A bus across Castilla
He calls out the number with the confidence of a theatre usher. Boldly. Loudly. As if he's been waiting for me.
My gaze drops from the row of seat numbers overhead to meet dark, smiling eyes. He's an older man, elegantly dressed. An impeccable black leather briefcase rests on his feet. I glance at my ticket. Oddly enough, he's right.
Mmmmm, yes! Yes, four, that's me.
He shifts his case, his cane and his shiny black shoes and I climb into the window seat next to him.
We chat. A few paragraphs later he looks straight into my eyes again, head tilted aside like a curious puppy.
Are you Spanish?
I grin and offer my standard answer: I live in Salamanca but no, I'm not Spanish.
"¿América?", he asks? I sense the America he's guessed isn't North America. "Not México", he continues. "Ecuador...no...where?"
Blame the age of his ears or the roar of the engine; the man has made my day.
"América, sí. Estados Unidos", I answer.
He looks suprised. I watch him note my frustration with the soft Spanish r that continues to give me away.
You speak castellano, no doubt about that, but there is something...
(They call it an accent, I think to myself. And it tortures me. Still, I make a mental note to pick up something nice for my Spanish teacher. At least my accent has moved South, to the land of native speakers....)
We introduce ourselves and discover we are headed to the same pueblo: Madrigal de las Altas Torres, birthplace of Isabel I of Spain. Columbus' Isabel.
As the bus crosses Castilla, I travel the world from seat 4. I am rapt. Seventeenth century México, Madrigal at the time of Isabel's birth, Fray Luis de León in Salamanca, Spain's California missions.... Spain's history swirls around me. My companion is a history professor, retired from Salamanca's Universidad Pontífica. An expert on the history of the church, he is travelling to Madrigal to talk with local families about one of the town's famous sons: Vasco de Quiroga, a 17th century Spanish bishop revered in Mexico as a defender of the indigenous people of Michoacan. My travelling companion has written a book on Vasco de Quiroga, which he proudly pulls from the impeccable briefcase.
We talk about my one-woman company, my solo move to Spain and the US elections. He asks if Chicago is nothing but smokestacks and I assure him it is not. We talk about architecture and the Great Chicago fire.
By the time the bus pulls off the road along Madrigal's city walls, he's declared me courageous for marching off alone to a strange land. Never mind this wandering pueblos alone on weekends.
"But you could see the pueblos with travel groups," he tells me. He laughs as I recite the advantages of travelling solo, with spontaneity at the top of the list. His voice slows while he quietly reminisces about his own solo travels across Spain as a young professor. "I'd stop wherever I wanted, pull off the road at a wall, or a castle or pueblo. "I guess you love to go your own way, too...."
Hmmm, yes. And if I didn't travel alone, I think to myself, I wouldn't have met you, would I?