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Finding friendship on a journey around Spain

Au pairs descend into foreign lands to tend children, immerse themselves into new cultures, and master foreign languages. Often they become beloved quasi family member. And if one is fortunate, this family membership works both ways. My daughter and her family in New Jersey have thoroughly enjoyed hosting Maria, their au pair from Madrid, Spain. Additionally, I grabbed on to the opportunity to host Maria and her friend when they journeyed to California. But, for me, the friendship extended further when I accepted an invitation from Maria’s mother. I had dabbled with learning Spanish for a few years, and she was surprising her friends with new found interest in English. And so she invited me to be her guest in Spain and France for 23 days. Maria (same name as her daughter) is a 60 year old widow. I am a 67 year old retired school teacher. Together, we chummed, laughed, and created a friendship that the miles cannot limit.

Creating this friendship seemed much like our visit to Real Fabrica de Tapices in Madrid. This working museum dates back more than 300 years, with its current beautiful location claiming more than a century at what was once a convent. A 40 minute tour proceeds under the fluent English and Spanish tour guides. Here, visitors see the process of transferring cartoons to looms. Goya’s art hangs prominently on the walls, a tribute to the artist’s many years of working at Real Fabrica de Tapices. As I studied this process, I couldn’t help but think of my growing friendship to Maria. We were likewise transferring sketches of dreams to tangible realities. For a few months before the trip, we emailed one another, discussed our likes and dislikes, booked reservations, and wondered about the results. Now together we were the weavers, interpreting and sometimes adjusting our preliminary sketches. The tapestry weavers would use hundreds of different colors of bobbins wound with wool and silk. Maria and I blended a multitude of diverse backgrounds and customs, hoping our creation would be worthy of a colorful display. Weavers’ expert hands created tapestries of antique models, Goya’s sketches, contemporary artists, and personalized drawings. Similarly, Maria and I would experience ancient palaces and cathedrals, Goya’s masterpieces in El Prado, modern art at Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, and up-to-the-minute digital snapshots. The laborers at Real Fabrica de Tapices painstakingly inspected every minute detail of their works. Easily, I realized that creating a friendship with Maria deserved equal effort.

A section of Real Fabrica de Tapices devotes itself to the conservation and restoration of tapestries. This begins with a study of the tapestry or historic textile. Similarly, now that I am back in California and Maria is at home in Madrid, I realize that conserving our friendship entails a study and appreciation of each other’s history. Just as the weavers consider ways to reinforce and adapt their art work, Maria and I must do the same. It might be by writing emails, remembering birthdays, sending photos, or updating Facebook entries. Conservation is part of creation, whether it be with tapestries or friendship.

After spending eight days in Madrid and surrounding towns, we drove north. Our first stop for three days was San Sebastian, a beautiful city that hugs the coastline. While there, Maria arranged a tour of Chillida Leku. Eduardo Chilada, a Basque sculptor of world renown, created many of his masterpieces there. Now, many stand adjacent to trees and lush greenery, spreading forth grandeur. The more delicate works are sheltered inside the farmhouse, works of wood, alabaster, wool, and paper. His son guided us from place to place, sharing anecdotes of his deceased father.

To me, the sculptures symbolized the many materials of our friendship: laughter, stumbling language skills, generosity, appreciation of culture, and ample samplings of delicious pintxos. Maria and I stretched forth our arms, embracing the sculptures and one another. We snapped photos so we could long remember the day’s sprawling works. Most of these sculptures are sturdy and will sustain the elements of time and distance. Others are fragile and will require careful safeguarding. How well both kinds describe our friendship.

Probably the best known work of Eduardo Chilada is Comb of the Winds, the trio of steel sculptures, sitting in the often stormy sea in La Concha bay, a quick walk from the town center of San Sebastian. The work molds to its environment perfectly. To me, it seemed as if the trio were untangling the rough seas as they splashed ashore. Perhaps they were taming unrest or soothing the water as it came to its final destination. I thought of the best traits of friendship while viewing this massive work. Maria fits the promenade perfectly. She had a way of combing away problems and easing me into her homeland.

Eduardo Chilada wrote, “I’m of the opinion, and this is very important to me, that we are from somewhere. Ideally, we are from one place, where our roots are, but we should reach out to the entire world and borrow ideas from other cultures.” Definitely, Chilada was describing his global masterpieces, but I sensed that he was also describing Maria’s and my friendship. We respected our own and each other’s roots; yet we reached out to borrow ideas and appreciate one another’s culture. Traveling with Maria created a masterpiece of friendship that could rival a tapestry or a sculpture. When I arrived in Spain, she took me by the hand. In a matter of days and ever sense, she touched my heart.

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