Remembering Lourdes: British ambassador learns of long-lost friend’s passing

The Spanish woman, who generously offered Hugh Elliott food and shelter 35 years ago, died from multiple sclerosis in 1997

Alfonso Arnáiz shows a photo of his sister, Lourdes.
Alfonso Arnáiz shows a photo of his sister, Lourdes.RICARDO ORDÓÑEZ

Lourdes Arnáiz always shared what little she possessed, until multiple sclerosis took her away too soon, at age 32. But she will always be alive in the minds of the people who knew her all her life, such as her brother Alfonso. She will also not be forgotten by someone who only lived with her for five days many years ago: Hugh Elliott, the current British ambassador to Spain.

It is harder for people to give something of themselves

Elliott arrived in Burgos in 1984 at age 19 without the bicycle he had been using to tour Europe. Lourdes, who was his same age, gave him food and shelter until the bicycle showed up, even though she had never met him before. The two never met again, but the story has gone viral 35 years later.

The diplomat was in Burgos for an official visit last week, and he tried to locate the woman who had helped him out all those years ago. His appeal on social media soon surpassed anything he could have been expecting. Thousands of people began asking for Lourdes. And that is how Alfonso Arnáiz, now 63, learned that the British ambassador was looking for his sister, who passed away in 1997.

On Sunday, Alfonso met with this reporter at a cafeteria in Burgos, where he produced two photographs of his sister, a woman with dark, curly hair and a penetrating gaze who is seen posing on the beach during a trip to Gran Canaria in Spain’s Canary Islands.

“On an official visit to the north of Spain, I begin in Burgos and I want to share a story that happened to me during my first trip by bike to the city.”

He said that he had learned about Elliott’s quest to find his sister from Rosa, an old friend of Lourdes’. All the pieces of the puzzle fit together: the ambassador talked about a Canadian man who was there at the bar where he met Lourdes. She had been exchanging letters with the Canadian, although she had not informed her brother about it. Her friend Rosa knew though, and she put a message on Twitter. Elliott read it, and did everything in his power to locate Alfonso, who had been living with Lourdes when the future ambassador first visited the city.

When Elliott visited Burgos, Alfonso was 29. He was working in Segovia and returned to Burgos on weekends. On Friday of last week he spoke with Elliott, who still remembered a few details that Alfonso found significant.

“He remembered the wine I was drinking, my address, and Lourdes’ birthday,” he says. The future ambassador arrived in Burgos on September 9, 1984 and left on the 14th. Two days later, his hostess turned 20.

When Elliott learned that Lourdes had passed away, he insisted on meeting her brother, who appreciates the invitation to come to Madrid. But what he appreciates the most is the diplomat’s drive to raise awareness about the illness that left Lourdes paralyzed the last two years of her life and prevented her from completing her university studies and traveling across Europe.

“Thank you so much for the reaction to my message to Lourdes Arnáiz and for helping me thank her for the unforgettable gesture she made 35 years ago. Here you can see the outcome.”

In the video, Elliott explains that Lourdes died in 1997 from multiple sclerosis and says that he has ”shed more than a few tears.”

The story of Lourdes has drawn numerous other anecdotes from people with similar experiences of solidarity. These human stories have brought some cheer to Alfonso’s heart, whose mother passed away just a few days ago.

He decided to step forward partly to raise awareness about multiple sclerosis, which affects 47,000 Spaniards. But he refused to be photographed so as not to attract attention to himself. His 17-year-old daughter, who is almost the same age as Lourdes when she helped Elliott, “was moved to tears when she saw the ambassador’s videos and found out how nice her aunt had been to him.”

Alfonso knows what it’s like to need assistance while traveling abroad. He was once on a trip to the North Pole in a car that broke down, and was forced to seek help in halting English in Copenhagen. The mechanic who helped him out did not have the right spare part, but he offered a temporary fix that would get Alfonso back to Spain. The repair lasted three years.

Lourdes’ brother feels that times have changed and that few people would be as helpful today as she was. “Who hitchhikes these days?” he asks. “It is harder for people to give something of themselves.”

English version by Susana Urra.


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