My daughter's (and my) rite of passage

Hilary, my 17-year-old daughter, has flown to another country – and so have I. She walked jauntily down the ramp and on to her plane to Spain last week, scarcely looking back over her shoulder as we watched from the busy terminal.

I, too, was boarding a flight: to a new country in this continent of parenthood. Hilary's first significant venture away from home – much less away from her homeland – was a rite of passage for us both.

Though not a kid who went even to sleep-over camp, Hilary seemed entirely comfortable and well-prepared for such a big step. And though I have not been trained by such sojourns to get me accustomed to her absence, I too am coping well. For the first time in her life she is six time zones away, to say nothing of the comfort zones we have abandoned on this trip. We are both in transit to a new longitude.

For a month she will live in Madrid with her Spanish family, and even visit the village of Villanueva in the mountainous northern province of Asturia, immersing herself in the foreign language she loves and has studied since fourth grade. She hopes one day to be fluent, and wants to put her classroom learning to the test. And she wants to visit the Prado; and test her mettle.

Hilary has contemplated such an opportunity for years, and begged for months to be allowed to visit "somewhere they speak Spanish!" It took me a little longer to summon up the courage to make it happen, but the actual logistics came together rather effortlessly. Through friends and acquaintances we managed to arrange a stay with the de las Heras family: Jorge, María, and their three children, Paloma, age 8, and the twins, Iñaqui and Rocío, age 6. Their household includes a housekeeper from Ecuador – immersion aplenty.

Our winter and spring preceding Hilary's departure had various exciting benchmarks, slowly making the trip seem more and more real: getting a passport and airline tickets; sending e-mails, photos, and letters back and forth to Madrid; and buying guidebooks, maps, Spanish phrase books for travelers, film, and toothpaste. And eventually, going to the bank for traveler's checks – the final phase, as Hilary converted her day-camp job earnings into euros. Then the long drive from Maine to Boston and the airport.

For me, the greatest benchmark is the fact that she is doing just what I did at her age, and I remember what it felt like. Between my junior and senior years in high school, I went off to England to work as a waiter at the Rumbling Tum restaurant in Chilton Polden, Somerset. The 300-year-old cottage had been converted to a small, homey restaurant by a retired fireman named John Mancy, and I happened to see his advertisement for summer help. The salary was a pittance; the experience was a boon – and a rite of passage.

It took me several weeks to understand the West Country accent of the local farmers who frequented the Tum, but I was hardly coping with a foreign tongue, as Hilary is. What was disorienting for me then was the sense of distance from home, and familiar customs. I'm certain the clientele was equally disoriented by my accent and mangling of menu items like "tomaytoes" instead of "tomahtoes." They tipped me with sincerity.

What I most remember is the great adventure in roaming the unfamiliar countryside, walking through Thomas Hardy country on my days off, crossing cow pastures and wheat fields and strolling farm lanes that were hundreds of years older than anything back home. And I read Hardy's Wessex novels while I was there, fusing imagined narrative with my images of the real place.

This is an external narrative, however, compared to the internal story unfolding in my experience of parenthood. What I recognize as a great, parallel adventure for Hilary is a disorienting feeling for me, perhaps the same disorienting feeling that my parents had during my Somerset sojourn. How did she come to be the traveler, and I the parent in the home harbor?

I imagine her Spanish narrative. I wonder about the details of her days, the texture of de las Heras domesticity? Do the parents laugh with (and at) their kids? What kind of funny faces do they make at the dinner table? Does the dog talk when he's hungry, like Gus, our retriever? Is there a cat who will sleep on Hilary's bed, like her marmalade tiger named Lulu, who misses her, back home? Do radio stations in Madrid play any of her favorite Dave Matthews Band songs? Does it feel to her, as it does to me, that she is away? Has she been to the Prado?

She telephoned from Asturia yesterday during a trip down the mountain to the village, accompanied by her young charges, Paloma and Rocío. The phone line was deceptively clear, as if she were in the next room, even as she continually fed the phone on her end with euros.

I noticed that she speaks with a new, halting thoughtfulness, like a person who has quickly grown accustomed to preparing every expression, selecting and assembling vocabulary carefully, tentatively. And even though she is communicating in her native language, her sentences are punctuated with "sí, sí," which, I assume, she uses quite a lot in her acquired tongue.

Hilary understands more Spanish than she can use, she says, but even so finds herself frequently pleading "no más rápido, por favor!" She is many miles away, but near in heart and gaining fluency day by day – as am I.

She now knows the feelings of a great journey. And someday, I hope, she will know this wonderful sense of pride in the journeyer felt by a parent at home, as I now do.

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