The rain was still dripping off my clothes as I silently squeaked through the still halls as I began the morning ritual. Eighteen months of living in a hostel does come with it some advantages in unexpected manners, for instance when it comes to moving silently in a dark room filled with international snores. I found my bed with my backpack strewn at the base and began feeling for a change of clothes and a microfibre travel towel that was well overdue for a clean. The rain was still battering the window and city beyond.
You can never be too fussed with the quality of a washroom, a shower is a shower and the road is no place for grand expectations. It was clear from the get-go that these rooms were not built for travellers. The whole area was reminiscent of a surrealists depiction of a sports locker room. The few shower cubicles were raised above the ground and scattered throughout with no real care for symmetry. Toward the back were two closets that had been shabbily converted into makeshift toilets. I rummaged through the pile of clothes I had blindly collected from the room and pulled out the silver watch that had been my only consistent travelling companion — 6:30am… Ah, there’ll be no interruptions in these hours.
You never really get used to showering with shoes. It’s a necessary evil of course, after you catch the sight of how some travelling compatriots treat their feet, you’d be idiotic not to. Your standard for what constitutes ‘quality’ drops the longer you move around anyway. Hell, sometimes having flowing water with a semblance of temperature control was better than sex. The one I was about to enter was a lazy hand-job at best. The ragged curtain barely covered the doorway and my taller stature with the shoes led to my eyes being a cut above the shower and inches from the rooftop. The mechanism was shot, or maybe it was possible for someone to wash in three seconds. One hand was kept on the button to keep water flowing while the other rummaged through the slew of empty shampoo and soap bottles left behind by previous tenants along the top of the shower walls. A recent visitor of Germany had left a quarter filled bottle of shampoo between the empties, gotta appreciate the little things, danke. It was a struggle to simultaneously use one hand to soap up with the other holding the water, which was spurting sporadic mix of ice and scald. Between each successful area covered I threw a glance at my belongings hanging over the curtain rod. Mind your surroundings and all that.
After the shower I stumbled back into the room. Still slightly sudsy but willing to deal with a bit of an itch to avoid the schizophrenic water temp, I was too tired. The light was slightly stronger, still no movement in the room. Stealthily climbed back onto the top bunk over the bag pack and personals I was sleeping with and rested my eyes for a moment.
Four hours later I was awoken by the drumming of a few people in the room packing their belongings. Couldn’t quite tell from the accents, but I do know they were definitely not the most empathetic bunch. It seems they couldn’t pack their bags without drowning the room in daylight. They threw the curtains back as they ignored the rest of us passive-aggressively moan and turn away from the unsolicited wake-up call. They didn’t seem to notice and carried on. Shit, I was late for breakfast, it was only free for a few hours at a time. Jumping off the top bunk I threw on whatever pants I could find and headed down, everyone was awake now— and certainly not by choice. I wanted to leave regardless, the vibrations in that room were getting testy with the few who were still trying to sleep.
The breakfast had ceased by the time I arrived, all that remained were dirty dish trays and a solitary worker mopping the floors with no discernible pattern to speak of. Across the dining hall were a few small groups of new arrivals, a few headphone bandits with laptops and cameras and a freshly pressed juice. I needed coffee, any coffee, now is not the time for health.
On the immediate left was the communal kitchen. In there, three or four hotplates, a mix-and-match of pots, pans and utensils, none of which actually matched, as well as stickers and pens for marking your territory—or food. Without having the chance to buy the basics I was stuck searching for that most holiest of grails in hostels, the dump. There was always one corner of any good hostel kitchen that decent folk leave uncooked remnants of salvation for the less monetised.
Typically you’ll find the classics; pasta, open sauces, some older fruits and vegetables, sometimes if you’re real lucky you’ll get some eggs or meat that still smells salvageable. When the funds are low, you take what you can. It can be a lifeline for the ones who follow, you’d hope it to be common courtesy in the backpacker world. Lucky days… A small blackboard was in the very corner of the room behind the kettle with “Free” written haphazardly on it. There was a smidge of pasta and sauce, a bit of pepper, some broccoli that was more brown than green, one very over ripened tomato and some herbs that might have tasted delicious if I had smoked them. I prepared my feast.
After the feast of questionable quality I sat back with the instant coffee I had found in a sachet with the sugar. I looked out the long cathedral looking windows that stretched from the roof to the floor. The baptismal storm was subsiding and the cracks in the grey veneer were beginning to show. My phone buzzed and on it was a message from the new adventurer, “I’ll meet you out the front at 12:30, should be plenty of time to get there and back. Also, my boss is being a dick.”
The midsummer crowd was in full swing as we departed the hostel. The air was beginning to crisp. We danced through the never-ending crowd of bodies, desperately searching for the correct station that the express would be departing from. The air was thicker than I remembered from the night before. The storm had disappeared from existence and all that remained was blue skies and harsh rays.
As we navigated the crowds Rose was telling me about the throw around she was getting from her boss that morning. ‘He told me I had to move rooms again..’
‘Jesus, did he give you much notice?’
‘Two hours, that’s why I was late.’
‘Was there a reason?’
‘He doesn’t need one.’
Any astute traveller worth their salt can pack their lives in a matter of minutes with enough practice, sadly it’s all too easy to gain practice.
The short walk from the hostel to Passeig De Gracia station was littered with attractions. The crowd was especially thick near Casa Batllo. Brave souls searing quietly in the uncovered lines sweatily gripping their cameras and print-at-home tickets. The building looked beautiful, the architecture was undeniably beautiful, the wonders within would’ve been wonderful to see. Alas the bollards carried with them the price of admission.
