During my final year of work, as I planned for retirement, I imagined that Barbara and I would do some travelling. A few years earlier, for instance, we had the opportunity to travel to Italy, Greece, and Turkey, a 13-day cruise that we thoroughly enjoyed. Thus, I began to think about other countries I’d like to visit. I thought about Israel because I would like to walk where Jesus walked, and I thought about Ireland because having already explored the Italian half of my heritage, I also want to explore the Irish half. Unfortunately, the current COVID 19 situation and quarantine have effectively postponed all those thoughts and adventures for a while. Fortunately, I was able to visit Spain recently for three weeks with my daughter Maria.
“But that’s impossible,” you’re thinking. And you’re absolutely right. There’s no way I was able to travel to Spain under the circumstances. And if you know me or if you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know that our daughter Maria passed away five years ago at age 30 after a short battle with cancer. However, I was able to vicariously travel to Spain with Maria because she went there in 2008 when she was a senior in college, and she left behind the journal she kept during that unique experience. I finally read that journal recently. Let me tell you about our journey.
Before I begin, though, you may wonder why I waited five years to read that journal. Honestly, I think I was overwhelmed by everything that Maria left behind. Let’s face the truth; no one expects a 30-year-old to die, so when it happens, life slows down, and the number of tasks accumulates. We had to empty out her apartment and deal with all of her furniture, her clothes, and her possessions while also dealing with the emptiness in our hearts and in our family gatherings. The journey is long and painful. On top of that, Maria kept quite a few journals during her lifetime, so as we sorted through her belongings, we set all of those journals aside, along with all of her photographs, with the idea that at some point, we would go through them. That time has come.
As a writer myself, I feel I should also explain that Maria and I share one common quality regarding our writing: inconsistency. We don’t write every single day. Instead, we write sporadically as time permits, or we write during certain periods of life that are special or unique. This three-week overseas trip for Maria was obviously a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the trip and the accompanying journal were also requirements for school, tasks that she needed to complete if she wanted to graduate. In addition, she needed to write at least half of her journal in Spanish. So, if you were to browse through the pages of that journal, you would see not only the blue and black ink of Maria’s pens but also the red ink of her professor who would periodically read the journal and point out Maria’s incorrect verb tenses or Spanish vocabulary while also commenting on Maria’s observations about Spanish culture. Are you ready for takeoff? Let’s go.
Maria and her fellow adventurers flew out of JFK Airport in New York City on Monday May 19th, 2008, two days after her graduation ceremony. This three-credit experience would serve as their final academic task prior to receiving their official diplomas. After a six-hour flight to Madrid, the students and leaders switched planes and flew for an additional hour to the town of Sevilla, which is in southern Spain, about 120 miles north of Gibraltar and the Alboran Sea which separates Spain from Morocco.
After their plane touched down in Sevilla, the tour guides met the students and escorted them to a hotel where they ate lunch and took a nap. On that first day, Maria recorded the food she ate (a veggie wrap with chicken and French fries for lunch with a vegetable lasagna for dinner) and her activities: a guided tour of the city during the afternoon and an informal walk with friends through Sevilla that night. Having grown up in the quiet suburban town of Clifton Park, New York, Maria seemed fascinated by the fact that an “evening in Spain doesn’t start until 8:00 p.m.”
The next day, Maria and her classmates left the hotel and moved in with local host families for a 10-day stay in Sevilla, a city of 700,000 (roughly the same population as Washington, DC or Boston). Maria lived with three other American girls in this Spanish home, and she loved it. In fact, near the end of her stay with the family, she had to write an essay about the benefits of studying abroad, and Maria highlighted the following: “You can try new food, you can practice or learn a new language. While adjusting to a new culture and stepping out of your comfort zone can be difficult, it is well worth it.” Later, near the end of her stay there, she added: “I enjoyed living with my host mom and getting to know the city. It is so great how families just let you stay with them.”
During their time in Sevilla, the students had daily classes which were a combination of actual classes about Spain, its history and culture, along with tours of various locations. For example, they visited The Cathedral of Saint Mary, one of the largest churches in the world, and they visited the Museum of Fine Arts which has paintings from the medieval period to the early 20th century.
