“No tengo mucha historia.”
The utter humility represented by my host mother, Manoli Benito, is quite wonderful to behold. She speaks without a filter, referring to her past student charges as “mis niñas,” since most have been young women seeking a Spanish adventure. But, nothing she says feels condescending or judgmental. She is a woman of strong convictions, possessing a clear-eyed point of view that makes verbal sparring a delight. She’s hosted the granddaughter of Umberto Eco, as well as the children of Chicanos getting in touch with a rich cultural heritage. Few have ever squandered their time in her home. Most have remained in contact, even returning with their families in tow so they can meet her.
In many ways, she reminds me of Fräulein Schneider in the musical “Cabaret.” That character’s big song, “So What?” is a testament to a woman who has refused to bow down to reduced circumstances or a life less extraordinary.
“For the sun will rise
And the moon will set
And learn how to settle
For what you get.
It will all go on if we’re here or not
So who cares? So what?”
I should make clear that Manoli’s life is not one of reduced circumstances. She went from housewife to housemother, yes. And, true, she didn’t expect her life to be this way, either. Yet thanks to her association with hosting students, she’s been able to invest in her future by maintaining a key aspect of her past: her parents’ home. She’s put in quite a bit of money making that house into something comfortable, a sanctuary. Even her son built a pool. Now, every August, she shuts down and goes to her birth home with her whole tribe to enjoy its peace and calm. That’s enough for her. She may not be richer, but she has health and happiness. As she said with conviction, “What else could you want?”
I can’t even begin to transcribe some of the conversations that have graced her dining and kitchen table. I’m still pondering her calling two of Spain’s Oscar winning stars “imbeciles,” “idiotas” y “bordes.” Or the Italian student who said she had yet to meet any handsome men in Salamanca. Manoli just smiled when she recalled the grand arrival of said ragazza‘s BF: “Él era más feo que un dolor.” (He was uglier than any pain.) Or her opinion on the new queen Letizia, a divorcée with family ties to anarchists. While her past is considered rather scandalous, Queen Letty deserves some props for how she’s presented herself as a royal family member. But Manoli wanted to know what was up with the visible tension captured in photos and video when Queen Letty met the Pope? Could it be her inability to escape her atheist past? Or how about her not caring about fútbol, but knowing who are the hot players of the moment?
Trust me, I don’t think my fellow students are having similar conversations in their homes. In fact, I know some are already sneaking in food from outside because the meals are SO bad. It made me appreciate just how lucky I am in Casa Benito.
Manoli says she has little history, but I don’t agree. She has plenty of history, one that is only enhanced by an everchanging view of the world she receives with each group of students she boards. They’ve touched her in the same way she’s touched their lives. This mother of four, grandmother of two, has made a global mark on the world. How many of us can say we’ve done the same?
The idea as to what comprises history was very much on my mind when I toured Salamanca with my fellow students this afternoon. It was an education seeing how youth never fails in its enthusiasm to party away from home. The hangovers they carried were appropriately epic, but it also proved a catalyst for them to all bond with each other. Granted, two already had bandaged ankles. Another realized she’d lost her wallet minutes after the tour began. Yes, they are the Americans Abroad, don’t begrudge them a thing. Yet, no matter their state, they all were quite taken with the absolute beauty that is Salamanca.
This entire city is a living history, where stone streets reveal the small miracles and achievements of human beings seeking higher learning. One of the oldest universities in the world, it bears the marks of intellectuals and the oppressed, the rich and the poor, the devout and the sinner and everything else in between. Some of the architecture was designed to rise to the heavens as a gift to God. Yet hidden were telling clues of humor, like the frieze outside one cathedral featuring a frog sitting happily on a skull. Or the portal of another door that had a demon holding an ice cream cone because we know it is hot in Hell. Subtle gestures of rebellion? Perhaps. I thought the definition of “left” and “right” in politics could be found here. One building featured a facade that placed the perils of an amoral life on one side of the building, while the virtues of being good were displayed on the right side of the same building.
Imagine, in 1492, when Columbus landed in the New World, more than 8,000 students comprised the population of this remarkable campus. No one took notes; they could only listen to their lectures. There was little light in the classrooms. (In earlier times, they sat on the floor.) A final exam was conducted at the end of their five years of study.
Women weren’t allowed, but Beatriz Galindo was bold enough to break through that barrier of sexism. She became the closest adviser to Queen Isabella. Or the story of Fray Luis de León, who was jailed during the Inquisition for daring to translate religious texts from their deified Latin prose to the language of common people. He returned from prison five years later, went back to the classroom and picked up exactly where he left off.
But the moment that transfixed me? Seeing the fresco known as “El cielo de Salamanca.”
I was reminded of the small miracles we can create as a species. This painting has been in the world since the 15th century. It is housed in this dark cupola, illuminated by the most careful light. You can’t take photos, you can’t touch it, but you can stand under it and bask it all in just as students did 600 years ago. (And no, I didn’t take the photo in this post.)
To me, all acts of creation should be viewed as small miracles, particularly if done with humility and care. It is not about being recognized or praised. No. It’s about adding something to our collective narrative, one that is inspiring and telling about why we are passionate about being part of this world in the first place.
Earlier in the day, Manoli and I talked about cooking. Like many of us, memories can live in our sense of smell and taste. Nothing rivals my own mother’s cooking. Whenever I try to cook one of her dishes, it always lacks that X factor of Mom. But we learn to appreciate our versions in the end. Perhaps that is the moral of this entire experience. Don’t try to be that perfect recreation of something ideal. Be your own version of that ideal. Trust me, that recipe is destined to live on as others take it to heart. Therein lies our chance to create our own histories, itself a small miracle.
Monday, June 30 at Manoli’s house in Salamanca, Spain.