Ah, there it is. I collapsed in the torn up bus seat with the smell of bourbon still tracing my final hours of farewells. My stomach was churning the collective week of mayhem and puzzle piece memories… I imagined I was on assignment. Maybe a call from headquarters telling me to find the elusive boots of Spanish Leather in Madrid. Or follow the rumours circulating about the man known only as ‘Tamango’ in Torino. Or uncovering the mystery of the rolling stones in Leon. It was a bit of a blur, my intentions. The last few months had not been stable and rigorous refurbishment of the mind was needed.
Why was there a loose sock in my pocket? Polaroids in my journal with scribbled markings on the back? What did I leave in the hastily packed shoebox of a room in Kilburn that I had called home? Ah, all pieces of different puzzles. No matter. It was 10:30am, my bus was ready to depart and an expired residency card signified my time was over in London. For now at least. Too much was left undone for the ink to be dry.
The heatwave was belting down obstacles at every turn. The people turned out to be the hardest to predict, mobs of sweat coated, aggravated and caffeine deprived bodies battering into each other to steamroll their path from A to B. Alas, I finally made it. Seated on the L080 to Antwerp—Two hour wait in one of my many bucket-list bus terminals..—then the N781 straight to Barcelona. Thirty Four hours later.
The exposure levels were decreasing every yard the bus steamed towards the border. London was a city without pity. Ambulance rides, leg infections, the London eye, loss, excess, alcohol, sin, heartbreak, off licenses, family, friends, that street the Beatles crossed—it’s the city of candy with a couple of nails hidden throughout.
I glanced around to see a few filled seats. A few families, some solo travellers, a couple here and there. I glanced past the empty seat next to me. Across the aisle was a woman looking drearily out the window in a trance. She was bouncing her infant son in perfect time on her knee. The boy is unaffected by the movement. His head was fixed indifferently on the passing traffic with the same glazed eyes as his mother. Ah, this unforgiving city has a funny way of causing everyone to hit mid-life simultaneously.
My head was resting against the window as I allowed the fatigue to finally catch me. There was 34 hours between myself and the coast of Barcelona. After the week of blood, sweat and tears that filled each fare-thee-well. I was ready to relax, to reboot. Of course, when you choose to live via the Void, such possibilities simply do not exist.
…It was a few hours later, I was beginning to drift off completely when we suddenly jerked to a stop at the ever popular border control. I must’ve had slept through the security check a few hundred metres before. Driving through the maze of wire fencing and metallic reflected sunlight against everything—at first I thought I was still dreaming, maybe wandering on the set of Children Of Men.
I was tired. My mind was stretched to its absolute limit. I staggered through the doors, my legs were still recovering and needed more time. As we walked one-by-one to the counter I looked around to see most people were holding the once coveted Burgundy United Kingdom passports, the thought occurred to me that soon this process will take a lot longer.
It was only a few hours into the night when it hit me. Not a thought. No, I was jerked awake by the bastard in front of me crushing into my already battered knees. Since we had switched buses in Antwerp there was a travel villain I had attained for my own sanity. He turned around—I couldn’t make out a face in the darkness but I could tell he was trying to see what was throwing a wrench into his comfort. In his silhouetted shape threw his thumb up as if to say “all good?”. Before I had a chance to reply he had already turned back, comforted by his own justification. He muttered something in French or Belgian and fell back asleep.
Thirty three hours is a mighty long time to ponder things in this position— it’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to purposefully write for a rhyme or reason. When you’re tall, travelling on a bus, sit, at, the, front.
It takes a lot to pretend to understand the language and follow the pack in the designated food stops. As a precaution I locked on to a bloke wearing a hi-vis hat as my beacon of warning. Hard to miss the highlighter bouncing up and down towards one of 7 identical looking buses at the same stop. The rest areas were identical; A few fast food franchises, a gas station, a convenience store and a bar if you’re lucky. Some of them are open if you’re luckier.
