Ambling down the tree-lined promenade of Las Ramblas I couldn’t help but notice that the antique gas lamps outlining this popular walking street seemed to have flickered on in unison with the city as it awoke from its afternoon siesta. Servers hurriedly began setting out polished wine glasses for vino tinto on curbside tables in preparation for the evening’s crowds, street performers plucked at guitar strings searching for the perfect pitch and the haggling between shoppers and vendors at various kiosks over artistic goods became increasingly boisterous. As the sun continued to sink lower into the sky, the sultry evening shadows flickering against the buildings seemed to pulsate to the vibe of the city, which was becoming more and more lively by the minute. Barcelona was getting its second wind and so was I.
I had spent my first day in the city combing every spacious plaza and narrow alley way of this Mediterranean hotspot, checking off all of the “must see” attractions that Lonely Planet suggested. With earbuds in, blaring the best of the Gipsy Kings, I allowed myself to become a silent observer while meandering aimlessly throughout the city. I drank in the sights, sounds and culture just as earnestly as I downed an entire pitcher of sangria during lunch. It was my first time traveling solo and I fully embraced my new role as the lone explorer. But now with Barcelona’s nightlife commencing all around me, I no longer wanted to be a passive spectator but rather an active participant.
While going over possible scenarios in my head for my evening’s itinerary, I turned a sharp corner down a small side street that led directly to my hostel and smacked right into a fellow pedestrian, a young man roughly about the same age. His sly smile let me know there was no harm done but his tan skin, big almond shaped eyes and kinky hair also let me know that he wasn’t a Spaniard. His name was Ahmed and he was from Algeria. After an awkward 20 minute conversation of broken Spanish (on both of our parts) this is what else I was able to extract out of my new friend. Ahmed was 24 years old and originally from the capital city of Algiers. He and his family had moved to Barcelona two years prior. His first language was Arabic and his second was Catalan, the dominating romance language of the northeastern part of the Iberian peninsula resembling a beautiful mixture of Spanish, French and Italian. He spoke very basic Spanish and absolutely no English.
In return, I attempted to speak my own version of Portunol (a strange combination of my old high school Spanish with a few Portuguese phrases I picked up from Brazilian boyfriend thrown in) to convey that I was a 23-year-old American from Miami who was in Spain for a school project, which was set to begin the following week in Seville. For now, I was in Barcelona for the pure joy of travel, something that I planned to continue pursuing after my 3 week study abroad program, going on to Morocco and then possibly Turkey. Upon hearing the word Turkey (or Turquia in Spanish) Ahmed’s eyes lit up and through slow repetitive phrases and clumsy hand gestures I gathered that he had Turkish friends in the city that he wanted to introduce me to. Having strategically worked the word novio into the conversation several times to make it clear that I had a boyfriend, I figured he seemed harmless enough and agreed to go. “A las diez de la noche” Ahmed repeated slowly while pointing a finger down at the cobble stone street. I nodded my head to show I understood and just like that, I had plans for my first night in Barca. I was to meet Ahmed on this same exact street corner at 10:00PM.
Once 9:45 rolled around I grabbed my coat, hopped down from my top bunk in the 6 bed dorm room and left my cozy hostel to venture out into the chilly night. Saying a silent prayer to myself so that I wouldn’t twist an ankle, as it soon became apparent that high heeled boots and ancient streets don’t mix, I finally stumbled on to the not-so-familiar corner from earlier that evening. In the dark night it looked a lot seedier than I remembered. Just a few blocks shy of Las Ramblas, I could hear distant chatter and the faint sound of Flamenco from a nearby restaurant, but somehow this block remained eerily quiet. My eyes darted around the dimly lit intersection with no sign of Ahmed. Standing there alone on the street corner all dressed up for the night I started to worry that I looked more like a lady of the night, my own version of a Catalonian hooker. Were the knee high boots too much? As the time passed, I began to question more than just my wardrobe. Where was Ahmed? Did I not understand him correctly or was I being stood up? More importantly, did I care? Would my first night in Barcelona be a total bust? Just as soon as the compulsive thoughts started to creep in, they were interrupted by the sounds of laughter emerging from a mismatched group of Australians, Germans and Argentinians headed my way. I recognized all of their faces from back at the hostel and as they approached one of the Australian girls paused and invited me to join them for dinner. I was inclined to accept the offer and blow off my not-so-punctual friend but the idea of getting insider advice from actual Turks was just too tempting.
“Thanks, but I promised a friend I’d meet him here and I don’t have a number to reach him.”
“No worries mate, just look out for us later, we’ll be having drinks somewhere on Las Ramblas.”
