things as an American living abroad to show respect for the culture: camel, donkey, yak, baby octopus, prawn with shells & eyes still, pigeon, chicken feet, etc.

    The Mari Carmen meal was actually really good. I love squid (although she could have removed the beaks which is time consuming). My only objection was that we were so full, but I would still never refuse food from someone who is poor who feels honored to serve you. Later in my mission I ate soup with hair in it in a house infested with lice just so I didn’t offend someone. I would do it again.

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