I always consider the workers here. Every day facing the string of people they’ve served a thousand times before. People at different points of a journey, a holiday, going anywhere but there. Working in a summer purgatory— perpetually at the stop but never the destination.
Gazing through any one of these stops and you’ll see the same cast of characters, families on holiday have the same look all around the world. Solo bus travellers in their solitary headphone worlds or face timing whilst inhaling a meal. The nicotine fiends breathlessly powering through as many cigarettes, bottles and bathroom breaks as possible before the bus departs. The couple that absolutely must be next to each other at all times, the tethered grasp can only be broken for toilet breaks and to take photos of each other in an unquantifiable amount of poses. That strange bloke who constantly stares at random fauna and walks with his arms crossed behind his back. There’s always one, and they’re always travelling.
Spain – Barcelona
We had finally arrived, it was 6pm the following evening, the driver carefully tossed everyones luggage whilst he held a half burned cigarette between his grinning lips. I scanned the space underneath the bus where my bag had ridden. Determined that my ride would’ve been less cramped if I rode with the storage. I was glad to see my battle-worn backpack fall impotently on the floor in one piece.
Barcelona, the city that had everyone I knew telling me ‘Beautiful city! Watch your back’.
Mind Your Surroundings
The timeless lesson from Ra’as Al Ghul; ‘Mind Your Surroundings.’ In Spain, the law classifies theft of property under the value of 400 euros to be a misdemeanour. As I carried two years of my life on my back and my trusty brown suitcase in my hand, I began the unsteady walk to the taxi rank, a thirty minute walk was not on the cards.
I noticed three or four groups of the younger crowd surrounding the bus terminal. No luggage or eye on the arrivals board. It was like a nature documentary of apex predators staring down their prey of newcomers. Maybe it was the sporadic sleep and bruised up knees that were making me irritable and eager to blame. Or the countless warnings I had received from people who had never been here telling me to watch out. It didn’t matter, the mind was always correcting itself, ‘It’s a matter of keeping the face neutral. Look down. Look calm. Walk like you’re returning and not arriving.’ Over-thinking paranoia is poison, there was no time to see into the workings of the infamous Barcelona Pickpockets. For now.
I arrived to the hostel and checked in. The nostalgic universal steps of the check in. Present passport, state your name and booking number. Give them the currency, receive the keycard. People smuggling alcohol in backpacks nonchalantly walking past reception with the subtlety of a gunshot, good times. After dropping off the bags and showering I felt the need for a celebratory beer to wring in the new country.
The rooftop bar was full. Younger crowd, some looked way too young for an environment soaked in alcoholic nothings. My perceptions are changing, everyone younger than me has statutory written all over them. They were seated around playing one of the few games you find across the hostel landscape. The long table filled with first timers getting into the concentrated crash course of personalities and recycled sentences.
I bought a couple of beers and watched them dance around the questions about who each of them are. What brought them here, what’s their favourite colour. The awkwardness is usually derived from the ones who are there to make themselves laugh rather than meet new people. It was like watching an AA meeting in reverse. The poor woman running the whole ordeal, she was trying to establish connections in a storm of hormones and overconfidence. Ah, the old school ways have no effect in the tinder-age.
I made my way down to the second bar the hostel had. It was on the second floor in a re-surfaced auditorium that had been converted into a bar/common area. There was still a few things that needed to be done in this place. A few rooms were locked or under renovation, it was like beta testing hostel. The friendly Canadian bartender who would end up being a new family member on this travelling circus was straight to the point about the unique vibrations this particular hostel had been showcasing.
I was swinging on the bar stool laying out my usual sarcastic laden commentary on my surroundings. The bartender introduced herself as Rose. The eclectic bond of loathing for the spoiled was immediate. We introduced the reasons we had arrived in Barcelona. We compared aspects of our lives and I felt the immediate family vibe. I was still reeling from the psychological shell shock that London had provided. Why did I have that one sock…
Anyways, she was dealing with the annoyances of a long distance relationship, but their story was one you’d find in a fairytale. I laughed and shared my jaded perceptions on the matter. Modern love is a goddamned moving target. Yet, theirs is certainly one of the good ones. This friendship was perfectly timed. So many people you meet on the road appear with good intentions, but ultimately reveal the shallow side of just wanting to collect the basest of connections. Rose was the first of a few people on this journey through the continent that would defy this rule. A true person in a sea of caricatures and shadows. Luckily she was not the last, but more on that later.
