As our children have grown, one thing that my wife and I have always held as a high priority, is to never miss our childrens’ birthday celebrations. I’ve had to travel for work and not been home on the actual day occasionally, but we always have a birthday celebration.
When the kids were small, Mary’s unique and special design talents always lent themselves for the most interesting conceptual parties, ranging from Diner parties (where we often solicited the help of older teen cousins to act as waitresses) to Train parties (a ride on the Erie Lackawanna with lunch at the train station restaurant) to Wild West parties (where the “Cowboy” kids chased and caught “Bad Guy” dads with the help of my brother and sister-in-law, who happened to be husband and wife Cowboy Action Shooting Competitors with long coats, holster, boots and badges).
Then as they grew into their teens and college years, group parties gave way to more family style celebrations, and out to dinner with selected friends. But even when they went to college, we always managed to make the drives to Lancaster, PA or Baltimore to have dinner with them on their special day.
So when our daughter decided on a semester abroad, to study at the University of Alcala de Henares, outside of Madrid, we realized that this would pose a dilemma for us. She would be in Spain on her birthday this year, could we somehow manage to be there for her? A quick look at my Airline and Hotel Miles which I had amassed over the last several years showed me that we had the opportunity to get plane tickets and hotels for most of our nights with no out of pocket cost, so we decided that this was NOT going to be the year that we missed a child’s birthday…
So we figured out a way to get to Spain, and even have a couple of days to visit Barcelona before going to Madrid, and the sites we saw there were what set the stage for our weekend with my Princess. We arrived in Barcelona after a long overnight flight through Zurich, Switzerland, and jumped right into sightseeing that night in the Gothic District, thanks to notes and maps that Annie had prepared for us prior to our departure. She had visited previously and marked all the bus routes and made list of the best places to see.
The real adventure for me was the next morning, when we visited Barcelona by day. Our first stop was the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, commonly known as the Sagrada Família. This is a large Roman Catholic church that has been under construction since 1882, mostly completing the vision of the Archictect Antoni Gaudi. It has been one of those “bucket list” items, and it was an amazing experience. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I’ll simply share one view from within.
I’m not going to make this post a travelogue, but I wanted to set the stage for the feeling that was going through my head and heart for the rest of the trip.
We visited many different places in Barca, before taking a train to Madrid to finally see our Princess! She met us at the train station, and led us off on our adventure to Alcala de Henares, where she had been living for the last three months and studying at the University. We were met at the local station in Alcala by Annie’s host parents, Angel and Susanna, who greeted us with the typical kisses and hugs of European culture, but I could feel from the smiles and strength of the hugs, that through Annie, they already saw us as extended family. They drove us to our hotel to check in, and then let us off at the central square of Alcala, so we could walk around for a while. Annie showed us where she had been studying and shared stories of her experiences there.
We finished our evening with the twenty minute walk from campus back to her host family’s house, where we met the whole crew. Angel and Susanna have two daughters, one Annie’s age, and one a year younger. They also have a menagerie of two dogs (both of which uncannily resemble our own dog), and at least two cats.
From this point forward, and for the next three nights, the sightseeing took a back seat to the gracious hospitality that we received as extended members of their family. They would not let us take a cab back and forth to our hotel, and even at 1:30 in the morning, Angel insisted on driving us back. Marina and Celia were truly like sisters to Annie, and even reminded us of two of Annie’s cousins, who share a close love and friendship well beyond the family ties.
Susanna and Angel shared their home with us, preparing meals all three nights, and we spent every evening sitting in their living room, sharing stories (Susanna wouldn’t even let us bring anything to the table, just saying “bring historias”) and singing songs, ranging from Beatles, to Springsteen, to more Spanish fare like “La Bamba”, all delivered with gusto and laughter. To overcome the language barriers (Angel & Susanna spoke little English, about as much as I speak Spanish), Annie spent the evenings translating. We jokingly referred to this experience as her real “final exam”. To top the weekend off, at midnight, Angel and Susanna were the first to sing Happy Birthday to our daughter, with a beautiful Spanish song, accompanied on their guitar. The next night was Annie’s birthday, and they prepared a cake for her, but Susanna insisted that Mary come into the kitchen and carry the cake in for Annie. The were both teary-eyed as they carried it into the room, while we all sang the traditional “Happy Birthday” as well as their Spanish birthday song.
We toasted often, and laughed a lot during this weekend, and when it came to an end, we left for our hotel and the morning flight home. Angel felt bad that he had to work on Monday, and could not bring us to the airport (after having shuttled us everywhere for the last couple of nights). Mary and I truly felt like we were departing from a long and memorable family weekend.
I think that most beautiful experience of our time in Spain was the simple, loving smiles and heart-felt laughter that they shared with us. It was obvious that our daughter was in a happy, caring home, and that gave us a warm feeling, that coalesced with the feelings I experienced in that cathedral in Barcelona. She had lived for the last three months with her own “Sagrada familia”. That is the only term with which I can describe the grace and love that abounds in their home. Sacred spaces don’t always have to be lofty cathedrals. A table set with care, and a meal shared with strangers, and the joy of sharing cultures and family history, all are sacred moments.
So I wrote this as a simple thanks to Angel, Susanna, Celia, Marina for their presence in our daughter’s life over the last months, and a thanks to God for having placed our daughter in the care of one of His “Sagrada familias”…