I left Rhue in London and was on a plane headed to Spain to stay with her mom: my aunt Janet. Spain was a real mystery to me. I didn’t do a lot of research and the only reason it really became a destination for me instead of other countries, was the fact that it was my first chance in my life to meet Janet (just as it was with Rhue in London and the whole gaggle of family in Liverpool). I didn’t know it at the time, but this was about to be one of my most challenging experiences.
I wasn’t in the air long when suddenly I looked out the window and: Spain! Dry brown hills covered in sparse vegetation of which I could only presume to be olive trees. It seemed odd to me because it was precisely what I imagined Spain looking like, yet it’s exactly what I imagine France NOT to look like. Does the landscape just change at the border? My student visa had expired while I was in Ireland and when I flew from Dublin to Liverpool I didn’t have to clear any kind of passport control. However, upon arrival in Alicante there was passport checks even though I was flying within the EU. Thankfully the customs officer took a brief look at my passport and gave it the 90 day EU visiter visa stamp. No questions as to whether I had left the EU since my Copenhagen stamp a year earlier, whether I had an extended stay visa, nothing. This was my first indication that Spain was a little more relaxed than other countries (as I found out later, this wasn’t always a good thing).
After claiming my baggage I made my way out to the arrival bay and Janet managed to spot me. She was much younger than I imagined her being. We very quickly hopped onto a bus and headed off to Castellar de la Frontera (Castella). I didn’t arrive at the best time for Janet and I was worried I was a burden. She was house hunting so we did a lot of travel from town to city to town. I certainly enjoyed this because it gave me a chance to see an awful lot. The drive out to the town wasn’t very long but the scenery was amazing. Everywhere else I traveled had it’s own flavour but still seemed very “European.” Spain was very distinct and had hints of North African culture and geography. When we arrived in Castella I immediately saw where it got its name from. The town surrounds a large hill with a medieval castle on the top. It was an impressive sight. We hit the local supermarket for some food and cooked it up at the hostel (which was very nice and we had completely to ourselves). With both of us tired from traveling, we went to bed early.
The next day I was free to roam around the town and explore a bit while Janet went house viewing. It had been awhile since I had been somewhere that most of the population didn’t speak english and my Spanish is, well, I don’t have any. Janet gave me a few phrases and I was able to count to five thanks to a particular Offspring song. I went to a cafe and had tried the cafe con leche, which is basically a bold roast of coffee with milk. I tried to get up to the castle but unfortunately construction blocked the only route up. However, all along the hillside were steep streets and stacked houses. It reminded me of the images I’d seen of the South American Favelas. Witch my castle exploration plans foiled, I headed down into the town centre and there was a market on. It was a lot of fedoras, shoes, and used clothing. However, a lot of the produce was massive and delicious looking. There was also some medicinal tea available: what they were made from, I had no idea.
The next day Janet and I headed back to Alicante. This was quite the ritzy looking place (at least the downtown core that I saw was). I was already getting sense of how drastic a gap there was between those that had money and those that didn’t. The coast of Alicante was beautiful. Large sandy mountains behind the city, and the blue ocean in front with a promenade of waved tile patterns and giant trees ushering people along the avenue. It seemed like somewhere to vacation, not to live. Janet went off to view houses again the next day and I explored the city a bit. My first order of business was to get some food. We had been eating out of grocery stores and the hostel in Alicante did not have a kitchen. I was pretty exhausted from all the traveling and wanted a hearty meal. I stopped at the first place that had a picture menu and pointed to the first two options to keep things simple. Next thing I know, out comes a cold paste with pretzels sticking out of it. I didn’t think it was what I ordered but I didn’t actually know what I ordered anyways, so I just ate it. It wasn’t great. And I still don’t know what it was. It turned out it was a complimentary starter, or maybe something they give to tourists and get a laugh, I don’t know. But my food eventually arrived and I devoured it. Whatever it was.
In Alicante, there are gyms on the beach I guess?
