I am a tourist. No matter how much I try to live up to the standard of what a traveler should be, deep down inside I enjoy being a tourist, sometimes. Walking down the road with camera in hand or stepping into the same souvenir shops over and over trying to find the perfect price on a tacky plastic lizard is fun. Sometimes. Granted, I have some traveler tendencies that I am proud of, like doing small loads of laundry even on short trips or packing very little in the first place. Or asking locals where is the best spot to find good food, rather than take Lonely planets’ word as gospel.
So, when it came to Kit and I’s latest getaway, there was certainly a mix of both the tourist and the traveler in us both. But, this isn’t a post about our whole trip. This is a post about the most organic and most satisfying experience I have had on a trip thus far in all our travels.
What is ironic about this particular Saturday in Spain is, even though Kit and I share many of the same ideas of what a fun trip is, On this particular Saturday, our opinions differed so distinctly that it even brought Kit to tears. Before you assume that I had made Kit cry, in this situation, it was not my fault. This Saturday that I write about was the last straw for Kit. Everything that we had planned or carefully researched prior to our trip had dissolved into a mess. Any time we made plans for the early morning, we wouldn’t wake up until noon. Anytime we got hungry, our appetites would go unsettled because the kitchen would be closed. It seemed as if the moons’ of Venus, just where not going to align for us.
Barcelona, would not be reaching Kit’s top five destinations anytime soon. And I could absolutely understand her frustrations. In all fairness to her, we have had an unprecedented easy time traveling. We rarely had problems with airlines, we were always happy with our hotel choices. We had always found food that was edible and generally good. Aside from a slight detour during our flight to Bermuda and the subsequent argument about said detour at the airport with the ticket agent. Our travel record was just about spotless.
For this trip which was pretty routine as far as distant and exotic destination goes. For everything to fall apart must have been incredibly hard for her. This is where are most core philosophes differ. In all fairness to Kit, she is as laid back as I think women come. And I love her for this. Nonetheless, even her laid back (for a women) attitude to obstacles can’t compare to my laid-backness. Especially when it comes to plans falling through.
The day started out like most others during the trip, meaning I was slightly hung over and tired. The plan for the day was to wake up relatively early and head to Tibidabo. A mountain that surrounds Barcelona to the north. On top of Tibidabo is an amusement park and a church (no relation). Aside from a grueling Mt. Everest type trek to the summit of this mountain, the only practical way to get to the top is to take a slow ride up, on a cable car. Not unlike the ones found in San Francisco, except for the blue paint job.
We waited patiently in line for over an hour. Once we boarded we paid the 8€ fee for 2 round trip tickets. Leaving me with only 2€ or 3€ left in real cash. Blame it on our cashless society we live in, but I rarely carry cash on me. Anyway, the ride was very scenic and to our surprise very short for the distance we should have covered. When we were let off of the cable car we looked around the empty lot and realized that we were only about half way up the mountain. Confused, we followed the crowd and stood in another line next to a small building. Not knowing exactly what we were standing in line for. We stood there waiting for everything to become clear.
And then everything became clear…
The cable car was only part of the journey to the top. Now, we needed to hop on the funicular to reach the park and church. Not a big deal, if… You had more than 3€ in your pocket. When it was our turn to buy our tickets at the ticket booth, three stickers on the glass sealed our fate.
Cash. No Visa. No ATM.
In my best Spanish I asked the attendant where the closest ATM was. Her confused expression led me to believe that my best Spanish is no where near good Spanish. We left the ticket line, defeated but determined to find an ATM. This is the 21st century, how could an there not be an ATM on every corner? We asked a waiter in the restaurant across the street the same question. He told me that the closest bank was on the cable car’s last stop. HEY! I know where that is! That’s where we started! And that’s where we stood in line for an incredibly long time! I could have easily had gotten money while we were down there, at the ATM that was across the street from the very spot that I had stood in! They say hind-sight is 20/20. Well, fuck them.
Back to the cable car, which at this point had lost its charm due to our change in mood. We headed back down the road. We found an ATM and after getting a very decent amount of money (for added security), we started walking back over to the line when we realized that it was now a little after 2 in the afternoon and the park closes around 4. The line was at least a half hour to an hour-long and the last funicular down the mountain was around 5pm. How badly did we want to go? We pondered this question for at least 10 minutes.
I turned to Kit and said, ” Screw it, I don’t feel like walking anymore. Do you just wanna get a cup of coffee or a drink at a café?” Kit’s reply was less than enthusiastic but she agreed. Poor kid, she really does like roller coasters. We hopped on a bus that we hoped would bring us in the direction we wanted to go.
The main square that we got dropped off in front of, was alive with people. Some locals going about their daily business, but mostly tourist. Then there was us. Myself, walking towards a general direction of coffee and chairs and Kit, silently growing more and more frustrated with our vacation. Now, I love roller coasters as much as the next guy. And Yes, I was disappointed that we were, because of bad planning unable to partake in the fun of a roller coaster. But still, I had not to this point felt the disappointment that Kit must have felt. When I looked over at her, she had started to tear up.
After being assured repeatedly by Kit that she is not crying because of my recent purchase of a cigar, we found a small outdoor café were we could sit down, relax and drink coffee and tea. Or so we thought. apparently we had found the ONLY café in Barcelona, that does not, in fact, serve coffee or tea. I understand that false advertisement sometimes is necessary in this competitive economy, but if your establishment takes its name from a drink, you should, in regards to good business, probably go ahead and serve that drink!
