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Spain: The Trip That Made Me A Traveler

Updated: May 3, 2021

I remember the exact moment I realized that being a traveler was a choice. Travel didn’t need be a fluke, a happy accident, a thing that just happened to me. It wouldn’t be a thing I waited and hoped for. It was a lifestyle I could choose. It was a thing I could achieve.

This revelation changed my life. But it came quietly.

I was sitting with my friend Sara’s father around the family’s kitchen table in a small town in the province of Orense, in the northwestern part of Spain, in a region known as Galicia. It’s lush, green place that has more in common with the countryside of Ireland than the sunbaked plains of southern Spain. In fact, Galicia is considered the seventh Celtic nation.

The veil between spirit and earth was gossamer thin for the ancient Celts, Galicia’s forests and mountains were sacred to the people who lived here for centuries. This is a place of Druids and witches, of protection spells and whispered magic.

Galicia is a proud place with a distinct cultural identity and its own language, Gallego, which is full of baffling x’s and sounds similar to Portuguese. It’s a place of broad beaches, little hillside towns and craggy Atlantic Ocean cliffs that the Romans considered the end of the known world. It’s a place of mountain rains and sea salt air. It’s best known for the Camino de Santiago, a network of trails marked by scallop shells that has directed pilgrims from all over the world to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia’s most famous city.

I was seventeen years old when I saw Galicia (and much of central and western Spain) for the first time. This is why I was sitting around the Gonzalez family table with my friend’s father, Miguel, instead of mowing lawns, waiting tables or nannying back home. His whip-smart, smart-mouthed middle daughter had landed in our tiny school in rural Minnesota and we’d loved her at first sight.

And now her year was up and here we were. Carrie, Liz and myself, three blue-eyed, blonde haired girls from the other side of the planet, had commandeered his comfortable flat, our clunky combat boots and hiking shoes piled in the entryway with his daughters’ sandals and our beach sarongs drying on the shower rod in some kind of reverse exchange program.

Three blondes attracted a fair amount of male attention in Spain, which is odd, since we saw plenty of other blondes strolling across the plazas. Maybe we were just Nordic enough to warrant a second look. Maybe three blondes are more eye-catching than one. Or, perhaps most importantly, we were still young enough to be unpracticed at pulling on the cloak of invisibility a woman needs to navigate the city streets (any city’s streets) with confidence. A fleeting glance or a physical flinch (no matter how brief or how small) are considered unqualified wins for catcallers all over the world. We were still naive enough to show the chinks in our armor. We decided to reclaim what men yelled at us and make it our own.

We were just ourselves back home. But in Spain, we were las rubias, the blondes. Sara’s immediate family and a bevy of chic women and jolly men, friends and aunts and uncles and cousins that we met over wine-fueled dinners and on sunbaked city strolls — took to the joint nickname. It’s what Sara still calls us, even though Carrie and I have long since reverted to our natural brunette states, leaving Liz as the only rubia in the bunch.

The view of Castile-La Mancha. (All the photos in this post are from our first trip to Spain.

I don’t think I would have made it to Spain if the other rubias weren’t on my side, if we weren’t counting on each other and planning our escape together. Make no mistake, we all wanted to go. We weren’t quite sure how to do that, precisely. I called my aunt Mary, who was then a travel agent, and asked how much a flight would cost. If booking flights online was a thing in 1998, I didn’t know about it. And my parents’ super slow, rural Minnesota dial-up Internet connection probably wouldn’t have allowed it anyway.

Finals week, Carrie’s high school graduation and Sara’s departure came and went. Our parents remained worried and noncommittal. One night, my aunt called me in the tiny dorm room where I was living while I apprenticed during a season of regional summer stock theatre at a nearby university. “Flights to Madrid are getting more expensive every day,” she said. I coiled the phone cord around my fingers, which were spattered with yellow paint and caked with sawdust from an evening in the scene shop. “If you’re going to book, you have to book now.”

So we did. We picked a day far enough away that we could get our passports. We quit asking our parents if we could go and told them we were going. We were stunned when they didn’t stop us. (The non-refundable tickets might have had something to do with that. Our parents are all quite practical people.)

Our long months of mowing lawns, making fries, changing diapers and filling up endless cups of coffee in small town cafes were magically transformed into the tantalizing promise of a journey. That’s a feeling I never get tired of. We started making plans.

We spent August in Spain, housesitting for Sara’s grandmother in Madrid during the dog days of summer when Spaniards flee the city for cooler spots on the coast or their own adventures abroad. We drank wine and Coke with Australians and Brits in the Plaza Mayor. They marveled that we’d never been to Europe. We couldn’t believe that, as city dwellers, they’d never really seen the stars. We traveled south to the plateaus of Castile-La Mancha, a windswept landscape made famous in Don Quixote, and north to Castile and León, a place with more castles, cathedrals and UNESCO protected historical assets than anywhere else in the world.

We bought intricate gold bracelets and swords in Toldeo, breezy skirts and matching bikinis for the beach in Vigo and handsomely carved crosses in a monastery gift shop. I roasted in the sun seats at my first bullfight, saw my first Picasso, my first El Greco, my first Miro, and slept off my first hangover facedown on a beach towel while the Atlantic lapped the shore. I stood and stared at a Roman aqueduct that was over 2,000 years old, easily the oldest thing I’d ever seen in person. I wrapped my arms around the waist of a gorgeous boy, all shaggy hair and sleepy eyes, as we sped off on his motorbike. I learned how to raise a toast, how to get into the VIP section in a club and how to navigate the train stations and figure out which bus to take.

