winter had settled in on spain in an aggressive way. almost overnight the temperature dropped by 40 degrees fahrenheit, and suddenly walking around outside didn’t seem as enjoyable. the patios of many of the local watering holes began to dry up, where 2 days prior there were throngs of people socializing and drinking outside, they were now packed inside, trying to stay dry and warm. rainclouds would sweep low over the city, in a constant drizzle, ensuring nothing could stay dry, and then brisk winds would rush through the city streets ensuring the damp was felt with a ferocity. the streets glistened and reflected the streetlights above, creating a watery mirrored horizon to the cityscape.
martín and i tried to make the most of his last day in europe, despite the weather. we explored the streets endlessly, in search of nothing more than the mysteries of what might lie beyond the next corner. we had marked a few things out on a map just to provide a little direction for our wanderings, but we largely ignored it, content to just walk and take everything in. one thing i had come to admire martín for was his fearlessness in interacting with locals, specifically when asking for directions or recommendations on where to go or what to eat. up until this point i had spent most of my life refusing to ask for directions or recommendations from other people (whether at home or abroad), but not for the reasons one might assume. the common humor goes in america that a man doesn’t ask for directions because it is a point of pride to never be lost and always know where he is going, and to ask for directions would be to hint that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and that would be damaging to his pride. but that’s not really why i never did it. growing up, my parents always “had it together,” and they never wanted to appear that they didn’t have all the answers. always dressed sharply and always knowing what’s going on, this façade contributed to an overall image of “there’s a plan, and we’re sticking to it.” it was keeping up appearances, but if one were to peek behind the curtain, they would see just how chaotic and blindfolded my family really was. we were more lost than everyone else.
i think it’s hundreds of little things like that which add up to a greater dishonesty that led me to reject so much of my life and myself and leave in search of greater truth and authenticity, and so much of this trip, i had begun to discover, was unlearning these poisonous habits. martín stopped to ask a random person in the street where the best hamburger place was in the neighborhood, i tried to stop him because i was so embarrassed. when he had finished talking to the very nice lady who instructed us to walk a couple more blocks and go right to an argentinian burger joint that was magnificent, i asked him
“why do you always do that, man? now people know we’re tourists. we can totally find these places on our own without anyone’s help.” i said, with a hint of annoyance on my breath, looking around to see if anyone was judging us for being foreigners.
“who cares? i am hungry now man! why waste time?” martín replied, ignoring my petty protests. no one was looking at us, no one cared that we asked for directions, and no one gave a damn that we were tourists. martín was right, and without him saying it, i knew was being a fool. we walked in silence til we got to the burger joint, and my opinions unraveled. there was no point in this habitual behavior i’d been engaging in my entire life. i thought of all the times so far i had walked extra miles needlessly in search of a hostel or a restaurant or a metro stop on this trip, when i could have simply stopped and asked for help. i thought about how scared i had been to talk to other people. how much stress had this been causing me on this journey so far? in my whole life? who cares if you don’t have it all figured out? the most interesting people are the ones who don’t have it all figured out anyway! i decided right then and there that i wasn’t going to be afraid of looking like a tourist (or asking for directions) ever again. i laughed at myself as i waited in line for my burger, having just had a minor triumph over such a stupid, imaginary foe.
as we lustily devoured our burgers, i apologized and tried to explain to martín why i acted the way i did, but i gave up. now that i was looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, it didn’t even make sense anymore. martín made it easy on me and took over the point, launching into a point of his own, one that would stick with me for the rest of my life. he began to explain to me the difference between a tourist and a traveler, and i listened with all the intentness of a school kid during story time.
a tourist picks a specific destination and flies in. they collect all their bags and then go to the taxi line or have an arranged driver. they stay in a posh hotel that is centrally located and in the safest neighborhood in the area or some similar arrangement. everything is clean around them and they are served by industry staff whose job it is to make sure the guest has everything they need. when the tourist needs to eat, they go to well-known and established corporate brands and chain restaurants where they know exactly what they can expect from the menu and there will undoubtedly be some sort of meal that has some sort of western influence. if there is a local cultural dish available on the menu, it will likely be dumbed down for an “international palette,” stripping the dish of its essence and relevance. the tourist will go shopping, consulting the hotel staff and being directed to whatever shopping district is famous and nearby or within cab-distance. they will purchase unnecessary items they can buy anywhere, especially at home or online, from brands that are well known and completely irrelevant to the locale they are visiting. when they “explore,” they stick to well-trodden thoroughfares that take them directly to known attractions and do not deviate. the “locals” they meet are the staff that work at the hotels or bars & restaurants that they visit or frequent, the people who are paid to be nice to them who might possibly go above and beyond to reach into their own selfless willingness to share to make it easier for the tourist to have an authentic experience. the tourist, however, is likely to decline such offers of generosity, not because they are being rude (though this can sometimes be the case), but either because they feel they are burdening the kind host, or because they are nervous or afraid of an unknown experience, and sticking to the plan is safer and more comfortable. when they return home, they share their experiences about how beautiful the architecture, artwork, and nature were, they speak of how wonderful the food was and they explain relevant historical events, and how all these things have affected the physical appearance of the destination. the tourist has an extraordinarily relaxing time on their vacation, checking off the boxes of all the things that the guidebook told them they had to see and staying in a completely safe and comfortable environment the entire time.
