so i’ve been trying to write this zine thing since march about life post-graduation and spiraling possibilities and love and struggling and bikes and everything else, and the amount of stuff i want to say keeps getting bigger and bigger, and the content of the stuff i want to say keeps getting more and more varied, and if i ever get around to finishing the thing it is going to be less a zine and more a manuscript–a messy, badly-organized, imperfect manuscript. which is cool, but not really what i’m going for, and i think the whole project is getting too big and/or ridiculous for its britches. with that in mind–well, that and some other stuff–i want to go ahead and share one of the biggest (and first) chunks of writing i did for my zine thing. it’s a narrative of the time i spent in spain while i was backpacking through europe last november and december. with some photos for your enjoyment!
thing is, that question and its various cousins (what is freedom? how is freedom?) have become the defining questions of this stage in my life, and i admit that, though i recognize life’s tendency to surprise, from my current perspective i am expecting the freedom question to be The Question that my life is in some way lived as an answer to. since it’s important to me, i’d like to start exploring the question with words and such more deliberately than i have been (’cause so far it’s mostly been tipsy conversations with friends and rephrasing the question a thousand ways). this is how i’m starting. i thought about adding a blog tag for “freedom” and then realized, naw, it’s all about that. so.
in my zine thing, i planned to preface spain with this brief summary of my whole trip:
on halloween i got on a plane with my turquoise boots, my winter coat, a backpack full of clothes and a eurail pass.
in England i walked all day through fields and forests and over fences to reach Stonehenge as the sun was setting.
in Ireland i danced with D. to an irish band playing “sweet home alabama.” we made cheese crepes and drank murphy’s stout. i slept on his floor.
in the Netherlands we got really excited about bikes, hitchhiked from amsterdam to den haag, found friends and smoked on a windy beach.
in Belgium we ate waffles and sat around in train stations, mostly.
in France we walked everywhere in paris. later, i celebrated thanksgiving on the riviera with pumpkin pie, m&m cookies, wine, baguettes, guinea fowl, an old friend and a dozen europeans. i reread candide and thought about “il faut cultiver notre jardin.” i stood alone on a bridge over the loire just after dawn. back in paris, the eiffel tower disappeared into fog and i disappeared into art museums.
in Spain i found the question but not the answer.
in Germany they plugged in christmas lights everywhere the day i arrived, and i drank gluhwein and rode the u-bahn and made soup. i talked for hours over hot chocolate with a stranger i will never see again.
in the Czech Republic i made myself sick eating trdelnik, which i never learned to pronounce.
in Austria i imagined walking down wide cobblestone viennese streets in my winter coat, snow drifting gently downwards past the streetlights. instead, it rained and i missed home. on the train to salzburg, i stared at the snow-buried countryside and came back to myself.
and spain went like this:
D. and i are a funny story, but it doesn’t matter. i hug him goodbye and give him my map of paris. it’s folded all wrong and falling apart at the seams. i’m off to barcelona and D.’s holiday is over later that evening, but he’s going to make the most of his afternoon. he’s good at making the most of things. i stare out the window and wonder whether i’ll be able to tell from looking that we’re in spain when we cross the border. across the aisle, two american backpackers sip water out of bottles bearing the insignia of the swiss hostel those girls in amsterdam who taught me how to roll a cigarette told me about. they scribble diligently in their thick, black-bound journals. mine’s got a magritte print on the cover, a home lit from inside, viewed through dark trees. i scribble some notes, mostly about D., a little about my boyfriend back home, a few requisite sentences about the tuileries, the pyramid of the louvre, the dirty seine.
part of me is already lonely. there’s a group of english-speaking kids somewhere in front of me and i can hear them laughing. but i’m staring out the window counting yellow houses. i haven’t seen a yellow house since i left portland. i like spain already, and we’re only in the south of france. barcelona, it turns out, is full of things i haven’t seen since portland: pierced boys with dreadlocks and dogs and tropical fruit juice smoothies. i can’t find the subway station–an american girl living in the city helps me out, takes me all the way to the street at my stop, points me in the right direction—and suddenly i’m staring up at gaudi’s casa battlo. in the darkness of the night, artificial light shines through the balconies’ eyes staring back at me. i trudge to my hostel a block down the street and climb the wide, spiraling staircase in simple awe.
