Barcelona

The window is open and the barest of sea breezes perfectly complements the warmth of the summer night.

My fiance is playing guitar and singing a few feet away, perched upon faintly purple sheets provided by Ines, the owner of this quaint and lovely apartment on Carrer Bilbao.

The sounds of conversation drift through the window. I peer over the edge and see tables filled with cervesas and tapas, the seats haphazardly placed near tables, like tiny metal pieces drawn to magnets.

The green leaves of a a tree approach our window ~ maybe in a few years someone will have to cut off a branch to keep the tree in check. When it rains or is especially breezy I can hear the whispering, “shhh-shhh” sounds the leaves make.

I can smell patatas bravas and my stomach rumbles, but although locals eat this late (it’s nearly midnight) my body would protest.

I don’t normally like cities ~ I am intimidated by them. Large numbers of people make me feel uncomfortable. Yet I have loved being here, getting lost in the Gothic Quarter, walking until my ankles hurt and I’m become deeply annoyed at the way my sandals slip off my feet just a tiny bit with every step, until my eyes feel heavy and I am tempted into a cafe by the scent of coffee and somewhat-gaudy photos of croissants pasted on the doors.

I love walks to the small fruit and vegetable markets. In the morning-time these are full of little old women wheeling cloth grocery carts behind them, sometimes with husbands in tow. I once saw an old woman accept her bag of fruit from a cashier ~ she was startled by the weight of the fruit and fumbled the bag, exclaiming. She caught the bag, though, and looked up at me. We both burst into laughter.

David and I have a favorite cafe called “Tio Bigotes” which means “uncle mustaches” and is probably named so because of the mustache-shaped empanadas sold there. The woman who works there helps me with my Spanish and I give her English words when she asks ~ between this and a heavy reliance on miming, we communicate. As soon as we walk in (after the customary “Que tal?” “Bien, y tu?” “Bien.”) she smiles and asks if I want the empanada con albahaca (with basil). She refills David’s zumo de naranja, bringing over more of the fresh-squeezed juice in a small metal pitcher without charging for the extra cup.

Rachel (my professor at Rollins College) and I have spent many of our mornings in Raval, a neighborhood only 20 minutes of Metro time away from our own barrio, which is Poblenou. Our approach to our research has been to introduce ourselves at organizations working with migrants and to ask if we can speak with people, and this has worked startlingly well. We have spent hours with the most incredible, passionate, motivated, and intelligent women as they explain their work to us and what life is like for immigrants in Barcelona.

Rachel and I found a Moroccan cafe and as part of our research (and ultimate happiness) we’ve returned there often for mint tea and Moroccan treats. We’ve been back for dinner with Rachel’s kids and David, and then again with wonderful people we met during our research and more of Rachel’s family. Raval has begun to feel comfortable and familiar in a way you can trust a place to feel once you have walked its streets a certain number of times.

Last weekend David and I took a two-hour trip to Montserrat, a mountain which hosts a basilica just outside of Barcelona. We chose to hike the mountain instead of take the small train up, and spent 1.5 hours of pure bliss sweating our way up the sun-soaked path. We sat and stared at the vastness of the city from the height of the basilica. We could see the Mediterranean Ocean in the distance, delineating where Barcelona city was and where, approximately, our neighborhood lay. We walked into the monastery and sat in the back pews, absorbing the feeling of time inlaid in the stones and stained glass.

I’ve spent time reading, finishing Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Each of these books deserve more than any explanation of their power that I can possibly offer. The first is perhaps about pain and friendship, the second about adaption, the third about what memory means for love. Each, actually, speaks of love. Now I’m reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Hosseini, which I should have read a long time ago.

David and I have brought our instruments to the beach, walking only a few minutes through the deepening evening to a rocky promontory near Mar Bella. I watched waves crash against the stones and we sang.

The gelato is beyond description.