On one particular day, the group made a day trip to Córdoba, which is about 90 miles northeast of Sevilla. There, Maria saw the ruins of a Roman bridge over the Guadalquivir River; she saw the Great Mosque of Córdoba, a mosque so big that a Christian church was later built inside the mosque; and she visited the old, Jewish neighborhood, a visit that prompted her to write, “It’s neat how they [the Jews] were able to coexist with the Muslims and Christians and share ideas.”
The students also enjoyed Spanish culture firsthand. One experience was a day at the bullfights, and, quite honestly, I was surprised that Maria didn’t write anything about the bullfights. Instead, she was much more impressed by a later visit to a workshop where a craftsman made guitars and by a demonstration of flamenco dancing with singers and guitarists. She described the dancing as “fantastica.” She was especially intrigued by the storytelling aspect of the dance. She was so intrigued, in fact, that in her journal, she wrote that she enjoyed the paintings of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida because he often used bright colors to demonstrate this aspect of the culture. Overall, Maria thoroughly enjoyed her time in Sevilla, and she especially enjoyed her time with her host family. To remember that portion of her trip, she purchased a tote bag with the name “Sevilla” inscribed on the side.
During the next portion of the tour, Maria’s group traveled southeast and spent four nights (Thursday through Sunday) in Nerja, which is part of the Costa del Sol [Coast of the Sun] near the Mediterranean Sea, about 160 miles from Sevilla. They slept in a hostel, and their long weekend in this area was less active and much more relaxed than their previous stay in Sevilla. Yes, they toured a nearby cathedral, but they also spent parts of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the beach. Our fair-skinned Maria didn’t go into the water each day, but she enjoyed resting on the sand with her friends, experiencing new things, and making observations.
One day, for instance, she tasted yucca for the first time at lunch, and she described it as a “potato” or “thicker French fries.” She also seemed mildly surprised that some bathers did not wear swimsuits. Finally, she mentioned that on one of her walks to the beach, she and her friend got lost, but a local woman helped them. Writing about that experience later and also about a shopping trip one night, Maria noted that the people near the water seemed more friendly and more helpful than the people farther away from the coast.
Their next destination was Granada, which is back inland to the northeast, and, again, they stayed in a hostel. Unfortunately, Maria wasn’t feeling well that first day because she had become dehydrated. By evening, though, she felt better, and they toured the city and went to a spot where they had a beautiful view of the Alhambra, which was originally constructed as a fortress and later converted to a royal palace. In her journal, Maria seemed fascinated by the gypsies who lived in the area in “simple, small caves” and were “very often flamenco dancers.”
On another day, they visited the house of Ana and learned how to make tortillas Espanoles, which Maria described as “delicious.” Ana also taught them how to clap as a way to accompany the different rhythms of Spanish dances. Maria really enjoyed watching Ana dance and experiencing the emotions of the dance’s story.
On Thursday June 5, the group rose at 5:00 a.m. in order to catch a 6:40 train from Granada to Madrid. When they arrived, they had lunch, and Maria enjoyed “arroz con leche,” which she described as “very typical” for Spain and “very good.”
After lunch, they walked around and saw the Plaza de Espana, a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and the Palacio Real, which used to be the King’s residence but is now used for office workers. Maria thought the building was “beautiful” and was hoping to tour the inside, but it was closed when they were there.
On Friday June 6, they visited the Prado, Spain’s national art museum, and Maria saw works by Velezquez and Goya among others. After lunch, Maria returned to the Palacio Real, again hoping to get inside, but something official was happening, so she couldn’t. She was “muy triste” [very sad]. At that point, she decided to walk to the subway to go back to the hotel, but she got lost. Fortunately, this gave her an opportunity to use her Spanish to ask for directions. Later that evening, she went to the theater to see La Bella y La Bestia [Beauty and the Beast] which she thoroughly enjoyed.
At the end of her journal, Maria wrote: “It was a good ending to an eventful, amazing viaje [trip] and learning experience.”
Then, she also wrote a final note to her teacher. “Thank you for everything. MUCHAS GRACIAS.”
In response, her teacher wrote in red ink: “Gracias tambien por tus contribuciones a la experiencia!” [“Thank you also for your contributions to the experience.”] Her teacher also gave her a final grade of 91 on the journal project.
As I was reading this journal, I began to really appreciate the fact that Maria recorded so many of her experiences and her thoughts in this volume and others. I also found myself wanting to know more about the cities and the specific landmarks she toured. Consequently, I have added Spain to the list of countries I want to visit. Yes, I want to walk where Maria walked.