The Journey to Salamanca, Spain

After graduating with my Bachelor of Arts Degree in Spanish History and Literature in the Spring of 1986, I was discerning whether or not I would continue my seminary studies at St. John’s Theologate in Camarillo, the major seminary for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles or take a year off to study abroad. Although the idea of priesthood never left, my adventurous spirit was drawn to the excitement of experiencing life in another country and immersing myself in its language and culture. I remember running this idea by my pastor, Msgr. Clement Connolly one day while working at the parish (We had moved from Los Angeles to South Pasadena in 1979 and had become members of Holy Family). I will never forget his response, he said something to the effect of “There is no question about it, what a wonderful opportunity, go!” Little did I know what a difference this decision would have on my life and to this day I look back on those months away from family and longtime friends as formative. The time came for me to choose which Spanish speaking country I would study in. I remember asking my professors and others their thoughts. A few mentioned Venezuela as a place to learn the best Spanish, other countries were proposed as well. Finally, the majority of those I asked unanimously agreed that Salamanca, Spain would be the best place to study. This appealed to me because my Bachelor of Arts Degree was not only in Spanish Literature but also in Spanish History. The decision was made to leave for Spain the following winter. It would be my first trip to Europe and the first experience away from home for a long period of time.

Although I continued assisting at Holy Family Parish on the weekends as a sacristan and whatever the pastor needed, I was offered a part time position as a teacher’s aid for the L.A. Unified School District. The timing couldn’t have been better, as it allowed me to save money for my studies abroad.  

These were wonderful but busy months as I experienced two very distinct environments, the secular work place and the church. It was a great balance which would serve me well in the future.

By Thanksgiving 1986, preparations were being made for my studies abroad. I chose to enroll at the University of Salamanca, one of the oldest universities in Europe and long considered the Cambridge of Spain. The plan was to live with a family and walk to the University for classes. The excitement was building up, and of course, I must admit, some anxiety about living in a different country and experiencing a new culture.

Msgr. Connolly suggested that I leave one month earlier to travel around Europe before arriving in Salamanca to begin my studies, so I decided to visit Italy, France and Portugal. This proved to be a great idea!

By February 1987, I embarked on an Iberia flight to Spain from LAX and said good bye to my parents and family. I would not see them for nearly 6 months! 

That first month I traveled to Portugal and visited Lisboa and Fatima. From there I traveled by train through Spain and France staying several days in Lourdes and visiting the charming towns in the Basque region of France and its breathtaking coast. I arrived in Rome before Palm Sunday where I would spend 3 weeks, the longest of my visits. Thanks to Msgr. Connolly I was able to stay at the North American College, the American Seminary in Rome which sits atop the Janiculum Hill overlooking Vatican City.

It was such a blessing to be in Rome for Holy Week! Thanks to Cardinal Timothy Manning, who had retired at Holy Family Parish, I was able to attend all the Holy Week Services at St. Peters Basilica. I could not believe how close I was to St. John Paul II for most of these celebrations!

During these three weeks in Rome I met several wonderful seminarians from New York, Boston and Philadelphia. They were my tour guides when we visited Assisi, Florence, Siena and many of the basilicas and historical sites in Rome.

Those weeks went by so fast and soon I was on a plane from Rome en route to Spain to begin my studies. I arrived in Madrid and took the train to Salamanca to meet my host family for the first time. They lived in a very spacious apartment, within walking distance from the Plaza Mayor and the University. I was greeted by Soledad and her husband Geronimo. Then I was introduced to their three children: Jose, Isabel and Raul. There was also another student living with them from Germany, her name was Judith and we became good friends. I arrived just before the main meal which is served each day at around 2:30 in the afternoon. In honor of my arrival, Soledad cooked the most delicious Paella I ever had and it was then I realized that I was indeed fortunate to be living in a home for several months with a superb cook! Within a short time I also realized that the true blessing was to have been assigned to live with a very warm and loving family. To this day, I consider them my second family.


My daily routine rarely wavered over the following months. Monday through Friday I was up by 7am and served a simple breakfast of café con leche (coffee and milk) breakfast cookies with marmalade and fruit. By 8:30 I was out the door and would walk to the University which would take about 20 minutes. Classes started at 9. The courses consisted in Spanish Grammar, Spanish History and Art.  My classmates came from all over the world: England, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Austria, France, Japan and the United States. At 11 we were given a 45 minute break and our daily ritual never altered….. we would go the majestic and very famous Plaza Mayor for Spanish coffee and pastries. There we would sit at one of the many outdoor cafes and socialize while absorbing the architecture of this 18thcentury gem. After this respite we returned to the University to resume our classes which ended at 2. I then walked back home to join my newly adopted Spanish family for a delicious meal, which was then followed by a good nap! This was at the time, an unbroken Spanish tradition and I couldn’t break tradition!

After a short nap I would study or go to the University Library to do some research. At about 8:30 or 9pm we would all have a light dinner before going to bed at around 11:00. 

On the weekends the University offered excursions all over Spain, which I enthusiastically signed up for. We visited Toledo, Avila, Segovia, El Escorial and many other towns of historical and cultural interest. Soledad would pack me the most delicious sandwich for lunch, my favorite food even to this day! She used the freshest bread, cheeses and Spanish meats. I soon became the envy of the students when lunchtime arrived!

These were very special times, they were transformative; appreciating the culture and life of others, learning how to listen to those from diverse backgrounds, viewing and experiencing life through another lens. As I look back, it was an education beyond the world of books!

More to follow……..



Susana Nieto