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.
Outside in the wild Arab morning, I slip my keys under the door, walk to the main drag, and hail a cab, asking the driver to take me to the matar. He speaks little English, but points to his white knit kufi and says he believes in he codes of Islam in Frenglish, completely unprompted. I tell him that’s great, and the rest of the drive we chat about the beauty of Algeria, the food, and the people. He is nice, but charges me 1000 dinars for the 20-minute airport ride ($5.50 USD), as I forgot to tell him I believe in the code of the taxi meter. Thankfully, what he charged was not too far above market; I have been scammed for much more in taxi cabs the world over, from Vegas to Vietnam. If I ever go bankrupt, it’ll be because I was too lazy to negotiate a fare, or else forgot to ask the driver to turn the meter on. I come from the Uber generation, what else can be said?
I am happy to give the man my money, as I know I can’t unload my dinars at a fair rate anyway. In the airport, I pass through immigration and am welcomed to Algeria by the officer, despite leaving Algeria and not entering. Not once have I been welcomed to a place both on arrival and exit. Hospitality in Algeria knows no bounds and can even be nonsensical at times like this. Grabbing my passport, I enter the terminal before I realize that all of the restaurants, duty free stores, and exchanges were by the entrance, and I would have to be welcomed a once again back into Algeria if I wanted to get rid of my money. Thankfully, there is a man selling stale pain au chocolat croissants and juice by the gate, so I get rid of some of my dinar coins and eat until my Air Algerie flight to Barcelona begins boarding.
* * *
An almost comically short flight takes me to terminal two in Barcelona, and I thought about how no sane tourist would take the more expensive seven-hour ferry, as I had done on my way into Oran. However, I am no sane tourist. Before I leave the airport, I try to exchange as many dinars as I can into Euros, but they will not accept around 1200 of my dinars because the bills are ripped or the coins are in small denominations. Thankfully, the money does not go to waste, as there happens to be an Algerian woman behind me at the exchange who is happy to take my money for when she returns to her motherland. As for me, I am on a mission to find my mother. Both of my parental figures are off in a McDonald’s somewhere in Barcelona, sipping overpriced Cokes, so I head to the metro. Spain is hot, and the metro is hotter. I change trains three times, and wind up sweating profusely at the McDonald’s. The three of us grab lunch and I recount my last two days’ voyage to North Africa.
Barcelona, in the opinion of this cynical, sweaty American backpacker, gives the impression of being Spain’s New York, in the worst possible way. The next few days we spend eating overpriced food, and staying in an overpriced hostel, as the heat dries us like raisins. We spend a morning on the beach, which is practically the only free thing in the city, and watch the 2-Euro coldcervezacoldbeer-men duck behind the tanning, generally topless, tourists whenever the cops drive by on their golf cart. The days pass in Picasso-like abstraction as we three Bernabeis make the most of our remaining family time sipping reunion sangria and lamenting our having left the beauteous and affordable south and west of Spain.
I count the kilometers on each post as our bus approaches Almeria, Spain. I am a bit shaken up by almost losing my passport, which must have fallen from my pocket when I switched seats in Granada. The bus has WiFi, and I am content to nearly drain my battery listening to the likes of Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong, and Gil Evans before we pull into the port city. When the door opens, the night breeze is cool and calm and I hum “Let’s Get Lost” as I find my way to my hostel. In these parts, it is more or less still customary to get a free tapa with a drink, rather than buy both separately, so I have plans to experience authentic South-Spanish tapas before the town shuts down for the night. As far as I know, the last bar closes at midnight and it is now 10:30, so I tell myself I have to hurry to my hostel for check-in if I want any chance at tapas. I do just that, and practically toss all of my gear into the closet, still sweating from my quick walk that started off cool, but went all hot and humid when the breeze subsided and I got dinner on my mind.
When I arrive at bar “LoLaLo” which, roughly translated, means “ItItIt,” I am quick to order a medium beer and the first thing the waiter recommends, which ends up being a hot, cheesy, zucchini parmesan casserole. I pack in two more rounds of beer-and-tapas before the kitchen shuts down at midnight, and I finish paying for the three-drink, three-course, eight-Euro meal only a few minutes after midnight.
