Travelers put up with a good number of inconveniences. We cram ourselves in small chairs and allow strangers to elbow us forty thousand feet in the air; we go to Paris so that the Parisians can disdainfully ignore our pleas in English for direction; we stumble around in countries where our reputation as tourists precedes us and results in mocking sneers by the locals. Despite the hassle, we continue to travel, and we continue to travel for many reasons.
“To see something different.”
“To meet new people.”
“To learn about other cultures.”
There are more, but for the most part, the reasons fall under a single, broader category; that is, we travel because we want to push ourselves even by the slightest of margins out of our comfort zone, putting ourselves in situations that we ordinarily wouldn’t be.
Tangible or not, the benefits of groveling abroad and sticking out like sore thumbs compel us to dismiss drawbacks with the universal fiat, “Fuck it.” It’s exhilarating, enthralling, and enticing to try our first balut, to get lost on the way back home in the alleys of quaint Gràcia, or just to brush against the opportunity of telling our friends back home that the experience was – wait for it – “life-changing.” Even setbacks and disasters can be retroactively transformed into “adventures” or “eye-opening experiences” that are easily understandable (both by us and our audiences) under the context of traveling – traveling allows the traveler to assign however great of a meaning to the travel in the way that your teacher wouldn’t allow you to assign a life-altering meaning to that one time you scored the game-winning goal in a soccer match from second grade. For those who travel, whatever we might do “over there” can be reconstructed into a positive experience based on the widely accepted understanding that the boundary-pushing nature of traveling is good for us (“For our soul!”).
Yet, there’s something awfully funny about the intertwined notions of traveling and stepping outside of comfort zones. For most of us when we travel, we still want to retain some aspect of normalcy. Perhaps we’ll go to a foreign country, but we’ll go to the Netherlands because you can get around even if you only speak English and, you know, it’s not too foreign. We’ll visit Barcelona, but we’ll stay where all the other tourists stay and see all the sights typical tourists see because we want to have an experience that we’re supposed to have in Barcelona. We’ll study abroad in Portugal, but our friends will be other Americans because, well, it’s easier to understand people similar to us. Traveling, then, is a constant balancing act for us travelers – we want something different, but we also want something that isn’t totally disorienting. We wouldn’t mind trying that local, authentic restaurant, but we’re certainly more than happy to eat at KFC, too.
This balancing act, as I have called it, isn’t necessarily a bad thing – people are creatures of habit, and I doubt most of us would enjoy being bombarded with constant change, upheavals, or surprises. Not a lot of people – even the free-spirited twenty-somethings – intentionally signs up for a life of move after move, or spouse after spouse, or, shock after shock. At no point did my siblings or me enjoy repeatedly having to relocate to a different city, a different culture, a different group of friends (Ask my sister!). People want stability, people want normalcy, and people want predictability – to an extent. It’s another way to say that people want instability, abnormality, and unpredictability, but not too much of any. In that case, it’s understandable that we tourists and travelers seek a compromise between safety and adventure. As I mentioned earlier, traveling doesn’t have to necessarily be an all-out attempt for the traveler to push himself or herself out of his or her comfort zone; the expectation could be “by the slightest of margins.”
But – and this is a Kardashian-sized “but” – can we really expect to push ourselves out of our comfort zone if we know when to say enough? Can we test our chess abilities against a computer if we not only get to set the difficulty setting but also control the computer’s moves?
I want to be the first person to confess that Hans Davidson is one of those travelers whose ambitions to step out of his comfort zone conflict with his desire for the comfort within. I follow Alba and do the things the Barcelonans do, but I’m also content that I can check Sagrada Familia off my list. I enjoy Catalunya, but I also long for the familiarity of Berlin. I want people – both those whom I encounter during my travels and those whom hear about it afterwards – to view me as someone who is not the average tourist, but I also want to be able to fall back on the goodwill when I inevitably make an ass out of myself as a tourist. This makes these stories just like any other travel stories. In writing about my memories from Barcelona, I am aware that these experiences have been repeated, repackaged, and retold over a million times before me, and will be done so at least a million times after me. Despite my attempts to try to step out of my comfort zone, I did what every other vacationer did and made sure I simply bounced my feet on the reachable floor of the pool instead of diving into the bottomless deep end.
Doing so, I came away with these notes from my two and a half weeks in Barcelona. “Notes from the Shallow End,” you could call them. They’re mere snapshots, and my creative writing professor from college would probably hate them for not providing enough to the reader. And sure, the stories don’t come together to create an overarching narrative for the trip. That’s because they’re just fragments of recollections from a trip.
But they’re fragments that made me laugh, and think, and love, and most importantly, be thankful— thankful for the people that I met and extended the warm hands of hospitality to me; thankful to know that it’s just as easy to laugh ten thousand kilometers from home as it is to do so back in Southern California; thankful that so many people made this possible for me. Whatever my goals were, whatever my expectations of Barcelona were, I couldn’t have been happier that it was that feeling of thankfulness that I cradled at the airport waiting for my flight to Berlin.
So, before I leave you with these stories, consider this: is that closing feeling of thankfulness after a trip an accidental byproduct of travel or the reason why we choose to travel in the first place?
“Alba” is Catalan for dawn, or light. Alba herself may have told me this. It’s also very likely that I just looked up the translation on Google.
I met Alba at my friend Hassan’s birthday dinner last March. It was at Salento, a well-known BYO for Penn students, located on 22nd and Walnut. One of its waiters, Tony, is a slimy sleaze-ball who hits on anything with a pulse and two breasts. I noticed Alba three seats to the right of me, past the five-dollar wine bottles and the red-and-yellow floral decorations on the table.