The next day we were finally headed to Oliva, where Janet was renting a house. Janet’s place was in an area that had the similar “favela” look I saw in Castella. I’m sure there’s an actually name in Spanish for neighbourhoods like this, but I don’t know what it is. I loved her place. It was small. Smaller than a North American home but big enough to live comfortably. It was narrow and tall with a patio on the roof. The streets outside were the same: narrow with tall homes around it. In Sweden, the houses were short and far apart because the sun didn’t rise very high in the sky. In Spain, it seemed like the high houses and narrow streets were to protect from the heat of the sun (and it was HOT). I also found out that in the middle of the day, when it is the hottest, the Spanish take a siesta. For some reason, I always associated the word siesta with partying but it is in fact the opposite. A siesta is a break in the middle of the day when shops close and everyone goes home to hide and/or nap during the hottest time of the day. Janet had Rhue’s rabbit (Cormac) at her place and he did nothing but have siesta’s all day long.
Janet and I did a lot of catching up about the family, her life and my life. There was a festival of some kind happening in Oliva and the promenade had food vendors and beer all throughout it. There was also some live music. I think it was just a couple friends who decided to play. Either way, it was really great. I am a bit of a musician but am not musically trained at all. While I was in Umeå I had my friend Artur, who is musically trained, analyze the music I write. He said I tend to use a lot of “Spanish scale.” He must have been right because whatever these guys were playing at the festival, I loved it. Janet and I tried some of the grub at the festival and on the way back to her place we passed a stage which had a performance happening. It was a cross-dressing comedian, I got that much, but I didn’t understand a word he (she?) said. Janet didn’t like to talk english when we were around the Spanish. This threw me off at first. I didn’t like pretending to be something I wasn’t. I had no problem with the Spanish knowing Im not Spanish. However, I was only visiting and Janet had to live there. And when I found out that the English that lived in the town (and all congregated together in one neighbourhood with its own “English” bar) didn’t have the best reputation with the locals, I understood. It was similar to when I lived in Sweden. I wasn’t worried about my reputation based on where I was from, but I tried to use the language and integrate into the culture rather than remain an outsider. Back at Janet’s place I usually liked spending the evening on the rooftop patio. The view of the sky was so clear. It reminded me of the clear skies while I was in Japan. The sky wasn’t the only thing that reminded me of Japan. Cats ran rampant throughout Oliva and during the night it was the return of the cat orgies. Cat orgies aside, I was missing Rebun and Victoria.
Janet and I wanted to go cycling through some Orange groves nearby and possibly check out some nearby caves but once we got onto the bikes the brakes didn’t fully work. On any other occasion I would have gone anyways, but because the landscape was so hilly, I didn’t want to be caught flying downhill without the ability to slow down. Instead we went to the beach that was a short walk from Oliva. The beach was gorgeous and had a bar on it which added to its beauty. This was my first time seeing the Mediterranean Sea. It was a lot like being in the Caribbean (from what little I can remember when I was there at a young age). While Janet and I were in the water there was a group of around ten kids about 20 metres to our side also in the water. Suddenly they stopped playing and kept shouting one word and pointing out at the deep water. It suddenly occurred to me that it might have been a good idea to learn the Spanish word for “shark.” We didn’t stay in the water much longer just to be safe. I told Janet I had a pretty big fear of the ocean and she kept trying to scare me by talking about sharks. Funnily enough I was doing okay but she said she was starting to scare herself. We stayed on the beach awhile and soaked up the sun. I’m usually pretty bad about putting on sunscreen but I was sure to do so this time. However, it didn’t matter. I got the worst sunburn I have ever had. We did a bit of grocery shopping and I picked up some chicken breasts. These things were huge! They were the size of footballs. I wasn’t sure if this was evident of good farming or non-strict regulations on growth hormones. The next day Janet went up to Barcelona to pick up my cousin (her son) Seve who was visiting from Beijing. Originally I was going to travel up with her to meet Seve for the first time and see a bit of Barcelona, but travel took a lot out of him and he wanted to head to Oliva as soon as he arrived. So at Janets suggestion, I ended up staying an extra day alone in Oliva. This was really kind of her and saved me some money by not staying in a hostel. However, little did I know at the time that traveling a day earlier would have been a great idea.
I thought about going to the beach again but my burn was awful. I didn’t want to go in the sun at all. The festival, which I found out was Christ-Fest (or something of that sort), was still going on and I had heard there was suppose to be a go-kart race. I couldn’t find the go-kart race but on my way back to the house I saw that I had just missed a reenactment of the fourteen stages of the cross (This is Jesus’ carrying of the cross, death and rise from the dead). I’m not religious at all, but it would have been something I would have enjoyed to see as it became apparent religion is an important part of the culture here. Ultimately, I went back to the house and hung out with Cormac while I nursed my burn. The next day I was off to Barcelona.
