plaza real bareclona

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Barcelona: Finding Home

Finding a way to stop traveling has been an evolving process. When I booked that one-way flight ten years ago, a year of travel loomed before me, an epic round-the-world trip that would fulfill my dreams to see more of the world while also preparing me to contentedly return to Los Angeles at the end. I had no idea that ten years later I would move to Barcelona instead. I also didn’t know that this decade would both fill my memories with achingly lovely moments and allow me to find my passion for writing and photography while also bringing a raft of unexpected health and emotional challenges, too.

When I set out on this journey, I had big expectations. I didn’t love all aspects of myself and my life when I left—I hoped that traveling would shore up those lingering doubts, fears, and insecurities. And I hoped for adventure, grand adventures beyond the borders of the U.S. and into cultures I had never yet seen, through the landscapes I had only glimpsed in magazines as a child.

Six years later, depression creeped into my life, infiltrating the edges of even the most banal thoughts. I didn’t talk about it much because, well frankly it wasn’t a great year for me. At first I just drifted away from blogging. I needed a few months off from travel writing to right my world.

I just needed space.

A tiny hiatus and I’d be right as rain.

Plaça Reial in Barcelona

Searching for Home

Even then, however, I suspected that it wasn’t blogging alone that needed to change. I needed a home base. I moved to a beach town in Mexico for five months, and it helped. I took nightly sunset walks on the beach, my desire to write came back in fits and spurts, and having an apartment settled me. But it didn’t stick. By picking a country with a lenient visa policy—six months free on arrival for Americans—it allowed me treat the endeavor like a grand lark. When the good friends that I had made moved on, I did too. I traveled again but distanced myself from my travel writing. Instead, I returned to my hometown in Florida to connect with old friends and to find new ways to treat depression’s quiet darkness that would never quite lift its invisible tentacles; its darkness had reached into every part of my waking life.

I eventually moved to Oaxaca, Mexico with a bestie who was also a long-term traveler in search of a place in the world to call home. It seemed promising. I fiercely wanted to hang my hat there and officially end my peripatetic decade.

When my six month visa expired, I bid it adieu forever. During that spring in Oaxaca I experienced the most serious allergies I’ve ever had—hay-fever so terrible I would flee street-side dinners with friends so I could shower and hide under my covers, the only place I found relief from the urge to rub every last piece of skin from my face. By the end of my time there, my activated immune system developed a permanent allergy to my contact lenses, which I had worn for 20 years without issue (I’m still a little bitter about that).

Alcala in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Hanging at Hierve El Agua

flame tree in bloom

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

I left Mexico tired. Every year on the road seemed to worsen my allergies, which I have linked to nearly dying of dysentery my first year on the road. I needed to stop traveling but I was at a loss for which place in the world was worthy of calling home. It had to be perfect if I was going to finally pick a single city to see every day of my life.

So yeah, of course I fell back on old patterns and I traveled while I figured out the answer. Travel has been my default state since I left in 2008 and it I have struggled to stop moving, to pull the trigger on a decision like buying furniture again and a car. Partly because the weight I felt the decision held, but also because it was cheaper for me to travel the world than return to LA. I am terrified of being in debt again, of that desperation I felt just a couple of years out of college as I sunk under the weight of low-paying work and ever-accruing credit card interest. The debt was complicated; it wasn’t all from “keeping up with the Joneses,” it was a series of unfortunate events that created a teetering tower of debt that threatened to crush me if I didn’t constantly run on my spinning wheel. Traveling arrested that process. Three-and-a-half years into my travels and I had cleared that ominous debt tower. I wasn’t making a ton of money, but I was free from debt and the thought of returning to a lifestyle that would put me back in that circumstance wasn’t on the table.

Another year on the road slipped past me almost unnoticed; I was a leaf caught in a rushing river and riding the easiest current. I housesat in southern Spain, spent a few months with friends in Australia, and then for the hell of it, I backpacked Vietnam for three months. It wasn’t my best moment of follow through, but that additional year of travel got me closer, somehow, to where I am now. Closer to Barcelona.

