Surprise! Upon my arrival, it was apparent not a person in Fabero knew a word of English. I now faced two choices: give up or dig in and learn to communicate in Español. I am not a quitter, so I set to work. Before the exchange I had heard from others that when you dream in the new language you are on the road to learning it. I vividly remember about the third week waking up and realizing I had just dreamed that my new family and I were singing in Spanish. Sure enough, the process speeded up.
We all lived upstairs in the same building above one of two general stores the family owned and operated. I was able to spend some time in the store, primarily with Agustine as Emilio was busy doing make-ups in summer school. My application stated I enjoyed family activities and picnics, which seemed to fit right in with the family as that is what we did.
The main economy was the coal mines and dry wheat farming, plus some other agriculture. Dictator Francisco Franco was still in power and the Guardia Civil, the national police force, was very evident. It was illegal to congregate so whenever 3 or more would gather in public suddenly the armed police would appear. You can imagine how I came to realize the value of the personal freedom I had always enjoyed in the USA.
The 6 weeks passed rapidly and we stayed in touch for many years, even exchanging Christmas gifts. My parents Alfred and Rosa Stehli, actually made a trip to Spain and visited the family. My brother Frank also visited the village and family. But, as often happens, the letter exchanges became sparser and ultimately stopped. I married and my wife and I raised our 2 daughters.
The Rotary Club of Patterson had underwritten the AFS Scholarship so that money would not be a determining factor in candidate selection. I vowed that when I could, I would love to become a Rotarian, and have been since 1970. In January 2010 my wife, Bev and I were hosting Alejandra Rueda, a Rotary graduate scholar from Columbia, South America, for a weekend at Monterey and Big Sur.
Alejandra had her laptop and asked if we had anyone we were looking for. One of her hobbies was using the Internet to find lost friends. Thanks to her diligence and skills, plus several hours and clues I was able to give her, we tracked down Fabiano Vela.
Fabiano, a Catholic Priest serving near Monterey, CA is Agustine’s brother. He provided an e-mail address for his niece, Choni Vela and contact was reestablished.
I had not seen the Rodriguez Family for all those 55 years. Mama and Papa passed within a few years of my stay and Lita passed about 20 years ago. Still alive are Agustine (86), Yoli (58) Choni (47), who was not born until 9 years after my stay, plus my brother Emilio. While the family still owns property in Fabero they no longer live there. Sadly, the coal mines have shut down and the economy is dire. Because of the remoteness, I did not plan to visit the village this trip. Emilio owns a men’s clothing store in Ponferrada, a city about 36 kilometers from Fabero. Unfortunately we were not able to meet up this trip.
I have just returned from a most incredible week as the house guest of the Family in La Coruña, Spain, where they now live. They spoiled me, loved me and literally took me to the “ends of the earth,” Finesterre, where it historically was believed you fell off the earth if you ventured beyond. We spent a day in Santiago de Compostello, the official end of the 800 kilometer pilgrimage people have been making for over 1,000 years, where tradition has the remains of St. John the Apostle. I had remembered the Potato Fritatas Lita had prepared in 1958, and when I mentioned it, Choni and Yoli prepared one. When I asked for the recipe they said the recipe alone would not do much good. I would have to watch them make one. So they made another with me taking notes.
Thank you Patterson, the AFS Committee and the Rotary Club of Patterson for what you did those 55 years ago. Oh, there is still no one in the family that speaks any English so it was total immersion in Spanish once again for me.
Al Stehli, Patterson resident