Chapter 1

Spanish Conquistador —
How My Husband
Conquered My Heart

“Our happiest moments as tourists always
seem to come when we stumble upon one thing
while in pursuit of something else.”

—Lawrence Block

I double majored in college. I started out as a history major with a concentration in Latin American studies, and then two years in, I added Spanish as a second major. I loved the Spanish language ever since I was in elementary school.

My parents divorced when I was thirteen, so we left our rural North Carolina house and moved into Statesville City into an apartment. Two of our neighbors were Latino families—from Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. I would listen to them speak Spanish and I desperately wanted to know what they were saying. Add to that all of our family trips to New York in the summers and again listening to the barrage of Spanish being spoken, and it made me crazy ready to learn the language.

In the summers after my freshman and sophomore years in college, I went with a group of students to Quito, Ecuador, but that was not enough to cement my fluency in the language. So my fall semester of my senior year I decided to go to Spain to study. I went to the Northern Province of Cantabria to the beach capital of Santander. It’s about 150 miles from the French border, right next to the Basque Country. It’s beautiful, green, and lush. It was where my life took the best change yet.

I arrived in late August of 1995 and the first class I attended was an intensive language and culture course, the purpose of which was to quickly immerse me into the local culture. Every day we were given homework assignments that were designed to force us to converse in Spanish and use the local infrastructure at our disposal. I learned to use public transportation, mail a letter at the post office, exchange money at the bank, and buy a bus pass. As we were approaching a local holiday, traveling was on most of the students’ agendas. Our program director knew of everyone’s plans and made it our homework assignment one night to learn how to purchase airline tickets. So off we went, me and two other girls in my program—Alex and Michelle—to complete our assignment.

Alex was already a super-whiz at the language. She had a “real” Spanish boyfriend. I don’t remember her story, but she had already established a relationship there with the family of her Spanish beau and was well on her way to becoming fluent in Castellano—authentic Spanish. Michelle, on the other hand, was a complete newbie, and my Spanish needed help, to say the least. All of my confidence had been shattered the moment I arrived in Santander. My first night, I stayed up with my host family as all of us gathered in the kitchen getting to know each other. All evening long after every other word I uttered, my good-hearted family would say, “No, in Spain we don’t say it (whatever “it” was) like that. We say it like this.” There were so many differences between the Spanish I had learned in Ecuador and the Spanish with which I was being bombarded with at that moment.

Anyway, fast-forward to the night of the dreaded homework assignment. Alex was in charge. She said, “Okay, Rita, you’re up!” Michelle could not put two words together, much less a sentence pretending to purchase airline tickets, and, well, Alex was already a pro. So it was my turn to test my skills.

There are travel agencies that line the Paseo de Pereda. It is one of the main drags of Santander. We walked into a travel agency. The agent we saw first was Juan. Juan had a long mustache that kind of curled up on the ends. He was handsome, tan, and I was petrified. The agency was full of people, and after standing around waiting for it to be less busy, since we knew we really weren’t going to buy anything, we left. I will never forget the relief I felt when we walked out onto the busy street. So we crossed the street and walked down a block to another agency. It was called Viajes Ecuador, and again, super small and super busy. Mariluz was in charge there, and I wanted to talk to her. She was a “she” and I was less nervous with women, but again, to no avail, she was too busy for us. We walked out defeated, yet I was secretly relieved again.

So as we strolled down the street, Alex had a lightbulb moment and reminded herself and us that her host family told her about another agency where the agents were super nice, and it just so happened to be right down the street. So off we went to Carlson Wagonlit Travel. In we walked into another super-tight space. It was busy as well, and there were four agents. There was Guillermo, the older, wisecracking, soon-to-be retiree; Roberto, Robert Redford’s Spanish doppelganger; Patricia, the young female intern; and Pedro, my future husband. I was beside myself by then. My emotions had gone up and down with each failed attempt and with each passing moment. I just wanted it to be over!

Of course, I headed for Patricia. I marched right up to her and said, “Hola, yes; we need to get prices for tickets to Morocco.”

She immediately replied, “Well, just wait over in that corner for Pedro.” She pointed at a young man who I could tell was older than me, but still young. He had hair bleached blond by the sun and the sea, and big, greenish, sad eyes but with a super happy/goofy smile on his face. I was destroyed! I didn’t want to talk to Pedro!

Can’t you just help us, lady? I thought. My palms were sweating and I remember feeling like I was going to pass out in that tiny agency. Couldn’t Alex just do the talking this time? I thought.

Well, when Pedro was finished with his client, he called us over to his table and we sat down. I was doing the talking, so I started to speak. I quickly confessed to him in my broken Spanish that we would not be doing any purchasing that night, but we were really working on a homework assignment and we just needed a price so that we could prove we had completed the assignment. He was jovial, to say the least. He was constantly joking and trying to make us laugh. You could tell he was excited to talk to us. He asked us questions about where we were from, and he tested out his broken English on us.

By the time we were finished with Pedro, my nerves had subsided and he had us laughing and talking a ton. About thirty minutes later we decided we had better leave before we wore out our welcome. I mean, after all, they were extremely busy and we weren’t buying.

As we were walking out the door, Pedro yelled to me, “Hey, you, psst!”

I turned to look at him.

“Yes, you,” he affirmed. “Come here. Would you like to go out for dinner?” Except he was speaking Spanish.

I didn’t understand his request, so I stepped inside the agency door to get closer, thinking that being closer was going to somehow help me understand him better. He spoke Spanish at lightning speed, and by that time my brain was fried. He asked again, and again I didn’t understand. Wisecracking Guillermo chimed in, in Spanish, “You want to go out on a date?”

My heart dropped out of my chest and I immediately said, “No!” albeit with a smile. We left and I went home.

The next day in class, it was the hot topic of conversation. “Rita got asked out by a real Spaniard!” announced Alex. When I studied in South America, our first warning by our program directors there was to not date or go out alone with any of the local men. We were told that they had misconceptions of American women, so it would be better if we just stuck to the people in our group in social situations. So of course my mind went to that admonishment first. A few days went by and a small group of us began truly contemplating travel, and I told the group that I knew the perfect agent to help us with our travel plans. So about a week later, the four of us went back to Pedro’s office. He helped us, gave us prices and dates, and as we were leaving to go and discuss our options, again Pedro asked me out as we were leaving the agency. This time he had bloodshot red eyes that he innocently blamed on his afternoon surfing antics. I was determined to not get involved. He was funny and child-like, and something sparkled inside me when he talked, but I was scared. I was in a foreign country, I was with all new friends and a new family, and I had one goal, to learn to speak Spanish. I would be graduating with a degree in Spanish soon, and I felt that I didn’t speak well enough to hold that title.

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