spain, pt 1: barcelona; minding my misconceptions

arc de triomf

i woke up the next morning sorer than i had in months.  it was the good kind of sore, the kind that reminds you that you had earned it, and any other unhealthy foods you could get your hands on.  but i was also inexplicably restless.  after i had gotten home from the previous day’s hike, i had been looking forward to a couple beers and a good in-depth conversation with my new french friend, jean, about life, love, his adventures in colorado, and everything in between.  i was disappointed however when i returned to find his bunk empty and a note on my pillow with an apology on it, informing me that he had a received an urgent call from home and he’d left switzerland early.  i crossed my fingers and hoped everything was okay, and lamented that i would likely never see him again.  another casualty of the wander.  it was something i was still learning how to deal with, even after being abroad for 2 months already.

i started to re-evaluate what my gameplan was.  it was october 29th, and i was up on the alps in a ghost town.  this was what i had wanted.  i had wanted an epic hike in the alps and i had wanted to escape the hustle of the city, and i had gotten that, but now for some reason my feet were beginning to itch for a new destination again.  the quiet solitude had quenched my wanderlust for only a day.  halloween was 2 days away and i was suddenly yearning to be in barcelona, where i imagined there would be big lavish costume parties and weird death-themed decorations everywhere.  i didn’t even know if spain celebrated halloween, but if mexico celebrates dia de los muertos… and they speak the same language… surely spain did too… right?

it was decided. i was going to try and get to barcelona by october 31st.  but once again, I wasn’t sure how.  i packed my bag and hopped a train for milan, italy.

the ride was a long one, cutting straight through the swiss alps and on down into the italian alps.  it was gorgeous, as any train ride in the alps is, but my favorite thing was taking note of just how many italian and swiss business men and women were on the train.  it was not a cheap train ride, and i was clearly the one who was not dressed for success.  instead of feeling embarrassed though, i smiled.  i couldn’t be prouder of my situation.

when i finally got to milan, i had used the wifi on the train to locate a plane flight with easyjet to barcelona, but i was dismayed to find out that the train station was nowhere near the airport, which was a 90-euro cab fare away.  i had no choice, the flight was leaving in less than 2 hours.

unfortunately i missed the easyjet flight, but I lucked out when an airport help desk employee helped me find the last flight going to barcelona with vueling airlines that night.  i wasn’t going to have to spend the night in the milan airport.  thank god.

on the plane i once again watched all of the people boarding, paying attention to the fashion everyone so proudly displayed.  milan is the fashion mecca of italy, and the catalonians of barcelona are no slouches either.  so once again i was the homeless-looking outcast.  I cheerily put a smile on my face and reveled in my individuality.

after about 75% of the plane had boarded and i was happily nodding my head in rhythm with my ipod tunes, i looked up and noticed something that disturbed me.  a tall, thin, tshirt wearing man with disheveled hair and a distinct “i-woke-up-like-this” look about him boarded and started ambling his way down the aisle.  he had to stoop a little as his 6’4” frame towered over the cabin and didn’t leave him much room to move about.  he had dreamy, exotic-looking green eyes and long, brown hair with blonde highlight streaks that wreaked of 80s surfer bum, save for the young facial features. he looked to be in his mid 20s.  he was cramping on my vagabond-chic look and i didn’t like it.  in fact, he made it look a lot better than me.  he was my nemesis.

i pouted in my window seat, ridiculously annoyed that i wasn’t as cool or original as i had thought before my nameless nemesis had showed up and stolen my identity for the 90 minute flight (which i would spend interacting and talking with no one). when the flight landed, i exited quickly and focused on trying to figure out where the hell i was going.  once again, i had not made any set reservations, only a mental note of 3 or 4 potential hostels in a rough area i wanted to be in and planned to stay at whatever one seemed good in the moment.