A tiny mole grazed the left side of her upper lip. She wore a small black dress. Her dark brown hair was down. When we started eating, she got a piece of food stuck between her left lateral incisor and canine that she didn’t notice for thirty minutes.
I approached her later that evening when a seat opened up next to her. I pointed at her empty wine glass and asked if I could fill it up for her.
“Of course—yes, please.” She rolled the r. I gave her the option of red or white.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter to me.” She spoke with a foreign accent, and it had me. I filled up her glass with the cheap, sweet white wine. I asked her for her name. “I’m Alba,” she said. “And yours?”
“I’m Hans. Um, what kind of name is Alba?”
It wasn’t supposed to come out like that. I felt the sweat forming in my butt crack. She laughed it off and told me it was Catalonian. The sweat subsided.
“The real question is, what kind of name is ‘Hans’? Hm? This is a German name, yes? Are you German?” I get this question often, and it’s a good question—my face and my name don’t make sense together. I explained to her that my dad named me after the main character of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, hoping I would grow up to be like Hans. It’s implied at the end, though, that Hans goes off to war and gets killed.
“He did not have another idea for your name?” Actually, I explained again, the other option was “Wolfgang.” She began laughing at this, thinking it was a joke. It wasn’t. My mom’s death threats in mixed Japanese and broken English persuaded my dad to go with Hans instead.
I asked her how she knew Hassan. She said she was a friend of Hassan’s friend, some guy named Julius. I prayed that she wasn’t sitting on homeboy Julius’ face in her free time. I asked her if she was single. She said she was. So at least she wasn’t exclusively sitting on anyone’s face, I figured. My prayers were answered.
We went to Smoke’s after dinner, and I mustered the drunken courage to ask her if she wanted to grab coffee with me next week. She said yes. She gave me her number.
“Wait, you’re actually interested in getting coffee with me?” I asked.
“Que tonto. Yes, of course.” I asked again to make sure she wouldn’t blow me off once she sobered up. “’Blow you off’?” I explained.
“En serio? I told you I want to go.” The case was settled. I left Smoke’s happy, and I texted Hassan about it the next day.
“Dude, you know she’s an exchange student from Barcelona, right?” he replied. Alba was just a girl I had met who was attractive, who seemed fun, whom I could see myself hanging out with. Finding out she was going to be gone after the end of the spring semester sucked.
We got coffee next Monday at Green Line Café on the corner of 42nd and Baltimore. It’s a swanky place with tasty drinks and pastries. It was a beautiful spring day, so we sat outside. I sipped on my coffee while she sipped on her mocha. She told me how she had passed by it a couple of times before and even took a picture of it. She showed me the photo on her phone. Snow covered the green building in the picture, and light radiated from the other side of the glass windows.
“Do you come on this place often?” Alba wasn’t, and still isn’t, great with prepositions. She told me to correct her on her grammatical mistakes, but I understood what she said most of the time, so I let them slide. I told her this was actually my second time. The first time was on a failed date. The girl thought I was a joke.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“I love this. At first I thought you were just going to take me somewhere far out in West Philly to some random place and it was going to be awful. Like a Starbucks.” I took that as a compliment.
I asked her what she was expecting from her foreign exchange experience. Something different, she replied. She asked me what I wanted to do. Get outta here, I replied.
“Oh? Like where?” A lot of places, I responded.
“If you could be anywhere, one place, where would it be?” I told her I wanted to go to Brazil.
“You know, be there for the World Cup next year. That’s on my bucket list: to be at a host country of the World Cup.” I expected Alba to give me the standard answer, like “Cool!” or “Me, too!” She went for an audible.
“Where exactly in Brazil?”
“Which city specifically?”
I could have told anyone at any other time, Sau Paulo or Rio de Janeiro or Minas Gerais. At that moment, I brainfarted.
“Wait,” Alba giggled, “you tell me you want to go to Brazil and you don’t know the names of any of the cities?” She lets out everything when she laughs, with the first couple a-has being the loudest and most accentuated part of her laugh, and she let everything out. I laughed along with a red face. I think I made a fool out of myself the rest of the time there.
“I really enjoyed that,” she said on our way back. I thanked her for coming, and let her know that there really are idiots at Penn. Or an idiot, anyway.
“Quick, name a city in Brazil!” she joked. “No, really, I had the good time. It was refreshing. I know you’re not stupid, and you were being genuine the entire time.” Genuinely stupid, I corrected her. “The people I have met at Penn, they do this thing where it’s all about…” She started talking in Spanish to convey her point. I don’t speak Spanish. I suggested façade.
“Yes, yes. It is all about the looks? Or appearance—Is this the right word? ‘I am cool and great,’ and it is not very attractive. Almost sad, kind of.” I grumbled that it’s a big ol’ circle jerk, in my opinion.
“Circle jerk?” I clarified with hand movements. “Yes, it is definitely circle jerk. Circle jerking?”
We hung out after that, and she met my roommates. I raved about this foreign exchange student from Barcelona to all of them, and once they met her, they saw where I was coming from.
“She’s so sweet. She’s super down-to-earth,” said Emma.
“She’s really funny,” said Mark.
“She’s smokin’ hot, and she is way out of your league,” said Mike. Alba charmed all four residents of Harrison 309, and she wasn’t even aware of it. I asked her out to dinner about a month later.
I took her downtown for dinner since she hadn’t explored much of Philly outside of University City. I lifted weights beforehand so I’d look buff. We spent almost three hours at the Dandelion, and I wasn’t sure if I was tired from talking or from working out. Maybe it was both.
