When my son's Spanish teacher told us that he was not performing to expectations, my wife and I, zealots for foreign travel and languages, began to worry.
His grades in algebra, physics, history and English were all good. Only the Spanish reports coming from the high school caused concern. Eight minutes into worry, my wife, Annabelle, announced: "We'd better get Miles to Spain."
We queried friends for leads on a Spanish-speaking family with one or more kids in Miles' age bracket. A horse-mad English friend told us about an equine veterinarian named Willie Manley, his wife, Begona, and their three teenage sons living near Madrid. The Manleys, she said, might be interested in having Miles stay with them and, in turn, having their youngest son, Santiago ("Yago"), stay with us in New Jersey.
A few e-mails and phone calls later, the son-swap was a deal. Miles would spend most of June with the Manleys on their farm or -- for life is notoriously unfair -- at their house in Marbella (think yachts, sybarites and the Mediterranean). Then Yago would fly with Miles to New York and spend July with us in Princeton (think bicycles, scholars and Lake Carnegie).
Less than 48 hours after he completed his sophomore year of high school, Miles was Madrid-bound for immersion in all things Spanish. For company, his mother and 8-year-old brother, Winslow, flew over with him; I followed two days later.
Did we have an ulterior motive in getting our son to hit the road to learning? Absolutely. If higher grades hadn't been a sufficient cause, then our favorite sin, wanderlust, would have been.
Before Miles moved in with the Manleys, the four of us explored some remarkable cities in central Spain: Segovia, Avila, San Ildefonso and San Lorenzo de El Escorial. For a base, we stayed in a timeworn yet stubbornly appealing village, Sigueruelo ("Goldfinch"), a fairly easy drive from each of those cities.
In the end, we each got what we wanted from Spain: adventure (and grammar) for Miles, animals for Win, architecture for my wife (a preservation architect), and art for me. And all the while we tried to make sure that our sons were hearing and speaking Spanish, not merely adrift on the iPod sea.
The school of experience was in session when I arrived at Madrid's Barajas International Airport. My wife and sons collected me in a rented Ford, and we pointed it north toward the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains. After a couple of days visiting the Prado Museum, the Royal Palace and too many Madrid restaurants, Annabelle, Miles and Win were ready for green slopes and quiet nights. We planned to spend several days in the country before depositing Miles with the Manleys.
Leaving Madrid, we could have been driving outside almost any city in the United States, so numerous were the branded behemoths, from Staples to Toys 'R Us, on either side. Like an old face that had gone under the knife, what had once been rough and idiosyncratic -- the roadside factories and old towns -- looked stretched and sutured into something smooth and standard. "Oh," said Annabelle, "Spain's been Starbucked."
Although I have lived in Europe over the years, I had not visited Spain since my backpacking days, shortly before the 40-year Franco dictatorship ended with the old generalissimo's death in 1975, and I hadn't observed the country's embrace of consumerism in the ensuing years.
Getting to the countryside of the province of Castilla-Leon felt like absolution: sprawl gave way to plains, plains to arid hills, and arid hills to wooded valleys beneath mountains. Two hours after leaving the airport, we reached Sigueruelo, the village from which we planned to visit historic cities lying in an arc outside Madrid.
We'd chosen Sigueruelo for two reasons -- first, its proximity to Madrid and the Manleys' farm; second, the village's only hotel was a bargain, with breakfast and dinner included in the room price. The owners also offered riding, cycling, walking and canoeing trips, perfect for two boys who require motion. Two phone conversations with David, the laid back son of the Posada de Sigueruelo's owner, confirmed our choice. When I asked David whether or not he wanted to secure our reservation with a credit card, he said, "Why?"
Neither the hotel nor the village will ever be fashionable; they lack views, amenities and "marketing strategies." Yet each possesses a seductive quirkiness that no chain hotel or tourist hotspot will likely ever have. Nothing matches but everything feels of a piece. Our room, a big "quad" with stone walls, looked out on a field visited by butterflies, birds, rabbits, a sad-looking donkey and, at night, the wind.