Archive for May, 1998

May 23, 1998

23 May 1998 at 6:09 pm
by Jonah

The subway doors slid closed too fast.  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.  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.  I was lonely and homesick and second-guessing the whole idea of the trip.  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.  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.  My fellow travelers and I passed the time in line exchanging travel notes.  “You should definitely come to Barcelona.  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.  To my delight, the three guys from the ticket office were in the same compartment.  Matt, Gil, Evan, and I talked and joked around until we fell into the uneasy upright sleep of train travel.  They invited me along on their search for that “great” hostel the next morning.  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.  We hit the metros just in time for morning rush hour.  Getting off one line and hauling our packs to another, we crammed into a car full of people going to work.  I climbed aboard last, only to have Evan shout, “No!  Get off!  This is the wrong one!”  I hopped back off again just as the doors closed.  Matt struggled with the door handle on the other side, but the doors didn’t budge.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  I visited Gaudi’s cathedral and spent a while watching it be built.  I perused an exhibition of sketches Dali did back in his cubist, Miroesque days.  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.  In fact, the place was swarming with them.  “Where is the bathroom?” one girl around my age demanded of a museum staff member nearby.  After being pointed the way, she attempted a legitimate use of her host country’s language, “Grass-ee-ass.”  It took me a moment to realize she was trying to say thank you, but with no attempt at the proper accent at all.  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.  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.  No obnoxious Americans.  The magic of travel overcame me again.  I grinned and knew I would awake with the same exhilaration I had for the past nine weeks:

I’m in Europe!

Thursday, May 21

21 May 1998 at 3:58 pm
by Jonah

I am amazed by the kindness of strangers. It makes me rethink my whole concept of humanity.

I took a risk and lost. Those of you who’ve played cards with me know I love to bluff and am horrible at it (which explains why you know it). I thought it was a sure bet, but I was wrong. I was positive a train would be leaving the Madrid station sometime after I got there. But there wasn’t. There weren’t any trains leaving until the next morning. Worse yet, the station was closing. And the hostels listed in my book shut their doors at ten. It was approaching midnight.

I must look really helpless when I don’t know what to do because that’s when someone always asks if I need help. This time it was a man leaning against a railing, calmly smoking a cigarette. He didn’t speak much English but communicated enough for me to confirm what the train time board blandly stated and that all the hotels in this area were expensive. Still, I didn’t seem to have much choice. Over to the side I noticed a group of Oriental women (one of their bags appeared to have Chinese or Japanese characters on it) preparing to go…somewhere. Their rucksacks gave me hope, and I determined to follow them–that is until they gathered outside a closed room of lockers and stared inside. Abandoning the group that appeared to be as clueless as I was, I walked over to the nearby hotel, gulping at the four stars on its side.

To get to the door, however, I had to pass through four blokes, one of whom welcomed my approach with open arms, one hand holding a half empty glass. I smiled good naturedly as I walked by shaking my head. The three other blokes laughed at him.

The doorman at the hotel spoke English, something I desperately needed to hear, even though what he was saying was the hotel was full. He kindly gave me directions on the metro to the center of town, where he assured me I would be able to find a hostel or pension willing to put me up for the night.

To get to the metro, I had to pass through the gauntlet of guys again. The tall, built, good-looking one in nice clothes opened his arms again, evidently willing to give me another chance. But they let me pass by once more, laughing as my bloke shouted, “Where are you going? “WHERE ARE YOU GOING?”” in an inebriated voiced after me.

The truth was I didn’t know where I was going at all. But the Oriental chicks were descending on the escalator ahead of me, and that gave me hope. Safety in numbers, and if we were all headed the same direction, it must be all right.

I began to wonder about that when the metro pulled up, one car full of ecstatic young people. I elected to get on a less crowded car with the group of Oriental girls. At the next stop, however, we were inundated with celebrating youths. I turned to the man in a suit the next seat over and asked, “Football?” He seemed to roll his eyes and nodded, answering me in Spanish. I nodded even though I didn’t understand a word.

A young man with curly hair and the thinnest line of a vertical goatee plopped down between us. He seemed less manic than the rest, who by now were rocking the whole car by jumping up and down, singing. I decided to ask him where the stop I was to get off at was. “Donde?” I asked, showing him what the doorman had written down for me. Fortunately, he spoke English, a rare occurrence in Spain. He informed me that one of the soccer teams in Madrid had just beaten Italy.

“You picked the worst time to come to Madrid,” he said.

“It’s like the Super Bowl,” his friend, a built guy with short hair added, shouting over the noise of everyone else on board. Some of the others, waving purple and white scarves, taunted Curly and his friend. They explained, “There are two teams in Madrid; we like the other one.” The others handed Short Hair a two litre of Orange Fanta, which he offered me. I declined. Curly invited me to join them in their celebration party, but I said I needed to find a place to stay. “You could stay with me–I have a flat,” offered Short Hair, “No, really, it would be no problem…” I told them I wouldn’t feel completely comfortable with that. They laughed. Then the whole group got off at the next stop. “Two more!” they shouted, “Two more stops!”

But the Oriental girls got off at the next station. I figured I could always spend another buck and get back on the metro, but for now I’d follow them. “Are you looking for a hostel?” one asked, turning around on the escalator up. “We missed our train. You come with us?”

The one that seemed to be the leader studied a metro map and then led the way onto another metro line. “Are you sure you know where you’re going?” I asked, but they were. Soon we were on another escalator. A bunch of young people were descending on the other side shouting and waving their scarves at us. “Madrid!” I shouted back at them. They shouted back something in suspicious tones of voices.

Then we were out on the street walking uphill. Cars all around honked their horns happily. The girls came to a certain door and started ringing the buzzer. After ringing for perhaps a minute, someone answered on the intercom. “Do you have any vacancy?” the leaders shouted into the speaker. The door opened, and we started climbing a center flight of stairs.

A young woman met us at a door several fights up and retreated as we advanced in on her. Then an older man with a bald head and potbelly came in. The girls started all talking at once, “Remember me?” “Do you have room?” “There are six of us. Seven of us!” The proprietor and his daughter didn’t seem to speak any English, the Oriental girls spoke limited English and no Spanish, and I stood there trying to figure out if they had room or not. The girls even offered to let me room with them.

But they didn’t need to. The daughter led me to a single room and gave me a towel. “Two thousand,” she said –about fifteen dollars. I gladly handed it over.

“You okay?” several of the Oriental girls asked me as they prepared for bed.

Yeah, I was okay. Just amazed.