I was 22 years old when I first came to Spain. It was the middle of a 10-week tour with the Antioch College Chorus and my first time in Europe. We had been singing and wine-tasting for a month in Amsterdam, Belgium and France and we had a two-week break in the middle on our own before reuniting in Venice. A student named Lexi said he was going to Spain where a friend of his had a house we could use on an island and the free house, the beach and the chance to use my high-school Spanish for the first time was enough to entice me. So Lexi, Bruce, Susanne and I boarded a train in Southern France to begin the trek to Spain.
And here the adventure began. Europe was everything a 22-year-old hoped for, that romantic pilgrimage primed by books and movies my entire childhood. It was fine sharing it with some 35 other people, but now to be really out on our own was the next rite of passage. At one of the train stops, the boys decided to get off and look for a place to pee (don’t ask me why we didn’t use the train bathroom!) and when we returned, the train had left! With Susanne and all our bags on the train! This long, long before cell phones and texts and such. What to do? We boarded the next train and hoped she would get off at the next station to wait for us. As the train slowed down, we kept our eyes peeled, and sure enough, there she was with 8 bags and a worried look on her face. And then great joy to see us! Ah, youth!
We spent the night at a youth hostel in some town and then decided to split up and hitchhike the rest of the way. Bruce and I made a cardboard sign, “España” and off we went. In fact, I turned 22 on that day, picking blackberries by the side of the road and thumbing our way south. Until the cars stopped stopping for us and we decided to spring for another train ticket. Ended up in a car with another American named Janice whose high school Spanish was at about the same level as mine. The two of us tried to talk with our first Spaniard, Felipe, who took us to the club car to celebrate my birthday. This was 1973 and Franco was still in power, so in our broken Spanish, I remember some discreet talk of politics.
We arrived in Barcelona at midnight and Bruce, Janice and I roamed the streets looking for a pension. Everywhere we knocked, the answer was “completo”—no room at the Inn. I started improvising a calypso song “Completo, complete, todo está completo…” to lighten our mood, but by 1 am, we were getting a bit desparate. Someone noticed our plight and motioned for us to follow. We left Las Ramblas for one of the twisty side streets and arrived at a small hotel that had small windowless rooms. Some 25 years later, I looked for that hotel again in Barcelona and discovered that it had been a place where rooms were rented by the hour by prostitutes!
The next day, Bruce, Janice and I set out to see if Susanne and Lexi arrived and went to the agreed-upon-before-cell-phones-site of the American Express office. And lo and behold, it worked! Off we went to the market, teeming with activity and filled with artfully arranged piles of fruit and nuts and vegetables and such, bought enough for a picnic lunch and found our way to the top of the small mountain Tibidabo. There we feasted on cheese and bread and figs and fruit and wine in a little park, sitting on top of the world so happy and content, five young adventurers in love with life. There was a little amusement park nearby and I remember going on the bumper cars like we were little kids again.
We descended and bought tickets for the island of Formentera, part of the island chain that includes the larger and more well-known Mallorca. Janice was almost persuaded to join us, but decided to go ahead with her original plan. It could have been my “Before Sunrise” moment with her, but I was inexperienced in such things and the Fates had other plans. She saw us off at the boat, where we took part in a ritual farewell of tossing down a roll of toilet paper to someone below, who held it to complete the connection. An older woman picked up mine and the game was to keep the thread unbroken as long as possible when the boat started to move. Not a game for ecology buffs, but a memorable and festive ceremonial moment as those embarking on a voyage and those staying back where connected with criss-crossing rolls of paper. Mine finally broke and off I went on my first little sea voyage, with all the romance that implied.
I seem to remember Bruce drinking too much and getting seasick in our tiny room, which was anything but romantic. But I stood on the deck under the canopy of stars and was thoroughly enchanted by the wonder of it all. I think Chopin was playing in the distance to complete the picture and in that moment, I couldn’t have imagined anywhere else I would rather have been.
Upon landing in Formentera, a rather desert-like island with few towns and some scattered German tourists, we set off to find Pepe’s bar, where the key to Lexi’s friend’s house theoretically was. We found Young Pepe and tried to explain things in our broken Spanish, but the gist of it was that he didn’t know what the heck we were talking about. Now what? There were a few hours of back and forth and finally we went to Pepe’s father’s house and Lexi managed to say something that rang a bell and the elder Pepe returned with a key.
And so we stayed some four days in a simple small house with no electricity, walking down the path to buy a few local groceries, exploring the island on foot and by bicycle (including a trip to the lighthouse which you can see in the movie Sex and Lucia which was filmed there). I remember a nude swim in the Mediterranean by moon-light, doing yoga accompanied by early morning roosters, late-night card games around candlelight. And my missed moment with Janice grew into a found moment with Susanne. Ah, youth!
It was an auspicious introduction to Spain, a place I returned to again in 1990 and then again almost every year these past 26 years. As mostly vegetarian, the food doesn’t call me, I’m not a fan of bullfights and there is a pretty brutal history (though no more so than England’s or U.S.A.’s) to deal with. But there is a reason that three jazz songs (Back In your Own Backyard; My Romance; Far Away Places) invoked “castles in Spain” as the symbol of romance and adventure and the good life. There is a vibrant musical culture here and the social intelligence of kissing strangers hello and three-hour meals in outdoor restaurants with children still running around the Plaza at midnight is something to both enjoy and admire. Not to mention gazpacho, pimientos de padrón, papas bravas, calamari and clara beer.
And now I’m back in Spain teaching at the Escorial outside of Madrid. 43 years since I landed in Formentera and yes, that sweet bird of youth has flown away and I feel the lion’s paw of devouring time scraping the ground more than I’d like to admit. But it’s a joy of another sorts to teach three classes today and within minutes, awaken warmth and laughter and spirited music in strangers who quickly become familiar. As much as I miss the excitement of the yet-to-be, I also appreciate the contentment of the learned-that, especially a “that” that still brings another kind of surprise and mystery into the classes I’m fortunate enough to teach. In short, my “castle in Spain” is wherever I get to teach.
And sometimes it’s in a castle in Spain.