We left at around ten-thirty. We walked side by side. My dress shoes tapped the pavement and her dark boots click-clacked on the concrete. It was a cold Philadelphia evening in April, the kind of weather where people disappear into their wool shirts, thick sweaters, black jackets, beige scarves, and knit caps. Before long, we were on 22nd and Walnut. Probably for her, we were coming back from a lovely dinner. For me, we were coming back from a lovely date. The Sunoco on the corner of the street had a white, Toyota Corolla parked outside, its lights blinking on and off. A man and a woman yelled at each other.
I spat on the sidewalk.
“What was that!” I didn’t understand her question. “That!” She pointed at the wad of my saliva several feet behind us. I explained to her that it’s called “spit” in English.
“Que tonto. I know what that is. Do all the American people do this thing? It is disgusting.”
I told her that we do this all the time in the States because we are Americans, and Americans are disgusting like that. I added that it’s polite to spit in response.
“Come on.” I swore on a bunch of mothers and asked her if I ever lied to her.
“But you have lied already to me so many times just this evening.”
“Then another lie isn’t going to make a difference, is it?” She glared at me. “Okay, fine, fine. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have spat. It’s very unbecoming for a lady like me.”
“Idiota,” she laughed. I shrugged it off. It’s not like she meant it. When we crossed the Walnut Street Bridge the Schuylkill looked black.
“What is your favorite book?” asked Alba. I couldn’t remember the last time someone asked me that. Crime and Punishment? Me Speak Pretty One Day? Catch-22? The Republic, I answered.
“Why is this so?” I said it made me think more than any other book.
“Think about what?”
“What I want to study. What the hell I’m doing with my life. Made me think what a “good” life was. Seriously, though—do you know what the hell that even means?” She said she didn’t. “Me neither. Maybe that was the point.” We passed the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, still under construction.
She asked me if I ever read Siddartha. I hadn’t. I didn’t read Hermann Hesse until the summer. I asked if that was her favorite book.
“No, that is Moon Palace, from Paul Auster. Siddartha—it is not that I loved the book itself. But it really moved me, and I don’t know if I can explain myself well, especially in English.” I asked if she recommended it. She did.
We strolled down Locust Walk. The illuminated glass balls in the trees hung above us. Those installations won’t be there come next semester. I burped the chocolate double stout I had with my dinner. According to Alba, that was pinnacle of unacceptable behavior around a woman. I bowed and thanked her for her kind words. I burped again. She was more sober than I was.
Spring semester passed by. The last time I saw Alba in person was in May. I moved out of my dorm that day. She told me we might see each other again, and I replied, maybe. She wore a purple dress and flip-flops. I recognized the blue bra-strap peeping from underneath the dress. We said goodbye, hugged, and went our ways.
El Pollo, Part I
Alba and her parents lived in Vilassar de Dalt, a residential area twenty-five minutes northeast along the coastline from Barcelona full of red-orange roof tiles, penny-sized mosquitoes, and sun-beaten sidewalks littered with dog shit. I was to stay in Alba’s younger brother’s vacant room on the second floor for two and a half weeks during which I would accumulate dirty laundry inversely proportional to the room’s supply of tissue paper.
Alba picked me up from the airport in her mother’s car and had the courtesy to scream and shout as I came out of the gate for international arrivals. She grabbed my suitcase, I grabbed it back from her, and we were zipping down the freeway ten minutes later. We spent the car ride reminiscing about our time at Penn and discussing our pleasant disbelief that I was in Barcelona over a year after our goodbye in Philadelphia.
“I had people from Penn tell me, ‘I’m going to come visit you!’ or ‘We’ll keep in touch,’ blah-blah-blah,” Alba recounted. “But they never did, and it was just so fake, you know? So I was super excited when you said that you were going to be in Barcelona in June, before I left for Brazil.” Alba had received a job offer several weeks ago to work overseas for a major Spanish corporation and she was leaving in August.
“You think you’re excited? Imagine how I felt to know that I would have a place to stay for free for two and a half weeks in Barcelona.”
“Well, it’s not exactly in Barcelona.” Alba ran her left hand through her black hair that went down an inch past her shoulders.
“But basically the same thing, right?”
“Si. You can either ride with me on my scooter into Barcelona in the morning or take the bus whenever. I’ll give you all the information you need when we get to my house.” I rolled the window down and let the full blast of wind hit me and untidy my hair that I had put in a bun.
“Wow-ow-ow, your hair is so long, guapo.”
“Things change,” I smiled at Alba, who saw me with a buzz cut last May. “And some things don’t. For example, I still can’t speak Spanish for shit.”
“You might regret that, just a little bit.”
“What? No. No regrets.”
Upon arriving at the Andilla residence twenty minutes later, I immediately regretted that I never learned Spanish. Alba’s mother was home, and she greeted me with the Spanish custom of a kiss on each cheek.
“What are you?” She wore a thin brown dress and her steady gaze reflected that of her daughter’s. Her resemblance to Alba made me think that women her age shouldn’t be looking this good.
“Yo soy mucho bueno,” I responded as I dragged my suitcase up the stairs. I could hear Alba laughing her head off from the kitchen downstairs. Mrs. Andilla chuckled and attempted to correct my Spanish.
“No, no, you are, ah, wrecked,” she pointed out with a perfect, white smile.
“Si,” I agreed with her assessment of my energy level, “yo estoy, can–… con–… Uh, no. Sonado. Estoy sonado.”
Alba intervened to act as our translator. Her mother left us to go to the kitchen, and Alba accompanied me to my room.
She explained that her father, with his balding head, deep cleft chin, and thin, silver-rimmed glasses, didn’t speak any English. Her mother, whose English knowledge was limited to sentences accompanied by animated facial expressions and weaving, dancing hand movements, knew give or take fifty words in English. Alba’s two younger brothers who spoke English were both abroad.