When I left Vietnam, I returned to the states to fulfill one of my last big travel promises: to take my remaining niece on an adventure. Over this past decade, I somehow managed to backpack Southeast Asia for seven months with my angsty pre-teen niece Ana, then I followed that up with a road-trip across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with my two naughty nephews (cute, but naughty). Children are so impressionable in the middle school years, and I deeply wanted to show each what I loved about this huge world of ours at least once before they entered adulthood. Last summer, my niece Jinnai joined me on a five-week, 500 mile (800 kilometer) pilgrimage across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago Frances.

Our long, long walk is a story for another day, but suffice to say that at the end we wanted nothing more than sun, sand, and good food. We headed to Barcelona. One day during our week of exploring, we wandered through charming working-class neighborhood called Barceloneta. Dockworkers lived here in times past and now it has a “village within a city” feel. Laundry dripped from rows of wrought-iron stretching into the sky and the neighborhood’s narrow streets all led to the water. I looked around and realized this was it; in a stutter of a heartbeat I decided to move to Spain.

Viewpoint in the Pyrenees on the Camino de Santiago

Camino de Santiago 12.5 km sign

End of the Camino de Santiago

Plaça Reial

Barcelona Parc de la Ciutadella

Finding a Home

I am penning this dispatch from my apartment in Barceloneta—a small six-floor walkup with heaps of sunshine and views of the ocean if I lean over my balcony. And I feel at peace. Friends and travelers have asked why I chose Barcelona, and my answer is usually something like: “I realized it was good enough.”

There are people who fall in love with Barcelona in an instant. That wasn’t me. When I visited in 2012, I thought it a gorgeous city but with little to compel me beyond that. I didn’t dislike the city—I’m not really sure how anyone could dislike it!—but I didn’t fall for it in the way that people assume.

Instead, on my second visit I realized that this small neighborhood near the beach, in a city where I speak the language and enjoy the culture, was enough. It’s not perfect—local Spaniards laugh at me when I tell them I moved to Barceloneta, which will heave with tourists come summer—but all of these years I have searched for the impossible: an idyllic place that combined the best aspects of every city I had ever loved.

Barcelona instead meets most of my checklist wishes; it’s a vibrant city with a young population and it sees more sunny beach days than not—as a born-and-raised Floridian, I am fanatically committed to both warmth and water. The one thing that had long kept Barcelona off my list was that I know almost no one in the city. I am not just tired of traveling, I am weary of being far from connections, from the people I know and love in this world.

It had always seemed like moving back home to Florida was the most obvious choice since most of my dearest friends live there, and my family, too. Even as I applied for my long-term Spanish visa last fall—an arduous process—I looked at real estate near my hometown and thought hard about where I should settle, because it was going to happen in 2018 no matter what. For so many reasons, however, Florida is an unhealthy place for me. One day it might be right—after all, I never saw the curveball coming that I would live on the road for nearly a decade, make a living writing about responsible travel, and have friends dotting the globe. When I received a letter in the mail just after Thanksgiving granting me the right to live in Spain for a year, I knew it was the right move. Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t terrified, because panic flashed in my chest that I was making the wrong choice and needed to abort ship asap.

I didn’t abort ship.

Barceloneta architecture

Pretty buildings in Barceloneta

Barcelona Cathedral

views of barceloneta

window view from my house in Barcelona

Here in my small apartment I have created balance that I haven’t had since I left Los Angeles in 2008. I furiously write every morning and my mind dizzies with the number of creative projects I am inspired to work on—without constant strain of planning travels and nonstop movement, my mind has space for new ideas. I am writing a book proposal, and the idea SO spot on for what I want to put into the world that I can’t believe it’s taken me this long figure it out. And now I have the time to make that project, and this blog, all a bigger priority in my life. I can work, but also have a balance with other aspects of non-travel life. There are joys in this, too.

On the weekends, I walk to the market nearby and already the vendor knows to weigh out a half-kilo of cherry tomatoes while I sort through the selection of peppers. An old man who lives in my building waves when we pass on the street and the owner of my local bodega gives me a mini chupa chups lollipop for free when I stop in for a chat and a bottle of agua con gas.

