Four beds in four nights. Well, technically it’s going to be two beds in 3+ locations in four nights, since one of them is a continually moving seat in an airplane and another is a sleeping bag. None of them are in the same country. I woke up in my own bed, spent a weirdly short night in a tin can next to the doppelgänger of Simon Cowell, physically closer than I would be to my own husband the next night in twin German hotel beds, and now I’m going to be an inch off the sandy Spanish soil on an airbed. Somewhere. But where?
We’ve spent the entire day on the move. We woke up early. I snapped awake at 2:30 AM Hamburg time, despite the fact that I had slept so little the past two days. There was nothing for it but to decamp to the bathroom, where I could turn on a light and get some work done for a couple of hours. My husband had had a few days to adjust to jet lag, and he slept soundly all night. I managed to drift off again in the lovely soft bed, just enough to be terribly groggy when the alarm went off. Now I’m trying to keep alert. Every single thing we do for the next several hours is important. Any object we leave behind will cause either logistical problems, financial outlay, or security concerns. Any wrong turn we take could lead to missing a transportation connection, plus the fact that we don’t speak the language and we wouldn’t know where we were. We have a lot of ground to cover. We eat protein bars for breakfast, check out of the hotel, and cram our huge packs into a cab to the airport. My husband’s business suitcase and laptop bag are artfully packed together and shipped home. He won’t be needing any suits or ties where we’re going.
Airport business takes focus. It’s in short supply for me right now. My boots set off the scanner and I go through secondary search. I have no idea what to expect. The uniforms and the stern language are giving me fantods. All that happens is that I sit down, take off my boots, they go through the scanner, and a distracted guard hands them back to me and wanders off. We keep having to hand over passports and tickets and answer very basic questions, like where we’re from. This takes much more concentration on my part than it should. I say “Huh?” a lot.
Being on a plane where every announcement and sign is in another language makes this whole enterprise feel both real and unreal at the same time. I think I’m going to get away with “Wasser, bitte” but the questions keep coming and I have to revert to Anglisch. German women have the most devastatingly translucent complexions. It’s like a dream in which beautiful people fade in and out of your awareness, asking incomprehensible questions, and suddenly you’re in a totally different country with totally different weather.
We’re in Barcelona! Now what?
Check it out. We’re standing in an airport with 75 pounds of backpack between us. We have:
No place to stay
No friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, or social networking referrals
Weaker language skills than a parrot who sits near a TV that plays telenovelas all day
This is what middle-aged suburbanites do for fun. Pull the carpet of comfort out from under yourself and test your powers of resilience. Start by squabbling over who has to walk up to the Tourist Information booth, and resort to the internet instead.
It really only takes about ten minutes of focused effort to figure out what to do next. This is because we’ve done a certain amount of advance research and we believe we can travel through Spain the same way we did through Iceland four years ago. We’re going to a camping. We find one on the map but we can’t immediately figure out how to get there by bus. We look for campings on a map app, but one campsite symbol turns out to refer to an outdoor store in a huge mall. Good thing we didn’t head straight there! We search to see if there are other campings, read reviews for the three in the vicinity, and see that the blog we’ve found includes bus directions. Hallelujah! We have to get downtown to catch that bus, even though it’s the opposite direction and we’re only three miles from the camping right now. There’s a bus directly outside that only goes to the city center. We board it, figuring that we can solve our next most immediate problems before setting up camp. Those are groceries, a propane canister for our backpacking stove, and a replacement bottle of melatonin, since everything I brought was saturated by my leaking deodorant bottle.
We’ve spent ten minutes in the place of uncertainty and emerged with a plan.
This is one of the sacred mysteries of the nomad. It’s what makes experienced travelers so charismatic. We build an emotional tolerance to having absolutely no idea what to do next. Just a few minutes ago, we were exhausted, stressed out, and annoying each other. Now we’re still exhausted, but we have a sense of purpose, and we’re outside the airport drinking in our surroundings. Hello, lovely nice Spaniards! Hello, bold Spanish architecture! Hello, sign in Catalan that I can’t read!
