Last night, when we checked into our hotel well past midnight, I had to ask what town we were in. The night manager laughed, gave me the name of the town and then informed me, just to make sure, that we were in Spain. I laughed knowingly at his joke, but in fact, I'm glad he clarified because we weren't really even sure of that. So, my son Colin, his girlfriend Lindsay, and I, just woke up in Irun, Spain in the heart of Basque Country at the tip of Northeastern Spain, near the French border. And once again, I am in another world.
Several days after the kids arrived we set off to meet our Spanish family in the north of Spain. It began as every trip has since my children were small. As we neared the car, I heard one shout "Shot gun" and the other yell "Road Trip". It doesn't matter where you are, some things never change and I laughed out loud. It just felt so good.
When my children were very young, Alfredo, then a 15 year-old, wide-eyed boy from Madrid, stayed with us for five weeks in the summer as part of an exchange program. He returned to us the 3 subsequent summers and my children thought of him as an older brother. His younger sister, Marta, then came to stay with us for two summers and my boys gained a sister. Carlos, their brother, also visited one summer and stayed with a neighbor of ours. We visited their family in Spain eight years ago and my oldest son spent five weeks with them.
Over the years, as our lives have evolved, the kids have grown up, and both mothers divorced, we have remained family and we all know this will be forever. This is the reason I am such an advocate of exchange programs. It is my belief that if everyone had people they loved in many other countries around the world, perhaps we would stop killing each other.
We spent the weekend together by the sea, eating our way through the paella restaurants of St. Vincent and Comillas, sampling assorted delights in the tapas bars of Santander and Santanilla del Mar, exploring the splendor of the coastal towns, lounging on the beautiful beaches, and all of us reveling in our renewed relationship. Alfredo is now 31 and Marta is 26. Both have grown into handsome, articulate, intelligent and thoroughly wonderful adults and I’m proud to be called their American mama. Their mother, Maria Elena, is delightful and even though we speak not one word of each other’s language, we truly enjoy each other’s company and share our children.
Our 2 days together were brief but as I watched Colin say goodbye to Alredo, I saw him give him a hug and tell him he loved him. To hell with diplomats…this is how international relations should work!
After our weekend together, the kids and I set out for a few more days of travel. Which brings me back to our night’s stay in Irun. We had made one of those travel mistakes that I keep vowing never to do again. We arrived in a town without making a hotel reservation. This is one of my "things" when I travel. I am perfectly happy making the reservation the night before, but I detest getting there and beginning the search. It always causes unnecessary crabbiness and rarely goes well.
So we're in a town that we don't know, it's late and dark and we're starting to get cranky. We've gone around the same roundabout at least 4 times and have received 5 different sets of directions to the same hotel (which we never did find). We've sent poor Lindsay into countless hotels to check out the room situation, because she's the only one that speaks Spanish, and it’s obvious that she's getting tired of it. At one point, after waiting for Lindsay as she made another query, I pulled away from the curb and tried to turn off my hazards lights. They wouldn’t turn off. Colin tried. Still blinking. Lindsay tried. No go. I tried again, tapping the switch repeatedly and successively harder in the same way you hit the enter button on your computer when it's slow and won’t give you information instantly. I tested other buttons with one eye on the road and by the time I was done, my rear windshield wiper was flapping 100 miles an hour with washing fluid squirting up over the car, my front wipers were waving, also squirting water, the air conditioning was blasting and my brights were on. My hazards continued their incessant click, click, blink, blink. and I was unable to turn ANYTHING off. You have two choices at a moment like that and we involuntarily chose the second. We began to laugh…. and laugh…and laugh... the result of pent up frustration, long travel, fatigue, and just the need to laugh. And as we drove and laughed in the little gray Ford Fiesta that had obviously been slipped a Mickey at the gas station, the hazards turned off. Yep. Just turned off. And we found a hotel.
For our return route, we decided to take the back roads as much as possible to do some exploring. And, of course, to avoid the almost 100 Euros in tolls we had to pay to get there! We were intrigued by the Basque culture that permeates the area and wanted to see more so we ventured into the hills. We chose a series of villages we wanted to visit and headed up.
Maps are kind of an ambiguous thing here in France. They may be right, they may be wrong. Many roads are not on the map, and often the numbers are not correct on the map. You might find your way, you might not. So you really depend upon the road signs that are at every crossroads (actually they're not crossroads, they are roundabouts). The sign before the roundabout tells you what your choices are and which branch to take from the circle. Once you get into the circle, there are signs at each exit to remind you which branch goes where but sometimes they are not the same names that you saw on the first sign. And often two different branches of the circle indicate that this is way to the same town. I guess if there are two ways to get there, they want us to know about it. The beauty of the roundabout is you can go round and around and around until you make a decision on which way might be the one you want. This decision-making process involves checking the position of the sun, reading the other signs to find a village close to where you want to go, checking the map again to try to figure out where you really are, throwing your hands up in the air in frustration (this causes the inevitable swerve into someone else’s lane), and the final decision (because you’re now ready to up-chuck), that in our case sounded something like this...."none of these roads go north.... not one of these village names are on the map....why don't we have a decent map..... Look at that beautiful farm...I can't look, I'm trying to stay in my circular flight pattern.... we’ll never get to our hotel by midnight.... oh, hell, I'm taking this one. We're sure to come upon something cool no matter where we end up".
And of course, we did. The Basque Country of the mountains is lush and green and the birds sing like I have never heard. The hills and villages are dotted with white, stucco covered stone houses, all with freshly painted red or deep, deep, navy blue shutters and doors. The gardens and farms are neat and tidy and there is an obvious pride in community here. The Basque people in this area speak Spanish as well as French and their own unique language, Euskara, that is considered one the oldest languages in the world and its origins are a mystery. The words look so strange with lots of x's and z’s. “Zein da zure izena” means what is your name and “Eskerrik asko” means thank you very much. The music on the radio has an odd Celtic sound to it. The men, at least the older ones, really are built like blocks and wear the traditional black beret of the Basques. And we are entranced by this fiercely independent yet charmingly tranquil place that has been added to “places we want to go again”.
Arriving home in Aix en Provence also ended just like our trips used to when the kids were small. Everyone piled out of the car, followed by a trail of garbage, ripped maps, dirty pillows and smelly socks, feeling tired and happy to be home.
And once again, I returned a car to the rental agency, covered in breadcrumbs and smelling faintly like Camembert.