And friends come visit! That’s a new one for me since usually I’m the one passing through for a quick hello. Victoria and Steve brought the tiniest addition to their family and we had grand fun playing in the park, strolling the beach, and partaking in many cups of gelato.

friends from BridgesandBalloons.com

Barcelona

Gelato on a sunny day

Sunday brunch in style!

It’s fun. Better yet, it feels right.

My friend Louise lives in London and we last traveled together to Cuba many years ago—since then we have rarely managed to cross paths. Now that I am living in Europe, she invited me on an impromptu girl’s weekend to Lisbon next week. And in June I’ll jet over to Morocco with a Florida-friend—I have these great little trips planned for every month from now until October! Instead of feeling a heavy weight on my chest from the burden of planning new travels, there’s no pressure—I’ll stuff a few clothes into daypack and leave the rest folded neatly in my drawers for when I come back.

Because I live here now.

I live in Barcelona.

Maybe not forever, but I live here now and that’s enough.

A Little Photoessay … A Glimpse of Gaudi’s Masterpiece: La Sagrada Familia

There is something about a church that transports me through time and deposits me at an older version of myself. I step through the doors and past habits and attitudes flood my senses and course through my body. I was raised Christian and, since then, I moved onto a mixed bag of spirituality. I found it impossible these past years on the road not to identify with other cultures and religions as I met so many new people and stories and perspectives.

And although I love the temples of Asia—so much—last month I talked about the vestiges of my own history that are so much more identifiable when I wander the streets of Europe. New wisdoms cedes the floor to customs and traditions ingrained in me since birth. The familiarity of a church washes me in calm; I give myself permission in holy places to release life’s stresses and the hurts. It’s the act of entering the church, not the service. It’s the learned behavior that here, in this special place, you can reflect and release. Going to church was not the point of my visit, I was there for the Gaudí architecture, but the by-product of visiting the Basílica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain was a visit to church—no doubt an activity that made my grandma sigh in relief.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Eastern side of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain a grey afternoon at la sagrada familia

The Basilica is the crowning jewel of Barcelona; it’s the shining beacon of all touristy visits to the city. With two days free in Spain’s Costa Brava, I decided to play tourist. I was speaking at a conference in Girona, but I couldn’t pass the chance to finally experience Barcelona. Two days isn’t long, and having a speech to prep, I did only the bare minimum research. When visiting La Sagrada Familia, I knew two key facts: 1) it’s still under construction and 2) Antoni Gaudí designed it has his masterpiece. Gaudí was a Spanish architect known for his highly stylized interpretation of early 1900s Modernism. After taking a chocolate tour of the city in the morning, I started a long walk in the drizzling rain to make my late-afternoon appointment at the church (my hostel brilliantly recommended that I pre-purchase my ticket online—more insider tips at the end). I could have used the metro and buses, but the solitude and weather matched my mood that day. It was late September, and I had left my niece Ana home in the States while we decided if I would continue homeschooling her from the road.

For the first time in a year, I was back to traveling solo and my tourist map of the city had little cartoon buildings pointing my way to the church, indicating other buildings Gaudí had designed. I weaved through the lanes, lost in the pulse of city life. When I spotted a tiny nook of a café, I passed the rest of time with a hot Americano and my journal. It’s an interesting way to understand a city, to find a side-street and sit with locals. Eventually, with my time slot on the horizon, I walked toward the eight massive, intricate towers marking La Sagrada Familia (and I worried I would get lost!). Unlike any church I had seen before, the curious shapes, curves, and figures lining the façade became gradually clearer as I walked.

I don’t know the exact moment the church hooked me, but my fascination with the building surprised me. At times on my travels I get fatigued by sightseeing, but if there is one thing that calls to me, it’s passion. Passion and creativity are twin elements that I lament when they ebb from my own life, so as I wrapped the audio-guide around my head and absorbed myself in the story of a donation-funded church constructed over the span of more than century. A church so grand in concept, design, and style that it would become a the magnum opus of a century, not just a single artist.

Gaudí is but one architect on the project, but it was his passion that fueled the building of such a bizarre homage to the Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture of years past. He left plans for the entire basilica for the architects who would come after him—he worked on La Sagrada Familia from 1883 until his death in 1926. I am neither an art buff nor a student of architecture, but I found it impossible to stay impassive when viewing the complex scenes depicted on the Nativity façade. In stark contrast, the Passion façade offers a gaunt, and darker depiction.