Riding a bus through a famously beautiful city never loses its novelty. Every single thing we see is fascinating. There are familiar elements: young people interacting with their cracked phone screens, people riding bikes and pushing strollers and walking dogs. This is what sharpens the eye. So much is familiar but so many small details are unfamiliar and surprising. For instance, we notice right away that one of the most common breeds of dog in Spain either is, or is closely related to, a rat terrier like our own Spike. Almost nobody uses a leash. Also, there seems to be a trend of wearing shirts with motivational sayings in English.
The first thing we do when we reach the Plaça de Catalunya is to find a Starbucks. You either love them or hate them. We love that they have soy milk, wi-fi, and reliably clean bathrooms. Soy milk turns out to be pervasive throughout Spain, available in even the tiniest convenience store in the smallest town. Wi-fi is easy enough to find, although you have to ask for a password with your purchase, and the restrooms have a combination lock. We sit at a table, drink tea, and start mapping destinations. It turns out that we’re only a short walk from a grocery store and an outdoor store, where we can get everything we need. We pass a pharmacy on the way. The melatonin is a huge relief to me, because 20 years ago, apparently its sale was restricted in at least parts of Europe. I had read some rumors that were stressing me out. It’s about 4x as expensive as the stuff I buy at Costco, but I’m not going without it.
We have to leave our packs at the front of the grocery store, where there are lockers and chains for packs like ours. We have no idea what to expect of the grocery situation; there were two occasions in Iceland when I bought the only can of beans in an entire store. We wander around for a while, looking at what’s on the shelves, confused by the lack of proper food, until we realize the produce and canned goods are on a basement level. We’re eating breakfasts and dinners in camp and looking for lunches near our activities in town during the day. We get breakfast cereal, cooking oil, curry powder, lentils, an onion, and the absolutely biggest chard we’ve ever seen. Then we get our packs back on and walk another quarter mile or so to the outdoor store. I spot a Fodor’s map on the sidewalk, marked with a partial boot print; it’s getting hit with a few light raindrops, and I don’t see anyone looking for it, so I snag it. We dub it “la mapa de basura.”
This is a moment of complacency. We’ve found everything we needed, immediately, centrally located, with convenient hours. Wow, this is so easy! Spain is made for backpackers! Let’s just take our loot and bus on out to our camping like champions! We will be reevaluating all of this a week down the road.
It starts to rain really hard. We’re chugging along the cobblestones, not really used to the weight of our hefty packs yet, and we’re carrying shopping bags. Fortunately, it’s at that moment that I realize we forgot to buy a lighter or matches for the camp stove. We really want to catch the next bus, because they don’t run all that often, and just in time I spot a newsstand and figure they’ll have lighters. This is another fortuitous moment that comes much too easily. Serendipity brightens a lot of moments for every traveler, but again, it can lull one into a false sense of security and dull the blade of cognition.
We’re on the bus again. It’s heading toward evening. We’ve spent the entire day on logistical concerns, and we’re not done yet, but we have a sense of optimism. We’ve succeeded! We’ve made it from plush order in Hamburg to reckless disorder on the streets of La Rambla. We have everything we need from now until our first official sightseeing venture. The “wing-it method” is working out perfectly.
We get off the bus at the proper stop, which unfortunately is about a ten-minute walk in the mud along a busy highway, but it’s stopped raining. This is important. We’ve counted on the fact that it may well rain on us every single day for the next two weeks, and we’re determined to have fun either way. We sign in at the camping, get the wi-fi password, and wander around, since we’re allowed to choose from any open spot. We find a grassy spot with electrical outlets, and we locate the restrooms. It takes about 20 minutes to pitch the tent, blow up our air mattresses and pillows, lay out our sleeping bags, assemble our folding chairs, and pull out the cooking gear. I wash the chard in the kitchen sink area, then tear half of it up by hand because it’s too outsized for our tiny backpacking cutting board. We eat our nice curry, feeling very pleased with ourselves, and check into the Hotel Denham, where I finally sleep a full night. When I wake up, we’ll be on Barcelona Time.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.