As soon as they walked away, I felt a sense of calmness wash over me. After all, I was in Spain! A country that still paused to take afternoon naps. Here, time clearly wasn’t of the essence, instead it was a nonrigid notion, as fluid as a Salvador Dali clock. I’d wait a little longer and if Ahmed ended up being a no show, I’d take myself out to a nice dinner and just see where the night takes me. I would morph into my own version of a Dali clock and uninhibitedly go with the flow. Just then Ahmed turned the corner sporting a sheepish grin, implying that he was sorry for being late. “Listo?” (Ready?) He asked. “Si.” (Yes.)
We walked a few blocks engaging in elementary level Spanish until we arrived at his friend’s Turkish restaurant. We received a warm welcome by the owner, a tall slender Turkish man with a Heraldo-style mustache, who opened the door for us even though there was a big sign on the front reading cerrada or closed. Most of the tables already had the chairs stacked upside down on the table tops as a young kitchen staff member mopped the floors. The owner directed us to the back of the restaurant where we joined a table of two other Turkish men, probably in their mid-thirties, as he threw a fresh rack of meat onto the fire. One of the men at the table promptly handed me a cold beer and I sat back, taking in the scene. The restaurant was warm and inviting with an intricate mural on the back wall depicting Cappadocia, the region of Turkey famous for its massive white boulders jutting into the sky and hot air balloon rides. I was already mentally piecing together a Turkish bucket list.
As the beer continued to flow, so did the conversation. Not enough can be said for liquid courage when attempting to speak a language you’re less than fluent in. I interjected into the conversation every now and then with intermediate level questions and statements such as Where in Turkey are you from? Do you like Spain? And Yes, I would like another beer. But to be honest, I was lost 95% of the time nor did I receive the plethora of advice about Turkey that I had hoped for. Between the Spanish spoken with thick Turkish accents and the incoherent side conversations in Turkish and Arabic I barely understood a damn word anyone said. Nonetheless, I felt like I had won the traveler’s lottery. Here I was, my first night traveling solo and I already had an “after hours” pass into a local establishment as well as an insider’s look into an expat community in Barcelona. I felt proud, like a seasoned traveler.
As the owner handed me a kebab fresh off the grill, he asked “Después, vamos a ir a bailar?” Afterwards, let’s go dancing? Now that was some Spanish I understood. I simply replied “Claro.” Of Course.
Walking into the tiny dance club in a back alley of the Bari Gotic district, I immediately fell in love with the place as it was trendy yet archaic and playing some of the best house music I’ve ever heard. After grabbing a round of drinks at the bar, me and my new group of friends headed towards the dance floor. At this point, I had a pretty good buzz going and I was ready to mingle, although I wasn’t necessarily single. I had a boyfriend back home and while I had no intention of cheating, I was eager to meet other locals, expats, and fellow travelers. However, each time I tried to branch out from the group and strike up a conversation with someone else, Ahmed got visibly irritated. One time he even went as far as to interrupt me mid-conversation with a foreign exchange student from Sweden and gently directed me back to the group by the arm. The first time this happened, I brushed it off. Maybe he thought I had a little too much to drink and was just trying to look out for me? So after that, I stuck around for a little bit so that Ahmed wouldn’t think I was ditching them, but then I made it clear that I wanted to go “make some new friends.” After a few unsuccessful attempts to regain my attention, Ahmed once again tried to reel me back in by the arm, this time with a little more force than I was comfortable with and I snapped. I whipped my head around, yanked my arm back, eyed him up and down with a look of great disdain and in a firm but calm voice (the kind of “crazy calm” that forewarns I’m about to lose my shit) simply stated Back. Off. I’m not sure if it was the alcohol or the pent up resentment I still held from jealous ex boyfriends, but I quickly escalated things into a scene straight out of a telenovela. Maybe it was a tad over the top but I was pissed. Who was this guy to think he owned me after buying me a few beers and hooking me up with a free kebab?
But before Ahmed had any time to react, two big burly bouncers came over and escorted him and his friends out of the club. Then a distinguished looking middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair came over and introduced himself as the owner. In perfect English drenched in a thick Spanish accent, he apologized if those men were giving me a hard time. He said he loved having foreigners at his bar and then offered me “drinks on the house” for the rest of the night. I immediately felt a twinge of guilt for getting Ahmed and his friends kicked out as well as a pain of regret for having completely burned any bridges to the Turkish expat community in Barcelona. After all, I didn’t mean for that to happen, I just wanted Ahmed to give me a little space. However, this guilt was quickly washed away with a refreshing cocktail which was completely gratis (for free). I spent the rest of the night dancing and mingling among the crowd, coming and going as I pleased.
What I learned from my first solo trip is that it’s not necessarily about taking the beaten path or the road less traveled. It’s about saying yes to every road that comes your way and getting the hell off or changing direction whenever your little heart desires. It’s about being as open to new experiences as my bar tab that first night in Barcelona. And that has made all the difference.