The Road to Love: How Study Abroad Brought Two Alumni Together Years After Madrid

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IES Abroad
February 14, 2019

Karen and David met in the 1960s while studying abroad in Madrid. Once they returned they went their separate ways, but years later they re-connected, and little did they know would that meeting lead to true love. Read on to hear more about Karen and David's story. 

Karen and David


IES Abroad: Why did you chose to study abroad in Madrid?

Karen: I was a Spanish major at Bucknell University. Rather than attend a full junior year through the Georgetown University study abroad program with my roommate, I elected a spring semester only. After much research (in the era before Google), I chose the Institute of European Studies (now IES Abroad) because it was a flexible program offering many varied classes conducted in Spanish. The goal was total immersion in the language and the culture. But, first I had to encourage my friend and fellow Spanish major Kathy to join me on my quest; then to convince the Dean of Liberal Arts at Bucknell that the program was valuable. We were successful.

David: I was not a language major but I always had an interest in language and foreign cultures, likely as a result of hearing travel logs of my grandparents’ many trips to Europe and Latin America. I thought studying abroad was a great opportunity to diversify my experience and learn a new language. My time in Madrid changed my entire attitude toward education and transformed my approach to learning, beyond simply reading textbooks.

IES Abroad: Tell us about the first time you met.

Karen and David in 1969Karen: All the IES Abroad 1969 spring semester students gathered in New York in February for a brief orientation before flying off to Europe. There were students from across the U.S., and a few from DePauw University (David’s college). We flew together to Paris for a pre-program workshop. I was fortunate enough to have been to Paris with the Alliance Française in high school and enjoyed sharing my memories with some of my new friends. David was part of this new small group, and we formed a bond that was strong throughout the semester. Once in Madrid, David and I shared a mutual appreciation for learning about the culture and the language, and for traveling around Spain on weekends.

David: I remember sightseeing when we arrived in Paris with several new friends who included Karen, but especially recall seeing Karen on the bus and being struck by her beautiful eyes and big smile. We all became part of a group of close knit friends who spent time traveling together around Spain and Portugal, mostly by train on long weekends. Karen was extremely curious and approached each city with a guidebook and a purpose, intent on seeing all the great sights. She was a great person to tag along with because she was so knowledgeable about each city and we enjoyed learning about, and loving Spanish history and culture.

IES Abroad: What do you remember most about Madrid?

David: One time Karen and I were hitchhiking in northern Spain, which was surprisingly common and safe at the time. We had a good conversation with a man who picked us up, and he offered to take us out to lunch. It turned out that he was the Director of the Caves of Altamira. My grandparents had a rug in their home that was a recreation of the cave paintings and drawings, so I realized how special an opportunity this was. He took us on a private tour to see the site and it was fascinating to see the paintings in person, in some cases crawling on our hands and knees. Encounters with Spanish treasures like this would happen on several other occasions, because we were all open-minded and curious about whatever we came across in each city.

Another time, one of our teachers at the University of Madrid, whose name was Professor Floriano, offered to take us around the Prado to show us his favorite paintings and tell us why they were so important. He was about 85 years old, and we arrived at his office, which looked like a small old library and was piled high with ancient books and manuscripts. He had a very old book open on his desk and I asked what he was reading. He said “Mira” (Look!) and pointed to a signature at the bottom of the page, which clearly read “Fernando y Isabella.” It was an original manuscript, signed by the King and Queen, dating back to the 1400s.

Karen: The entire experience of immersing myself in a foreign culture. The world was "smaller" then; it was not yet the era of globalization. People didn't travel as much. As they say today, we walked the Madrileño walk and talked the Madrileño talk. It was a completely different lifestyle.

Kathy and I lived with a widowed Señora in a small 4th floor walkup apartment with a balcony. I recall the ancient chain flush WC, hot baths once a week, and lots of baby powder dry shampoo! We adjusted; and adjusting was all part of the experience. The apartment was located in the old section of Madrid and we adored the area. The Señora kept pretty much to herself; but, she warmed up to us as time passed. We had some fascinating discussions with her, and eventually treated her to a fancy lunch as a thank you.

IES Abroad: What was it like to return to the states after studying in a foreign country?

Karen: It was a bit anticlimactic and somewhat depressing. As IES Abroad students living overseas, we had been independent (within the boundaries), free thinking, and living what I considered the European dream. Returning to reality was a challenge. I had to work back at home the summer before senior year. But, when Leslie (my roommate) and I returned to Bucknell, we set up our own little Spanish room. We occasionally served our friends sangria and paella, and continued to work diligently on our Spanish, French and German classes. We lived on the same dorm hall with other friends who had studied in Paris and Italy, so there was camaraderie and shared experience.

David: I returned to my small liberal arts school in rural Indiana, along with several other fellow students from the IES Abroad program. We were in culture shock for a while, and would go out to bars and restaurants on weekends yearning for our days in Madrid and telling stories. We had a couple of reunions with kids from other schools who had been in Spain, and vowed to travel back to Madrid after graduation, which several of us did the following summer!

IES Abroad: How did you both reconnect?

Karen: After graduating we all pursued different paths. I deferred graduate school at Middlebury to become a Pan Am stewardess (a profession I had never considered until a college friend who had also studied abroad applied and encouraged a couple of us to see the world and use our languages). David attended Harvard Divinity School and married a classmate there. I attended their wedding and we all stayed in touch on and off over the years, mostly through Christmas cards…

David: We went in different directions after college. I married a fellow graduate student, and went on to law school in Washington, D.C. some years later after that marriage ended, I reconnected with Karen when she lived in New York, still seeing the world with Pan Am, and I would occasionally visit NYC on business. Both single travelers again, we rekindled our friendship, would go to museums, and in that way kind of picked up where we left off. We still had a great friendship, similar tastes in learning and enjoying life, and eventually got married right there in New York City, where we had first met on our way to Spain.

IES Abroad: Have you returned to Madrid together, since?

Karen: We took a pre-marriage honeymoon in Madrid for a few days. We enjoyed recreating our student experience by walking the old student path to university, and to all our old favorite haunts. We had shared special cafés, and had favorite museums, statues, and plazas. Our experience was obviously not the same 20 years later. We could even afford a real hotel instead of the inexpensive pensiones we had frequented in our student days. We haven't been back since, but, would love to attend a reunion in Madrid, especially if we can get the old group together!

IES Abroad: What was your biggest take-away (other than meeting each other!) from you experience in Spain?

Karen: Immersing ourselves in a foreign culture. Absorbing sights, sounds, smells, thoughts. Embracing others of different nationalities. I like to think that we were the opposite of the "ugly American.” We learned to embrace the challenges we faced, to expose ourselves to as much as possible. I encourage students today to take advantage of these opportunities should they arise. Be tolerant, try to comprehend, and adapt.

David: In addition, I think we experienced what it was like to be curious and learn by participating in other cultures and new experiences, and to make new friends along the way. To approach each day as a potential adventure, and later, to do so with children and grandchildren, which is even more fun!

Learn more about our Madrid programs. You can also speak with an IES Abroad Ambassador about their experience in Madrid, or another of our locations.

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