i made my way to the bus stop outside the terminal and tried to board a bus bound for the city center.  i needed exact change to buy straight from the bus driver but didn’t have it, so she pointed me to a machine where i used a credit card to purchase my ticket.  when i tried to re-board the near-empty bus, however, i was turned away for no apparent reason and told i’d

weird barcelona graffiti
weird barcelona graffiti

need to wait for the next bus.  i watched in confusion as the bus pulled away.  “okay then. that makes no sense” i thought to myself as the next bus pulled up.  i presented my ticket again and was allowed entry.  i shook my head and laughed to myself as i tossed my pack onto the luggage rack and grabbed a seat near the back.  the bus sat there patiently for 10 minutes, empty.  i was beginning to think hopefully that i might get the bus entirely to myself all the way to the city center, when suddenly a sea of people came bumbling down the stairs like a group of zombies and began boarding the bus.  “damn!  no!” i thought to myself as passenger after passenger began to fill out the bus.  i watched in amusement as people were purposefully avoiding sitting next to me, the unsavory looking freckled fellow with the unkempt beard.  it wasn’t long before there were no more seats available on the bus, except the one right next to me, and there were even a couple people who preferred to stand instead of sit next to me.  i smiled triumphantly to myself.

the bus driver took his seat and prepared to pull away from the terminal when suddenly a rogue tardy passenger jumped onto the bus and presented his ticket, barely making it.  i looked up to see that it was none other than my nemesis; 80s surf bum.  i knew what was coming.  i cringed knowingly as he looked around and confirmed what i already knew.  there was nowhere else to sit.  80s surf bum shelved his backpack and walked nonchalantly over and settled into the seat beside me.  i begrudgingly pretended not to notice and turned my music up louder as the bus pulled out into the barcelona night.

after about a couple minutes of riding and feigned obliviousness over my petty idiocy, i started laughing to myself at the entire situation.  i am, friends would tell you, a clearly judgmental person, often times for the harmless sake of humor, but i like to people-watch and i like to make exaggerated observations about people i know I’m never going to meet because i think it’s funny.  but really it’s kind of stupid, and i know it.  and every once in awhile, i get my finger stuck in the slamming door and i see how completely wrong i am about people.  this would prove to be one of those times.

i looked around at everyone else on the bus. all professionals, in professional attire, sitting quietly and neatly in their seated rows.  and then 80s surf bum and freckled ginger-beard, sitting right next to each other, successfully avoided by everyone else.  we were a match made in bread lines & halfway houses.

“how long you been traveling?” i asked, pointing to his backpack leaning up against mine. I’d decided to get over myself and go where the universe was clearly guiding me.

80s surf bum, aka martín
80s surf bum, aka martín

he raised an eyebrow unexpectedly and looked over at me, answering in a thick accent that i couldn’t place, “4 months now. and you?”

damn. he’s a more accomplished traveler than me too, i thought.  no, stop. grow up, brandon. this isn’t some juvenile contest, curb your competitiveness, i instructed myself.  “i’ve only been on the road for 2 months.  4 months, that is a long time!  that is awesome.  are you from spain?  or somewhere else?”

we exchanged names and martín informed me that he was from montevideo, uruguay.  he had begun his travels through europe in spain and had now returned to spend his last week here before flying home.  i began asking him questions in spanish, guessing correctly that he wasn’t entirely comfortable in his conversational english skills, and knowing that i speak quickly in english when i get excited, i figured this was a good time to start practicing if i was going to be in spain for a few weeks.  i asked martín question after question about where he’d been and if he had any suggestions for me. after talking for about 15 minutes, martín and i were fast friends.  martín had a friendly, easygoing temperament and giant, toothy grin that gave off a very welcoming, appreciative vibe.  he was a cool, in-tune dude, and i really liked him.  dammit i hate being wrong.

as the bus neared the city center, i asked martín if he preferred any of the hostels i was looking into.  martín got really excited about one in particular, called the bon moustache (the name was really the only reason I’d been interested in the first place).  he’d stayed there the last time he came through barcelona and loved it, in fact martín informed me that he would actually be trying to get a bed there the following day.  the bus pulled in and martín and i went our separate ways, agreeing to hang out once he checked into the bon moustache.

i walked about 10 minutes and eventually found it, a charming, well-maintained little hostel located in a nice, clean part of town. i checked in and immediately went to sleep, exhausted from the day’s events.

