My early-morning flight to Nice is sponsored by Ralph and Rachelle Bernabei, who are mad enough to spend over a hundred dollars just so they can spend an extra couple of hours with me on the way to the airport. When we part tearfully in the terminal, I am crying not only because I will not see my parents again for several months, but also because I could have probably milked them for more free flights, if I had just had some foresight into how much they would miss me. ‘Oh well,’ I think, ‘there will be time to exploit my parents love for personal gain.We are young.’
I am exhausted from so few hours of sleep, and doze on the short plane ride. I am still so drowsy when I land that I board the free shuttle to a terminal farther away from my destination, then get off and start walking from there to the train station. This is my third time to France, and my second time in the last 24 hours. I am here for one reason and one reason only: to get to Monaco.
The billeteur is in a bad mood because the French lady in front of me keeps making her order wrong. How many kids does she have? How many adults? The man is pissed, for she knows not. The only reason I am here is because my credit card does not work on the machine, so a helpful man tells me I have to go inside. Little do I know, my card also does not work inside, and the ticket-seller absolutely loses his mind when I give him the cash, but argue that the ticket price is cheaper on the machine as I am under 26. “Go back to the machine then!” he yells in French. Secretly, I love it when angry, tired anarchists take positions of relative power in customer service roles. What can the people do, call the law? For all I know, he is the law. Hell, for all I know he is Emmanuel Macron, who I am sure I have seen photos of but have certainly forgot what he looks like. The ticket and change is thrown at me precisely ten seconds before my train leaves, and a symphony of groans plays me out and into a car of older female gamblers with "I'm feeling lucky" in their eyes. To Monaco, baby!
Preface: Dating on the Road
As much as I hate hearing the woes of horny twenty-somethings, which are often accompanied by discussions of the inherent celibacy of solo travel, I suppose it is my obligation to clarify some of what the #wanderlustlife truly entails as a self proclaimed expert and Linkedin Vagabond. Solo travel does not always mean being alone. In fact, it generally means meeting more people because, instead of socializing exclusively with old balls and/or chains, we nomads are free to meet someone, anyone, and do anything at any time. By enlisting in our ranks, you can constantly amuse yourself by flirting with exotic travelers from a long way’s off, or seducing locals into taking you to all the off-the-beaten path places in your current city.
As a solo single person, you can hit the club all night long, or start up a literary discussion in the hostel common area. You can go to any bar you want, or any country you want, for that matter. Always had a thing for guys with a German accent? Hop on a bus in Berlin and don’t stop till you hit Luxembourg or Lake Como. Love Chinese chicks? Not only is there a country full of them, but there are over half a billion of them in that country! For those lamenting the apparent death of 'meet-cutes' in the physical world, you may have grown suspicious and jaded that there is nowhere to meet anyone outside of your four-plus social media accounts. However, meeting people is easy, if you make it a necessity or else a priority. World travelers can choose from one of three dating difficulties:
Easy: Book a party hostel bed in a place like Budapest or Prague, or better yet find a hostel in a country where your phone doesn’t even work. You’ll be chatting up other singles in no time!
Medium: go to a glamorous place, like Paris or London, and find a bed in an overcrowded mixed hostel dorm. If you have bad eyesight or are a chronic sleepwalker, chances are high you’ll wind up in someone else’s bed without even knowing it ;)
Hard: fly to somewhere you don’t speak the language in an area with a few tourists. Either quickly become fluent in another language, charm someone with your poor language skills, or cling to one of the rare English-speaking tourists. When you leave, try dating long-distance and see where you fall on the spectrum between absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder and out-of-sight-out-of-mind.
Anyway enough about you, this is my blog.
Some Time for Introductions
It is well before 7 am in Barcelona. I stroll with my parents to a tourism office fifteen minutes from our hostel. We are tired, but I myself feel strangely energized by the tiny new country on the horizon: Andorra. If it were only me taking this trip, I would hop the cheapest bus to Andorra, have lunch, then catch a bus onward to France. However, my magnanimous parents thought a tour to the landlocked nation might be fun, and signed us up for a one-day, three-nation tour with stops in rural Spain, France, and the microstate’s capital of Andorra La Vella. I effervescently sip a lemon slushie as my parents brood over their morning coffees.
Joining border-hopping tour groups is one of my favorite pleasures in life, and a fittingly expensive one at that. I have crossed many borders in my day, and have found each one to be a completely unique, fascinating experience. Not only does the former bureaucrat inside me love to know the protocols in place for traveling between any two countries, but I am eternally intrigued by what a country looks like on its fringes. This would not only be my first time to Andorra, but also to rural Spanish Catalonia and mountainous southern France. What language should I speak when I visit each country? Which country would the guide be from? Who else would be on this mad trinational tour? I am full of questions that a day’s wandering would likely answer.
The first two questions are in fact answered quickly once the trip is underway. The guide is a Barcelonian, and the places we will visit in Spain and Andorra would be populated largely by Catalan speakers. The French, naturally, speak French and the others will be able to speak in Spanish best, so that is what I should use when talking to people in Andorra.
