Unfamiliar Territory

When I was four years old, my family moved from San Francisco to Spain. I had my fifth birthday in a Madrid hotel. We moved into a house north of the city, and almost right away I found myself in an English-speaking school. It was technically British, but it hosted children from dozens of countries. I didn’t know any of them and walked around the playground during “break” (recess) whispering to myself, over and over, “I gotta bring a snack,” as I watched the others munching away. Back in Miss Thompson's basement, my classmates all had fancy pencil cases. I didn’t. I figured I had to have one of those, too.

In those dusty days, Franco was in charge, sheep still had the right of way in downtown Madrid, and stationery stores were dream palaces. Fresh new notebooks, bottles of French ink, German pencil sharpeners and erasers—and, of course, pencil cases—were stacked high to the ceiling. I still remember that smell — fresh paper, full of promise, shiny covers newly printed. The shop owner stood behind the counter like Mr. Ollivander, the wand maker, and you had to ask for what you wanted. My mother’s Spanish was still rudimentary, but I could point, and I did. I got my pink and green pencil case. I cradled it all the way home, like a passport or a wallet. It was my key to belonging (now that Mum and I had ironed out the break-time snack).

Drawing of a mother and daughter inside a stationery store