‘Well…’ she began with dramatic bravado, ‘for the past week, there was some kind of, choir festival so most of the hostel was full of children.” as she took a sip of water a young bloke walked up next to me and asked for a plastic cup. Robotically and without hesitation she picked one up and handed it to the kid who spun around rebelliously and trudged off with a flick of his hair.
She leapt straight back in, “And then! right after the choir kids leave this school group turns up!” She motioned to the auditorium where I had to look twice to realise. Ye Gods. Every table was surrounded by them. Teenagers. That did explain the moment on the roof where half the table stood up from the drinking game upstairs reasoning that they weren’t allowed to drink…it makes more sense than the amish theory I had been contemplating.
This revelation triggered a string of gunshot memories from London. 18 months of memories spent in the ‘cheapest’ hostel in London. It was definitely not for the squeamish, it was about as safe for children as a bible camp.
“Go to Nevermind” She told me, “It’s got a skate park and a really cool vibe.” What could go wrong with four wheels and alcohol.
The Last Supper
You never forget the first night in a new city. It’s not the romantic tryst you imagine. A combination of expectations and glass shattering realisations colliding a high speeds— it’s enough to give your perception a potent case of whiplash. You see a different shade of the city after the tide of tours and off-brand street-sellers retire for the evening. The city wipes off the make up. Making way for the natural imperfections, there’s nothing more beautiful than the flaws of a great city.
I went straight down past reception. I was wearing a pair of Jerusalem style sandals, a colourful tank-top, zipper jean shorts with a bright and reflective London tan. I had run out of time to properly select and train a squire to go forth and alert the townspeople that “La Tourista” had arrived, and was wandering alone somewhere in the maze of Barcelona.
The hostel was a few blocks north-east of the Gothic Quarter. The heat was heavy enough without the extra weight of atrophying leg muscles. I was right on the corner of a major shopping district on Passeig De Gracia. Head left and straight for the square, I think. The street structure was slightly skewed in Barcelona, each main road had a slight twist before continuing onward. Not for the easily lost.
The cover of night had brought out a truer shade of life to the streets. A game of dodging the bustling array of local socialites, schools of travellers following a single leader with the GPS coordinates and the old schoolers with physical maps. Some scattered locals, most were travellers audibly discussing which one of the; “Only 8 Tapas Places That Locals Don’t Want You To Know” they’d be heading to.. It’s not a true list unless it has unequivocal superiority to any other manifest. I kept repeating the directions in my head, counting the streets as I followed the loose instructions I could still recall. Adamant to avoid the awkward fumbling out of the phone. Spinning around to find a compass response and mouthing the street names with a poor accent and confused eyes.
There were a new type street vendors slithering against the crowd. They usually appear after-hours. Their particular customers only came out in the neon light. They’ll speak only to the selected targets they’ve spotted from afar. You always hear them before you see them. Whispers from every angle in the bustle of hustle, “cocaina, weed, cerveza..” as if it’s advertised, just for you. I turned left on the other side of a major square which beard a name I knew at the time but was lost after twenty minutes. There were still a few shops closing up for the evening. A few beggars with cardboard signs sat and stared vacantly past the horizon as the indifferent crowd avoided them. There was a distinct whiff of petroleum and weed in the air, thick smog cascading from mouths and exhausts. Some traces of a forthcoming storm cut through the aroma. I shrugged it off, no chance of rain after the weeks of summer heat berating the continent. The heatwave had dried up all expectations.
