The subway doors slid closed too fast.Â There was nothing I could do but stare at the three Americans inside the metro car and wave as they slid away, slowly at first, then faster down a tunnel beneath the streets of Barcelona, Spain.Â So much for that great hostel they promised,
or more importantly, the company of three guys who shared my language and culture.
That day was the low point of my three and a half month trip backpacking across Europe by myself.Â I was lonely and homesick and second-guessing the whole idea of the trip.Â I tried not to cry while I lugged my pack over to the metro wall to study a map of Barcelona’s transportation system.
I’d met these three college-aged guys from New Jersey while standing in line for the attention of a Portuguese ticket agent, who was clearly more interested in going to lunch than straightening out the travel plans of backpackers stranded in Lisbon the opening week of the 1998 World Expo, when not a room could be found throughout the city.Â I had just arrived on a night train from Madrid but immediately wasted the next hour (of the eight I would spend in Portugal altogether) waiting for the opportunity to reserve a seat back out of the country.Â My fellow travelers and I passed the time in line exchanging travel notes.Â “You should definitely come to Barcelona.Â That’s where we’re headed tonight,” they told me.
After visiting an ancient fort and spending far too many Escudos on a couple of hours at the Expo, I made my way back to the train station and found the platform for Barcelona.Â To my delight, the three guys from the ticket office were in the same compartment.Â Matt, Gil, Evan, and I talked and joked around until we fell into the uneasy upright sleep of train travel.Â They invited me along on their search for that “great” hostel the next morning.Â I eagerly agreed, not because I couldn’t find my own place to stay or my way around a strange city’s transportation system…I was getting to be an expert at learning the words “train station,” “bus,” and “subway” in the language of any country I visited.
I agreed because, as much as I loved the freedom to go anywhere I chose, to experience the sights and smells and magic of being in Europe, I had come to the realization that I craved the companionship of people like me, even if they were as far away from my home in Alabama as…New Jersey?
Evan had been studying Barcelona’s metro map included in his copy of Let’s Go Europe throughout the night.Â We hit the metros just in time for morning rush hour.Â Getting off one line and hauling our packs to another, we crammed into a car full of people going to work.Â I climbed aboard last, only to have Evan shout, “No!Â Get off!Â This is the wrong one!”Â I hopped back off again just as the doors closed.Â Matt struggled with the door handle on the other side, but the doors didn’t budge.Â Helplessly, the three of them grinned at me through the glass as they disappeared down the track.
So I consulted my Hostelling International book and my AAA guidebook to Europe.Â I’d been too cheap to buy a copy of a real guidebook, a mistake and one of the many lessons I learned as a traveler.Â You can be as thrifty as you like, but if nothing else, invest in a good backpack, a good pair of boots, and the best guidebook you can find.Â The AAA guidebook didn’t have a map of the metro (assuming that you’d be exploring the city in a car), and its map of the city streets didn’t have the street of the hostel I wanted listed.Â But fortunately Barcelona is that rare European city that is laid out in a a mostly perfect grid, except for one wide road called “Diagonal,” and my hostel’s street was right off of it.
I found the hostel, stashed my rucksack, and spent the rest of the day exploring this city in which I’d found myself.Â I visited Gaudi’s cathedral and spent a while watching it be built.Â I perused an exhibition of sketches Dali did back in his cubist, Miroesque days.Â I found the Picasso museum, where, with all of his art laid out in chronological order, I finally GOT Picasso and what he was trying to get cubism to do.
It was in Picasso’s museum that I suddenly found myself surrounded by Americans.Â In fact, the place was swarming with them.Â “Where is the bathroom?” one girl around my age demanded of a museum staff member nearby.Â After being pointed the way, she attempted a legitimate use of her host country’s language, “Grass-ee-ass.”Â It took me a moment to realize she was trying to say thank you, but with no attempt at the proper accent at all.Â Stupid Americans.
I stopped by the Gothic cathedral and then left behind the tourists and lost myself in the walk back to the hostel, flowing along with afternoon rush hour traffic of Barcelonans eager to get home.Â This was experiencing the real Europe: watching businessmen in coats and ties comically donning helmets and mounting mopeds and scooters; being able to read none of the billboards; and hearing no American English.Â No obnoxious Americans.Â The magic of travel overcame me again.Â I grinned and knew I would awake with the same exhilaration I had for the past nine weeks:
I’m in Europe!