Sally’s postcard arrived like a love-letter — not just from her, but from the city she’d been visiting: Santander.

Santander! That beautiful town on the northern coast of Spain where Fate had brought me after college, city of laughing sea and stoic mountains, winter rains and summer mirth, desperate loneliness and oh-so-kind welcome.

Santander! How the memories came tumbling back, like so many disparate, long-forgotten pieces to a beloved puzzle I’d never managed to put together.

First, I recalled the Farol, the lighthouse out beyond the city, from where, forlorn and near despair, I’d braved the winds, stared out at the whitecaps, and strove to think great thoughts. (I’d majored in The Great Books, and so fancied myself a philosopher…)

Then, I remembered the sierra, Los Picos de Europa. On my first backpacking trip there, I’d rested outside a shepherd’s hut, spellbound while early evening clouds crept silently over the pass, then down into the canyon, already dark below. Oh, I’d left Ohio far behind!

Wisps of faces and conversations came back, too. My Spanish friends had despised Americans — at least the idea of them — but had sheltered and tutored me patiently. They’d spoken proudly of having fended off both the Romans and the Moors, only to finally succumb more recently to that fascist, Franco. With whimsical bitterness they pointed to a cannon Franco had used to pound the city into submission now standing as an ironic monument, still aimed at the town center.

Santander had taught me history wasn’t just a captivating story.

Oh, to return to the small mom and pop carnicerías, panaderías, and ferreterías where I’d shopped for meat, bread, and sundries! I’d never escaped without some conversation with the owners, the other shoppers hushing at the sound of my “yanqui” accent, eager to collect juicy gossip for the neighborhood, but nodding in smiling approval as my Spanish improved week by week. “Claro, es maestro,” they’d murmured. “Of course, he’s a teacher.” (They’d revered educators in Spain.)

Yes, it was in Santander that I’d unwittingly begun what became my vocation. I’d taught English at various schools throughout the city, armed with nothing more than my diploma, a contagious enthusiasm, an easy laugh, and a willingness to work hard. It was enough. (It still is.)

All those dear recollections from one silly post card! Ah, but Santander had been an adventure, after all; one where I’d learned self-confidence, accepted humility, fell in love with teaching, and, above all, felt my first real, conscious joy at the simple, profound act of living. Santander made me who I am today.

If I finally have any true, great thought, Sally’s post card from Santander enabled me to assemble it from so many jigsaw memories, and it is this: Adventure — taking risks, traveling either literally or figuratively, feeling lost, depending on new friends, and finding one’s way back home again changed forever — this is one of the great purposes of life, whether you’re rambling on borrowed time or not.

And the only education that matters is not one that raises test scores or promises an ever-elusive financial security. No, real education prepares us, then inspires us to undertake that life-long adventure — to Santander, or wherever.

David Ellison, author of Santander: Rambling on Borrowed Time, retired after 36 years in education to Ajijic, Mexico.

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