The Nativity Façade, designed by Gaudí:

Nativity façade of La Sagrada Familia.

architecture of the Nativity façade Gaudi's façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The Passion Façade, designed by Josep Maria Subirachs:

Passion façade; La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain The Passion façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The Passion façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The inside is exquisite, too.

The ceiling is so extraordinary that I very nearly caved into my desire to lay flat-out on the floor and get lost in the flowing tiers and spires (that would have totes broken social protocol though). Instead, I craned my neck and gawked to the descriptions on my audio-guide. Each footfall inside the church brought into view new twisting, tree-like columns branching out as they climbed upward. Each heartbeat allowed a glimmer of sunlight to dapple through into the interior, as if bathing me in the warm breeze of an orchard.

Ceiling of La Sagrada Familia.

stained glass windows Inside La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

I spent the better part of my afternoon wandering the huge church, then below in the museum looking at the plans and miniature projections of the completed project. Thanks to the magic of computers and technology (which Gaudí did not factor into his two-century timeline for completion of his masterpiece), La Sagrada Familia could be done as early as 2026. (I revisted the church five years later, in 2017, and the architects had made startling progress on the windows and interiors, as well as several of the towers!).

When I emerged from the church, I soaked in the late afternoon sunshine. The welcome change in the weather matched my lifted spirits. I felt lighter after immersing myself so completely in learning about how one man’s creativity and religious fervor could compel him to funnel his passion so narrowly into a project that would affect millions of people and span several centuries.

It blew my mind.

The scope of his vision, the faith that people would continue donating to finish the church, the drive to work with such focus on a single project—I left both awed and envious. And I left living in a wider world, a world with more possibilities for those with the drive to follow a passion through to the end. I bid adiós to the church, but really more of a “see you in 20 years,” when I’ll be back to see Gaudí’s completed magnum opus.

Blue skies at La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona


Quick Tips: Visiting La Sagrada Familia

How: Book ahead through the official site and print your ticket. This was the best advice and help I received by far. You choose an hourlong time window to visit the church and you bypass the huge queue with very quick access. The towers were not open on my first visit because of the rain, so I was only able to do that on my return in 2017. You can and must pre-book this as well—the tower view time slots go very quickly, so book at least two days ahead of time if that is your plan.

How much: There are several options you can pay for; I paid to enter the church and the museum, as well as an audio-guide (worth the price in my opinion). On my return visit in 2017, my niece and I booked a ticket up the Façade (so worth it! The views are gorgeous and it’s an inside look behind the scenes of the church’s inner workings). As of 2017, it costs €15 for a basic ticket to enter the Basilica, €22 for the audioguide and museum too, and €29 to go up a tower and have an audioguide (if you book a tower view ticket, do not be late for your appointment time. (current prices)

Where: It’s a long walk from the downtown Gothic quarter of Barcelona, but I managed it both ways and stopped at the other Gaudí spots on the way. There is a metro stop and what-not, but I did not use it.

When: On recommendation from my hostel (they helped me buy and print my ticket), I took a 4 pm time slot, which was fairly calm (though there was a queue for those without pre-purchased tickets). I was there for over an hour listening to the audio-guide and wandering; it was relatively uncrowded at the end of the day. My photos also came out better by not visiting at high-noon.

Plan and Learn:  Every place is more interesting with back story; read a Guadí biography before you visit for a deeper perspective on this world-famous architect. This beautiful photographic collection showcases his work. And if you’re staying in Spain for a bit, consider the Spanish Lonely Planet as your guide, it was my go-to on both visits.

la Boqueria market Barcelona

A Little Reflection … Lost in the Streets and Stories of Spain

Since childhood Spain pulled my focus and imagination. I studied my history books and learned about the country’s role in early exploration. I lamented the nuances of the Spanish language as my high school brain battled to grasp so.many.tenses. I often plopped myself on my bed and gave intense focus to the photographs of the art and architecture in my travel magazines. And as I got older, the stories of Spain’s food culture fascinated me with equal parts excitement at the possibilities of new flavors and fear for my vegetarian sensibilities.