It would have taken more time to figure out who else was on the tour, but I find one young woman from Swaziland (now Eswatini) fascinating enough that I largely ignored the rest of the mostly-American tour. The whole trip, I sit next to her and behind my parents, as we jabber back and forth about travel, destinations, and work (or in my case, lack thereof). In the mountain town of Spain, we buy pastries and sit in a charming stone courtyard, talking about who-could-remember and how-could-I-forget. My parents introduce themselves. My mom’s eyes grow as she tries to take in the impossible image of the first woman wooed by a former Geography Bee finalist’s knowledge of Eswatini’s capital.
It’s Mbabane, in case you’re wondering.
We all board the bus.
Pique-Nique en France:
It is late morning when we pull into Ax, France. Most of the group goes off to have lunch, but seeing as I am obligated to eat a meal in Andorra, and not in France where I have already visited, I decide to save my appetite. However, when my new Swazi/ Eswati friend and I enter the central square, dozens of vendors are selling fruit, vegetables, and wheels and wheels of beautiful cheeses of every consistency and flavor. We sample several and wind up buying a hamburger-sized slice of chevre. A quarter-mile away, Ax has a large hot spring where the two of us pick apart the cheese by hand, laughing when a hot wave of springwater sears the bottoms of our feet. Before long, the bus is boarding and our feet drip the entire walk. Ax is a mountain town that makes me think of what Vermont would look like if still controlled by the French, as there is commerce, abundant cheese, charming green hills and silver waters. (Martin, Diane. “These Green Mountains.” 1999). Not that anyone cares, but that last bit is a reference to the Vermont state song, which I can sing in its entirety from memory. I only tell you this because I have never had an opportunity to brag about it, and realized now would be as fitting a time as ever.
Lunch in Andorra; Breaking Bread with My Parents!
We are moving fast, as my date has already met my parents, and I have learned much about her family back home, her job, and her dreams. In Andorra, we have an hour and change to have an authentic Andorran meal, courtesy of an extremely goofy waiter who doesn’t stop making jokes the entire time he serves us.The four of us get along together nicely, and my parents readily offer the wide-eyed “she seems nice” when they meet someone with whom they want to have grandchildren. I agreed.
Tapas, and Meeting Each Others' Friends
We come back to Spain and back to our respective hostels. I have a hot date with the chick from Eswatini, so I do all I can to get ready quickly, throwing on an unironed shirt (which she tells me is all the rage in Germany, conveniently) and waving goodbye to my parents. We will reconvene in the morning when we share an Uber to the airport. Before stepping out of my hostel, I head to the kitchen where a lukewarm Andorran beer is waiting for me in the fridge. I open the bottle cap in a pre-date taste, putting it to my mouth in time to force half the outrageously frothy beverage through my nose. I steal two red vines from someone’s stash in the pantry, which I hope is communal. Tapas are expensive in Barcelona and, as Kerouac’s Henri Cru quoted Harry Truman: “we simply must reduce the cost of living.”
The Eswati had made another friend on her Barcelona adventure: a young German Phd taking her recent divorce as an opportunity to reinvent herself. When I give her my name and phony profession, her face is filled with hope, the same eternal hope that I find in most seasoned, dedicated travelers. One needs that when they live on the road: the frame of mind that there are untold wonders in the next town, the next city, and the next country, and that you are one of the luckiest people in the world for being able to see them.
The three of us get tapas late at night, in a rather fashionable part of town, and while we share much more than the evening victuals we know it is late and the exhaustion is palpable. The Eswati and I have traveled to three countries today and have early flights in the morning, and nearly all of the bars in that gracious barrio Gracia have closed for the night. The three of us walk east until the doctor decides to catch a taxi, and the two of us are alone again. It is not long until we are holding hands, making observations about post-tapas Barcelona, and about the loud, strange men who promise to show us tourists a good time. In the eaves of her hostel, it is now so late that it becomes early, and we both calculate the precious few hours of sleep before we are to catch our respective flights out of Barcelona. One of those few pocket-change hours passes in the hostel alcove, and the drunk passersby don’t deter our embrace.
Only time can do that.
Denouement and Division in Barcelona
We each catch a few hours of sleep, after saying goodbye, then the texts of safe travels become less frequent over the coming days. As she flies to Hamburg, then to Amsterdam, then to South Africa and finally her native country, continents come between the two road wanderers who were once one.
Friends: dating on the road is easy as it is anywhere. Evenings routinely spread out like patients etherized on tables, but when they—when we—wake there is nothing to do but drown in the human ephemerality of it all. Road life is a string of love songs, romances, and heartbreaks all at the expense of hoping the next one is better. Life on the road, in this way, is like life anywhere. And—also—in this way it is enthralling, for there is nothing more delicate than these days and evenings that exist so far from any other, whether measured in miles or minutes, countries or coffee spoons.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.