One of the perks of dating a travel expert is you might get super cheap and/or free tickets to cool places. Because of some credit card offers I took in the United States, I had enough free airline miles to buy a round-trip off-peak ticket from the U.S. to Europe. And what better person to fly over than your significant other?
Kevin is a virologist and immunologist from the United States and previously had no interest in going abroad. His concerns were similar to what I’d heard from my grandmother and mom (who I tried to convince to take the trip with me but she decided not to because of Ebola. Ebola.):
And because I myself am a horrible person, I bought the tickets and told him, “Deal with the consequences later.” It’s kind of funny, and I haven’t realized this until recently, how much differently I look at life after travelling than other people. It’s just natural to me that someone would quit their job and completely uproot their lives for the sake of going to other countries and experiencing new things. It’s only natural that someone should be given a few weeks of vacation time every year so they can recharge and not hate their lives. After all, that’s a staple of many European countries’ work cultures: vacation is an important part of keeping your workers happy, which makes them productive.
So when I hear people tell me, “next year, next year will be better. This year, I have so many things to do,” I interpret it as, “I don’t have my priorities straight and Brandon should probably force me into doing something that will forever change the way I see things.”
That is the gist of what has happened here.
Kevin was set to land in London and spend a couple days there with his friend Louise, who had also studied at our university in the United States. After that, he was to land in Barcelona on Sunday where I would meet him at the train station and we would spend a few days there before going back to Elche for a week.
“Brandon. I’m not even kidding. I have been abroad for two days and I get it. I finally get it. I feel so cheated. How have I never done this before? The American Dream? It’s just bullshit!” and proceeded to give me an earful on why working hard doesn’t actually get you where you want to go, the people that can or should be on top never are, and being successful does not mean the same thing as being happy. That’s not to say that America is bullshit. But there’s a cultural ideal, I think, that we should study hard, then work hard, then make babies (hard), own a home and repeat the cycle with them so we can continue on endlessly into the future as successful, happy members of society, and that’s just not at all how it works. Kevin had come to this realization for the first time in his life and it was difficult to get him to talk about anything else because he was so blown away (just two days! after landing).
I intended to make the most of our time in Barcelona, so we immediately went to work by buying metro tickets and checking into our hostel. For our first night we had booked a private room, and from then on it was just a dorm-style room to save money. He went through the same stages of culture shock as my grandmother:
“Why do I have to hit the button to make the shower work? Everyone is going to try and pick-pocket us, so I don’t want to bring my wallet. Maybe I should learn Spanish. I don’t understand how any of these roads function. What’s that food? This is so crazy! Also, since when were people here white? I expected to see something that looked like Mexico.” I had to facepalm that last one.
I hadn’t written down any sort of set plan, and instead had us start at the Arc de Triomphe and work our way around the city towards the shopping centers and then down to Las Ramblas (the large street that runs parallel with the beach which is home to a ton of bars, restaurants, and touristy things). When I told Kevin several days prior that we would be walking 10-12 miles a day, he didn’t believe me. Now, he’s all about the walk.
As we passed plaza after plaza, went grocery shopping at El Corte Inglés (which I would not actually recommend because of the high prices), explored tiny zigzag streets and wandered through parks, he was in total awe. And I have to say that Barcelona is my favorite city in the world so far, so I’m a little biased, but it’s difficult not to be. When the sun shines for 2,500+ hours a year, the city is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, and the food and culture is distinctly Catalan, it’s the perfect mix of all the things you could ask for. The price of living is high compared with the rest of Spain, but quite low when you consider that 1.6 million people live there and it’s a major tourist destination.
One of my favorite restaurants of all time is also in Barcelona: Can Paixano. It’s a tiny, hole-in-the-wall bar with a large section for ordering sandwiches made from fresh veggies and cured meats paired with cheeses like Roquefort, and you can order copas of dry/sweet red/white wine to go with your meal. You eat standing because the place is absolutely packed at every point of the day and it’s illegal to eat outside on the streets, but is well worth the visit and probably the best cheap food you can get in Barcelona, in my opinion.
Speaking of cheap food, on our way down to the beach area in the city we stopped to try Kevin’s first bocadillo, a Catalan dish with cheese and meat and vegetables grilled onto a sliced baguette. We also made the mistake of ordering 2 glasses of sangría. I knew, knew not to order anything on this street because it was very touristy and there were only old people sitting on the terrace outside, but some part of my logical brain must have shut down at that point because we were charged FIFTY FIVE EURO for one bocadillo and two glasses of sangría. We nearly lost our shit, but decided that in order to enjoy the rest of our stay in the city we would need to completely forget that it ever happened and never speak about it again.
On our second night in the city, we attended a CouchSurfing event at a bar called TeatreNeu in a neighborhood north of the center of the city. Every Monday, between 50-70 CouchSurfers gather together to eat tapas, drink cañas, and meet other travellers, locals, and expats. And because the world is infinitely small (you don’t believe it until it happens to you), I received a message from a friend I’d made in the Canary Islands during my last trip in 2013.
Remember my host in Oslo, Jonathan? He was CouchSurfing with a host in Las Palmas named Eric, along with Jonathan’s friend, Ádám. The three of them had invited me to go out to beer with them and play pool, and we had a feast at the mall and learned to surf together. Anyway, that Eric sent me a message after I joined the CouchSurfing event online.