The incredibly busy streets surrounding the Placa Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain.

Spanish and Catalan flags wave from a building in Barcelona, Spain.The thin streets of the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona, Spain.

Last fall, I was given the opportunity to speak at a travel conference outside of Barcelona. As you would imagine, it wasn’t a hard decision. In fact, within moments my fingers flew to the keyboard to accept the speaking gig. Two months later, I landed in Spain to spend my week in the country exploring with an enthusiasm fitting to my long-held fervor to visit. And fervor I had; I walked the streets of Barcelona until blisters layered over blisters from the hours spent treading on cobblestone streets—they’re picturesque but brutal.

And though I loved my days in Barcelona after a fashion, that fact is not so much the point of this story. You see, those first days in Spain were odd on one level because of my mostly two years spent traveling Southeast Asia, as well as my newly minted status as a solo traveler since my niece stayed home. By landing in Europe, I arrived to a city and people with a culture similar to my own, but different enough in history and language to disorient. In fact, it disoriented me to the point that I withdrew from my usual style of travel: immediate immersion through food, language, and wandering to odd places in the city.

A statue of a boy drinking from a jug in Barcelona, Spain.Up close with the fountain in the Plaza Real in Barcelona, Spain.

Delicate statues and carvings on the churches of Barcelona, Spain.

Days passed before I adjusted to the new culture and to traveling solo again, a fact again reinforcing my ideas that the places I visit mirror back to me how I feel at that moment. My book launch was weeks away, Ana was stateside homeschooling herself for a week, and there I was, landing in an unfamiliar city … well, it threw me. And it would have been easy to hold that uncertainty against Barcelona itself, but it just took an adjustment.

I needed a re-calibration of my traveling norms until I lost myself in the beauty of Barcelona—lost myself in the cathedrals and narrow, cobbled streets. In the tapas and sweet wines. In the gregarious conversations buzzing well into late evening at the city’s sidewalk cafes.

It was a different sort of lost, though, to get lost in the European churches and echoes of Western history … it’s new and interesting but not foreign. Not in the way Asia shocks and jostles the senses in those first moments as a traveler shakes hands with the continent and gives a cautious hello. If I was in the business of ranking feelings of awe—and I’m not—Spain would sit in a different place inside me than when I first scented tangy incense on the air in Bangkok and heard the lilting chant of monks at nearby temple.

The gorgeous entryway to Santa Maria del Mar, a church with Catalan Gothic styles, in Barcelona, Spain.

The beautiful Santa Maria del Mar church in Barcelona, Spain.

Doorway in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, Spain.A gorgeous roundabout centerpiece in Barcelona, Spain.

The edifice of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona, Spain.Statue in a roundabout at the waterfront in Barcelona, Spain.

Though the United States lacks the Western history to have a Gothic quarter, I identify with this story of the world. I understand the Christian influences and the stories of Spanish port towns sending ships to the Americas. I know what comes next in a way that doesn’t exist in my personal story of the world when I think about Asia. You see, the return of those Spanish ships filled with riches from the new lands—gold, chocolate, and coffee—gave birth to my own country.

So in this way, traveling through Spain spoke to a history I share. And that very fact shifted my travel experience. I don’t travel through Europe much mostly because of the expense, not out of lack of interest, and Spain reinforced this for me—there is rich history and interesting foods and peoples in every pocket of the world, and as a storyteller, my job was to explore and find them.

Graffiti and bicycles in the Old Town area of Barcelona, Spain.

La Boqueria market in Barcelona, Spain.An array of fresh chopped fruit for sale in la Boqueria market in Barcelona, Spain.

Fresh fruits in Barcelona, Spain at la Boqueria market.

By walking the streets of Barcelona, I slowly shed my initial disorientation and I sunk into the travel experience; I began to enjoy Spain for what it was, not for how it compared to the sum of my past experiences. I pulled out my rusty Spanish, sampled the tapas, asked questions, and dug around for interesting answers. In the coming weeks, as I edit the last of my Spain photos, I will sprinkle the blog with stories and photos of the art, culture, and food I found most fascinating and inspiring. :)