The vibrance, the hustle, the colour, the tropical town with an imported beach. Every second storefront was a late night restaurant, crammed with late-night gatherings of families, friends, colleagues. They spilled out and brought the party to the streets, the music was bouncing across each narrow street. The cobbled walls standing for generations, it’s a lovely chaos to inhale.
Getting past the shopping district was enough to begin seeing the oft talked about small bars. Sequentially placed with each offering a certain spin on the genre. Walking on the verge of the Gothic Quarter I saw a few salsa dancers shaking up the otherwise empty dance floor. It was a Monday, even the party cities need a break. The subsequent bars on this narrow road had chalkboards detailing drink specials and beer selections, live DJ’s and tapas, in English. I realised that the conversations passing me were all in English, I hadn’t heard any Spanish except for the night sellers’ whispers. Looking around I realised I had wandered into the main vein of Tourist Town, I was here to see Spain, hear Spain. OK, it was time to get the phone out and fi- WAIT. Is that a Guinness sign?
I had to make some changes…There I was. Sitting in an Irish pub. In Barcelona. The wooden and familiar countertop supporting the array of locals and a familiar range of British expats. They even had the fluorescent lightbulbs imported from a Wetherspoons. I was sipping a Guinness and watching the muted TV above the spirit shelves showing some, Canadian curling, I think…
The Scottish revellers next to me were regaling about the World Cup Final which was still simmering in conversations. It was a wormhole to that familiar tranquility. The travel tactics have to change on a moving landscape, no safety net when it’s just you and a bag and no back-up. I could stay in the comfortable abyss of repeating my surroundings. Or try something else.. I asked the barman where to find ‘Nevermind’. He laughed at me, and said bluntly ‘You’re next door to it lad’ he motioned to my quarter empty pint ‘want another?’. ‘No’ without hesitation. I drank one last mighty gulp of the stout and walked out. Leaving behind the remnants of the only pint of Guinness I’d order in Spain.
Nevermind was quiet for a Monday evening. Everything inside was dimly lit, a decent grunge vibe with the twist of having a skating ramp in the corner and old gig posters torn precisely. Graffiti plastered the walls. Behind the bartenders was an array of prepared tapas bowls to be served with the drinks. The scene was quiet and without subtitles… The bartop was littered with empty bottles and a few Spanish groups having an insulated chat. A few groups of travellers scattered around the tables from another hostel down the road. Speaking their languages occasionally looking towards the skating ramp hoping for a show. I struck up a conversation with a couple of travellers from home who were on the beginning of their backpacking journey. We traded a few jokes and bought a few rounds.
Ugh….. I cannot lie dear reader. I didn’t talk to anyone. Yes there were travellers in that bar. Yes, they traded stories. Just not with me. They were trading stories of their beginnings with other fresh travellers who had evidently just arrived off their flights. Joking about the things I used to when I was freshly stamped. To be honest, I sat at the bar, wistfully passing comments to the bartender who was equally stuck in the hum-drum repetition… That was how it was there, no magical union. Just me, a beer, and an overactive imagination.
Honestly, who wants to hear about my night sitting alone in the bar and watching life occur? The painful disconnect of finding oneself in a foreign land with no real connection. Or maybe that’s where I need to explore. The grungy and honest side of the travellers coin. There is so much to gain from the beautiful acknowledgement of life’s gravity. I was different now. I needed a new stimulus.
The conversations tend to repeat in these circles. Some people develop these monologues, crafting together highlights and lowlights of their travellers identity. The right filters and the right punchlines, like an audible instagram post. Each time it’s recited it becomes sharper, cleaner until it’s entirely memorised. All too often you’ll find yourself talking to a fellow nomad in the hostel halls or communal kitchen or if you’re lucky enough—the hostel bar and the all encompassing question is asked, “So, what brought you here?”. Each tale is filled with familiar, modern day melodrama, mixed with the sobering realisation that we are all living similar lives of struggle and mystery. The origin story, your own little monologue. It’s the bread and butter of the international wanderers. I was done with that for a while. I had spoken my monologue too many times.
