Study abroad advisor reconnects with her Spanish host family after 23 years!

By: Susan Pham, Study Abroad Coordinator at Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI)

NOTE: Susan Pham participated on an API site familiarization visit to Spain this past April, where she evaluated API’s programs in Cadíz, Granada, Madrid, Salamanca, and Seville. The story below chronicles an amazing chance reunion with the family that hosted her while studying abroad 23 years earlier!



Susan in Salamanca

Return to Salamanca

Twenty-three years ago I studied abroad in Salamanca, Spain. While I can say the experience was a highlight in my college career, I also firmly believe that the experience shaped my life in many different aspects. Decisions and choices I have made over the years I can often trace back to the influence of my time abroad. Sometimes there is an overt connection, such as in my appetite for traveling the world or choosing a career as a study abroad advisor at a university. And sometimes the thread connecting the study abroad experience to the life choice is very subtle and not so obvious, yet it is there. I recognize it when I am tolerant, when I am curious, when I am lonely and when I embrace new friends.

Recently my study abroad experience truly came full circle when I returned for the first time to the city I lived in as a college student more than 20 years ago. Ironically, the occasion that brought me there was study abroad-related. I was invited by a study abroad provider to do a site visit to five cities in Spain, one of which was Salamanca. In the months before leaving my mind raced with ideas, possibilities and fantasized accounts of seeing the city again and hopefully reuniting with my host mother, Pepa.

Susan with host mom Pepa

Pepa was my Mom-away-from-home during my year in Spain. My connection with her over the years had been very one-sided. Every year since I left Spain, I would send a Christmas card with a letter recounting the highlights of my life that year. Over the years, through my letters she learned of my graduation from college, my various jobs, my engagement and marriage, the births of our children, our travels, all complete with pictures to illustrate my life to her. I never received a reply from her although none was expected. She told me when I left that she loved hearing from the many students she hosted over the years but she simply couldn’t reply to everyone. As the years passed I began to wonder how old she must be. I guessed she was in her 60’s when I was there, which would make her over 80 years old by now. How did I know she was still at the same address or for that matter still living? I laughed thinking of the family that could be living there now, receiving my letters every year, wondering when this crazy stranger was going to stop sending cards. But I continued sending letters trusting that her son or daughter would surely inform me if something had happened to Pepa.

API site visit to Salamanca - Plaza Mayor

The night we arrived in Salamanca, I was quietly excited, not knowing how I would respond emotionally to seeing the city that was home so many years ago. The bus dropped us off at the bottom of the steps leading up to the Plaza Mayor, the main square in the city. I cautiously climbed the steps leaving the group behind, wanting the privacy this moment required. As I reached the top of the steps, the beauty of the stone curved arches glowing in the night drew me in and in an instant I was transported back to the first night I arrived in Salamanca 23 years ago. The stunning presence of this grand square overwhelmed me and then just as suddenly, a feeling of familiarity calmly washed over my thoughts. If time traveling were possible, this must be how it feels – to go back to a familiar place in time, knowing how profoundly it would shape your future.

In the short few days we spent in Salamanca there was exactly one afternoon that gave me the opportunity to search out Pepa. I had decided against mailing her about my visit on the chance that plans could change, as they typically do in traveling, and I would be unable to visit her. I had also purposely neglected to bring the street address with me, confident that I would be able to find the house to which I had walked home so many times. I started out, accompanied by two colleagues who were intrigued with the excitement of what I may or may not find on my journey. After walking for a time, anxiety set in, as the road seemed unfamiliar and nothing recognizable. The landmarks I remembered had vanished over the years with new stores, shops and buildings replacing them. Finally a familiar jog in the road triggered my memory and I saw relief my colleagues’ faces.

The apartment buildings seemed familiar too. I stopped at one, feeling that so much had changed, perhaps this was the place. I rang several apartments with no answer. Uncertain if this was even the correct building, the thought weighed heavy of how ridiculous it was coming all this way without bringing the actual address. At least I could have brought it, pulling it deep from my bag if indeed my memory was not as good as I hoped. My thoughts were interrupted as a woman brushed past me to enter the building. I quickly asked the woman if Pepa Garcia lived in the building. She shook her head and responded “no” before she stepped into the building. Then, after thinking a moment she paused, turned back and asked “Is she an older woman?” I quickly nodded. “Is she a little heavy?” Again I affirmed. She gestured down the street with her hand, “She lives in the next building”. We nearly ran to the next building. Peering inside the glass door to the foyer, my confidence was regained as I knew without doubt we were at the right place. I anxiously rang several of the apartments, yet no one responded to open the secured door. Standing outside looking up at the apartment building, I couldn’t help but think the worst. We were this close. Maybe she wasn’t home. Maybe she had moved. Maybe she wasn’t alive anymore. My hopeful feelings of finding the building were quickly replaced with the worst possibilities of what I might discover.