“In other words,” Alba joked as she exited the room and stepped out into the hallway, “I have all the power in this house!”
Of course, I could have cared less whether it was Alba, Alba’s parents, or their black mutt Pingu who held all the cards in the Andilla household. I walked out to the veranda connected to my room as Pingu licked my knees with his wet tongue, and the expanse of the Balearic Sea sitting behind the houses and gardens of the Vilassar de Dalt residents greeted me. A breeze blew from the sea rustling the trees and provided a slight and temporary reprieve from the orchestra of the cicadas. The air smelled blue, and a little boy’s laugh ricocheted its way out of the window of a neighbor’s house and spilled out into the empty streets.
“Quit tastin’ me,” I told the licking Pingu, who bounced out of the veranda and under my bed before fetching a worn-out tennis ball and dropping it at my feet. His tail wagged in an almost perfect four-four time.
I decided to take myself on a quick tour of the house. I plodded down the steps on which Alba’s mother and I had our multilingual conversation. Ending up at the main hallway with the house entrance ahead of me, I entered the door to the left of me. Inside, Alba and her mother argued in Catalan and ignored that I had stuck my head in. I decided to leave them be, stepped back, walked to the door to my left ten feet away, pulled the door, and found an opened garage.
In front of me, a black Suzuki motorcycle stood alone, leaning to the left and forming a seventy-five-degree angle with the floor. To my right, wet clothes hung from clotheslines and lined the wall. To my left, cardboard boxes, smelly gray rags, bug sprays, cleaning supplies, plastic chairs stacked upon plastic chairs, framed paintings, a white washing machine, a chipped and aging cabinet, green garden rakes, dried clothes, dusty hats, battered and stickered motorcycle helmets, old books in Catalan, and a transparent plastic container containing some steel contraption were pushed up against the wall and inevitably formed a cascading mountain in a shape resembling the letter “b”. The sunlight trickling down from the opened garage door made visible the dust particles, lazily floating in the air. A black blur of mangy fur dashed out from behind me with a tennis ball in its mouth and rolled around in the grass lawn.
“Pingu!” I called out, but after pausing for a couple of seconds to shoot me an expectant gaze, he ran off out of my line of sight. As I started to walk out of the garage to follow him and his tennis ball, Alba’s endearing, thick accent called me back into the kitchen.
“Hans, let me make a lunch for you!”
Instead of walking back through the garage, I strolled through the gravel-filled patio placed between a wall of trimmed greens and the redbrick of the house. A yellow ladybug trudged its way along the edge of the patio’s black dining table and flew onto the folded parasol. I reached the glass door that connected the patio and the kitchen and stepped in. An exasperated Mrs. Andilla walked out of the kitchen through the door and into the main hallway with her hands in the air.
“Long story,” Alba grumbled. “Is chicken okay?” I replied that it was, and she began grilling onions, mushrooms, and two chicken breasts on the stove.
I pulled up a chair and sat down at the glass coffee table. My back faced a cabinet full of biscuits, crackers, and cereals, and I faced Alba’s back as she hopped from one spot on the tiled floor to another with a black spatula, white t-shirt, and short, blue shorts. The aroma of the food wafted out the open glass door and lured Pingu into the kitchen. He rolled over onto his back when he realized that he was getting a tummy rub.
“Qué tal? How are you feeling? Jetlagged?
“A little. Not planning on sleeping until the evening though – don’t wanna make it any worse than it already is.”
“Did you sleep at all on the plane?”
“Mmm. No.” I had been awake for seventeen hours now, but it was only two in the afternoon in Barcelona. My left eye had intermittently been twitching since the past hour. The mirror I used at the airport revealed that my eyes had a saggy, haggard look to them and a couple of zits had formed on my face during the flight – one near the corner of my mouth and the other on my forehead above my left eyebrow. I had tried popping them but my fingers slipped and I ended up scratching myself.
“Ohhh, come on, Hans, you need to get some rest.”
“That can wait.” I grinned as my stomach let out a half-hearted growl. “Lunch? Not so much.” As I waited for Alba to finish preparing our lunch, her friend Davíd stopped by to say hola.
Dave stood five-foot seven, barely taller than Alba. He had short black hair, an almond tan, and freshly shaved stubble on his stereotypically Catalan face. Alba introduced us to each other, and it was to my relief that he could speak English.
“I’m sorry my English is not very good,” Dave began.
“Jesus fuck, no – are you kidding?” I turned to Alba, “Does he realize he can speak English a million times better than I can speak Spanish or Catalan?”
“Multiplying zero times a million is still zero,” Alba chirped. I waved her off.
“So, what’re you up to, Davíd?”
“Oh, hm.” I spoke slower this time, “‘What-are-you-doing-this-summer?’”
“Ah, yes! Sorry, my English is not very good.” I laughed and shook my head. “I do castell. Do you know what castell is?” I replied that I didn’t. “It’s a long, human… ah, what’s the word? ‘Building’?”
“Okay, the food is ready,” Alba interrupted, “let’s eat outside on the patio and I’ll explain.” We seated ourselves and Alba brought out the chicken and grilled onion and mushrooms. The sun was blinding by this point, so I went back upstairs, two steps at a time, to grab my sunglasses from my room. When I came back out to the patio, it was even hotter than I when I had left. Either that, or the cicadas were louder.
“Bon apetít. So, what castell is is these things where the people climb on top of each other to form a human tower. Because castell is Catalan for ‘castle’.”