the gaudi buildings are really pretty boring on the inside, except for la sagrada familia, which completely blows my mind. but that’s later. first, there’s americans. i meet one, P., at my hostel. he’s from seattle and we talk about the northwest. he’s been traveling longer than i have. i spend a morning walking up montjuic with him and another american guy and an australian girl. all of them are the kind of backpacker i like to think i’m not, who talk about countries in terms of what they drank there. maybe i’m being unfair. the four of us together are louder than i’ve been in days and it starts to hurt my inner ears. the view from here is unbalancing, but beautiful. the sun and (relative) heat float above barcelona, hazy and translucent. it’s mid-november and i’m in a t-shirt. i can see the mediterranean from here. i keep thinking “this would be just as beautiful if i were alone,” and so when they descend towards the ocean, i head another direction to stare at paintings by jean miro and repeat their titles over and over in my head until they make some kind of sense. in french, if possible. i try to look as un-american as possible.
P. and i are in a crowded tapas place. i’m increasingly tipsy and refilling my wine glass. alone is one thing when you’re on a hill looking out over the whole world, and another when you’re down in it in the fading evening, passing bars and restaurants full of friends boisterously greeting one another. so this morning i wrote an email to G. 5000 miles away: “wish you were here to eat tapas with me”–and there was P. at breakfast, wishing me a good morning. “hey,” i said, “you wanna get tapas with me tonight?” we made plans to meet at 6. we’re laughing and talking about the home we share–the beautiful, lush, green pacific northwest (where surely it is raining; today in barcelona i walked barefoot on the sandy beach) and he tells me why his face is crooked. something about a fight; i don’t remember but i know he was the good guy. “before i went into surgery i asked them to make me look like brad pitt.” he grins sideways. “i got this instead.” i giggle and flush, sip my wine. i feel awkward and fill my glass again. he suggests gelato for dessert. “oh!” i say. “let’s get gelato and walk on the beach!” then, for the hundredth time today, i think, shit. is this a date?
my gelato is delicious. the beach is chilly but the sand feels so good between my toes. i walk close to the surf; P. walks next to me. what are we talking about? he tries to put his arm over my shoulders. i shrug it off self-consciously. how did i get here? it’s the best night i’ve had in ages and i’m mucking it all up trying to be friends with this guy instead of just letting the wine and the ocean and him get the best of me. we should be making out right now, these things are telling me. i curl my sandy toes and think about my boyfriend. i refused D.’s bed for him last week in ireland, and i will refuse this boy now. i wade ankle-deep in the sea. P. puts his arms around me again. “wanna go for a swim??” he asks, half-lifting me. “haha, no, let go!” i giggle, but he doesn’t let go. for a moment i despair, utterly. i wish we could be comfortable, strangers in a strange land together, rejoicing in it; just that, nothing more. i think about how i’ve wondered all evening how to mention my boyfriend without making things a worse kind of uncomfortable. i don’t mention him. “seriously, let go of me,” i repeat. he does. i move away from the sea. we walk on, back towards our hostel, where, meeker, he tells me he had a great time. i did too, truly. i step into the bathroom with my toothbrush and close the door.
i’m on a night train bound for granada, 11 hours away from barcelona. why granada? i don’t know. i went to the train station earlier today, showed my eurail pass to the man at the counter and asked for a ticket to paris. “no trains to paris, there is a strike.” he said. i’d guessed as much—”a ticket for granada, then, por favor.” he nodded and handed it to me. granada sounds nice. i don’t know anything about it. on the train, two japanese girls are asking me, do you have tickets for alhambra already, like us? alhambra? i wonder if this is some word that doesn’t translate well, or that they can’t quite pronounce in english. later i will feel embarrassed for myself in this moment. i furrow my brow. “no?” i say. they are shocked. long lines await me, they are sure! they smile sympathetically.
