Hilary Stern is washing walnuts as she recounts her story. It’s one that begins 40 years ago at the University of Washington and ends in an unlikely Airbnb in Souto de Mogos, a tiny Spanish village nestled in the mountains on the border of Asturias and Galicia. The town is home to fewer than 20 people but one person is notably missing: Javier González Alonso, the person who inspired Hilary to leave her life in the United States and move to a village where most residents have never traveled to the closest city.
Javier was completing his PhD at the University of Washington while Hilary was studying there. He was her Spanish teacher but soon became much more.
“I fell in love with him,” she says. “We were a couple for a while and then broke up but he was always my soulmate and my best friend.”
Hilary married and had children. But they were never out of touch. When Hilary got divorced, the two began a long-distance relationship that would last nearly 20 years.
“As we got older, I decided that I would come out here [to Souto de Mogos]. He had retired and bought this house because he just wanted to be in a small village in Asturias and live,” she says.
But on his last visit to the US, Javier started to feel sick. He had cancer and it had already metastasized. Hilary moved to Souto de Mogos and took care of him throughout his illness. During this time, she was supported not only by Javier’s family but also by the villagers.
“They were very very supportive of me and every morning I started going out walking with the women of the town. It was really great because before that the only people I knew were Javier’s family,” she says.
“They were very taken with our relationship,” she adds. “In the beginning, because we were the only ones who didn’t farm, they were very worried about us ... So they would share their harvest with us and every time we came to the house, there would be a bag of something they had picked.”
During that time, Hilary and Javier got married. All the villagers were invited. They pooled together their money to pay for the champagne and to buy dinner for a group of folk musicians led by Nela de Bres, a legend of the area. The music group had at first declined to play at the wedding but changed their mind after hearing Hilary and Javier’s story. According to Hilary, “they played from the afternoon until the wee hours of the morning, animated by the dancing and singing of the wedding guests.“
“We thought it was just going to be a small thing but it turned out to be very romantic because we had loved each other all our lives,” she explains.
Sadly, not long after, Javier passed away. Hilary felt lost. “I didn’t really know what to do because I’d made this grand gesture and I was just out here now. I didn’t feel alone but I didn’t know where to go, what to do,” she explains.
In the end, she decided to finish the renovations Javier had begun on a guesthouse. It was slow work but last summer she finally opened the house on Airbnb, the short-term home-rental site which in many cities is criticized for pushing up the cost of rent and hurting communities. But in Souto de Mogos the reaction was the opposite. In a town where almost everyone has known each other since birth, visitors are more than welcome, says Hilary.
“The villagers are very excited and are always asking who’s coming now. They love meeting new people and the fact that I’m here and I can introduce them makes it easier for them to relate,” she explains.
Hilary says some locals have even taken it upon themselves to spruce up the village, with one setting up a park with a fountain. It’s also been good for the local economy. Hilary encourages her guests to support the villagers, pointing out who has extra eggs or produce they may be willing to sell. And for Hilary, the venture is a fun way to meet new people and enjoy her adopted home as a tourist.
“It’s such a beautiful place,” she says. Thanks to Javier, she is one of the remaining 15 or so people who live in Souto de Mogos. It’s not the end though, just the beginning of another story.