We still had 6 minutes before the train was due to depart. The heat had followed us down the stone steps and into the terminal. It had only been around 10 minutes but already I felt like I needed that spitting cold shower again. After finally finding the right ticket machines we swiped away 11 euros and were ready to depart. Find the MD train, that was the only objective. We each took turns leading the search for the platform, the blind leading the blind. With only moments before the set departure we bit the bullet and ran for the first platform in reach. ‘Are you sure it’s this one?!’ I looked at my phone, now locked up and without coverage and replied, ‘No idea.’
Already tired we slumped down in the almost abandoned carriage of the Renfe Express that we hoped was correct. The screens above the seats were scrolling through advertisements, along with the time and temperature outside. There was that unmistakeable gut feeling that maybe we were going to end up in another part of Spain that was unintended, I should’ve paid more attention in Spanish class.
The train steamed off, wherever we were going, we were committed now. The tunnel seemed to stretch on forever and as we sat opposite each other talking about the politics of working abroad. I kept catching glimpses of my reflection between the sporadic flashes of fluorescent lighting in the tunnel walls, shit, I needed to shave.
We were happy to see “Girona” on the destination panel eventually.
The journey was nice, it was day two and already I was on my way to seeing a new city I had never heard of. The train was rocketing through small towns with only just enough time to catch a glimpse here or there. Every so often I’d see apartment blocks or houses with multitudes of flags on display from balconies and windows. Similar displays were found all through Barcelona and parts of Spain. The Spanish flag I recognised well enough. A lot more had the red and yellow stripes with a blue triangle with a white star on the left. What’s known as the Blue Estelada.
Little did I know that bubbling underneath the political landscape in Spain was a long serving and fiery debate of independence for the Catalonian Provinces (Girona, Barcelona, Tarragona and Lleida respectively). The debates have been in the zeitgeist since the mid 19th century though some would argue well before that. The Blue Estelada which dominated the displays of many towns is the unofficial flag of an independent Catalonia. There’s varieties that indicate different stages of the debate, from red to black to completely different designs altogether. An opinion in flag-form. I didn’t know any of this until I had met up with two of the sweetest souls in Zamora who educated me on the fascinatingly divisive invisible landscape across the country, but more on that later.
Fear not, I am not throwing my hat into the ring on this particular fight. Too many fools talk too much when it comes to matters beyond their own two feet. Not that I don’t love having an opinion mind you, but if there’s one thing I can say with assured confidence; throwing an opinion on politics you are not ABSOLUTELY versed in is much the same as offering marriage counselling on a busy train to a couple you’ve never met. There’s a reason people ‘practice’ politics and don’t master them.
What I can say though, the methodology of silent protest is something to behold. The simple act of hanging a flag out of a window in silent support or protest can say more than most.
The Virginal Siesta
We arrived in the midst of the early afternoon sun. The small city was a mix of sandstone and primary colours. A few other recognisable tourists were scattered throughout the main streets surrounding the station located a stones throw from the city itself. We proceeded toward the Barri Vell and began to notice the quiet in the streets. Most storefronts were closed up with only a few straggler shops remaining half-open for locals. Rose checked her watch and sighed, “I think we’ve arrived during siesta..”
Crossing the bridge, the concrete was soon replaced by cobblestone. The only people on the streets had cameras and maps. Siesta was the perfect time for the architecture photographers. We were not photographers, we needed drink or at least a snack, we set about finding any place that was still open, we wanted quantity not quality. The maze of the quarter was nice enough to get lost in. We were near the Pujada de Sant Domènec…These steps looked familiar. Before I could place them Rose interjected, “That place looks open!”. It was a small cafe tucked underneath a walkway, a modern looking little place in the ancient town. The door was open. Inside was empty seats and no one to be seen, except for one bartender who was cleaning up after the lunch. She saw our cameras and let the energy slightly dip from her shoulders. We spoke in battered Spanish “Por favor”……. ‘Una, uh, comida?’ She smiled at the effort and responded in English, ‘We don’t have food now’, tapping on her watch with the glass she was polishing. ‘Beer is okey.’ It took a second of contemplation, we sat down immediately.
We sat there for an hour or so, debating whether the tapas in front of us were for display or for us. I ate a few olives when the bartender added a fresh batch. Halfway through the second beer there was a sudden influx of chefs and waiters from the establishment in the main seated area. Hollering and laughing the way all hospitality workers do on their breaks. I couldn’t understand a thing but one particular chef was getting a lot of back slaps and shots of something mysterious slipped to him. Suddenly from the kitchen door came a few more chefs singing some variation of Happy Birthday in Espanol. They began to clap and cheer as the chef raised a glass. They paid us no mind, it felt a little intrusive when we began clapping along, and I do believe it was at that point our welcome was worn completely.
We left a large tip with a slightly better annunciated ‘Gracias’ and explored for a few hours. Headed up to the main cathedral and took the obligatory shots of the cityscape which were undeniably beautiful in comparison to where I was coming from. We were getting famished soon enough, there’s only so many bags of chips you can consume from overpriced carts beefier you need some proper cuisine. Luckily the sun was beginning to dip ever so slightly, which meant the restaurants were opening up once more.
We contemplated going back to the original place to give them service, but we got lost and couldn’t find it again. Instead we saw a fancy looking restaurant near a cobblestone bridge on the edge of the water splitting the city. You know it’ll be expensive when the menus are in English first, the great language surcharge.
An array of cheese and seafood tapas were amongst the more popular items we devoured. The cheeses were mounted in the window in large and appetising wheels. The bridge that the restaurant laid on was wider than most, accomodating the shadow of the sunset with the wide range of tourists and locals that were now plentiful.
Not a bad beginning. Rose suggested we head back sooner rather than later. It was her night off and after I had described my fizzled first evening she was shocked. ‘No, you’re gonna see Barcelona properly, I’ve got everything we need for a party and the places to go.’ She finished her drink and got up, ‘Let’s go.’