And thus began the most trying day of the entire year. The day began like any other. I loaded up my gear and got set for a half day of travel. I was expecting to get to Barcelona sometime in the early afternoon and have time to see the city. As soon I put my rucksack over my shoulders and my small daypack, my sunburn began to scream. I didn’t have a choice though. I had to deal with it until I got to the bus. My itinerary was a bus ride to Gandia, a train to Valencia where I would then switch to another train which would get me halfway to Barcelona where I would then hop onto a final train. At the first bus stop there was a small cafe and I ordered a cafe con leche (because it was the only thing I knew how to order). At this point in the trip languages were beginning to get jumbled in my head. I would go to the cashier and have a brain freeze: English? Dutch? Swedish? Russian? Finnish? Spanish? Even Japanese was popping into my head for no reason at all (I hadn’t said a word of Japanese for a year). All I knew in most of these languages was: hello, goodbye, please, and thank you, but every few weeks I was switching from one to try and learn another and by this point I was exhausted physically and mentally. I hopped onto the bus and was hopeful to catch some rest while traveling. However, the scenery was spectacular and I spent most of the bus ride looking out onto landscape I may never see again. I didn’t want to miss it having a nap.
In Gandia I grabbed my ticket to Valencia and got onto the train. Everything went fairly smoothly until I arrived in Valencia. I went to buy my ticket to Barcelona and there was a massive queue. People were yelling and flailing their arms about. I had no idea what was going on. Thankfully I must have looked pathetic enough that a woman came over who spoke english and asked where I was trying to get to. I told her Barcelona and she said the computers were down and that I would have to wait about three or four hours. A bit of a delay but no big deal. This way I would see some of Valencia which I wouldn’t have otherwise. I stashed my bags in a locker and took a stroll down a few streets and saw a bit of the centre. I was careful not to go too far and get lost. There was what looked like Roman ruins in the core and even a small coliseum. I decided to take this chance to write a few postcards. I happened to write one to my Grandma:
“The computer system in Valencia is down so I have a few hours to kill here. I guess they need to do something to keep it interesting after the amount of travel I’ve done, eh?”
Karma was going to have a field day with that one…
Once the computer system was up and running I was able to buy my ticket. The cashier tried to sell me a more expensive ticket that was leaving several hours later. I knew there was a cheaper option and managed to get that one. Perhaps the more expensive train didn’t require a change halfway through and maybe was a higher speed train. I should have taken the more expensive ticket, but I wanted to save some money. While on the train I was stunned at some of the sights we passed. Half demolished brick houses with tarps for roofs, flipped over burnt cars outside as a make shift fence to keep a few pigs and a horse in, giant piles of garbage just a few feet away from the building. I thought back to the ultra ritzy downtown core of Alicante and could not comprehend how this kind of disparity existed among the population. I wasn’t on the train long when, while reading a book, a funny smell began to burn my nose. Everyone on the train seemed to notice it at the same time. I looked outside the window and smoke was billowing from underneath my carriage and the cabin itself began to fill with smoke. Very quickly, smoke was all that could be seen outside the window and the train was completely socked in. Everyone began panicking and yelling. Several people grabbed their luggage and I did as others did. I remembered hearing about a train derailing a month or so earlier and then I remembered that it was in Spain. This didn’t help. I had no idea what to do and no way to communicate, “Excuse me, what’s happening?” Someone ran to the front of the train and got the conductor to stop at the next station. Some people jumped off the train, some stayed on. I didn’t know what to do. A few people tried speaking to me but it was hopeless. We were stopped for quite awhile waiting for the smoke to dissipate and it allowed people to calm down. I guess the idea that the carriage was going to derail or get engulfed in flames had settled. There was a lot of shrugging from those in charge and I got the gist that they didn’t know what was wrong… so we just closed the doors and kept going. I think it must have been garbage on the tracks that began to burn after getting caught under the carriage. I hate to think what I must have been breathing in. Suddenly I remembered that I had to change trains, and that there wasn’t much time between them. I was worried this little delay would make me miss the next one. Then I heard yelling and banging coming from the back of the carriage. There was a guy holding a satchel against his chest. He was shouting and yelling not at anyone in particular. In fact, it looked like he was yelling at something that wasn’t there. A few people were saying “loco.” Ah, finally some Spanish I knew. In this situation, “loco” would translate to, “that dude is fucking insane.” The next stop must have been his but he didn’t realize it until the doors started to close. He tried pulling them open and kicking the glass in. He was doing it with such force it was like if Thomas the Tank Engine had an Alien bursting out of his chest. He then ran to the front of the train to, presumably, scream on the conductor. Thankfully at the next stop he hopped off the train. The lack of action taken to both of these events was astonishing. A little too laid back of an attitude I think. At this point a young guy who could speak a bit of English came and sat with me. He was a little weird but I could have hugged him (safety in numbers I guess). He was in town buying some shirts before going to a party and wanted my opinion as to which would help him pick up girls. I didn’t know how to tell him neither of them so I politely lied and picked one. It was difficult communicating as his english wasn’t great but I did manage to understand that he thinks his english is great and wants to learn a different language. He got off at the next stop clutching the winning shirt. I wonder if he ever managed to pick up anyone?