Follow The Constellations
I must’ve been quite a sight, a lazily rolled cigarette was dangling from my dumbfounded lips as I searched feverishly for a sense of direction. The bubbles had made their way north and I was quite a few sheets south. 1:00am is not the best time to be new in a city with no direction and a flat battery. More beast than man, stumbling along with the careless frivolity of a Londoner. It’s not good out of the natural habitat. Adapt and survive, when the sceneries change you have to snap out of style.
I spotted the Guinness sign next door and knew at least the first turn. The streets had populated in my absence. The crowd was growing wilder as the hours had passed. The night was just beginning for most. The quieter cafes were now crammed to the brim with more mixtures of locals and tourists than ever before. The BPM of the city was raising with every tick of the clock. I was in no state this evening. It was only meant to be a few beers instead of a profound relapse into the London patterns. Shit. Was it across the square and top the left..or was it right.
AH! The McDonald’s bags are plentiful on this side. Go towards the revellers drunkenly eating fresh fries. I remember the golden arches on the corner near Taco Bell when I had to turn off the main street. The street names were far too similar and out of focus at this point. I stopped a young couple and fumbled the hostel keycard out and asked if they had known how to get back to Passeig De Gracia.
The gentleman, dressed in a button up and matching skinny jeans. He had thin face and symmetrical fade, squinted at the sight of me, he tightened his grip around his partners hand. He shrugged his shoulders before pointing in the general direction I had come from. His partner was groggily laughing along with a joint between her fingers, she seemed happier and offered a toke spurting out “Tu.Tu?”… Before I could answer the bloke spoke his first words in english, ‘NO!’ Before leading her off into the squares crowd. Oh fuck this, I thought to myself. Use the franchises.
The glowing international franchises were the guiding lights. The modern day constellations to find a sense of direction. Pilots still have to learn how to navigate with the stars after all, and looking up from the centre of the square I saw only a slight twinkle of the moon behind the smoke and neon sky. No, the capitalist stars of the modern city were the way to direct through foggy nights. It was chaotic in the square. Not mean, just busy. Between the walking crowds, bike riders and skaters. I saw a few street performers playing tunes onto deafened ears with a few coins scattered around them. The fountains had a perfect mix of travellers and locals laughing and drinking out of paper bagged bottles.
After finding the right corner I was back on the tracks. The McDonald’s heralded the turn I needed. Finally finding familiarity in the drunken and tired confusion. I spotted the other McDonald’s across the road from the hostel further down the road and finally felt a bit of control. I headed up to the second floor of the hostel where Rose was packing up for the evening. She was surprised I made it back before close and offered me a drink. ‘No’ I seem to recall mumbling. I was exhausted and over-served already. As I said goodnight she called out ‘Oh by the way I’m going to Girona in the morning, You should come! It’s meant to be amazing!’ This sounded like a better plan than taking a sightseeing bus and going on the rigid track, ‘Sure! Sounds like a plan’.
The Barcelona Baptism
I woke up a few hours later to the battering of rain on the windows. The first rains to have come in weeks according to several staff members of the Hostel. It looked nasty, but it wasn’t going to deter me I thought. I was trying something new, I’m going to Girona and not even the rains will stop me. I rolled a morning cigarette and went to the rooftop. One of the school kids was FaceTiming next to the door leading to the outside balcony. His eyes darted at me before nonchalantly continuing his in depth description of rain. There was no one out there, I ran under the mesh cover and felt small droplets slip through the holes of the net.
The blackened clouds looked nasty, but rushed. They moved like the tide across the sky. As the smoke bellowed and the cigarette got soaked I thought over the events of the night before. Fresh eyes are needed to get on with everything. Letting things go and simply be present for a while. Take on the Void as a friend once told me. I dropped the cigarette and walked from under the cover, feeling the heavy droplets bounce off me. I raised my arms in a triumphant defiance. Yes, this was going to be a hell of a rebirth. The best part was, it was only day two.