I'm not a timid traveler - I walk the streets of New York at all hours; we spent three weeks in Mexico with our 5-year-old some years back - and my general stance toward humanity is one of trust, not suspicion. Still, the cautionary tales about Spain unnerved me. Newspaper articles described a country marinating in a prolonged recession, with 25 percent unemployment. I imagined bands of jobless, desperate young men, deft at spotting tourists and relieving them of their worldly goods.
Before we left, I wriggled the gold-and-sapphire pinky ring off my finger and stashed it in a drawer. I bought a skort with four zippered pockets and a pair of capris with a similarly fortified pocket on the leg. We vowed never to carry more cash than we needed for the day and to keep our passports buried in our suitcases once we arrived.
We'd been planning this trip for six years, squirreling away a few hundred dollars whenever one of us had a windfall. I wanted to go to Spain because I love the language, because I wanted to see Antoni Gaudi's eye-popping architecture up close, and because I wanted to soak in the rhythms of another culture.
Travel, I believed, was about poking holes in assumptions. Small assumptions: You mean the doorknob can be in the center of the door instead of on the right? And large ones: Same-sex marriage is legal in Spain? Same country that kicked out the Jews and Muslims in 1492? Wow!
I was eager for all of us, especially our 11-year-old daughter, to feel the pleasures and discomforts of difference, to approach Spain with eagerness and curiosity. Yet as our plane tipped toward Barcelona, I found myself girding for protection instead, with one hand defending my travel pouch and the other clutching Sasha's shoulder.
When I tried to use an ATM at the airport to withdraw some euros, I was so paranoid about someone stealing my PIN number that I botched the transaction and came away empty-handed. And when the owner of our apartment, rented through the online site Airbnb, failed to show up as promised, I figured the whole thing was a scam. Perhaps the cheery photos were fakes. Had I even checked a map to be sure the address existed?
After a long hour and a couple of phone calls, we found each other; we'd misunderstood the planned meeting spot. Sergio greeted all three of us with apologies and Continental kisses on both cheeks. Within 10 minutes, as the car beetled toward the city center, he'd ascertained that we were a family - "You have this girl together, yes?" - and confided that he and his partner, Jorge, planned to have a baby with a surrogate. Within five more minutes, he'd invited us to visit them in Sitges, 30 minutes by train from Barcelona.
Elissa and I nudged each other in the backseat. "Um . . . well, sure. Maybe. We'll see how the week goes. But maybe. Thank you."
Sergio hauled our bags up five flights of stairs to the apartment, which looked remarkably the way it had in the website photos: compact, tidy, with Ikea furnishings accented by bright silk bed runners and placemats the men had bought in Vietnam. Sergio had left us a bowl of fresh nectarines, a bottle of Cava, and a pile of maps.
Three blocks from the apartment, on Las Ramblas, street theater unfolded 24 hours a day: human "statues" dressed as dragons or Galileo, motionless beside their change tins; gelato stands with flavors including hazelnut and a scary Smurf-blue pistachio; vendors hawking cheap fans and neon whirligigs; parents (and toddlers!) out for squid-ink paella at 10 p.m.
La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's still-unfinished cathedral, made me weep: the aqua light blooming through stained glass; the yearning towers and whorled stairwells. We wandered the streets, eating churros con chocolate and café cortado for breakfast, frozen yogurt for lunch, tapas and red wine for dinner. We kept small amounts of cash tucked in our secured pockets; we didn't flaunt shopping bags or plop our backpacks down while we examined a store window full of flamenco shoes. We were savvy - but, truly, no more vigilant than we would be walking Chestnut Street on a Saturday afternoon.
Sergio texted me midweek to see if we were game for a trip to Sitges. By then, even Sasha was navigating the metro with confidence - "No, Ama, we have to go down this stairway for the train toward Trinitat Nova." We'd learned to take our own bags to La Boqueria, the giant food market that resembles the Reading Terminal on steroids; we'd bought anchovies, goat cheese, avocados, salami, and dish soap, all in Spanish. The orange-haired, tattooed waitress at Le Jardi Café knew our "regular" order - frutas del bosque tea for Sasha, a decaf cortado for me.
Our fears about Barcelona had gradually peeled away in the face of reality - a reality that was exuberant, noisy, contradictory, and sometimes heartbreaking. There were prostitutes on our block, vacant-eyed middle-aged women and others who looked not much older than Sasha; their presence was troubling, not frightening. The city collected compost along with recyclables; people smoked cigarettes incessantly in parks and cafes. There were bent women begging with paper cups on the steps of 14th-century cathedrals; there were fathers plying their babies with kisses on the street.
We said yes to Sergio. And so, on our last full day before heading to Girona, we found ourselves floating on a raft in the middle of a turquoise pool, surrounded by a riot of bougainvillea and cacti. At an outdoor table, where jasmine blossoms occasionally drifted onto our plates, Jorge served us a four-course Spanish lunch: gazpacho spiked with pureed raspberries and balsamic cream; seafood paella the color of goldenrod and dotted with tiny, sweet mussels; a grilled-meat course (ham for the carnivores; salmon for me); wedges of chilled watermelon. We talked about language, gentrification, poetry, and children. We stayed for seven hours.
On the train ride home, Sasha leaned into us, exhausted from swimming and sunshine. We were tired ourselves, full of Cava and food and the unpredictable, unplannable magic of travel. In six days, strangers - the guy who owns the flat you rented online - can become friends. A city that once seemed scary yields to a network of familiar corners, a place you are suddenly sad to leave, streets you walk with your pockets zipped and your heart splayed open.
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