“It’s super Catalan. The men that do this dress in traditional clothes and they take it very, very serious. They practice regularly to perfect it, right, Davíd?” David nodded his head in a thoughtful, slow motion. “Super, super Catalan. Like paellas, or Gaudí. Do you know UNESCO? It’s registered by UNESCO as the heritage thingy.”
“And just last week,” Davíd interjected, “we reach eight levels with three people each level!” The significance was lost on the ignorant American, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Until that week, we had never did more than six levels with three people. But we did seven so very easy that we said, ‘Hey, why not try eight levels!’ And we did it, and we begin to all cry and hug each other we were so happy.” I remarked that I thought that was really cool and interesting and began to dig into my chicken.
“Oh,” I observed, “the chicken’s undercooked.” And it was – the outside of the chicken, while crispy and appetizing, opened up to reveal the pink meat inside.
“Undercooked? What do you mean ‘the chicken’s undercooked’?” Alba snapped.
“Well, look,” I showed her the chicken. “It’s totally pink. I mean, it’s not a problem, I’ll just put it back on the stove and—”
“No, you can eat it like that. It’s fine.”
“What? The fuck I can. I mean, I’m stupid but I’m not that stupid.”
“No, see, you’re not understanding: Barcelona chicken is happy chicken. It’s actual chicken, not the hormone-stuffed animal they call a ‘chicken’ in the US. I’ve eaten these ‘undercooked chickens’ (or whatever you want to call it) many times and do you know how many times I’ve gotten sick?” I asked how many times. “Never. Seriously, this is how we eat it here. The chicken is clean and it’s okay to eat.” My protests were met with, “Quit being such a little baby about it!”
Regardless, Alba’s argument sounded an awful lot like the “Cigarettes-done-never-kill-no-one-shoot-mah-ol-grampa-Billy-Bob-smoked-twelve-Camels-a-day-and-that-dadgum-sunnavabitch-lived-til-he-was-eighty-seven!” argument. I took the plate back into the kitchen, plopped my opportunity for a Darwin Awards on the frying pan, and started up the stove.
“Come on, Hans, now the flavor is going to go away!” Shouted Alba from outside. I noted that I preferred flavorless, cooked chicken to an orgasmically flavorful, undercooked bastion of Salmonella. Alba finally trudged into the kitchen after thirty seconds to badger me into taking the chicken off the frying pan. The chicken still didn’t look completely cooked through.
“Look, Alba, unless the dish is called a vagina, I prefer the things I eat to be dead and thoroughly cooked.”
“Okay, one: disgusting. Two: I promise it’s fine. Quit being so American and be acceptful of other cultures. Isn’t that why you’re traveling, to try different things and become cultured?” Before I could reply, she took the chicken, dumped it back onto my plate, and walked out to the patio with it. Defeated, I followed her outside and sat back down at the table.
While I mulled whether it would be wise or not to still eat the undercooked chicken, Davíd began telling a story that involved him, his male cousin, and another girl in the back of his car last Saturday.
“Well,” I thought to myself with raised eyebrows as I cut a pink piece of meat and shoved it in my mouth, “this can’t be as bad as that.”
I sat hunched on the toilet with my jaws slacked open, my tongue lolling against the back of my lower incisors. Sweat perspired above my eyebrows, rolled down the bridge of my nose, trailed along my nostrils, and hung onto the edge of my lips. I let out a grunt and spattered the inside of the bowl with green discharge. I relaxed my shoulders and sandwiched my head between my knees. I grabbed a handful of toilet paper, wiped my clammy ass, and flushed. I got up without bothering to pull my pants back on and reached over to the window and flung it wide open. The air felt fresh and smelled even better.
“Shouldn’t have fuckin’ ate that fuckin’ chicken,” I groused, and crumpled back down onto the toilet seat. “Fuck.”
“Hans, are you still planning on going to Barcelona today?” Alba asked from the other side of the bathroom door. I grunted, stripped off my clothes, turned on the shower, and lumbered in. “Did you just get in the shower?” I grunted again. “But you don’t have time to be in shower!” The cool water ran down my hairless chest and shrank my balls. I closed my eyes as the wet hair matted against the back of neck, and I pressed my right index finger and thumb against my eyelids. From the blackness of my vision, patterns of stars and lines in various shades of white, blue, yellow, and red emerged and wafted toward me.
“Hans—!“ Rang the rising pitch of Alba’s voice. I twisted the shower knob and the trickle of water came to a halt. I stuck my legs out of the tub onto the cream-colored shower mat and put on my underwear and shorts without drying myself – I had forgotten the towel in my room. I palmed the silver door handle and pulled, the steam crawling from behind me out into the hallway. There Alba stood, her face angled downwards except for her squinting, dark brown eyes and her pink lips curled inward against her teeth.
“Sorry,” I grumbled. Contrasting the rigidness of her body, Alba’s eyes darted around and surveyed my face while her mouth quivered in its deliberation on whether or not to open. She took a deep breath through her nose.
“Hans. Hans. Okay, if you don’t want to come out to Barcelona or you’re not feeling well enough to go, it’s fine if you stay.”
“That’s—“ She brought her hands up to my face. I shut up.
“Let me finish. I want to go and I’ve told my friends that we’re eating at this brunch place and it’s free and I want to go. I don’t want to force you to anything. But please, please let me know if you’re coming or not coming because it makes things very difficult when I don’t know what I’m supposed to expect. I’m the host and you’re the guest and I want to make things great for you during your stay here but things can’t go like this, and I can’t read your mind especially if you keep changing your mind.”
“I’m a little under the weather.”
“Then stay home.”
“I want to get out.”
“Then let’s go.”
