Looking back on my college days, I am fairly certain I dreamed of backpacking through Europe like many other kids. The romance of the backpack. The freedom of the Eurail pass. The opportunity to use the grammar and vocabulary I’d memorized in Mrs. Gonzalez’ Spanish 3 class. The chance to truly experience the food. The promise of adventure.
What happened to this dream, this sueño? I’ll tell you. I graduated. I took on jobs as a substitute teacher, a research assistant, and a waitress. I began making life-plans with my soon-to-be-husband and then-to-be father of our two beautiful children. Odd jobs turned into a full-time job. Parenting took up all my free time. Two week paid vacations were spent organizing closets (sigh) and spending time with family.
Fast forward 21 years. I was sitting in the pediatrician office while my 15-year-old got her sports physical for dance. Turning the pages of Parents Magazine, I learned how to sneak vegetables into my child’s diet. I studied details on how to pick a family car. When I looked up and saw a Mommy and toddler playing with the trains, it hit me. This is not “me” anymore. These are no longer my worries. I have a daughter who is about to graduate from college and another who will soon have her driver’s license. “Mommy” is about to become an independent woman for the first time in over two decades.
Closing the magazine along with its helpful advice, I decided it was time to be bold. Rather than allow the sadness of saying goodbye to my daughters’ childhoods creep up on me, I decided to focus on coming up with an adventure. My own adventure. Something small enough that I wouldn’t disrupt my job or our still busy family life, but big enough that I would feel independent, fulfilled, and ready for the “what’s next.”
I spent the following month weighing my options. With the support and encouragement of my husband and daughters, I decided on a trip to Spain. I set some personal goals. My trip would be solo. I would take Spanish classes to refresh the language I’d nearly forgotten. I would be more than a tourist. I would meet people, take cooking and language classes, learn about olive oil, and experience mystical sites like the Alhambra and Mezquita de Cordoba.
After a year of planning and studying, my trip plans looked good – possibly a bit overzealous. My Spanish … well, it had come a long way, floating somewhere between beginner and intermediate.
Two weeks before my trip, I made the pilgrimage to our local sporting goods store to pick out my “pack.” Turns out, even a forty-plus Mommy can feel cool while buying her first backpack for her first big personal adventure.
Once home with my new travel buddy, I discovered that I would need to pack even lighter than I’d originally imagined. My pack list whittled down to a few t-shirts (2 white and 1 navy Tapered Collection Tee), two pairs of jeans, two light sundresses, pretty sandals, sturdy walking shoes, and a few scarves (to mix-up my look without adding laundry).
When I finally set off, the nerves hit. Waves of panic ran through my head with flashing signs that read, “How will your family survive?” “What if you get mugged and thrown in a river?” When did the dreamy “I’m going to Spain this summer” turn into the very real “I’m leaving right now!”?
Madrid set me straight. I was gifted precious time with my new sister-in-law. It was our first time together, so staying up late sharing stories was the top priority. Over the next two days, I was treated to a Madrileña’s view of her city. She whisked me through Spain’s greatest plazas; past massive museums, monuments, and statues (lots of men on horses); sat me down in one of Madrid’s oldest tapas bars for chicharrones (fried pigs ears); and ushered me in front of a “bomba” (a cream-filled pastry) at La Mallorquina -- “the best” pastry shop in Madrid. Amidst touring, she taught me how to navigate the grocery store, the bank, and trains and buses. I am forever grateful. After three days in her care, I set out solo, to Toledo. Over the following two weeks, city by city, I discovered Andalusia.
In Toledo, I met up with the Spanish teachers of Aula Toledo, who I’d been Skyping with for the months leading up to my trip. At a favorite restaurant, we enjoyed lomo de orza, carcamusas Toledana, and tinto de verano (a typical southern wine cooler) followed by a meandering walk to find the city’s El Grecos. Along the way, I heard stories of the city’s history, legends, and superstitions. As well, I got a feel for the architecture, frescos, and stunning patios. Perhaps most memorable, were the breathtaking vistas from the top floor of a library and a hill on the outskirts of town.
My Spanish improved with each passing day. Traveling alone forced me to communicate with others to get directions (getting lost was half the fun) and engage in conversations with people I met in classes, tours, and shops. One evening, while enjoying cerveza and a flamenco guitarist, I befriended two boisterous women from Central America who were traveling with their families. After learning about my big adventure, they decided I needed to add “learning Flamenco” to my bucket list. Nervous at first, I quickly committed to just letting go and having fun. We danced Flamenco in Sevilla’s Casco Antiguo bars until 2:00 a.m.
When it came to olive oil and cooking classes, Spain did not disappoint. A tour of Cortijo Espiritu Santo, a rural olive oil making facility in Ubeda, showed me the beauty of a Spanish family working together. Owner María Molero Villar taught me how they achieve incredible flavors using extraction by centrifuge (a technique that’s even more modern than cold press). We walked her property and soaked in the panoramic views of Ubeda’s mar de olivos (sea of olive orchards).
In my cooking classes, I met amazing chefs, including Manuela Monsalve, a celebrated Sabiote chef who is famous for her tapas. I learned to focus on technique, minimal spices, and simple combinations of ingredients to create typical Spanish tapas, soups, stews, tortillas, and paellas. I appreciated learning how to properly handle ingredients to bring out the best flavors, like removing the little green sprout inside garlic cloves to prevent bitterness in raw soups like Gazpacho and Salmorejo.
The sights, sounds, and tastes of Spain dominated my experience. Wandering through each city on foot, I saw Spain’s regular and spectacular alike. From apartment buildings and busy shopping districts to cathedrals, hillside castles, palaces, and mosques. The moments that I had dreamed would be magical, like seeing an El Greco for the first time, touring Granada’s Alhambra by starlight, or walking amidst the arches of Cordoba’s Mezquita, were more than that – each was intense, spiritual, and beautiful.
Back home, weeks later, my newly licensed 16-year-old talks me into accompanying her to the orthodontist so she won’t have to go alone (turns out the transition to independence happens in baby steps). As I wait, I pick up Parents Magazine. I laugh a little as I recall my previous waiting room epiphany.
I expertly flip the pages. Turns out, a lot has happened in parenting in just one year. The writers advise that I firmly hold my small child’s leg while using the EpiPen (lest he need stitches); that to avoid dehydration, I should download an app to remind me to drink throughout the day; and, most excitingly, that there is a new app I can use whenever I need to text a real-live counselor who is “trained” to help me with any 911-Mommy moment that might arise.
I close the magazine and smile. This time, I know for sure. This isn’t ME anymore. In just one year, a lot has happed in my life as well and I’m ready for what’s next.