IMG_2483the next day i awoke late.  i hadn’t slept particularly well due to snoring roommates that even my ear plugs hadn’t been able to overpower.  but when i finally made it out into the lobby, there sat martín, busy on his phone.  he looked up. “hey man! wow you got a room here after all!” he enthusiastically remarked.  he informed me he was planning on spending the day at the beach, and nothing else.  that sounded great to me, a lazy day at the beach.  i quickly put my beach attire on and we started walking.

the weather was perfect outside, around 70 degrees fahrenheit and not a cloud in the sky.  when we walked out onto the sand, however, martín was shocked at how few people there were.  “4 months ago, this was completely full, nowhere to sit” he said in amazement.

“well it looks like we get priority seating today, my friend!”  i replied as we began searching for a prime spot.  martín walked out and laid his towel out on the first decent, garbage-free spot.  “is this where you want to set up?”  i asked, looking around with ulterior motives.  i was at the beach in barcelona. i wanted to meet some girls.  martín shrugged and picked his towel back up, following me a little further down the beach near a couple of attractive girls in bikinis, sunning themselves in the inexplicably warm spanish november sun.  picking up on what i was doing, martín flashed that big grin of his and laughed at me, laying his towel back down on the ground, saying “yeah right, man.”  not wanting to be overtly obvious about my intentions, i decided the timing was wrong.  i laid down my towel and sat down, taking in the scene.

there were mainly families on the beach, young spanish children playing in the sand and along the shoreline, running back and forth between the small waves crashing ashore, laughing and shrieking in delight, their parents not far away with smiles on their faces.  it was a lovely scene.

before long however, it was spoiled by the unlicensed beach vendors.  guys with big plastic bags filled with bottles of water or beer or assorted snacks, walking around repeatedly offering, over and over and over, ad nausea.  then women would walk around, peddling worthless little trinkets or jewelries, or tshirt souvenirs, making sure they had made eye contact or at least elicited a verbal response from each person before moving onto the next.  i’m sure this isn’t nearly as annoying in the summer when the beach is full of other targets, so you don’t notice these vendors as much, but in november, when there’s nobody out, they bother you every 20 seconds.  eventually i tried telling the beer guy that i would find him if i changed my mind, and that he could relax.  he smiled, nodded, and walked away.  and then he returned 3 minutes later.  there was no way i was going to be able to get a nap in.

IMG_0573after an hour or two, a different vendor came by.  an old asian woman offering a massage for 5 euros.  5 euros?  hell yes, i’ll take that all day.  martín had been fast asleep the entire time, but now he rolled over and had a surprised look on his face, as an old lady was straddling me and shoving my head into the sand.  it took him a second to figure out that i had paid for this voluntary torture.  he started laughing and then grabbed his phone to snap some photos.

the massage hadn’t felt particularly relaxing, especially near the end when she began bending my legs in ways they weren’t meant to bend, but i couldn’t expect much from such a cheap price tag.  i groaned in agony and grabbed the sand to try and power my way through the pain.  the old lady laughed and eased up, martín continued to laugh.