The tapas-per-drink system is particularly ideal if you eat as much as you drink, but at this restaurant I am able to choose from five sizes of drinks, and pick from any tapa on the menu, ensuring I can eat or drink as much as I want. If you have ever wished you could go to a restaurant and just order three drinks and three appetizers in succession, tapas is the best way for you to do that cheaply without hating yourself, as the portion sizes are reasonable, the tapas are delicious, and—in cheaper cities like Almeria—a whole night of drinks and tapas ends up being much cheaper than just a few drinks at midrange bar in the northeast. Curious as to how the pricing worked, I ordered three different sizes of beer for the three different rounds, ranging from 2.30 Euros to 3.90 Euros (about $2.60 to $4.40). The smallest size was a juice glass, while the largest was a pint, which alone might go for $4.40 in a bar in the US, especially with the American standard tip of 15%. There is no surprise why there are so many college-aged students around. If you are young, broke, and subsist on a diet of beer and chicken wings, southern Spain satisfies your every need.
After a custard breakfast at the bus station, my parents and I board a Flixbus that impressively has working WiFi, plugs, air-conditioning, and a functional bathroom. When I first traveled with FlixBus two years ago, you generally got two or three of these promised amenities, if you were lucky. Even in my short time backpacking Europe, much has changed: WiFi is everywhere, nearly all straws are made of paper, and I am riding the high of a luxurious bus ride, when we pull into our EU-regulated break 2.5 hours after leaving Lisbon. I quickly begin to yearn for the untrammeled wilds, where bus drivers put their feet on the gas until the destination is reached or else sleep in shifts to make sure the bus is constantly in motion, kicking up dirt and gravel toward the beauteous destination of anywhere and making adventure out of the routine nature of riding buses. Mark my words: the world will never see a European Kerouac. There is nothing romantically gritty about clean, reclining seats and the ability to stream Netflix at 55 kph. However, backpacking in the West vs. the East is an endless discussion, and not one I wish to draw out, though I am sure the topic will re-emerge at some point.
When we arrive in Seville, after bumper-to-bumper traffic entering the city, we get to eat a dinner of tapas, perhaps the most civilized part of Spain and Spanish culture. If you ever wished you could go to a restaurant, order three appetizers and not hate yourself, then tapas are for you. The first thing I noticed is that Spanish tapas don’t even slightly resemble the ten-dollar crackers and meatballs you get in the United States. Here, tapas are cheap, small, and have quality ingredients, and can be meatballs, hummus, grilled peppers, or even small dishes of eggplant parmesan. In the night, we hop from restaurant to restaurant as we sample some of Seville’s smallest delights before turning in at our Airbnb, where I sleep happily and comfortably on the couch.
At a quarter to ten the next morning, we walk to Plaza Nueva to join a free walking tour that is to wrap up before noon. The guide takes us through the Moorish architecture of the neighborhood, but most memorably explains what Sevillians do with the fruit from the orange trees that line practically all of the old town. Apparently, these bitter oranges are picked and sold to the English for use in sour marmalades, something only Brits seem to enjoy eating. I’m not a man whose ears perk up when he hears a date or historical fact, but as a former jam maker, I believe that a city that preserves their jam history through tours and commerce is a noble one.
The tour ends in the spectacular Plaza de España, where we buy lemon slushies and bask in the enormity of the plaza from under a shady tree. In the late afternoon, we see countless churches with gilded statues and altars, a result of Seville being the entry point for nearly all of Spain’s gold imports from Latin America during the colonial period. We finally end up at a flamenco bar called “La Carboneria” where we eat cheap tapas and sangria through two sets of incredibly percussive and powerful flamenco music and dance. I am awestruck by the raw emotion and wonder how I had avoided seeing live tango for so much of my life. I retire on the couch for my last night in Seville. The next morning, my parents slipped out while I was still asleep to join a tour to Tangier, Morocco and I spent the day in a cafe writing and studying before my own North African excursion, for which I board a bus that afternoon to the port city of Almeria.
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.