Image Gallery Credit: Marcus Liang
Barcelona, September 2017.
The simple task of ordering a drink has devolved into a hilarious game of lingual charades. After watching Lamide, Sam, and Jasmine gesture wildly and search for Spanish words they don’t know. I employ some universal language by pointing at the tap handle. We have a good laugh about it as we enjoy our beers. We are in Barcelona.
Soon, the shop closes, and we are put out on the street. Boom. Clap. Downpour.
Sheets of rain descend upon us. Yellow and red stripes shimmer and reflect in every puddle, echoing the convulsions of an agitated Catalan people. “Si!” is the refrain, a vote for Catalonia, represented by the blue triangle and white star on the flags hanging from every balcony. As I splash my way through the streets, I can’t help but absorb this message of independence as my own.
I gallop through the warm Barcelona torrent. The thick drops burst on my skin with heavy thuds like combusting supernovae. I like this. The universe seems to be embracing me tightly in its glow.
Sopping and giddy, I jump underneath an awning and turn around in a triumphant superhero pose and goad my companions on.
“It’s not that bad. C’mon!”
We are soon playfully bounding through the sodden streets, oblivious to every anxiety that ails us. We scream delightful screams, like children eloping with summer break. Though we play together like careless kindergartners, we have known each other for mere days.
Before you ask: yes I’m being a bit more sentimental than usual. You’re probably shocked.
So what put me in this mood, and how did I make such fast friends?
The answer is simple: eating tapas.
I had arrived in Barcelona expecting to go it alone through Parc Güell, La Sagrada Familia, The Gothic Quarter, and Las Ramblas. I would get my socializing in, I told myself, at the hostel or on the odd walking tour. There would be plenty of time for pleasantries when I wasn’t hustling to see the sights and taking photographs.
Starting at nine o’clock each morning, I pull myself from the clutches of sleep and head for breakfast. The spread is not much to look at, nor is it free – three paltry Euros for bread, fruit, and crepes – but the tables are brimming with life by the time I knock the cobwebs from my head.
I overhear a New Yorker discussing his just-landed flight. I had just come from Brooklyn, which made for an easy introduction. As we both wait for the coffee dispenser, we exchange pleasantries. Though he introduces himself as Nate, I later learn his birth name is Lamide, and his family originally comes from Nigeria.
I find a table to myself, not one for extended conversations at such an hour. I finish my food and nurse my coffee.
Once my digestion is underway, I meet others in the lobby for a free walking tour. Our guide and hostel host, Alberto, runs us through the standard questions meant to proffer acquaintanceship, and we are off to see the city.
Walking tours themselves are not terribly interesting. They leave enough mystery to entice you back to each attraction you see – no doubt honoring an agreement the guide has with museums and shops. You do learn some history, but you will forget it minutes later, triggering frustration and shame about your aging brain. An occasional curio, like colorful statues of nipples where brothels once lay, sticks in your mind as future conversational fodder.
On this particular walk, I even had the pleasure of stepping into a steaming heap of dog and/or horse shit. There is nothing quite so endearing as desperately scrubbing the dookie from your shoes in a historic square’s only fountain.
No, the true enjoyment is not in the sights seen – it is to be had in the happenstansical connections you make with your temporary classmates. Later, you’ll be laughing in with them in a manic stupor while the first traces of your booze rouge arrive.
After our tour is finished and our temporary history teacher abandons his tiring students, thoughts turn again to food and drink. I am stricken by seafood lust and suggest a pilgrimage to Barceloneta beach, a couple of miles by foot. Some members of the group scatter, desperately making calls and texts to meet with friends and Tinder dates.
To my surprise, however, four brave men remain. They are apparently willing to accompany me to the ends of Earth. We embark on a quest for tapas and paella.
We are a ragtag bunch, hailing from three hemispheres, and speaking at least four languages in some form. There is, Lamide, whom I mentioned previously; we have a laugh or two, sharing stories of working in the quagmire that is information technology. Javier, our de facto translator, hails from Argentina. Marcus, the exceptionally spunky and well-traveled Australian, settles into the role of Instagram documentarian. Ibrahim is our bruiser, a mammoth of a man. He is deceptively gentle and kind, a bodybuilding enthusiast, and proudly French-African.