Typical family life in Galicia held quieter marvels. Milk pasteurized at ultra high temperatures needed no refrigeration and was kept on the counter. Sara’s aunts and uncles poured us wine at dinner and no one blinked an eye when we bought wine to take home, even though we couldn’t legally drink there for four more years. Despite the roasting heat, Sara’s apartment had no air conditioning, something considered a necessity back home, even though the Minnesota humidity rarely makes the heat unbearable for more than a few days and winters are icebox cold. I asked Miguel why.

“We do not spend money on air conditioning because it is not important to us,” he replied, meeting my eyes and speaking Spanish in same slow, patient way he repeated the Spanish words for “shade” and “stone” until they finally stuck. Miguel did not (and still doesn’t) speak much English. “We do not need air conditioning. But we need to travel.”

And travel they did. Sara told us endless stories of family escapes in their “camper van” trips to beach, to the mountains, of flights and trains and buses. She had loved exploring new places so much leapt headlong into two semesters in America, while her sister was studying abroad in France during our visit. They were both proficient in their second languages years before we started studying Spanish.

As I listened to her stories, I was jealous. And I was baffled. My family took a lot of road trips when I was little, so I’d seen a more than my fair share of states, The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and lots of deservedly famous American landmarks. And because my dad is a farmer (and has winters off) and because my parents are incredibly frugal (we finally convinced them to replace their wedding towels when I was in college), I’d been lucky enough to cruise across the border to Canada and Mexico back in the days when you didn’t need a passport or an I.D. card. I’d even been on a cruise to the Bahamas when I was a dorky preteen with a bowl cut that my hairstylist cousin eventually forbade my mom to request, for which I will be forever grateful.

But we rarely flew. And traveling outside of North America was unthinkable. That kind of travel was for rich people. It was for people that weren’t like us. Yet Sara’s family seemed an awful lot of like us. And their comfortable apartment similar to our middle class homes back in the States.

Sara’s family eagerly asked where we wanted to go next, a question nobody had ever asked me before. I hadn’t even thought to ask myself. Back home, our families, many of our friends and neighbors had greeted the prospect of international travel with confusion — and even alarm. “It’s just not necessary,” I remember being told. The litany of fretting just kept getting louder. It’s just not realistic. It’s expensive. It’s dangerous for girls. That just isn’t something people do.

Except, I suddenly realized, it is something people do. I’d just been talking to the wrong people.

In fact, it was something we had all just done. We were lazing around this apartment on another continent on a hot August afternoon because we had bought out own flights, secured our first passports, navigated our connections and handled ourselves reasonably well in another language. We hadn’t just done it. We were doing it.

I decided to keep going.

That was it. That was the moment I decided to be a traveler. That was the moment I decided that this trip didn’t have to be the one rare adventure I had before I settled into a life like everybody else’s. I could travel. I could explore. I could just make a plan and go. That mysterious pull has shaped my life ever since.

A cup from the Monastery of Xagoaza sits on a shelf in my office. As we hiked to this spot along the Camino de Santiago on one of those hot August days, I was struck by the notion that I was starting a pilgrimage of my own in the very place where thousands of other pilgrims had walked. I never did learn to pronounce the name of this place properly. Although my Spanish is much better, my Gallego remains just as stumbling and terrible as it was when Miguel gave me the small, brown earthenware cup half a lifetime ago.

But I did learn to travel. So now that cup is full of money from all over the world. There are a few pence from a holiday trip to the U.K. in college and a handful of yen I forget to spend in Japan. Canadian Loonies and Toonies (by far my favorite currency terms) sit on top of a pile of Mexican pesos. I run my fingers over the wavy-edged 10 cent piece marked with fish and flamingos from The Commonweath of the Bahamas and a flat, heavy coin from Haiti, an unintended but much appreciated souvenir from The Dominican Republic.

Back in Galicia all those years ago, Sara taught us to wrap and twist embroidery thread into necklaces. I’m glad I slipped mine through the center of the pretty 25 peseta coin. I would go back to Spain again (twice more and counting), but not before the country switched to the Euro.

We used Euros when we went back with with our husbands and tow to explore the south of Spain and meet Sara’s boyfriend, Pablo. Derrick and I went back a few years later to celebrate their wedding in the ancestral village Pablo and Sara’s mother share, stuffing ourselves with endless courses, including Galicia’s signature pulpo a la gallega (boiled octopus with paprika, salt and olive oil) and dancing for hours. The wedding was at noon. We were still dancing at midnight when we were called outside.

We gathered around a cauldron in the land of the witches, chanting Celtic spells to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune to the couple and everyone who accepted a glass of queimada (which literally means “burn), the fiery, potent, definitely alcoholic punch which was being carefully ladled into glasses and placed into our outstretched hands.

We stood shoulder to shoulder, the bride in white, grinning up at her groom, surrounded by generations who had known them all their lives and newcomers like us, who they met along the way. Sara’s dad threw one arm around my husband and the other around her uncle. Miguel doesn’t speak English and Derrick doesn’t speak Spanish, yet all three discussed their drinks with interest and laughed as we raised toast after toast to the happy couple.

The flame burned blue. Our eyes were alight. We were at home on the other side of the world.

If that wasn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

What about you? What trip made you a traveler and why? What vacation memory still sticks with you? What places have you revisited?

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