“The night is young!”
Chances are this is the kind of line you’re used to hearing—perhaps deep in the past as a friend or partner nudged you to join them for yet another round at yet another bar because the sun wasn’t coming up quite yet.
Is it what you’d expect your friend’s 82-year-old father to say? Maybe not.
But it’s the phrase that set the tone for my week with Luis, the octogenarian in question, as he and his daughter, Elisa, led my family and other good pals on a tour of his homeland of Spain. He’d done these tours for several summers, sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of hill towns, museums, paella spots, forts, castles, and more. He and Elisa would plan the itineraries, using their incredible local knowledge to show a small busload of Americans the real Spain. And this summer, the stars aligned, and my husband and I were able to join.
The Man, the Legend
I had spent enough time with Luis when he visited the States to know the man is an extrovert. A retired doctor, he must have had one helluva bedside manner. He loves people, chats them up, jokes with them, quizzes them, and teases them at every turn. Despite his pride in his Spanish heritage, he can sing the French national anthem like a native, school a Brit on Winston Churchill’s policies and teach an American a thing or two about how our Constitution works (he became a U.S. citizen a year or so ago).
Luis is a night owl. Elisa had shared with me that on more than one occasion, she’d phoned him at his home in Madrid to hear him say he was going to spend a “nice, quiet night at home,” only to be pocket-dialed by him a few hours later as he was telling jokes to a small crowd at a café. And then there was the video of him she shared (she and her daughter curate an Instagram account of his antics here) in which he is leading an impromptu chorus of “Volare” on a piazza late at night somewhere in Europe. And then there’s the footage of him disco-dancing in NYC while she sat on the sidelines begging him to please head home already.
What would a week and change under his direction teach me, I wondered? I’m in my 50s, and I often feel as though I’ve lost the thread of life in general and travel in particular. It looks as though I’m ending my run as family “cruise director”—planning a couple of decades’ worth of spring breaks, summer vacations, and random weekend road trips. Our sons are now in their early 20s, and their days of wanting to be schooled by mom about how to stow a roll-aboard bag or to be questioned, “What do you mean you’re ordering another beer?!” are probably fading and fast. I’m proud of the job I’ve done—from Yellowstone to Bergen and back—but antsy and anxious about what’s ahead. Would my husband and I turn into the Couple With Nothing to Say, seated by the window with a view, chewing our food in silence? Would I, with my bum knees, soon be the person carrying one of those canes that converts into a chair as others race past me?
So it was with a swirl of mixed emotions we disembarked our flight in Madrid. We greeted Elisa and Luis and our fellow travelers and hit the road.
Retracing Your Steps
Our van meandered through town squares and to the Casa del Labrador, the prince’s house, where peacocks roamed freely, before arriving at our first overnight stop: Cuenca, an ancient Moorish walled town renowned for its hanging houses that cantilever over a knee-weakening gorge carved by the Huécar river. The bus ride there, switch-backing through the cliffs, was either stunning or sickening, depending on how your vertigo indexes. Due to the narrow streets of the town, our van could only get so close to the hotel, so we all carried our bags carefully over the cobblestones to enter our hotel, Posada de San José. Luis told us about how he discovered this inn, which was a monastery in the 17th century; he had come here as a barely teenage student on a class trip and had always loved the place. It had become one of his traditions to return there whenever possible.
I loved that idea of revisiting old haunts. I tend to think of places we went when our kids were young and recreating those trips—but of course, you don’t want to do that. You can’t do that. If my husband and I were to go to the Southwestern resort where our then-school-age sons once panned for gold, I bet it would be a bust—a bust with many tear-soaked tissues.
But going somewhere where I went as a child, someplace that made an impression on me…? Why hadn’t I thought of that? My mind went to weekends when I was a teenager and my mother and I would go to Williamstown, Massachusetts, to watch their wonderful summer stock. I once sat mere feet away from Christopher Reeve (then at the height of his Superman and Somewhere in Time fame) as he performed—how could I have forgotten those times? I made a note to consider a trip there next summer.
The Little Black Book
We learned about another of Luis’ traditions that first night: He had a little black book. The phrase took my mind in one direction—dating, especially because I knew it had been several years since his beloved wife, Penelope, a food and travel expert, had died.