on the other hand, there is the traveler. the traveler arrives to their destination by any means of transportation, be it bus, train, owned car, rv, plane, motorcycle, rental, hitch-hike, bicycle, walking, etc. the mode of transportation is not really important (unless it is part of a greater scheme, like biking across a country, or only hitch-hiking. that would be a specific mission, which still counts here), and the traveler packs light. the traveler does not place an overly high value on having the perfect fashion for every occasion on their journey, they prefer to have less baggage and more flexibility and mobility. neither does the traveler place a high importance on staying in the most comfortable or upscale establishments for sleeping arrangements… they care more about staying wherever will get them closer to the action, wherever the most authentic experience is going to be. they don’t care about the status or luxury that comes with staying in a well-respected brand accommodation, they care about meeting real people and experiencing real life for people that live in that locale every day. if this leads them to stay in a slightly dirtier or less safe part of town, so be it. when the traveler needs to eat, they avoid chain restaurants and corporate brands like the plague. they eat at local food markets, or from street cart vendors, or from locally owned, family operated restaurants that come highly recommended from the local people in the area. they aren’t reckless with the things they eat, but they also aren’t paranoid about local food. they find a balance somewhere in the middle. if the traveler decides to shop, it is only for the purpose of purchasing local items that are unique to the area, and cannot be bought elsewhere. the traveler stays away from malls and well-known brands that they can buy from anywhere, and they know the difference between a tourist trap and a genuine proprietor. instead of sticking to thoroughfares, the traveler deviates wildly, always searching for hidden gems that can’t be found in a guidebook. they are perfectly content after having spent an entire day exploring areas that are neither glamorous nor popular, places that a tourist would have no interest in seeing (but the traveler is also equally happy to explore more popular sites as well). the locals a traveler meets might come from anywhere. there is no limit to the scenarios from which a traveler might make a new friend, and the traveler will happily sacrifice destinations and appointments to the preference of having an authentic experience with someone who is willing to share their everyday life with an outsider. this type of local experience is of paramount importance to the traveler, and is the most valuable thing the traveler can or will take away from their journey. the traveler rarely refuses hospitality or opportunity. even if the invite from the local may make the traveler uneasy or unsure about a situation, the traveler knows that in that uneasiness lies growth and experience, and the benefits of such an interaction far outweigh the costs. breaking from the plan is a regular occurrence for the traveler, because they know that in order to truly absorb a culture and a destination, one must remain totally open and available to spontaneous adventure. when the traveler returns home, they often have no physical items to show off, no new clothing or souvenirs, and they are unlikely to take great pleasure in speaking specifically about aesthetic beauty or possessions; these things are accepted as a given. the traveler prefers to speak with great enthusiasm of the local friends they made, and share the stories of spontaneity and unexpected adventure. these stories and experiences, though they are not “things,” are the most valuable “things” the traveler will ever own in his or her lifetime.
i listened in awe at martín’s sage-like wisdom, and i wondered how long it had taken him to form these opinions. i wasn’t quite at a point yet in my wanderings where i could truly have formulated such a thorough hypothesis, but everything he had said had made perfect sense to me. in a way i had a tiny realization that the difference between the tourist and the traveler was actually a larger statement about the way one experiences life, not just travel, and a large part of my journey had been to escape a life spent as a tourist. i wanted to be a traveler. there was so much more soul and bravery and freedom as a traveler, and so much fear and comfort and desire for “things” that don’t really matter as a tourist. if ever there was a clear explanation of what it was i was out here doing, martín had just outlined it. this was who i was right now, a nomad caught between two lands, negotiating and navigating my way from one to the other without a map. and now, suddenly, I had a direction.
