September 28 – Madrid Airport
Well friends, I guess we have some catching up to do. There were two weeks in Spain, marked by higher highs and lower lows than I’ve felt in some time. But now I sit in the Madrid airport on my way to Munich for Oktoberfest and have a happy heart pinned to my left leg.
My real heart was less than happy in Barcelona, where Anaelle and I parted after dashing across the France-Spain border for the weekend. She went back north and I stayed south and it wasn’t any fun. Those kind of goodbyes—when you’ve spent several good weeks with someone and then you’re suddenly, terribly alone—don’t get any easier no matter how many you have.
Barcelona was too sad a place to stay so I took an expensive train to Madrid and re-joined the hostel life. It was nice to get drinks with a couple British girls and an American guy, even if they weren’t exactly my kind of people. By the fourth bar of the night everything around Grand Via was shut and we were lured into a shady bar under a neon sign. The girls weren’t opposed to getting a beer at a strip club but when we went in we found no stripping. The only thing dodgier than a strip club is a strip club without stripping; it means they’re selling something else. What they sold us were $12 beers which made us feel quite foolish.
On my second day in Madrid I switched hostels and ended up at Los Amigos, which may be my favorite hostel in the world, perhaps tied with Original Backpackers in Sydney. Original had the advantage of being the first hostel I had ever stayed at and producing good friends and a pseudo-girlfriend.
Los Amigos provided the same, with a big cast of friendly travelers who congregated in the cushy living room or spacious dinning room and shared bottles of sangria. There’s something about capital cities—Sydney, Paris, London, Madrid—that create a good backpacking mix of experienced long-termers and kinetic short-trippers; people energized with the excitement of just starting or nearly finishing their travels.
Kate is blonde and Canadian and she was sitting in the dining room. “How long are you traveling for?” someone asked her.
“Um, eight and a half months,” she said.
She said it the way I must say it when I say “a year.” It was laced with the embarrassment and false modesty of knowing you’re trip is the big kid on the block and you’re a little ashamed and a little proud and a little cocky. Kate was all those things. She’s spending all three trimesters in Europe and I think that’s a mistake.
“You’re spending eight and a half months in Europe?” I asked, peaking up from my computer. “You should go somewhere else. That’s too long in Europe. In my opinion.”
“That’s the wrong thing so say,” she said. And she meant it and from then on she didn’t like me and she was blonde and Canadian and from Vancouver. She turned to the girl she was traveling with and whispered her thoughts about me. “I’m always open to different kinds of people and never get upset but I really hate that guy over there, he’s a real asshole.”
HAPPY HEART/BROKEN HEART
There were two sisters from Canada and they came out with us one night. They had little fabric hearts pinned onto their clothes and they told me how they made 200 of the things to give out in Europe. They offered me a “Happy Heart/Broken Heart,” and I enthusiastically accepted. One side is all red with white trim and the other is made of two shattered pieces of the same red fabric. I wore mine happily because Madrid was a happy place.
Then some sangria and I decided greater happiness would be found in San Sebastian where Anaelle said she would meet me for the weekend. I wanted to go to Valencia, on the east coast, but San Sebastian was close to France and close to some other places so I went there and found Anaelle and much great happiness. On Sunday there was another hard goodbye that wasn’t quite as hard as the last one. I flipped my heart to the broken side, but I knew life would go on.
Still, I wasn’t strong enough to go to Bilbao or Pamplona, where I knew I would know no one. Instead I took the train back to Madrid where I thought some of the old crew might still be partying. They were and they came into the hostel around 1am that night as I sat in the hall typing. Kate the blonde from Canada, and Rachelle the brunette from Australia were among the inebriated. The day before I had e-mailed Kate and asked if she would still be around and suggested we should get a drink.
“Who the fuck does he think he is?” Kate wondered when she got the e-mail.
I was in Madrid instead of Portugal because the Brazilians had my passport. They were using it to quickly make a visa so I can go to Brazil next month. I had begged in broken Spanish for them to finish it in time for me to catch my flight to Germany. But in the mean time I couldn’t cross borders and see Portugal and instead just stayed in Madrid.
There was an ever-evolving group of happy Amigos at the hostel. Kalin, a Montanan culinary student was in my room. He and I went for kebabs with Kate and Rachelle on Monday afternoon. After the lunch we got up and left and Kalin realized his bag had been stolen as we ate. His camera and passport were gone.
Thinking quickly, Kate went to a neighboring deli, procured a can of San Miguel beer, and helped Kalin back onto the road of sanity and insobriety.
“Why don’t we all just get drunk this afternoon,” one of the girls suggested. It was the perfect cure.
Displaying the best possible characteristics of the backpacker crowd, six of us escorted Kalin to the U.S. Embassy to apply for a new passport. We made sure he didn’t get too upset or stay too sober. We bought 4.5 liters of sangria (for $5) and went to a park.
On the walk back to the hostel to regroup for the evening we passed Plaza de Neptuno, the giant fountain in the middle of the city where a dozen lanes of traffic converge. “Let’s go swimming in the fountain,” Rachelle suggested.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
But then we decided to do it later that night.
Later that night we had bought 4.5 more liters of sangria and a bottle of wine. We had drank most of them by the end of dinner. Then we were all in Kate’s room and she was sitting up on her top bunk and then I was sitting up there too. I was drunk and tired so I lied on her leg.
“Come on, we’re going swimming,” Rachelle insisted. Moving 15 drunk backpackers towards the fountain proved impossible but eventually there were six of us walking east through Puerto del Sol and towards Plaza de Neptuno.
After 20 minutes we were there and the fountain was turned off and it didn’t matter. Kate and Rochelle stripped down to their bras and me to my boxers. We stepped into the fountain, turned around and saw three cop cars. If they patrolled the kebab shop as vigilantly as the fountain, Kalin would still have his passport and we would have had a nice swim. But instead we had to get out of the water and empty our bottle of wine.
Everyone went dancing at a club until 5am except Kate and I who went back to the hostel. In the morning she didn’t think I was “a giant asshole” anymore.
The next day someone else got their wallet stolen but we were too hungover to drink with them. We went for a walk and bought some groceries and made lunch. By that point, “we” meant Kate and me. We went to this little place where they serve churros with mugs of melted chocolate. We were in Spain so we took a siesta.
THEN IT WAS TODAY
Then it was today and I was going to Munich. “I’m new to this,” Kate said and she meant that she hadn’t shared a single bed with a single person since she started traveling six weeks ago. “I probably shouldn’t say it, but I think I’m going to miss you.”
And I guess she might. When you’ve spent a couple weeks with someone and then you’re totally alone, that’s a feeling Kate and me and everyone else will always hate whenever we feel it. But it was only a couple days of bedsharing for Kate and I and I’m going to Germany to meet a friend from home so it wasn’t so hard to walk out of Los Amigos towards the Opera metro station. Spain had given many good memories and it hadn’t even taken a passport or wallet in return. Kate, the blonde from Vancouver who is spending too long in Europe didn’t hate me anymore. I left for Munich with a happy heart and an expectant liver.