I got to the station and had ten minutes to get onto my next train. Luckily I made it and it was a much more modern train. I collapsed into my seat. My shoulders burned and screamed at me. This train ride was much quicker and before long I was in Barcelona. It was much later than I wanted to arrive and I had no time to see the city which was a great shame because the National Palace looked amazing as I walked past and I wanted to also see Sagrade Familia. The hostel I was staying at advertised itself as being a short walk from the train station. It was not. After nearly an hour’s walk through the city I got to the hostel, hungry, tired and fed up. Once there I sat around waiting because no one was at the front desk. Finally, a young 20-something male shows up. His only remark, “Sorry, I was out buying beer.” Apparently that’s an acceptable excuse to ditch work, I’ll have to try it sometime. I think he could tell I was fed up. All I was thinking about was getting the hell out of Spain. It’s great to relax and party, but to actually do anything was a choir. I can’t say whether this is true of Spanish culture, but it certainly was what my experience was like. The hostel clerk told me about a giant beach party happening that evening. Normally I don’t say no to such things. It may be the only time I am there so really I should check it out regardless of whether a beach party is something that interests me or not. You don’t travel to see hostels and hotels; you do it to see the culture. However, I felt as if I was on death’s doorstep so I did not go. My sunburnt shoulders were raw from carrying my luggage all day. I got some food in the square nearby and went back to the hostel to prepare for bed. While I was in the lobby there were some North American’s (I group Canadians and Americans together while traveling because really, we aren’t nearly as different as we would like to think). All of them were talking about the beach party they were going to that night and a party from the night before. They were each trying to boast and outdo the other about how drunk they got: who did what stupid act and who blacked out. I was disgusted. To travel around the world and get drunk to the point that you don’t remember? What’s even the point of traveling if you’re going to drink the memories away? I was of course judging as someone who already came to this conclusion after drinking in Copenhagen. A party is a party, and no matter how you dress it up, they are all pretty much the same. I wanted something unique out of traveling. If I just wanted to get drunk and have some laughs I could have stayed home. I’m only in these places so long and to waste a day with a hangover for an evening I don’t even remember seem’s pointless. Perhaps I value my time too highly as currency, but that’s how I am. Even now, after a night having a few drinks with friends I’m torn between: was that funny? or stupid? Perhaps it’s the intent that matters: whether you get together to spend time with friends and have a few drinks or get together with friends so that you have an excuse to get drunk. I’m not sure. All I know is I’m distinctly aware of this when I’m having a drink. These North American’s were a reminder that going home would be the greatest culture shock all year. Yes, even more than Spain.
The next morning I walked through the stragglers from the previous nights festivities. Some stumbling around, some peeing in alleys, and others passed out underneath statues older than their parents. I hated that most of them were North Americans. I was embarrassed in how they treated other people’s city. This time the bus was prompt and shuttled me off to the airport. I was sad I couldn’t see Seve and give Janet a final goodbye and thank her for her hospitality. I told myself I just have to make the effort to go to Beijing now to see Seve. Spain had its ups and downs. I was off to Germany to meet my good friend Artur whom I met in Sweden. While I waited in the airport to board my flight to Germany I noticed some not-so-subliminal messaging. Nice try!
I boarded my plane and was headed to Germany with a short layover in Austria: Just in time for the World Cup of Football.