later that night, we had returned to our hostel. it was martín’s final night and i had wanted to do something special or memorable, to send him home in grand fashion, but i hadn’t really been able to figure anything out. i simply didn’t know madrid well enough. as we entered front door and made our way down the narrow hallway to the elevators, we heard a lot of echoing laughter in the neighboring room and we curiously peered over to investigate. one of the interesting characteristics of the building we were staying in was that the main area where a hotel might have a lobby was actually not technically a part of the hostel, but rather was the main dining area of a casual restaurant next door. so when you would walk down the hallway to the elevators in the back of the building, you would actually walk by a medium sized room, slightly elevated from the ground floor by about a foot, that was only obstructed by thin railings dividing the dining room from the hostel around it that stretched up another 7 floors. there were no hostel rooms on the first floor, only the restaurant. so you could walk outside of your room on any of the floors above the 2nd and lean over the railing and just watch people eating their dinner. it was sort of awkward but also really unique. so martín and i peered in to see where the noise was coming from as we waited for the elevator to arrive. we noticed about 10 beautiful women, speaking english in various accents, all in little sub-conversations amongst the group. i looked at martín energetically
“how would you like to make some new friends martín?!” i asked rhetorically with a flash of mischief in my eyes.
“ha, wow man! yeah right, they are beautiful but i don’t think you can do it! plus i told you, i have a girlfriend.” for a half of a second i felt a little guilt for repeatedly forcing martín to be party to my schemes. but then that feeling of guilt passed. he had just issued me a challenge.
“oh come on man, i’m not going to put you in a position to do anything you will feel guilty about. we’re just making friends!” just then, the elevator “dinged” and the door slid open, waiting patiently for us to enter. “it’s your last night in europe. you’re not just gonna go to bed early. are you?” i persisted. the door slid closed, the elevator still empty.
5 minutes later martín and i sat at a table a few feet away from the bevy of beautiful european women. the rest of the dining room was empty, which was only another 7 or 8 tables, and the laughter from the group echoed and soared up the walls of the empty chamber to the top floors of the building. martín had a look of bemused curiosity on his face, as i could tell he wanted to know how i planned on interjecting ourselves into this conversation among friends, especially since he knew all too well my relative paranoia around starting unnecessary conversations. the truth is, i have never been good at initiating random conversations with women. it was a symptom of being a late bloomer. at 5’9” i’ve never been a big guy, but in high school i was a runt. i hadn’t started growing until i was 18, and basically already graduated from high school. when i was a senior, i had been about 5’3” and weighed only 97 pounds, and i had horrible cystic acne on my face. i was ashamed of my appearance, and needless to say, women never really paid any attention to me. i had also grown up in a home where my dad rarely showed any affection to my mom, so i didn’t really have any examples to draw from, and i had no idea how to talk to girls at all, much less interact with them without immediately being pushed into the dreaded “friend zone.” that didn’t change much when i went to a religious conservative college and simply didn’t date much for a variety of reasons, but none more paramount than my own crippling assumptions that women just weren’t that interested in me. this behavior continued through my years of living in los angeles and ultimately my first few years of denver, until i finally had started to force myself to abandon my fears of rejection and failure. the result was a string of painfully awkward and hilarious dates and girlfriends that might otherwise be considered catastrophes, but hey, i thought, at least i’m going on dates now!
one of the things i had been trying to take more advantage of in my travels was the anonymity of being here today and gone the next. if i crashed and burned and humiliated myself on an attempt to meet a woman, i would likely never see the person again, so there was little to no risk of having to live with my mistakes. still, i preferred the more organic approach, and i usually would only initiate something if it felt natural. so martín and i sat at the table and i listened to their conversation, trying to gather any information that might help me make an easy introduction. i tried to place the different accents. a couple french, one spanish, a couple dutch, possibly a german… they seemed like a fun group and i wondered how such a multicultural grouping could even occur. martín suggested that they were exchange students and i knew he was right immediately.
after about 10 minutes and three quarters of a beer, i knew martín was getting impatient, and i was starting to wonder if i was ever going to make a move. such a large group of women was actually intimidating, and the idea of meeting them was actually starting to get more stressful than it was exciting. then to my dismay, a couple of guys joined the group. martín shot me a frustrated look as if to say “see? you waited too long.” but now i was determined, and i began listening with even more focus, searching for a way into the conversation. it wasn’t long before the group was joking about english curse words, and the guys were trying to mimic an american accent to show the girls how to make it sound more natural. this couldn’t have been a more perfect opportunity. i started laughing out loud without realizing it, and a few of the girls looked over at me curiously.
“i’m sorry. i’m an american. this is very entertaining for me.” the whole group started laughing, and before i knew it i was tutoring a mixed group of europeans on the proper way to curse in american english.
