A Visit to the Old Stomping Grounds

My Dad is relatively young for someone who is dealing with dementia at only 66 years of age. Dementia isn’t just a problem in its own right; it’s a symptom of an underlying disease and most people associate it with Alzheimer’s. Dad doesn’t have Alzheimer’s; his dementia affects a different area of the brain but has many of the same effects. It started to show a couple of years ago when he would forget words and would work around them by describing the thing he couldn’t name. In recent years his memories have started to fade as well. When it was time to take this trip I knew I had to do my own investigating before we left.


I’ve largely avoided going through my mother’s things since she passed away almost two years ago for obvious reasons of course, but one big practical one: like many baby-boomers, she had a lot of stuff. One box, however, caught my eye because it held stray bits and pieces from our time in Spain. Menus, receipts, lots and lots of maps, postcards, patches, hand-written notes. It was from that detritus from the two years we spent here that I pieced together the itinerary for Dad and me.


We had only two stops in mind today: our old address and the international school my parents helped found. Neither one of us had any expectations about what we would find, and in fact I expected it to be a bit anticlimactic.


Our old apartment is located on Paseo de los Tilos in a suburb well above “el diagonal,” the major artery which divides the southern part of the city from the north. We took the metro as far as we could and walked the rest of the way through serene parks and green open spaces.

“Do you remember any of this?” “No, I don’t. Sorry,” came the rather short reply. That question always brings about a bit of defensiveness from him; understandably, he’s frustrated by his own inability to recall and doesn’t like to be reminded of it.


In my childhood memories our building was always green. I had a memory of being in the park across the street and looking up through the trees to see the outline of the building set against a blue sky. We had made our way into a quiet side street and when I looked up, there was that outline, minus the green.


We were standing outside, looking up at what used to be our porch, when an elderly man came out. It was plain from the look on his face that he was clearly wondering why tourists were taking pictures on his turf. I tried to explain our reason for the visit and his steely eyes displayed doubt. He folded his arms and asked for our name. I told him, and he said simply (in Spanish, of course), “Well. I don’t remember you.” I had no answer for him so I just nodded and smiled awkwardly and kept taking pictures, suppressing the urge to laugh when Dad replied with some irony “Well I don’t remember you.” Eventually we felt sufficiently uncomfortable and left, and he followed us down the street with this eyes.


We wandered east toward the school, and along the way came across a beautiful convent built in the 12th Century. Two floors of columns and arches form a square around a peaceful garden and fountain. It was lovely, but by the time we found the school we were exhausted and impatient.


Benjamin Franklin International School was founded by a group of ten American parents, including my own. Dad was the treasurer and helped them get their financials off the ground. It’s moved and grown in the past two decades and now takes up more than a block in a quiet suburban neighborhood in the hills looking down on the rest of Barcelona.


From the looks of it, there was only one gate. We buzzed. No one answered. There were no children and it was dead quiet. We decided to walk up the hill and see if we could see any more of the school. We tried yet another gate and got yet more silence.


It’s funny now to think we were on the verge of leaving when I finally asked a woman through the bars of the school if we could talk to someone. We must have looked questionable because she regarded us for a moment and then asked why. I explained as best I could and her face lit up. She waved over another woman, who was American, and she told us how to get to the administrative building. Dad asked her where she was from. Iowa, she replied. Small world.


As soon as we entered, we met the principal of the school. I explained our story and he immediately took us to meet David, a teacher who’d been with the school since the very beginning. David’s eyes lit up, and so did Dad’s.


The rest of our time was spent touring the grounds while kids burned off energy under the watchful gaze of teachers reigning over chaos. Dad and David talked about the other people involved in starting the school and their whereabouts. I could tell Dad was impressed with the amount the school had grown and the facilities that were now available. He was happy; this was something he had helped start and it was now so much bigger than they ever imagined in the beginning.
After meeting one other teacher Dad was familiar with, David walked us down to a local restaurant hidden down a side street and we continued our talk over paella and shrimp omelettes topped off with ice cream and coffee. Lucky for us, David had plenty of time today because it happened to be his slow day. Before leaving us, he told Dad, “I never would have forgotten your name, Scott, because you were so important for this school. You did so much and it’s so wonderful to see you again.”

  4 comments for “A Visit to the Old Stomping Grounds

  1. Thelma stibitz
    May 22, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    Thanks Sara for taking Scott to the Barcelona old neighbordhood and the great job of writting this blog

  2. Amis
    May 23, 2014 at 3:04 am

    What an amazing piece, Sara. I was really moved reading this. Tell your dad I said hello. Best wishes for you both on this journey.

  3. Nancy
    May 26, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Funny how we forget that what we do has far reaching effects. I came to work at BFIS less than 10 years ago and stayed for 2 years. I met a group of the expats who worked alonside of me and who became family to me. Because of our experience at BFIS we met our partners, had children, got married. In other words, the paths of our lives took a beautiful turn simply because we moved there. Some of us left BFIS for America, others moved on to other international schools, etc. however, we all return to BCN and keep in contact with core staff. I myself stay in contact with one of the gems of BFIS-David Magana and do not allow more than 2 years to pass before returning. My neighbor in Pedralbes have become family as well! Please tell your father thank you for helping found BFIS. Besides it making a difference in the lives of children it also made a difference in the life of this transient educator. Namaste…..

  4. Cima and Bob Balser
    May 27, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Dear Sara – What a surprise to receive David Magana’s message with the link to your Blog site. Both real joy to hear from you and real sadness to hear about your parents. Yes, we were one of the five families who founded The Benjamin Franklin International School way back in 1985.
    I honestly can’t remember who convinced your father, who had no children needing a school – you were happily attending a very posh and well regarded nursery school – to get involved in our wildly innocent scheme to start an international school. But not only did he spend countless hours in countless meetings, working on what was our shakey financial status, with barely possible prospects, but he was so generous with his time, and so creative with his possible solutions, we were actually able to buy a building, hire a director who hired 17
    teachers, maintain the staff of the school we replaced, and – miracle of all, open the doors of BFIS in September, 1986, with 150 students.

    Then, not only did your father continue to attend all the frenetic Foundation board meetings, often getting so frustrated with our bickering he threatened to quit, but didn’t – but your mother, bless her, also started helping out in the office while you were in nursery school. Both your mother and father attended the meetings, and their input and help will always be remembered by those of us who sat at that long table in the school dining room night after night, trying to get it all right.

    Aside: Early on, we found that part of the bureaucratic morass we got through so easily was because our “President” was Opus Dei. That obviously required a complete overhaul of the structure of the board.

    Our dismay cannot be overemphasized when we learned that your parents were leaving Spain. I personally never got over loosing them. We still have photos of their farewell party, as we handed them parting gifts which I and Margarita Ortado, a parent, and dear friend, spent days trying to get the best the school could afford.

    We did keep in contact, and when I had to take our son to the Mayo Clinic, we stayed with your parents both before and after our Mayo Clinic treatments. What gracious hosts they were. Your mother actually drove us to and picked us up at the Mayo Clinic.

    I have one particular memory of your father mowing that vast front lawn in front of the house.

    We were heart broken to hear of their divorce, but did keep in touch for quite a while. Now I just can’t remember how we lost contact. Maybe your mother changed her email and we didn’t have your father’s address?

    And now, after all these years, we hear of all of you again. You must be a lovely person. You certainly were an adorable child.

    Please know that in all of our embedded memories of certainly one of the most important adventures of our lives, the founding of BFIS, both your parents are right there along with us.

    Much love to both you and your father, and more than just a nod up there to your dearest mother,

    Cima and Bob

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