it is late, or maybe sometime in the very early morning. most of the train car is sound asleep, tongues lolling, mouths wide, or else coughing their moist smoker’s coughs. we’re at the front end of the car, close to the door. it opens, a woman walks briskly through, the door slides closed again. almost. it opens again. slides closed—almost, opens. a mechanical grating every time, as the train noise lessens and then returns. the spanish man on the other side of the aisle gets up and the japanese girls and i smile big at him. this isn’t the first time tonight that he’s done this, and it won’t be the last. he rubs his palms together, moves towards the door. as it closes, he throws his weight against the latch. it slides open again. and again, and again—and then it sticks. he looks at us again, sighs. we grin and nod our heads. he sucks on his cigarette beneath the no smoking sign. we won’t tell.
i’m in the albaicin in granada, lost in unlabeled streets with the worst map i have ever seen (and will see, until amboise, france, where the man at the train station will hand me a photocopied 8.5×11 sheet of paper with two or three streets drawn in and “LA LOIRE” the only thing labeled). i decide i will Go Up. upwards i march. i pull off my jacket, then my sweatshirt. the crisp, clear november sun feels good on my back. i am higher and higher. the streets are wider, then gone on one side of me as i look out over granada. oh, over there. that’s the alhambra. i stare. an ancient fortress, then the sea of the city, and then distant blue-tinged hills like sharp rolling waves. i’m walking along a wall, now, eager to get past for the better view, the expanse of it. here’s a gap—i slip through—there is the alhambra, there is the city, here is the sun, here is this dirt path i follow, downwards now on the open hillside. i pick my way down the networks of paths.
i don’t know why i chose granada. i think i’d picked up a guidebook somewhere, read something about the albaicin and cave dwellings up on a hill. i’d imagined something ancient, petroglyphs maybe, and put the book down again. i’m not thinking about that when i pass the first opening. a gate with cracked yellow glass, a chair. i smile and walk on. but then there are more of them, and in the distance a shirtless man going about his morning routine. suddenly i feel uncomfortable. i am in someone else’s front yard. i scurry down the hill. on the other side of a fence, dozens of backyards. i climb up again, and over, and down through the albaicin. no one speaks to me except one man who asks me if i’m looking for the mirador de san nicolas (but i don’t understand him yet). “no hablo espanol,” i tell him helplessly. he throws up his hands and smiles at me.
down, then up again, following a hundred other tourists towards the alhambra, where i buy a ticket no problem, then a cup of tea at the cafe. i watch a cat snatch up tourists’ dropped crumbs and wait my turn to enter the gardens. i sleepwalk past fountains and flowers. i look out a window at where i was, that other hill. i stare in open-mouthed awe at the nasrid palaces. back at my hostel, i climb to the roof and lay somewhere in between.
i’m sitting near a fountain in a park in the modern part of the city, writing in my journal, thinking about what parks say about cities. barcelona has gaudi’s dizzying parc guell; amsterdam and den haag have endless forested parks it’s delightfully easy to get lost in. the sun is still shining. i’m okay listening to myself. then an old man sits next to me, says something in spanish. i look up and smile apologetically at him, say “no hablo espanol.” i expect him to laugh, nod, walk away, like everyone else i’ve said it to has. instead he persists, says something else. “no hablo espanol,” i repeat. “no comprendo.” he talks more. he takes my journal and pen and writes something on a blank page, but i can’t decipher his handwriting, much less his words. i shake my head again and again. he puts his hand on my shoulder. he laughs at me, speaks spanish. “no hablo espanol,” i say. i put my things in my bag. i walk away. i don’t look back.
in a tiny cave-like bar down a tiny street and up a tiny set of stairs, i sit on a tiny stool while the room fills with flamenco music and stomps and the most amazing voice. it drowns out the americans around me gulping down beers (i am one of them) and i want to belong here.
in the streets of the albaicin, none of the shopkeepers speak english. finally, i ask one hopefully: “francais?”
“oui, oui, je parle francais!” he says. “vous etes canadienne?”