But Luis’ black book was something else entirely. It was his compendium of important names, carefully written down wherever he went. If he loved a restaurant, the names of chefs, bartenders, and waiters all went into the book so he could reconnect with them on a future visit or network his friends with them. Anyone who impressed him went on the list, from innkeepers (including the ones at the Posada). Keeping connections alive was both a foundation of Luis’ life and an art form.
We saw the book in action again a few days later as our van departed Peniscola, a sun-scorched (in a good way) beach town dotted with colorful umbrellas and overlooked by a forbidding fort that was featured on Game of Thrones. After a morning by the Mediterranean, we headed to Castellón for lunch at Tasca del Puerto. Luis’ excitement was palpable as he directed the van driver to the restaurant—he would be seeing Nacho Boix, the manager, whose name was in the black book. Luis hadn’t seen him since Nacho was a teenager. As our group swooned over our paella lunch. Luis and Nacho were catching up—with intensity. Heads close and faces smiling, the two men looked like two relatives long separated and now getting reacquainted.
Which, as we worked our way through a “one of everything” dessert tray (revealing that the “Which is better, chocolate or fruit?” debate is unanswerable), had me realizing a simple truth. Why allow one’s world to get smaller or one’s social circle to shrink with age? I have been guilty of letting friendships lapse with those who are “out of sight, out of mind.” I’m going to work on changing that with some emails and notecards at a minimum and lean into staying connected “later in life” with all my might.
The Transition Tradition
In Spain, our lunches were typically epic feasts that began at 2 p.m., light years removed my usual beloved but stingy deli tuna sandwich. Jugs of wine flowed freely; plates of croquetas (little breadcrumbed, fried bundles of happiness) were passed; roast lamb, grilled fish, and incredible stews of partridge and-bean stews were gobbled up—yet somehow, we could never say no to dessert. We would emerge stuffed, then stroll past lace-making and ceramic tile workshops, swearing we wouldn’t eat or drink again for the rest of the trip.
But then Luis would always say as we headed back to our hotel, “I will be at the bar having a gin and tonic at 8 p.m.. If you like, please join me.” And then, every night, we would join him indeed. Sometimes, there was dinner afterward other times, we just went to sleep, but that ritual of having a drink and listening to Luis summarize the day was unforgettable. He’d share some historical context to what we’d seen. When we gathered at the hotel bar in Albarracín—a town of steeply winding, narrow streets, figurative door-knockers, and swarms of ladybugs—Luis gave us pointers on where to wander the next morning. He told us about the distinctive ceramics to be found in the area as well as to keep an eye out for Casa de la Julianeta, a charming, top-heavy timber-and-plaster building (this would be where the Keebler Elves would surely set up shop if they ever visited).
This moment to regroup, assess and look forward—as simple as it was, it was a highlight every day after the shuttling onto the van and roving from sight to sight. I have tried to recreate that kind of moment at home since then. It may be with an iced mint tea instead of a G&T, but that “pause that refreshes” at the end of a workday, rather than cracking open the laptop or moving straight into dinner prep, has been a very lovely thing. My husband and I know perhaps too much about our respective office politics, but overall, it’s been a nice bonding ritual.
The Night Is Young
On the last night of our trip, we had an incredible meal at one of Luis’ favorite local haunts in Madrid—Posada de la Villa, where one of the chairs is emblazoned with the name of his late wife to honor her achievements. We all ordered Luis’ favorite roast lamb—but the night didn’t end there. True to his rallying cry, “The night is younnnng,” we headed to the Palace Hotel for a nightcap. We were shown around the grand lobby, which has a delicate domed stained-glass ceiling; some people had a bite of caviar in the same spaces where everyone from Albert Einstein to Salvador Dalí once lounged. Though the gray-haired heads were numerous in our group, Luis was teaching us a lesson in nightlife not being only for the millennial set. Why not head out and about? His philosophy is simple: Spontaneity rules. “You just have to be open to whatever happens,” is his mantra.
Yes, this was the last night of an amazing trip in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but I have tried since our return to embrace the night at least once a week. With the stresses of daily life, it’s so easy to want to retreat home, flop onto an inviting piece of furniture and watch Fleabag. But since Spain, I have been trying to see a little more of the world after dark. One weekend, my husband and I rode the last ferry of the night as it crisscrossed from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens. Last night, we went to a Japanese café’s happy hour to try shochu drinks and play games. Because even as I get older, I want my nights and days to always be—Luis-style—young and open to adventure.