Ines, who is hosting our Airbnb apartment, has slowly become our friend. Last night she saw me and David struggling with peeling and cutting potatoes for our Spanish tortilla and took it upon herself to guide us through the process, helping us dice the vegetables, whisk the eggs, and make it all into the tortilla on medium-high heat in a saucepan. Her dog, Linda (who is the wifi’s namesake), stuck her nose in David’s lap as we ate, her liquid eyes staring, unblinking, at him as he ate.

Earlier today, David and I found a cafe with board games and, excited, walked in. We found two game to play and bought our drinks then sat down and opened the boxes. Everything was in Spanish, a problem we hadn’t thought about. We considered Google Translate, but each card had writing on it. I scanned the cafe’s shelves for Scrabble (a great go-to game for international game-playing locations) but no luck. It was absolutely hilarious. We ended up outside the cafe on those lovely benches I mentioned earlier, me reading and David resting with the breeze sending dried leaves floating our way.

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Whoops wrong Barcelona

I left Cinque Terre with a feeling of peace ~ I’d spent the day and a half I had there mostly in the sea, swimming between rocks with Katie. I was sad to leave Katie, but I felt ready and excited to begin research in Spain.

My first train was to a station only 7 minutes away, then I caught another to Rome. On this train I sat next to Maria, who befriended me through offering me dried cheese chips. I think she did so because I finished my John Irving book and teared up… when I got to the part in Salam Neighbor where a Syrian woman recounts her son’s death, I really cried and Maria went ahead and handed me the entire box of cheese chips.

When we reached Rome, Maria completely took me under her wing. She tried to help me find the train to Barcelona but both of us were confused that there wasn’t a train to Spain. “International terminal…” she said, and asked a conductor. He pointed us toward a train (not in the international terminal, it turned out) which had a different name on it ~ I thought to myself that perhaps Barcelona was just one of the stops on the way to this ending point. Maria left me with a kind, “Good luck!”

I walked onto the train and quickly found my cabin. I’d booked a sleeper car for only women, and I hopped up onto my top bunk. I heard a man shouting outside, and after a few minutes of this I got down to check out what was happening. I looked around but couldn’t see anyone. An older Italian couple were standing outside the cabin to my right, and the man motioned to his head. “He is not healthy,” he said. We started talking and it turned out that the woman, who spoke no English but some French so I could understand a bit, had family in Alabama. I told them my family is from the same state and he said, “Small world!” The more I meet people on my travels, the more evident the truth of this becomes.

The couple, like Maria, decided they would be responsible for my safety. They made sure I was alright and kept checking in on me throughout the journey. When a woman and her young son entered my cabin, the man made sure we were able to communicate. I immediately liked the woman, whose name I thought I heard to be Sicilia ~ regardless, when she said Sicilia I said Sara. Her son’s name was Lorenzo. We talked for a while, although it was hard to communicate with our language barrier, then we all went to sleep.

I woke up to the train stopped before a blue, sparkling ocean. The woman explained to me that our train was to get on a ferry ~ why a ferry, I thought to myself, to get to Barcelona? I decided to trust the process. We took turns watching each other’s belongings and going out onto the ferry for coffee. When we returned to the cabin, we chatted amiably over the drinks as the train exited the ferry and continued on its way.

Just a few minutes away from our destination, the woman showed me a photo of her favorite place on Earth, which looked to be an island. I wasn’t sure where it was, since neither of us spoke much of the other’s language. It looked beautiful ~ I was sure I’d seen it before. It looked like that island off the coast of Italy.

The woman pointed out the different towns she’d been to. She showed me a music group in one town and told me that she’d message me on Facebook so we could go together! Then, she pointed to one of the towns and said “Barcelona.” My heart stopped. The world slowed. My brain froze.

What I realized in the subsequent 10 seconds: the woman’s name wasn’t Sicilia. We were headed to Sicilia, which I realized with a sense of doom was the Italian name for Sicily. I wasn’t 20 minutes away from Barcelona, Spain, I was 11 hours further from my intended destination than I had been before, in Cinque Terre.