Nonetheless, we are flexible people, a beer and a glass of sangria will just have to do. After a few sips from my beer and lighting my cigar, the mood began to turn. Within a second, gone was the resentment towards the funicular operation for not accepting credit cards. Gone was the annoyed feelings towards this “Cafe” for not serving coffee. Gone were the frustrations of a week’s worth of plans not materializing.
Sipping on my beer and slowly drawing smoke from my cigar had transformed Barcelona from a crowded and hectic city, into an obtainable neighborhood. Watching the people walk by, the huge bubbles produced by grimy looking teenagers, helped calm my feelings. Out of no where I had found my peace within Barcelona. Looking across the table seeing Kit take pictures of Ducky drinking sangria with a smile on her face, lead me to believe I wasn’t the only person whose mood had been changed.
We left our seats and started our search for food. (And here is the first of my travel tips) If you are ever looking for really good food, follow the police. The job of a police officer inherently keeps them from brown bagging lunch. And the police like most people in the world, enjoy eating. So, they eat out. They eat out a lot. Follow them. Eat what they eat, police are the most local of the locals in my opinion. They know the best and worst of where they patrol and that opinion goes a long way. We followed a group of about 6 officers into a small crowed restaurant that was offering a very inexpensive lunch menu. And I am so glad that we did.
The restaurant was intimate and lively, slightly smokey but no were near as bad as some of the other restaurant we had been to in Spain. If you pictured a café in Paris this is what this restaurant looked like. Exposed brick walls, an open kitchen, lots of wine. From our table we had a good view of the entire eatery and it’s patrons. For me, nothing is more entertaining than people watching. And our table neighbors were incredibly entertaining group of drunk and passionate men. Screaming to each other about the finer points of infidelity.
I’m very American the way I eat. I want my food now! I look at food as a necessity not a leisurely activity. I want to get a meal over with so I can move on with my life. I generally eat fast. But the slow service and huge amount of food had forced me to take this meal slow. And the waitress was S-L-O-W even by Spanish standards. But I really got a chance to appreciate the company of Kit and a good glass of wine. Two hours later we finally had finished lunch. TWO HOURS! The only time it takes me two hours to eat lunch is when I try to sneak out of doing my shift duties at work.
Full and relaxed with the help of wine we strolled on to the expansive square in front of the Cathedral. Which is the site of the Sardana. The Sardana is a traditional dance of the people of Catalonia . A small ensemble of musicians provide the dramatic music for the dancers. The dancers (just regular local people , not professionals) place their personal property in a community pile in the center of circle. At first a small circle with only a few other people, but as the night progresses more and more Catalonians join hand in hand, and the circle grows. Even with the massive amount of tourists walking through the square, rudely shoving their cameras into the faces of the locals, they continue to dance, kicking their feet and jumping in unison. In the time of globalization, for a community to come together and do as they have done, preserving their own culture is very respectable. And the music wasn’t half bad either.
The rest of the night found us walking through a Bohemian neighborhood of Barcelona. Sampling the local beer.We walked into a bar which was incredibly smokey even by firefighting standards, and Kit and I wandered through it to find an area with any form of ventilation. When we reached a back room with a large heavy curtain, a young man came out and offered us entry into the dark room. Confused I asked him exactly what we were getting invited into. (My second travel tip: I have come to learn throughout my life of wandering around that when a stranger invites you into a dark room, find out what you are walking into. You never know when you are going to walk right into an underground sex club… Which isn’t a bad thing per say, but you should at least, be mentally prepared for it. )
It was not a sex club that we got invited into, but a small concert. Music provided by a local band. Kit and I stood in the back taking in the surprisingly fresh air and funky sounds. Looking around, you could see young hipsters bobbing their heads collectively with the music. This was a fine punctuation for our night.
Of course it wasn’t though. It was just a comma. Two blocks away from our hotel we decided to sit for one more drink at a bar we had found the night before. Next to us was a short, blond man drinking a mojito. I’m not one to judge anyone on their drink of choice, but a mojito is, generally speaking a pretty bold choice when it comes to a drink to drink. After he offered a plate of meat to us, he insisted that we join him in his consumption of more mojitos. I have always been taught never to turn down an offer for a free drink. So, we accepted. They were pretty damn good mojitos too! Aside from his questionable drink choices, he was actually a very nice and funny guy. A Danish expat, with a Cuban wife (the mojitos make sense now right?) who was out celebrating landing a very important job. A job that would allow him to provide a better life for his wife and three children in Barcelona. We discussed the finer points of life with him over a hotdog and some more beer. Finally, after four in the morning, we said good night.
It’s hard for me to explain why that day stands out as my favorite day out of all of our trips. I think it stems from the fact that when we finally gave up on trying to see Barcelona, we finally got to experience Barcelona. And that I think is one of the biggest mistake that tourist make when they go on vacation. Their days are filled with itineraries and preconceived notions of what a destination must be, rather than just letting it unfold naturally.
And this is exactly the experience I was looking for when I started to travel. The so-called “authentic” experience. Even though I didn’t get anything crossed off the list while we were in Spain or Switzerland, I feel that I had accomplished a life’s goal. One that was too abstract to write in the list. It wouldn’t have been real if, number 36 on my list was to have an authentic experience in Spain. How would you ever be able to measure that? I guess there are just going to be things on my list that I can never try to pursue, they just need to happen.