“you see, the key is that you have to be a little heavier on your consonants. the vowel is just the air it takes to get from one consonant to the next. shhhhhhhhiTTT! see? you want to linger on the “sh” sound and then land heavy on the T” i explained. there was a smattering of “shit!” exclamations spread around the group as they all practiced. i shot a glance over to martín as he sat, facing away from the group, trying his best to stifle his laughter. this was too good to be true. “there you go! you’re all cursing like american movie stars now! now lets try the word fffu…”
an hour later the group was dissipating, getting ready to leave. i wasn’t done talking to these girls yet, but i was running out of time, and i could tell martín was enjoying his time with the group now, as he had made a couple friends as well. “the night is young, where to next??” i said, looking around enthusiastically. i knew it was a feeble attempt to keep things going, but i didn’t have anything else off the top of my head. to my surprise, however, a couple of the girls looked around and started to justify staying out a little longer. i looked at martín as if to say “there’s no way that just worked,” and he started to stifle his laughter again. i couldn’t believe it when the two most attractive girls of the group decided to stay out with us while the rest of the group provided excuses and went home.
claire and amélie led us to a nearby hookah bar where we got a couple beers and some shisha. amélie was from paris and was everything a man could want in a french ingénue. she was tall with long, dark brown hair and mysterious eyes and a playful half-smile that seemed to indicate she might know something you don’t. she was breathtakingly beautiful and she had an elegant style with an alluring gaze that drew you in and made you wonder how you got invited to share her company. she was a patient listener in conversation, making it very easy to talk to her.
claire was from holland, and as my story goes, my love for the dutch is well documented, so i was smitten from the start. she, too, was a tall breath of fresh air, with beautiful blonde hair and perfect white teeth. she had big blue eyes that you could get lost in for days and never need to come up for air. she had a million dollar smile that could disrupt the rotation of planets and slow time, and every time she laughed, her high cheekbones would push her smile up to her eyes forcing them to squint a little at the sides and form that perfect almond shape, making her look even more beautiful.
we enjoyed the hookah and the conversation for another hour and a half, asking claire and amélie about their travels and their time studying in spain. they were both trying to improve their spanish, so martín and i enjoyed teaching a few phrases. both girls had a spirit of adventure that we both appreciated, but i honestly couldn’t even tell you what all else we talked about. i was too busy trying to make sure i didn’t blow it. somehow martín and i had been able to fool these two beautiful, intelligent european women into thinking that we were more than the wandering nomads that we were, and i wanted to keep the façade up as long as i could. i tried my best to entertain them, telling ridiculous stories and not really caring if i embarrassed myself as long as it made them laugh, and when the time came for us to part ways, i was just thankful that they had even been interested in coming out with us.
martín and i walked back to our hostel in the cold night air. once the girls were out of earshot, martín exclaimed
“wow man! i can’t believe that, you actually did it!”
i had a grin the size of texas on my face.
“what happened? i blacked out. i don’t remember anything that happened in the last 3 hours.” i replied, and we both burst into laughter. “thanks for being my wingman. i wouldn’t even have tried if you weren’t with me,” i said earnestly. “they were really cool. And so hot. we had no business hanging out with them.”
martín turned to me. “no man, you have to give yourself more credit. You have a good story, we both do. i think that we are different than many people they meet. you need to be more confident in yourself.” i knew he was right, and just then, it seemed so easy. i had always known that confidence is something you could easily force upon yourself if you just committed to it, but between my past and my failed relationships, it had always been a problem for me.
“thanks man. you’re right. thanks for saying that.” i was going to miss martín. “not a bad way to spend your last night in europe, huh?”
“haha no man. wow. tonight was really funny. i can’t believe i’m going home tomorrow. but i think i am ready.”
though i couldn’t possibly comprehend it from where I was then in my journey, i knew he really was ready. martín’s next chapter was about to begin, and i was eternally grateful to the twists of fate that had forced our paths to cross. in such a short time, martín had taught me so much about life, and i wasn’t even sure if he was aware of it.
a note to martín's girlfriend, if she is reading this: i apologize for forcing your man into what might be considered “questionable behavior” for someone who is in a committed relationship. i want to clarify for you that in no way was martín ever in a position that he might do something stupid to jeopardize his relationship with you, and at no point did he ever have any intention of doing so. martín cares about you a lot, and he made that very clear to me. he never pursued any women when hanging out with me, but he did watch me try and fail quite frequently, and i am very grateful that i had someone like him to laugh about it with. so do not be concerned. you’ve got yourself a very cool and very faithful man there, and i wish you both the best. i hope someday i can meet you in person, because you sound like an incredible person, from what he told me about you.
this week’s song is for martín, since i know he’s a huge ben howard fan. the song “conrad” comes from the latest album from 2014. i was lucky enough to see ben howard in concert a few weeks ago thanks to a friend with a last minute ticket vacancy. it was fantastic, and when he played this song, the crowd was enraptured.
and the spotify playlist, for those following along…