Last updated on April 14, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. :)