We saunter for miles ’neath the beating sun. Our feet throb as our countenances begin to fill with hangry anticipation. Still, after over an hour of walking, we cannot find anything not resembling a South Beach menu – salads, burritos, quinoa, the occasional burger place. We want to eat, and to have something indulgently Barca.
It would be easy to cave and gorge on overpriced beach food. In our collective wisdom, however, we decide to soldier on. Absconding from the sunny sands and onto a sleepy side street, we read a few menus – Indian, Greek, the omnipresent American. Then, we find it: the holy grail. Mecca. The slow traveler’s wet dream. Messily scrawled on a cockeyed chalkboard is a restaurant menu with no English on it.
In fact, it is written completely in Catalan, and to boot, the owner scarcely speaks Spanish. Javier gives his approval of the menu, identifying what he hopes are cognates. He assures us that we can have a nice paella at the very least, though he cannot guarantee we will not eat something strange and nasty. I am thrilled by this as we are ushered in by our host, who is running the place on his own today. We are the only guests.
Javier engages in a long and gesticulation-based exchange with the owner, and we have apparently ordered.
“I don’t know what the fuck to expect. Most of what he said was in Catalan. He was going on and on about the way the Cava was made. I just went with it.”
I laugh, pleased to be caught up in this cultural experience — even if some is lost in translation. Cava is a locally-made version of champagne. It is quite good and usually cheap as nails, but I get the feeling our host’s carefully crafted and chronicled beverage will fetch a pretty penny.
“Hell, let’s make it rain. It’s not every day you stumble into an empty tapas bar run by a true Catalan. I’ll load up on nutella crepes for the next three days if it means this is the best, most expensive paella we’ll ever have.”
Our first sampling of true Catalan culture hits the table, and we dive in.
The bottle tilts and the liquid flows into my flute, lapping the sides with a golden fizzle. My palate is razor sharp after each swig, radiating with notes of green apple and pear. I await the delightful deluge to come.
The party’s sweaty appearance does not betray our backpacker origins. Looking like peasants holding a king’s court, we groan in synchronized ecstasy as each plate lands on the tablecloth.
It is a spectacular parade of tapas – short, sweet, and loaded with classic hits. We eat tomato bread, croquetas (one order each of the mushroom and squid ink varieties), what is rumored to be the best blackened octopus in the city, and a comically large paella loaded with mussels, crawfish, scallops, clams, and god knows what else.
As the last hearty forkful of rice enters my mouth, I know I’ve made a lasting memory with my newfound companions. We have graduated from students of Barcelona to full-fledged connoisseurs. The court nods in satiety and shares a toast of Cava, except for Ibrahim. He’s tuned tighter than a baby grand and doesn’t mess with the stuff. I’m impressed and slightly envious of his cybernetic form. Maybe I should stick to water, too.
The rest of my time in Barcelona is riddled with the same brand of lows and highs other travelers experience. I see dramatic demonstrations of beauty and strangeness in works of Gaudi.At an uncomfortable pub crawl, I unsuccessfully attempt to mingle with younger hostel-mates who are only interested in partying. I practice my French skills with a bunkmate named Benedicte, and I stumble into a private monk’s quarters in Montserrat with my friend Sam in tow. Each day is filled with experience, mistakes, revelations, regrets, and life.
I am more fond of the connections I make with other vagabonds than of anything concrete about my destination. I’ve had similar experiences in cities ranging from Paris to Miami. The sights and sounds themselves can be grand, but it’s the act of inward and outward investigation that opens the most possibilities for my growth and enjoyment. Travel affords me that.
I get the sense that most travelers have faced scorn from the world for rejecting a conventional life, but we do have each other to lean on in the little moments that add up to treasured memory. We seize the days collectively and make them our playground. That’s the power of human vulnerability; when removed from our daily lives, the veneer of otherness dissolves and we are left with nothing but each other. We connect in droves.
I am usually mentally exhausted when I step upon the precipice of departure, but a strange energy fills my bones in Barcelona. I’m on my way to eat tapas once again with Marcus, Sam, and Jasmine. While they wait outside, I take the elevator to retrieve some cash.
Two girls step in with me, wearing matching striped white-and-black shirts. I want to ask them if they are mimes, but think better of it. They look freshly deplaned, oversized bags in tow. I smile and remember my time here as a tenderfoot.
The elevator silence hangs like a feather, not wanting to be broken. Feeling especially warm towards the newcomers, I break it anyway.
“Would you girls like to join us for tapas?”