Alba walked down the staircase and I made my way to my room across the hall. I put on a long-sleeve t-shirt, snatched my JanSport backpack, pulled on a pair of shin-high black socks that had been worn yesterday, and flopped down on the bed.
“Alba?” I croaked.
“Si?” Her voice rang from downstairs.
“Have you seen my phone down there?” I heard her rummaging through keys, chains, and key chains.
“No, I don’t see it.” I rubbed my temples and groped the phone in my pocket.
“Could you check the kitchen for me, please? Maybe it’s on the counter near the sink?” I heard her open the kitchen door and enter. Half a minute later, she called out that she didn’t find it anywhere.
“Are you sure it’s not up there?” I grabbed a pillow and placed it under my head.
“I’m looking,” I replied as a fly wandered into the room bizzing and buzzing around my feet. Rubbing its hind legs, it rested on my right pinky toe and prepared to join me on my lazy escapade.
“I’ll come up to help you look.” I jerked up from the bed and the fly flew off my foot. Snatching my Vans from beneath the bed, I plodded downstairs where Alba had one hand placed on the railing of the staircase.
“No need, all good, found it, let’s go,” I smiled. We walked through the garage and Alba picked up her white helmet that sat atop a box of clothes.
“Grab that red one.” She motioned to a red helmet covered in stickers and scratches sitting in the corner next to the washing machine. I walked over to retrieve and noted out loud that, unlike hers, it lacked a visor.
“Wear sunglasses,” Alba advised, “because we’re gonna be, like, flying.”
Rolling down the hills of Vilassar de Dalt, I commented that we weren’t going all that fast. Short left turn: the yellow and orange of the old, sagging houses complemented the waving green of the pine trees and conifers. A slight uphill: wiping her forehead, an old woman dressed in a faded purple blouse and wrinkled mom jeans carried groceries in a plastic bag. Roundabout: three kids – two boys and a girl – played with a retriever pup in an overgrown field throwing sticks into the distance, and I could hear the muffled barks of the dog through the thick shell of my helmet. Sharp right turn: I gripped Alba’s slim waist over her dress and leather jacket, my fingers digging in like Apollo’s. Straight downhill: the scooter sputtered to a stop at the highway tollbooth.
“No, we ‘weren’t.’” Alba jammed a card in the machine and the toll barrier was lifted as Alba revved up the engine of her scooter. “Now we are.”
As I clung on to Alba’s waist and the roaring of the wind overrode any other sound inside my one-size-too-small helmet, I concentrated on not shitting myself from my capitulating bowel movements and riding on a scooter zigzagging at one-thirty. The zipping view of housestreeshousesoceantreesoceanhouses and the zapping dusty automobiles traversing in the other direction added to my nausea. My crotch began to itch, and I envisioned that the tenth circle of hell must be an eternity under this scenario.
Fifteen minutes passed, and we approached an architecture that resembled a titan’s dildo. Alba slowed down the scooter to a comfortable speed, and pedestrians and tourists emerged from the streets and shops. I pointed out the Titan Dildo to Alba, who confirmed that visitors and residents all agree “it looks like a huge, shiny, ugly pen-nis.” The scooter turned left on an intersection and we cruised down a street parallel to a concrete strip and the beach. Alba ordered me to get off, which I adlibbed by dragging my left leg across the seat upon dismounting and almost knocking over Alba and the scooter.
The entrance of the restaurant was next to where Alba parked her scooter, and we climbed down two flights of stairs into a dark, candlelit space aided by three low-hanging chandeliers. To our left, incense and East Asian pillows lined a square seating area with four couches, and to our right, bald men and spritely women shuffled through a quaint shop fingering candles, powders, jars, rugs, and pillows. From the far end of the restaurant, light shone from the bunker-terrace where pink-shirted men and dress-adorning women babbled among each other and clinked their glasses of wine and champagne. The view of the beach and a thin strip of blue played backdrop to their hubbub, which bubbled and foamed and took on the role of the lyrics to the progressive house music that a pair of DJs were playing.
“This place looks ritzy as fuck,” I whispered to Alba.
“Don’t worry, I know the manager and he’s willing to give us a free brunch. I used to … ‘work’ here.” She gestured the word as Dr. Evil does in Austin Powers movies. “Basically, they would ask me and my friends to come out here and eat and drink here, and pay us to do it.”
“Yeah, I don’t know how to call it in English, but it’s like, to add ambiance or atmosphere or blahblahblah to the place by paying people to have a good time here and give a good image to the restaurant. It’s basically like how they let girls into clubs for free, you know? Anyway, that was a while ago, but I still come here from time to time because I became good friends with the manager.”
“The secret life of bees.”
“What? Oh, there’s Enrique, the manager.”
The man walking toward us wore a navy short-sleeve button-up embroidered in gold rolled up to his armpits, a pair of brown slacks with a chain hanging out of the left pocket, black suede shoes, and a bright smile that contrasted his complexion. Strands of his uncooked ramen-like black hair, most of it held together in a messy bun, hung over small, crooked ears and his crinkled hazel eyes drank in the sight of Alba. He greeted Alba with open arms, picking her up in the process, and Alba introduced him to me. I stuck my hand out, which he held in a hairy, firm grip.
“Enrique, nice to meet you.”
“Enrique Iglesias!” Alba shouted in glee. “His last name is actually ‘Iglesias’!”
“Ey, shut it, you,” Enrique Iglesias retorted, “no one asked for my full name!”
“You’re really Enrique Iglesias?” I asked. “Alba’s not just fucking with me?”
“I’m a Enrique Iglesias, not the Enrique Iglesias,” shrugged Fake Enrique Iglesias. “But if anything, I was born two months before him, so he’s the one who copied my name, not the other way around.” Alba grabbed Original Fake Enrique Iglesias below his chest and hopped on her feet like a child.