"massage" is a term i'd use loosely
“massage” is a term i’d use loosely

as she finished up, i looked over to see that one of the attractive women nearby had opted for a massage as well, but she appeared to be going through the same realization of pain as i had, when the old masseuse hopped up onto her back and then stood up.  i started laughing audibly, as did martín. her friend looked over at us and smiled, giving an “i don’t even know what to do” shrug.  i quickly snapped a photo and called out “i’ll send this over for you to laugh about later.”  it wasn’t long before the torture was over and we had joined groups, sharing war stories about our respective massages.

cassie and bree were both americans, and were near the beginning of a 3 week vacation through paris, barcelona, rome, and porto, portugal.  bree had darker, tanned skin with long dark hair and a cool, sexy confidence in her brown eyes.  she wore thick-rimmed glasses that gave a geek-chic kind of look which clashed cleverly with her tattoos and ear plug piercings.  she had that athletic tomboy look that a lot of colorado snowboard girls have that I hadn’t seen in awhile.  meanwhile cassie had a more girly girl, classically feminine style about her that was elegant but not uptight, still flirtatious and fun with a little rebellious streak (she too had cool tattoos).  she had long blonde hair and soft, inviting eyes that would playfully dance whenever she laughed.  they were both drop-dead gorgeous.

as we talked, i got a sense that these two hadn’t previously been experienced world travelers and they were just kind of going with the flow.  i asked and they confirmed this, that mainly they were going to major highlight cities of western europe (porto being a slight exception)  and had a rough ideas of what they’d like to see, but i had a feeling they would be open to getting off the beaten path and away from the touristy things if they could be found, i started trying to think creatively about how to extend this interaction by coming up with something fun to do.  unfortunately, i had already learned that halloween wasn’t really a big holiday in barcelona, so outside of maybe a dance club (which I’m typically not a big fan of) with a special halloween theme, there probably wasn’t much going on tonight in that vein.

after a couple hours of conversation we all decided to grab a bite to eat together.  we left the beach and started wandering into town, without a clue of what we were really searching for.  i wanted to eat something uniquely local, but we weren’t having much luck (it was only later that i realized that in spain during the hours of the daily siesta, there’s literally nothing open. i’d thought that was just something people joked about) finding anything, especially between the other three being semi-picky eaters.  we finally settled some random place with an open door and an unattended table and chairs on the sidewalk, mostly due to lack of options and no one wanting to walk anymore.

the food was forgettable, but it gave us an opportunity to chat a little more and then make plans to go out to bars later that night.  i introduced the idea of us going for our own little “bar crawl,” where we would plot out 5 or 6 interesting looking bars and make our way through the cool “el gotico” neighborhood, or “the gothic,” essentially the oldest part of barcelona, and explore the area, trying to get off the beaten path a little.  everyone liked the idea, so we parted ways and agreed to meet up later back at the moustache hostel.

bree's cool confidence on the left and cassie's cute sassiness on the right
bree’s cool confidence on the left and cassie’s cute sassiness on the right

as martín and i walked back to the hostel, we celebrated our success in meeting these two attractive ladies, laughing and recounting the day’s events.  it was then that martín informed me that he had a girlfriend back home, so he wasn’t really interested, which explained some of his (what I thought at the time was) shyness.  “that’s okay,” i told him. “you’re better looking than me, so you’re still good eye candy for the ladies.  you’re my wingman.”  in retrospect, i realize how much of an asshole i probably seem.  but as we continued to rehash the conversation, something felt kind of “off” about the whole thing.   bree and cassie had both been nothing but friendly the whole time they had been with us, but there had been times during the conversation where one or both of them had hesitated when i would ask them a question, or if i flirted, they wouldn’t really flirt back, but they weren’t ignoring it either.  i asked martín if he had picked up on it as well.

“yeah man, i noticed that as well.  weird.”  he replied in his uruguayan accent.  his english was improving the more we hung out.  “did i say anything stupid or insensitive or crude or anything?”

“no man, I don’t remember anything bad…”  he trailed off.

“maybe they were in a fight or something before we met them?” I offered. “that can sometimes happen when people travel together.  I mean, girl friends back home fight all the time for no reason…” but that didn’t quite seem to fit either.  we went back and forth for awhile but still couldn’t quite solve the mystery.

“wait.  what if…  no that doesn’t make sense either.”  i cut myself off.  “what?”  martín pressed.