I took a breath, stood up, and walked to the windows of the train. Outside the ocean stretched wide and welcoming. I saw an enormous castle pass quickly and asked the woman ~ Lena (which I learned when we became Facebook friends ~ about it and she said it’s a great place to get beers.

Okay. Ocean, castles, beers. I’d be alright.

I left Lena and Lorenzo (Lorenzo, with his mischievous grin, said “bye!” probably 30 times as I was leaving the train, following me as I walked out the cabin and to the door) and entered Barcellona, Sicily. It was hot and I was carrying all of my traveling things, but I felt invigorated. Adrenaline definitely helped. I walked through the train station and outside. I could just walk into the mountains, I thought to myself, perhaps ask people how to get to that mountain! I had a tent, after all. But wait, I have to get to the Spanish Barcelona. I needed to figure out a plan.

I had asked Lena, as casually as I could manage, if there was an airport in Sicily. She showed me on Google the name of the airport ~ it was in Catania. I checked the machine for a ticket to Catania ~ a train was leaving in 4 minutes!! I hurriedly bought the ticket, a bit disappointed I wouldn’t see more of this beautiful Sicilian town but alright with sacrificing in order to be within reach of the airport. I needed to begin my research and meet Dr. Newcomb, my professor.

I sprinted to the tracks as soon as my tickets printed and breathlessly asked the people there which platform I should be on. The other one! I was told, and I ran underneath the track to the other side. Is this the right side?! I asked a group of older Italian men. They grabbed my tickets and looked at them, each leaning in to see. They spoke in rapid Italian to each other, then handed one of my tickets to a young man nearby, who immediately snatched it and sprinted away. Aw, shoot, I though. There goes that plan. “Stamp!” One older man said, and I realized I’d stamped the wrong ticket (you have to stamp them at the station you’re leaving, and I’d stamped the one for my 2nd train).

The young man returned quickly, out of breath, and handed me my ticket. The train would be 15 minutes late so he needn’t have hurried, but I was thankful regardless. The men chatted amongst themselves as we waited for the train, and I watched dozens of small birds swooping in the sky, to sometimes fly underneath the ceiling of the station. I realized that there were bubbles in the concrete ceiling which were actually nests, and that these birds were feeding their babies! I watched for a while, in awe.

The men made certain I got on the train and found my seat. I had only a short ride before having to board my next train.

A couple of minutes into the ride, two young women walked on. One of them was supposed to sit on the other side of the aisle from me but a group of men were in those seats ~ I let the woman who had that seat sit in mine, because I had the window and was about to leave anyway. We struck up a conversation which quickly surprised me with its comfortability ~ it was incredibly pleasant to simply sit and chat. Justina, one of the women, had been living in Catania and working and she gave me advice for my time there ~ in return, I passed on my John Irving novel with advice for traveling in Albania written in the front cover.

My next train was over 2 hours, and I read until I passed out in the seat.

I have to be brief because I should board my plane to the Spanish Barcelona soon ~ I’m in the airport in Cologne, Germany. To quickly sum up my experience in Catania:

I walked around all day with my trekking bag and backpack. I found museums, and rooftops, and a fish market and coffee. I meant to buy a ticket out that night but by the time I got wifi, the ticket was sold out. I found a wonderful hostel and met incredible people. I walked to the beach (only half an hour away), watched the sun touch the water, then walked back. I had wine on the hostel’s rooftop bar with women in my hostel room. We chatted for hours, and I realized yet again how much meaning life has in connections with people.

When I woke up to catch the bus for my flight this morning, one woman I met, Tia Maria, was also awake. As I rushed out, coffee in hand, she gave me a bag of peaches she’d bought for me from a market in Catania. “Best of luck,” she said. Kindness is everything.

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