“non,” i say, squeezing my lips together. “americaine–mais je parle francais.” i buy a pair of mittens from him—it is cold at night—and i am so happy to be communicating that we chat in french for a few minutes and he says “go to the mirador de san nicolas, it is beautiful.” in the dark, i go. somehow in the labyrinth of the albaicin i find it. i pass a kitten in a window, smile at it, and the young woman behind the kitten smiles at me. on a ledge looking towards the alhambra, couples cuddle, friends laugh, someone is smoking pot. i stand by a tree and look. it’s beautiful.
later i am tipsy and lost. my train leaves early in the morning and i have to get back to the hostel before reception closes tonight to get my deposit back. when i left my english-speaking friends-by-default at some tapas bar somewhere, i’d been so sure of where i was. but now nothing is familiar and my map is useless. i can’t find the main street i was so sure was right around the corner. “por favor,” i say desperately to passers-by, “gran via?” their replies are incomprehensible and i do my best to follow their pointing fingers. “gracias! gracias!”
in the train station an older man with an accent i can’t place sits next to me in the waiting area. “i’d like to talk to you, as a fellow traveler,” he tells me. he has been traveling for six months. india is next? something like that. he asks me where i’m from. i tell him. “oh,” he says. “no one i’ve run into in all my travels has had anything good to say about america. no one supports what you are doing.”
“i believe it,” i say. but i am homesick and i love my country. i do. i didn’t know it before right now. i miss evergreen trees and the utah badlands and white church buildings and the pacific ocean and parts of my country i have never seen or understood. graffiti on the way to the station asked me, “donde esta la libertad?” where is liberty? i don’t know. i don’t know.
the train ride is calming. eleven hours of spanish countryside pass by. then, somewhere that isn’t barcelona yet, everyone gets up, collects their things, and leaves the train. i stand up and look around, dazed. a japanese couple further down the car look confused as well. “are you going to barcelona?” i ask them. they nod. okay. i guess we are the only ones going to barcelona. i sit back down and settle in again.
hah! the train begins to move again. a few minutes pass, and a train official comes down through the door. he freezes when he sees me and chatters at me in spanish, eyes wide. “barcelona?” i ask. i gesture at the japanese couple behind me. we widen our eyes at one another. “no, no, no,” says the train official, and pulls out his cell phone. oh god. you’re kidding me. he waves a piece of paper at me, one of which was in every seat when i got on the train. “RENFE INFORMA,” it says across the top. there’s been one of these on every spanish train i’ve ridden. they’ve never been relevant, have they? something about schedule changes? i know i tried to make sense of it on the first train. i thought this one said the same thing. the official speaks a few words of english and i speak a few words of spanish. he scrawls diagrams on the back of the RENFE INFORMA sheet until i understand that the rails are being worked on and we should have gotten off at the last stop and taken a bus to barcelona. i pick up the sheet, read the spanish words. oh. i could have figured that out.
i communicate the bus thing to the japanese couple (they speak even less spanish than me, and a hesitant, incomplete english) while the official mutters on his cell phone and lights a cigarette. “una americana,” he tells someone, and gestures at the japanese couple, looking at me. “japanese,” i supply. the two of them offer me a stale chocolate croissant. i happily accept. we grin at each other. i can’t help but laugh. how long do we ride this ghost train this way, going who-knows-where? i keep laughing. “muchas gracias,” i say over and over to the official. i think he’s laughing too. “muchas gracias.” i am so dumb, i think. i have never felt quite so american. by the time we reach barcelona, another official is waiting for us. he hands us his card and says in english, “so sorry. so sorry.” “muchas gracias,” i say again, a dozen times. we are lead to and loaded into taxicabs. the japanese couple want a picture with me, all of us grinning in the dark in some unknown corner of the city. my taxi takes me for free to my hostel. the man at the front desk recognizes me from last week. “ah, you again!” he says. “is this your home away from home?”
“i guess so,” i answer. i grin hysterically to myself and eat peanut butter. it is good that i was there, i think arrogantly to myself. without me, where might that poor japanese couple be by now? oh, i think. i wish i knew how to say “i’m sorry” in spanish. i’m sorry. the next day i take a bus to france.