“what if we’re totally wrong about this whole thing?  what if they’re lesbians?”

martín turned to look at me with a surprised look on his face. we both started laughing dismissively.

“nah, couldn’t be.  why would they have kept hanging out with us when i was clearly hitting on them?  why would they be coming out with us tonight?  they would have just blown us off if they weren’t interested.  that’s what girls always do when they aren’t interested in me back home.  maybe they just can’t decide which of them likes which of us yet.” i resolved.  martín agreed and we decided to let it go and try and pay more attention tonight when we met back up.

a few hours later, after a nap and a shower, i was all fresh & clean and ready for the night.  martín and i had gotten a little advice from the front desk woman, a really cool girl named ilaria, from italy, on where to go for our little bar crawl that night.  while we were waiting for the girls to meet us, i popped onto facebook and started creeping through bree’s photos to see if i could get any more useful information about the still unsolved mystery.  I only had a minute or two before they arrived, but in my quick browsing, i hadn’t noticed anything unexpected.  we all exchanged greetings and headed out into the night.

el barrio gotico, the gothic quarter
el barrio gotico, the gothic quarter

el barrio gotico, or “the gothic quarter,” is really something special, and at night it is equal parts cool and spooky.  go on the wrong night and it will feel like a ghost town, and every noise will sound like some nefarious stalker, hiding in the shadows.  go during the day or on a busy weekend night, the place is bursting with life, as shops sell their wares, bars are packed with happy catalonians, and the lights cast eerie cool shadows from the centuries-old buildings onto the narrow streets below.  the first place we stopped was a place called “bar absenta,” a small little dive bar with a locals-only kinda vibe and not much else going for it.  we had one drink and moved along, positive we’d find something else.  we wandered into another place after about 10 minutes that, for the life of me i can’t remember the name of, but this place was great.  it was a good vibe in a really

el gotico garage doors
el gotico garage doors

old building with high ceilings and old clay walls with really old murals on the walls.  the music was low and the people were all definitely locals.  we found a spot in the corner and settled in, people watching and telling stories, enjoying the atmosphere.  bree had enjoyed one beverage but soon informed us she wouldn’t be having anymore that night, as she’d had a few too many the night before and it the hangover had been enough to make her think twice about an encore.  that sounded like a good idea to me, but the night was young and the drinks were cheap at these bars we were going to, so i knew there was no way i’d be able to keep that up.

martín had started to come out of his shell a little more, and he was getting more comfortable with his conversational english, so he was carrying things now, and we all listened intently.  he entertained us with fun stories of his travels, as he was the most well-traveled of the group to this point, and he had been to places that we were all planning on going, so we were all very interested.  while he was talking, however, i also was studying bree and cassie, trying to get a better read on either of them.  i noticed that there was minor tension between them, and not necessarily in a good way.  they were hiding it well, but i could tell they were hiding it, and that seemed to bother me even more, because i didn’t know them well enough to ask.  when one would tell a story, the other would listen politely, but they wouldn’t join in like friends often do, or they wouldn’t laugh as appreciatively as friends often do when reliving old memories.  these two seemed to be pretty good friends, but they also seemed to merely be tolerating each other’s presence.  but i also didn’t get the feeling that they were eager to escape each other (or martín and me, for that matter) either.  i just could not nail these two down, and usually i am pretty good at figuring people out.  cassie and bree were an enigma.

we stayed in this random unnamed bar until a couple next to us stood up from their table and started grotesquely making out, uninhibited for all to see.  for 15 minutes.  just standing there. hands groping, wandering, squeezing, mouths trying to swallow each other’s faces.  it wasn’t long before i couldn’t help myself and i started quietly making jokes at the table, like a 6th grader might when a substitute teacher isn’t captivating his audience.  we all snickered endlessly until they finally left, and then, when we realized we had run out of entertainment at this bar, we decided to push on to the next spot.