“Hey, I just saw you’re going to the event tonight. How long are you here for?”
Eric, as of two months ago, had moved to Barcelona to continue military training. And through total coincidence he’d been keeping up with the event attendees and saw my name on the list.
We showed up before there were a lot of people, and our first task was to get beer. It’s always easier to socialize with a beer in your hands, right? As we were ordering, Kevin pointed out to me, “Hey, that group behind you is talking about languages. You should jump in.”
“Why don’t you jump in?”
“Because I’m nervous.”
I got my beer and turned around to see a girl standing a full foot shorter than me that had caught my intent to speak.
“I heard you guys talking about languages. Mind if I–?”
“Oh, sure!” and immediately what had been a closed circle of people had now become an open and welcoming party. It was that simple.
We went through introductions very quickly and switched conversation partners regularly. The girl I’d first spoken to was Koji, a Korean native who had found work in Barcelona and didn’t ever want to leave. Her friend, a tall pale blonde woman named Vilma introduced herself and told me she was from Korea as well. I hit a moment of intrigue, and then confusion, and then I let it pass. “Oh, very cool! So you speak–” and I was cut off by my friend Eric, who had just shown up.
Reunions are absolutely the best. It’s so strange to see old familiar faces, especially in a totally different part of the world and after so much time has passed. He also introduced me to his friend who was in the military with him. Kevin came over to talk too, and said the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.
“Brandon, where is that girl from?” he asked, pointing to Koji.
“She’s from Korea.” Kevin slapped his hand over his mouth and turned bright red.
“I couldn’t hear what she said at all, like I didn’t understand her so I told her I had no idea where that was.” Raucous laughter from me.
“Go tell her right this second that you know where Korea is.”
“I’ll tell her in a minute, she’s in conversation. But she’s probably thinking, “Oh, that stupid typical American doesn’t even know where Korea is!”
Twenty minutes later, we still hadn’t made it back to her to inform her of his mistake, so I pushed my way through the crowd for another beer and explained it to her.
“My boyfriend over there didn’t hear what you said, but I assure you he knows where Korea is.”
“Ooooooh! Okay,” she said, laughing. “I was like, this guy doesn’t know what Korea is? How does that happen? I just told him it was between the Philippines and Russia.” I was dying, and dragged Kevin into the conversation, and it was his turn to show me up. Vilma introduced herself to him as being from Korea, to which he responded:
“No but where are you actually from?” She was from Lithuania, and I was an idiot for not asking more questions. But I didn’t want to be rude!
The party died down all at once, and we found out it was because the last trains of the day would be leaving very soon. We ran all the way from the bar to the metro and barely made the last train, and then only made the connecting train by six seconds. I love it when things work out.
We were both exhausted and drunk, but in the common room of the hostel where we were able to charge our phones, I struck up a conversation with a group of Dutch people on vacation which went on hilariously until 2AM when I finally went to bed. Kevin ended up staying awake until 4.
Our last day in Barcelona was spent in the Gothic quarter. There’s a great museum there where you can learn via an audio guide all about the city’s history and even visit ruins of the old Roman city beneath the Gothic cathedral which was moved stone by stone from a different location in the city. There are intact pots where the inhabitants of the city made fish sauces, the ruins of a even older church, a winery, and various pools that were heated with hot air coming off the laundry facilities.
For really good budget eats in Barcelona, don’t miss out on Can Paixano. It’s always, always packed, but it’s a total gem in Barcelona that is worth waiting for. There are legs of jamón serrano hanging from the walls, a wine rack, a bar, and a grill all stuffed into a tiny amount of space. You walk to the counter and order a sandwich which isn’t called anything fancy (you just tell them the ingredients and they make it for you, basically) and the guy behind the counter sets out cups equal to the beer of people in your party and asks you what kind of wine you want: red or white, dry or sweet. I go for the dry white every time. And just like that, in a relatively expensive city you get a nice buzz and a full stomach for two on less than €10– and the food is excellent.
Finally, it was time to head back to Elche, where life returned to normal– almost. We spent a lot of time (and an unfortunate sum of money) eating and drinking everything he’d never tasted before. A couple days, we took day trips to the beach or other cities, and I made us some tapas for lunch with smoked salmon or jamón serrano and a chilled thermos of horchata de chufa.
There are a ton of beaches near Elche and they’re all accessible by bus or train for less than 5€ round-trip. The beach at Santa Pola is slightly dirtier-looking than the others because of the type of sand, but is by far the quietest and most calm beach, followed by Arenales del Sol and lastly Alicante, which sports a beach 5km long and plays home to all the people-watching opportunities you could ask for. And there’s a great, cheap kebab place right off the beach!
We also had time to visit the castle overlooking Alicante which I could obsess over for days. The oldest part, which is the central tower, was built onto during the reign of the Moors. After that point when the Christians took the country there were parts demolished and rebuilt, and the most recent additions are the outer walls (18th century).
Speaking of culture! EUROVISION. It’s something a lot of people get really excited about, even though it’s a running joke. Each country in the European Union (more or less, it’s a little more complicated than that) submits a song/music video to a international competition. The songs are performed live during the final day of the competition and then everyone votes online or by phone, and you can’t vote for your own country. The purpose is to build bridges between countries that may be fighting for other reasons or who otherwise have no reason to recognize each other, and this year the competition was literally themed “Building Bridges.” This was also the first year that Australia was invited to compete.