In the midst of last year’s oppressive Spanish summer, as heat shimmered across sidewalks baked bare of pedestrians, I found myself standing at the nondescript door of a house in suburban Madrid. I rang the buzzer and was ushered into a book-lined home where I could stay for free — for a week, for a month, even for a whole year if I chose.
Forty-two years ago, as another hot summer drew to a close, the first of more than seventy strangers who have stayed free of charge in the family home of Antonio Mas and Maria Solé, in Madrid’s north-side neighborhood of Chamartìn, arrived. The story of how one ordinary Spanish family opened its front door to the world and asked for nothing in return is one of generosity, curiosity and trust.
It begins with a big German man, Rolf the adventurer, who was cycling solo around the world and fell seriously ill in Madrid. Unable to speak Spanish and not knowing a soul in the city, he appealed to the local Scout headquarters (the European equivalent of the Boy Scouts), where he found two youngsters who could speak a little German — Mercedes Mas, fourteen, and her younger brother Javier, thirteen, two of Antonio and Maria’s three children.
The children brought Rolf home, and a nonplussed Maria promptly showed the ill man to bed before making a call to the doctor: “Look, we’ve got a man we don’t know here in our house and he’s very sick, he doesn’t speak Spanish. Please come.” And so started a tradition that would stretch far beyond adventurer Rolf and into the next forty years.
Rolf the German adventurer, who was the first to stay with Maria and Antonio in 1972.
Next came a small group from the local church that needed help housing a visiting choir. Then it was friends of friends, acquaintances from abroad and university exchange students. Gradually word spread until complete strangers were showing up on their doorstep, always referred by past houseguests who were certain anyone would be welcomed with open arms.
I, a twenty-nine-year-old traveling Australian, learned of Maria and Antonio’s hospitality via a kamikaze pigeon. I’d been standing in a Madrid backstreet, gobbling down a tostada smothered in goat cheese and jam, when that pigeon dive-bombed the head of a chap beside me. Soon, Carmelo Scavone, twenty-two, an Italian student with a goofy sense of humor, was singing the praises of an elderly couple who had lodged him gratis. Perhaps I might like to stay with them, too?
Carmelo had needed somewhere to bunk when he first arrived in Madrid as an exchange student. One evening in late 2012, he struck up a conversation with Maria’s granddaughter, Irene, and soon it was arranged: He would stay with them for ten days.
Maria and Antonio with their daughter, Mercedes, in Milan in 2009.
Carmelo was deeply touched by the couple’s generosity, yet, like many before him, he struggled to understand how Maria and Antonio could welcome outsiders into their home without apprehension. “How can you give your house keys to a stranger?” he asked Antonio one night. Antonio was by then eighty-two and gravely ill, suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s and a crippling back injury. He told Carmelo that that he trusted each person because he or she had been referred to them by one friend or another. That was enough.
An intelligent, bookish man, fluent in five languages, Antonio Mas was born in Barcelona in 1931 and met the woman who would become his wife in 1955, when they were university students in Madrid. Antonio and Maria married four years later and settled into life on the city’s northern outskirts, on Chamartìn’s Marqués de Santillana Street. They shared a passion for books, he working as a prestigious editor and the organizer of several prominent bookstores across Madrid, and she critiquing the latest Spanish books for the national newspaper
ABC as a children’s literature expert. They lived distinguished lives, often brushing shoulders with Queen Sofía of Spain. Maria Sole with Spain’s King Juan Carlos during her annual book fair in 1986.
But at home, they aspired to live like the
Sound of Music’s free-spirited Maria and her seven von Trapp children. Maria Solé wanted a life like her namesake’s, a huge family inspired by music, laughter, travel and multiple languages. But she only had three children and not much money. So she chased her dream the only way she could — by bringing the world to her doorstep.
Over the years the family welcomed a wonderfully strange medley of people into its home: A man from Taiwan who played the acoustic guitar excellently. A Tunisian teen who stayed for three summers. Jorge Carazas, a penniless Columbian political refugee. Two lively Italians, a charismatic Mexican, and an Englishman so tall he had to stoop to hold young Javier’s hand as they crossed the street. It became a game between the children, a competition as to who could find more strangers to bring home with them.
In a way, it was a game their parents played, too. Walking through Madrid one summer, Maria happened upon Noriyuki Morita, a young Japanese man who wasn’t sure how to get to Toledo, some forty miles south. Maria whisked an incredulous Noriyuki home for a quick bite to eat before Antonio drove him directly to his destination. Later, Antonio mused that perhaps their rapid response had been a mistake; he didn’t want Noriyuki to return home crowing that in Spain you need only tell the first lady you meet where you want to go and she’ll take you straight there after offering you lunch. Two years after the phone rang and Noriyuki was on the line: “Yesterday I got married and I’m in Madrid with my wife. We want to go to Toledo!”
Maria and Antonio (right) with one-time lodger Max Keller and his wife Carla in Madrid in 2006.
The couple grew older and their children left home, but that did nothing to stem the tide of visitors. In fact, the line of lodgers became something of a coping strategy, a welcome distraction as Antonio fell increasingly unwell. I had exchanged only the briefest of emails with Maria before she invited me to stay in mid-2013, and it was via email that I learned that Antonio had died on July 9 — just five days before I found myself standing on the family’s doorstep.
Despite her recent loss, Maria, seventy-seven, entreated me to stay, ushering me into her home with the warmth and trust usually reserved for lifelong friends.
On that first day we ate in the little supper room tinged orange by stained-glass windows, at a wooden table lined with benches that could easily accommodate one or ten, and had done so countless times over the years. Maria went to sprinkle salt on her tomatoes, but the shaker lid was slightly unscrewed and the entire container emptied onto her plate. Moments later she knocked her glass, this time spilling water onto a plate of cheese.
Maria said nothing, only lowered her head slowly into her visibly shaking hands. It was a gesture that communicated her suffering more clearly than words could have, her sorrow at losing a man who had stood by her side for more than half a century. She was comforted, she told me, by the couple’s previous lodgers. News of Antonio’s passing had spread quickly, and from all corners of the globe had come a stream of heartfelt notes that served as life rafts amid the grief.
On my second day I noticed his-and-hers sinks in the family bathroom. The light over one had blown out. It seemed like a sad metaphor. But Mercedes, Maria’s oldest child, seemed resolute as we walked to a nearby government office to have Antonio’s death certificate stamped, chatting matter-of-factly about her father’s life and her parents’ lifetime of giving.
Maria in the reading alcove of her Madrid house.
Mercedes balked at the idea of her parents’ altruism. “We have learned five languages, how to play musical instruments, and so many other things, cooking and recipes. We have made many friends and we have a place to stay in so many countries around the world,” she said. “We have opened our eyes. It has brought the world to us and it makes us feel good about ourselves. It’s quite egotistic.”
I struggled to imagine a more selfless lifestyle. But it was clear that, by refusing to accept payment for board or food, the family had received things far more valuable than money could ever buy. Though Antonio and Maria asked nothing of their lodgers, they received the world in return.
In August 2013 the family threw a fiesta to celebrate Antonio’s life, bringing together one-time strangers who had formed unbreakable friendships as lodgers in their home. They sang and laughed and each took home a handful of wisteria seeds to plant in Antonio’s honor. There was no need for a formal funeral. Antonio had been taken away within a few hours of his death by a team from the local university. He’d donated his body to science — one final act of a giving.
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Marnie Galloway is a comic artist and illustrator in Chicago, Illinois. She runs Monkey-Rope Press , a small-run comics imprint, and co-organizes the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo.