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Photo: Susan Flynn

What Were You Doing When You Were 9?

I went to Spain, and it changed my life.

Photo: Sam Williams

If you know me at all or look at my writing or social media posts, you’ll probably get the idea that I love Spain. If this doesn’t clue you in, talk to me for five or more minutes, and I’ll find some way to steer our convo in the direction of the Iberian Peninsula. And, let’s be clear - when I say “I love Spain,” I don’t mean it. I love Spain… as in how someone would talk about a great restaurant or how a 7th-grade girl would describe the outfit she can’t live without. No. I mean… I LOVE SPAIN on a level that can only be fully understood through a past life regression. But that’s another blog post.

To begin to understand this (multiple?) lifelong love affair, let’s go back in time just a bit… to 1980. I’m 9 years old, and my older brother Tim is studying abroad in his junior year in college. (Shoutout to the Marquette University in Madrid program.) My parents made plans to visit him over spring break, and since I was the youngest of 5 and the only one left at home, I was lucky and got to go with them. My older sister Beth also joined us.

Like any 9 year old of the ’80s, I prepared for the trip in the only way I knew how - I opened the Sears Roebuck catalog (stay with me, millennials) and selected the items I’d need for the trip… a bright blue disco spring jacket, jeans with really snazzy back pockets, and a pair of bib overalls with rainbow suspenders. I also packed my Oshkosh B’Gosh jean jumper to keep things classy, some T-shirts, and a pink disco shirt. It’s really too bad YouTube didn’t exist then because I could’ve made a pretty rockin’ “What to take if you’re going to Madrid at 9” video.

So, as my parents made countless overseas calls to hotels and tourist offices(welcome to travel plans ala 1980), I was practicing walking around the house in my new disco jacket. I envisioned the splash I’d make in that jacket at Retiro Park, the Madrid Zoo, and (wait for it) McDonald’s. (The last being perhaps the most luring appeal of the trip to this dorky 9-year-old who put hamburgers, fries, and cokes on the same level as disco jackets.) Rounding out my excitement - I’d get to use the Spanish I had picked up the previous summer in summer school. Since I knew the alphabet, the months of the year, AND the names of utensils, dishes, and fruits & vegetables, I was completely confident in my ability to be my family’s interpreter.

But when we finally arrived in Madrid and checked into our hotel, I was honestly unprepared for what was happening behind the scenes. And when I say “behind the scenes,” let’s go ahead and imagine this is a movie. At this point, the viewer would see a flash of lightning and hear a clap of thunder and then zoom in on young Abbey’s face. This natural event would cause her to look more closely at her environment, and her face would look different… we’d know that something supernatural was about to happen. There would be a sensation of timelines collapsing, and we, the viewers, would understand that this wasn’t young Abbey’s first rodeo in Spain. No, we’d know that this girl knew all about Spain. We’d see her realizing this as she explored Spain with her family.

Now, while I’m not going to deny the fact that I think timelines were colliding, I want you to know that on the outside, the trip looked pretty normal. I didn’t get up at midnight each night, have drinks with literary greats, and meet my soulmate. Instead, I got this weird feeling that I had been there before. Yet, keeping in mind that I was 9, let’s keep things in context. I didn’t say this out loud, “Hey, I think I lived in Spain in another lifetime.” Rather when my family and I walked the streets of Madrid, I found them fascinating and familiar and not at all intimidating. Now, this last fact is important to note because not only was I 9 and visiting Spain for the first time, but I was 9 and coming from a small town in Wisconsin. Sure, I’d been to cities before, but not like this, so the fact that it felt so familiar and I waltzed around like a little Spanish city girl is why it was significant.

This familiarity and comfort continued when we traveled to Segovia, Avila, Granada, and Nerja - each place was so different than anything I’d ever experienced, yet it felt just like home. I’m still trying to fully explain this connection I have that’s taken me back there at least 13 times (I lost track) since that maiden voyage. The bottom line? I travel to Spain because, really, it feeds my soul and restores me on a level that I can’t explain.

9-year-old Abbey at La Alhambra in Granada, Spain. I’m pretty sure I’m either thinking about my past life or the cool shoe stores I had seen earlier in the streets of Granada. (Thanks to Beth Algiers Manley for capturing this shot.)

I’m headed back there this fall on a writing assignment where I’ll cover a trip I’ve been waiting years to take… walking the Camino de Santiago. I’ll be traveling with my brother Tim and his family - sort of a full-circle moment, taking me back to that first trip to Spain when I not only visited my brother but also met his future wife, who had been in Madrid with the same college program. Stay tuned for tales of this fall’s adventures, and I can’t wait to share them with you!

Photo of my parents, also at La Alhambra in Granada (photo by Beth Algiers Manley). Also, note the ode to the Camino de Santiago… a gift from my dear friend Rocio who knew years ago that I had my sights set on walking the Camino.

For now, I’ll leave you to ponder… what part of your childhood has left an impact you can’t quite describe, and how does that show up in your life today? Maybe it’s time for a little time travel… so get out your disco jacket and crystal ball and see what parts of your past you can access for life clarity today.

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