On the morning of March 23, 2016, I touched down in Paris.
I would be spending roughly seven hours in the ville lumière before getting on another flight to Madrid later that night.
My first visit to Paris was enough to cure me from years of romanticism. The glorious Montmartre and Montparnasse from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises simply were not there.
The sky was lackluster. I spoke French avec plaisir to everyone around me and got conned out of €20 by street hustlers at the Basilica de Sacré-Cœur and the Champs-Élysées. I saw the Eiffel Tower and got my picture taken in front of it. I was impressed initially, and then had to ask myself, “Cool, but—is this … it?”
Adieu, Paris. Je t’aime, et ne t’aime pas. Nous parlerons un autre jour.
By 11:00 p.m.that night, I was in Madrid. I’d printed out directions from Aeropuerto Barajas to the hostel I’d be staying at. I loaded myself, my guitar and my duffel bag onto the efficient, pristine trains of the Madrid Metro.
On the first train I boarded, I turned around for a second to catch a glimpse of a kid snorting white powder off a cracked iPhone screen with a rolled up €10 note.
It was after midnight when I found the place. There was a crowd of youths standing outside who were probably about to go on a pub crawl as I was walking in. I heard a girl remark, “Hey, look, someone new! Amigo!” I was too tired to acknowledge her and went inside with my effects.
At the front desk of the Way Hostel at 17 Calle Relatores, the Argentine Pedro Sobral greeted me. I told him I had a reservation. As he processed my check-in, he said, “What’s that?” pointing at my guitar case coated with beer labels.
“I don’t travel without it,” I said.
“I play too. Maybe we can jam sometime while you’re here,” he said. He gave me the key to my room—I’d be sleeping in 1-6, Marley Room, where a picture of the Reggae legend was painted on the door.
I dragged my materiel up the stairs to Marley Room and promptly collapsed on the bottom bunk of one of the room’s six beds.
Perhaps now is a good time to explain how I got there. How is it that I, a writer for this university’s designated arts and literature publication, somehow found myself sleeping like a log in Madrid?
Let’s call it a signing bonus for my new job.
I’d recently been hired as a Project Account Executive for a local contractor, ACPS Painting. The owner of the company—and my new boss—just so happened to have been a friend of mine for the past five years.
Arieh Katz and his wife own a timeshare in Málaga and invited me to come rendez-vous with them in the south of Spain when they arrived. In exchange for four weeks of full-time work at $9 an hour with permanent employment and a pay raise pending good performance, my airfare would be covered. I would simply have to provide for my own food, lodging and transportation until they arrived by way of London on March 29.
I couldn’t say no. I’m not really sure who would.
I woke up in Madrid on March 24 around 8:30 a.m. as the Spanish sun cleared its ascent over the horizon.
As soon as the stores opened, I went out to purchase the toiletries I hadn’t packed and took the shower I desperately needed.
My bunkmate had drunkenly crawled into bed around 3:00 in the morning. He stood tall, blonde and well-built. He regained consciousness by the time I was going out grocery shopping around 10:00 a.m.
The trouble with hostels is you never know what language to speak to people in. We were in Spain, so an “Hola,” or “Buen día” would have been logical. But what if he didn’t speak Spanish and just looked at me funny afterwards?
The tall man simply said, “Hi.”
“Hello,” I replied. I could tell from his voice he was an American.
We got along well. The lumberjack-looking man was named Greg Reynolds. He came from northern California and recently married a German woman and moved to Germany to be with her.
Greg went off on the hostel-sponsored walking tour. I went out to the corner supermarket on Plaza Tirso de Molina. By late morning, the weather was beautiful, and would remain so.
When I returned to the hostel with provisions, there was another man working the front desk. I saw him pull a gourd and bombilla up to his lips, and it dawned on me that he was drinking mate.
“¡La puta madre!” I exclaimed. “Where’d you get that mate?” I asked him in Spanish.
Mate is the national beverage of Argentina. It’s an herbal infusion that stimulates like coffee and is packed with antioxidants. In Buenos Aires, people would walk around with bags containing a thermos of hot water, jar of loose yerba mate, mate gourd and bombilla. In Argentina and Uruguay, you drink it socially. That I was seeing mate in Madrid, having barely found any in the U.S., was mind-blowing.
“We always keep some mate around here. Sometimes the guests leave us some. Where’d you get that accent?” he asked me.
I explained that I’d lived in Buenos Aires for a while and had adopted the silver-plated intonation of porteño casteshano in the process.
The man introduced himself as Bautista; from Buenos Aires himself; a fan of the Boca Juniors. The hostel employees drank mate all the time, and I loitered around the front desk drinking—not that kind of drinking—and conversing.
I did the other kind of drinking that night. Greg and I bought some bottles of wine, and we conversed and drank with the other hostel guests and had a great time. I stroked my guitar and asked out the gorgeous Italian girl who worked the front desk during the night shift.
“E finalmente, una domanda. Tu vuoi uscire in una data con me?” I asked Elisa in my tempranillo-tinged Italian.
“Non. Grazie,” she said to me.
“OK. Va bene,” I said, and lowered my eyes in disappointment as I walked away.
I would see her the next night at a bar we went to as part of the hostel’s pub crawl. She waved to me, but I didn’t go over and say hello because I was sad and slightly salty.
A little over a thousand words has barely sufficed to expound upon my first day in Spain, let alone the week.
Hemingway’s experiences in Spain gave us The Sun Also Rises, and George Orwell’s gave us Homage to Catalonia. Both works remain widely read long after their publication.
And why is that? What the hell do we care that some writer went traveling and then had the audacity to think we might be interested in reading about his or her experiences?
As my homie James Joyce once said, “In the particular is contained the universal.” I can hardly think of anything more universal than raw experience. Who among us doesn’t undergo experiences?
The trouble as a writer is converting those experiences into flowing, readable text and structuring them in such a way to command a reader’s attention. If the task is executed well enough, the reader will find something of interest or relevance to him- or herself, even when they have nothing at all in common with the author.
I sincerely hope I’ve managed to do so here. And if this run was unsuccessful, I’ll keep trying, damnit.
Thanks for reading.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of Flickr user Jose Maria Cuellar.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at email@example.com.