“Sing for uuuus, Enrique Iglesias, I’m your biggest fan!” Enrique laughed and sighed and instructed us to take a seat at the table near the entrance to the terrace-bunker.
“How many more people are coming?” Alba answered that there were four more on their way. “I’ll have them bring a bottle of wine to start you off and the food will come once the others arrive.”
“Enrique Iglesiaaaas, you’re my hero. Guapo, I loved your last album!” In response, the manager threw his hands up in the air and left us alone at the table. A server came by with a bottle of white wine and opened it, and I poured out a glass for both of us. Alba asked if I felt any better.
“Just the same level of, uh, shittiness, I guess. But I do have a glass of wine, which has to count for something.” I downed a gulp.
“Do you like it? Is it good?”
“I don’t know. I guess? I’m not much of a wine person. I mean, I’m not even drinking wine properly, so I’m not sure I’m qualified to be the judge of its quality.”
“Of course not. This is how it’s supposed to be done, how to drink wine properly: you start off by presenting it – the name and its vintage – as foreplay, see? And then you uncork it while you talk about how you came across the bottle – through either a recommendation by a wine connoisseur from a Flight Magazine article or during a trip to Napa Valley. All the while, you’re working this bottle up, rubbing it down and turning it this way and that, and slowly but surely leading the people around you to the most important part of the wine. Hell, you don’t even immediately pour the damn thing out; you’re supposed to let it just sit and accumulate as much intrigue as possible – it’s kind of like giving an over-the-pants handjob during your first date but not actually having sex after the dinner.”
“Over-the-pants what?” Alba thought about it for a few seconds and waved the question away. “Never mind. And what’s the most important part?”
“I’m getting there. So, here you are, pimping this bottle and really whetting the thirst of the alcoholics you’re with. Once you’ve blue balled your pals to the point their wine-dicks are about to explode, you pour it out. You toast, you drink, and you eye the wine like it’s some piece of Rembrandt that just so happens to be cupped in your hand. And here’s the thing about wine: it never tastes as good as when you’re talking about it before pouring it out, except for one other time. You know when that is?”
“When your AA buddies ask you, ‘Hey, this is some good stuff. How much was this?’ And then you make the big reveal – twenty, fifty, a hundred, one-fifty, whatever. Your pals take that number, act accordingly to what the price necessitates (‘Gee, Bob, this is only five bucks? Hell, this is gonna be my new go-to bottle!’ or ‘Seventy-five dollars! Christopher, that certainly explains the rich aroma and the pleasant aftertaste that really washes down this wonderful whore-durvs you and Susan have prepared for us.’), and SPLOOSH everyone blows their load.”
“‘Blow their load’?”
“Ejaculation. Orgasm.” I stuck both my fingers out like a pistol and made “pew-pew” noises.
“¡Qué asco!” Alba ducked her head with her hands over her mouth to stifle a laugh and looked around to make sure people weren’t listening.
“Oh come on. You’re right, but work with me here. Your friends haven’t arrived yet, so no one’s judging you because of your association with your sick American friend.”
“I’m judging myself. Besides, you’re making all this up because you don’t drink wine. You’re being judgmental against something just because you don’t do it.”
“Which isn’t always a bad thing. For example, I’m really judgmental against people who go on murder rampages.”
“Now you’re just being stupid. Let’s change the topic.”
“Fine.” I rolled my eyes in jest. “What are we doing after this brunch?”
“I was thinking that –“ Alba poured out the last drops of the bottle “—we could walk around Barcelona, I can show you around, we can grab something to eat, be a tourist, blahblahblah.
“That sounds good.”
“Oh, and Dani – my boyfriend – wants to get together, I think, so you can meet him if you would like.”
“That sounds good, too.” I smiled without looking at Alba’s eyes.
With Pim Pam Burgers in our hands, Alba and I sat cross-legged on a red picnic blanket under the shade of a conifer inside Parc de la Ciutadella. We had thrown our shoes off, and near our feet lay French fries drenched in ketchup and mayonnaise and two cans of Estrella Damm. The juice from the hamburger patty ran down Alba’s hand, and a young male sparrow with a marking tag on its right leg hopped around us hoping to score an afternoon meal. Under a tree next to ours, two mothers chatted with gusto as their children played together, examining the undersides of the park’s cement benches and digging the earth near the tree trunks to squeal at the crawlers they uncovered. Around the park, lovebirds, families, and the homeless sat, slept, stretched, and spent their Saturday sans-souci.
We had spent the day after brunch weaving in and out of the neighborhoods of Barcelona. Alba had waited patiently while I snapped pictures of Gothic buildings, bustling squares, rust-covered public faucets, and busy roundabouts, and it was these photos I had been examining for the past two minutes at the park as Alba worked on her burger and fries.
“Alba, ¿Puedo hacerle una pregunta?” It was a phrase I had her teach me right after I arrived in Spain. She laughed at the question’s formality.
“Si. What do you want to ask?”
“What do these flags exactly mean?” I showed her a photo in which a yellow flag with four red stripes hung from the balcony of an apartment the color of red clay. “In the other photos, there’s flags hanging elsewhere, and some of them are the same as this one, but then there are different ones as well.”
“So, that flag is the official flag of Catalunya, the Senyera.”
“Looks like something straight out of McDonald’s.”
“Qué idiota. Anyway, this flag is just the standard flag that people hang outside of their house or apartment to show support for Catalunya – say, nationalism. The other flags you’ve seen are probably the one with the star, the Estelada. That one is the one with the star on it, and it’s sometimes blue, sometimes it’s just red and yellow like the Senyera. The Estelada stands for the independence movement, and people who show that flag tend to be more nationalistic.”