the alleys led us to a hidden place called “nevermind,”  an unabashed nod to 90s rock.  the walls were crudely decorated with awesome little murals of things like giant squids and other random things, and the speakers were blasting 90s classics from nirvana, foo fighters, alice & chains, soundgarden, pearl jam, and the like.  the beers were cheap and they served free popcorn, which had littered the floor.  the music was too loud for us to have any real meaningful conversation, but we all agreed that the place was a gem, and we all really enjoyed it. after a couple beers, we decided to push on, heading for a place that i hoped was to be as good in real life as i had imagined it to be:  a place called polaroid.

polaroid bar, barcelona
some random guy, putting out the vibe out front of polaroid bar

polaroid is a great little place, also a little off the beaten path, that is also a nod to an era long gone:  old cameras and film.  the front of the bar looks like a polaroid camera, and immediately inside are a grouping of movie posters from the 80s and 90s that are undeniably classics, like back to the future and goonies.  so immediately it had my affection.  we walked to the back room where they had a projector showing old movies and free popcorn was being served.  again, cheap beers available, we found another table and kicked back, continuing the conversation.

at a certain point, cassie left to use the bathroom, and while she was gone i probably said something semi-flirtatious to bree, because she very soberly, yet kindly, replied:

“well you guys know that we’re… you know… not really into guys… right?” she asked me with a very honest look on her face.  martín kicked me under the table.

“oh, yeah, uh, we’re aware.  but you’re both so fun to hang out with! sorry if i flirt a little…” i tried to sell it as best i could, but i probably failed. and i did mean what i said, because i really was enjoying my time with them. but this was like cracking an unsolved mystery.  i wasn’t sure if i was happy to know finally what had been confusing me, or sad that there was no way on earth either of these beautiful women i’d spent all night with was going to make out with me.  i decided it didn’t matter. this was both awesome and hilarious at the same time (mainly because i’m an ignoramus with no gaydar, and i’d been barking up the wrong tree all day), but i had to keep a poker face on because i didn’t know anyone at this table well enough yet.  i knew martín was probably feeling the same way, but it would have to wait.  i didn’t want to completely embarrass myself, and i assumed if i didn’t handle this properly, bree and cassie likely would not want to hang out with us again after tonight, and i really didn’t want that to happen.  these two had just become the most fascinating people i had met in a while. and not just because of their sexual preference.  they both clearly had layers, and i wanted to get to know them better.

cassie came back to the table and, after another round, we ultimately decided it best to start heading back to our respective hostels.  it was getting late and at this point bree was the only sober one.  on our way back we stopped at a late night noodles place to settle our stomachs before bed (which proved to be a great and delicious judgment call on cassie’s part), and then continued on, parting ways at the bon moustache hostel.  we exchanged hugs and i made bree and cassie promise they would go with me in the next day or two to a local neighborhood market called the mercado de la boqueria that i had read about somewhere.  they enthusiastically agreed and then disappeared off into the night.

the front door to the hostel closed behind martin.

“LESBIANS!  I KNEW IT!” i shouted loudly.  martín burst into laughter and i joined him.  he tried to quiet me down, it was 2am at this point and the hostel was quiet as could be, but it was no use.  “i am a complete moron, how could i not see that?”  i exclaimed.

“i don’t know man, me either!” martín responded.  we laughed endlessly.  “they are so hot! dammit!” i lamented, not really upset at all.  i already knew this was going to be one of my favorite memories of the trip, and this had cemented the fact that martín was definitely not my nemesis.  he was my brother.  i couldn’t wait to see what the next days had in store for us.


the soundtrack to today’s story comes from the new album by george ezra, a british singer/songwriter with great songwriting chops and a voice that comes out of nowhere when you look at his little schoolboy babyface.  this album has been my favorite so far of 2015, and is great from start to finish, so give it a spin or three.  he’s also got some great music videos like the one posted below, starring magneto with a funny beach hat. enjoy…

our 2015 playlist for you to follow along to…

bonus:  this video just makes me laugh. another gem from george ezra:

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