In frustration, I went back to the door. As I pressed my face up against the glass to look inside again, the door slowly pushed open, not having latched from the last person entering the building. I turned incredulously to my friends for an instant before we all piled through the door and up the stairs. Taking the steps two by two I reached the top, only to be baffled by which of the four apartments on the floor was Pepa’s. So much for remembering details after 23 years! A knock on one door produced the suggestion of looking at the mailboxes below for the name. We raced back down the stairs and found Pepa’s name. In the seconds it took to run back up the stairs, my mind had processed the fact that if her name was still on the mailbox, this was a good sign that she was either still here or at least a relative was still at the apartment.

I boldly knocked on the door only to shrink timidly back as it opened. Voice wavering, I identified myself and informed the woman who answered that I had lived and gone to school here many years ago. She smiled and as if she had been expecting me said “I know, come in”. It was Pepa’s daughter, Manoli, and she chided me for not recognizing her. But I could hardly focus as my eyes wildly darted about the foyer, taking in the familiar table covered with knick-knacks, the same painting hanging on the wall and yes, there was my bedroom, much smaller than I remembered. I wanted to run through the house and take it all in but first I had to know. I cautiously asked “Is Pepa here?” Manoli smiled and said “She’s in the living room. Go in”. I needed no directions and passed quickly through the hallway and turned to the left. As I entered the room my eyes immediately went to the table where Pepa always sat. Smiling, Pepa sat at the table looking more like she was expecting me home from school than dropping in after 23 years. My bag fell to the floor as I ran over to her and collapsed onto her shoulder in an unidentifiable mixture of laughter and crying. “I knew” she said “as soon as I heard your voice at the door. I knew that was my Susan”. This of course produced even more tears and laughter. My mind was racing much faster than my rusty Spanish skills could handle as I frantically attempted to relate our story of finding the house and how much the neighborhood had changed.

Susan reconnects with her host family 23 years later

Over the next few hours we exchanged stories and updated each other. While she knew much about my life over the years, I had 23 years to catch up with her life. I listened to her tell me about her family. The familiar phrases, her gestures and mannerisms quickly filled the gaps that had formed in my memory of her. Now sitting next to her, holding her hand, I wondered how I could have forgotten any of these details. It felt so comfortable and familiar that it didn’t seem possible it was 23 years since I last sat here.

She showed me evidence that time had indeed passed as she pointed to a picture of a beautiful young woman she claimed to be her granddaughter. I had to look hard to see the 6 year old child that had lived with us, now a 29 year old, living and working in Madrid. She called her grandmother every day, Pepa proudly informed me.

Fortunately the few hours we were at Pepa’s house, both her son and son-in-law stopped by, neither realizing I was there. Santos came in while I was looking around the rest of the house. Recognizing my voice and laugh, he came up behind me, swung me around and gave me a crushing hug. I felt all of 5 years old as he excitedly took my head between his hands to look at me intently, pinched my cheeks and hugged me again. He claimed he knew it was me when he heard my laugh. Pepa’s son also recognized me by my laugh. My colleagues commented that I must have been very happy and laughed a lot when I lived here since everyone remembered my laugh after all these years. I thought about that comment a lot after we left that day. We did laugh a lot. We all laughed a lot. What a wonderful description of the time I spent in this house with this family.

I was sad to leave, however the farewell was made easier by knowing that I would return again – and this time I would not wait another 23 years. Pepa would be turning 83 the following month, ironically on the same day as my Dad’s birthday. She playfully informed me that I’d better not wait that long again to visit or she would be in the ground.

We embraced and she quietly closed the door with my past stored safely behind it until I returned again. I slowly walked down the stairs and back outside to the warm sunshine of the present. For an afternoon I was granted the privilege of traveling back to a place that had faded in my memory but was now once again vibrant with detail in my mind.

Susan Pham is the Study Abroad Coordinator at Viterbo University in La Crosse, WI.

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Flashback to our Fall API student's first days in Spain. Madrid orientation with our friends from api_granada, Salamanca guided tour, and lunch tapas (+first days of classes!)

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