“As in, breaking away from Barcelona?”
“Yeah. How well do you know the history of Catalunya and Spain?”
“Not a whole lot.” I read a little bit of Robert Hughes’ book on Barcelona, so I knew about Franco and his oppression of the Catalan people and culture. “The basics: Franco being a cocksucker. Forbidding Catalan from being spoken, forbidding publications of works in Catalan. That kind of stuff. Nothing recent or before that.”
“Okay, well Catalunya lost its independence three hundred years ago, 1714. Since then, there’s always been tension, but that tension got a lot worse when Franco came into power. And I guess you know what happened with Franco, like how he banned Catalan from being spoken outside of homes, banned teaching Catalan, blahblah. There’s that tension and bad relationship with Madrid that’s historically crept up and has always been a part of the discourse of Catalunya and Spain. Anyway, the recent rise in nationalism and the independence movement has been because of how Madrid’s latest actions towards Catalunya. Basically, what has happened is that Madrid has denied the citizens of Catalunya to hold votes to determine whether or not we would be in favor of separation.”
“Can I interrupt you real quick? Are you for independence?”
“And you realize it’s never, ever happening, right?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘never,’ but—“
“But it would certainly not be in our lifetime. I mean, independence isn’t something like coming out of the closet where someone declares to the world that he’s gay or she’s gay and everyone acknowledges that person for who they are. A country can declare itself to be independent, but that wouldn’t mean jack shit because other countries won’t automatically acknowledge its sovereignty. It’d be meaningless.”
“No, I understand, but the issue hasn’t even reached that point. We can’t even have elections – is elections the right word? – to just voice our opinions and see how many people prefer independence. The central government in Madrid won’t allow it.
“This isn’t the first time that Madrid has actively flexed its muscles, either. Take development, right? They take the money they have and make sure they spend it on developing Madrid but not Barcelona. There was just a train line developed to some remote region between there and Madrid, but the people in power refuse to develop the transportation system around Barcelona and the rest of Spain. It’s a way of making sure Madrid keeps getting ahead while keeping down Catalunya. That’s why people here put out these flags; it’s a way of both showing their Catalan pride along with ideas about independence. ”
“But since independence isn’t really possible, could I say that the flags are more of a ideological unifier – a show of open rebellion against Madrid – rather than people really believing that independence can be achieved?”
“No, you can’t say that. People believe independence can be achieved.”
“But there are practical problems that, at least from my understanding – which might neither a whole lot or accurate, so correct me if I’m wrong – seem to make independence straight-up impossible. What would people do about resources like electricity, food, and water? Those things would have to be rerouted and replanned, no? Or currency – would Catalunya still be part of the EU or would they have to reapply for membership? If they aren’t accepted, what do they with the current economy that’s based on the euro? There’s also the issue of people who don’t want independence. I’m sure most Barcelonans – I mean, Catalunyans – are for independence. What’s the number like right now? Seventy percent?”
“Maybe sixty-five, seventy percent?”
“Right. So what do you do with the other thirty, thirty-five who don’t want independence? Do they get kicked out of Catalunya even if their families had been Catalunyan for as long as they could remember? And that’s taking the route of the ‘peaceful’ kind of independence. There’s no way in hell there would ever be a violent kind of independence – how could there? Barcelona’s got perfect weather, peace and stability, beautiful people, an open culture, good food, good drinks, and did I mention beautiful people? Those things don’t lead to a violent move for independence.”
“No, Hans, I understand that it’s not going to happen any time in our lifetime. I said that already. But that doesn’t change the fact that people believe independence is possible, that is should be advocated, that it’s important to show that with the flags.”
“You know what I think?”
“I don’t know what you think.”
“I think Barcelona should do more to give the kind of information on these flags that you gave to me just now.”
“But there’s already the information center on Catalan culture—“
“Fuck that. No one’s going to the information center on Catalan culture. Tourists don’t go to Barcelona to go to the information center on Catalan culture – they go to Barcelona to see the Sagrada Familia and Park Güell, to eat paellas and drink sangria, to spend a bunch of money. There’re negative aspects to that – namely, tourists and visitors of Catalunya don’t give a rat’s ass about going out of their way to understand contemporary issues that are going on in Catalunya and how they manifest themselves in the form of flags, for example, because it has nothing to do with their intention of boozin’ up, relaxing, and enjoying Gaudi. But there’re positive aspects, too. Tourists are the people who spend money, and that’s where the power’s at. If Catalans are serious about independence or, at the very least, they should make sure that their plight and the doings of Madrid are at the forefront of a visitor’s experience. Every street on every block should have a massive sign that explains why these flags are being hung off of every balcony: ‘Madrid have denied our right as citizens to hold referendums and voice our opinions. They have historically oppressed the cultural identity and desires of us Catalans, and these flags are representations of our desires for independence and rebellion against the power-hungry actions of the central government in Madrid.’ I mean, make this thing as blatant as is fuckin’ possible. Get the people with the money not only to know, but care!”
“Those signs would never happen, would never be approved.”
“Really? It would sure be a lot more effective than a big ol’ circlejerk of Catalans hanging flags that the average tourist doesn’t understand, wouldn’t it?”
“Hey, I remember that you taught me this word.”
“Remembering the finer parts of the English, I see.” I laughed, and Alba lay back down on the blanket and informed that she was going to take a short nap.
I pulled out Fathers and Children from my backpack and flipped to page twenty where I had marked by shoving my pen between the pages. A man came around selling beer from a plastic bag, but I declined in piss-poor Spanish.