And so it began, my ninety days in the Old World. On a balmy Friday in early May, I hoisted my daypack onto my shoulders, strapped it to my frame, and walked to to the subway. From there a bus, from there a shuttle, and from there a plane.
Saying goodbye to home and friends felt as strange as it did one year before, when I took to the open road with nothing but a small scooter and big dreams. I remembered how the first few hours of that imminent adventure seemed anything but, as though I'd be returning home that night, as though I was on nothing more than a pleasant jaunt through the countryside. This was no different; sitting aboard a plane didn't feel new or exciting, it felt normal.
In truth, the whole European expedition felt normal to me, so much tamer than my past and planned adventures. Over the years, I'd grown used to wearing novelty on my sleeve, to marching to the beat of my own drummer and doing things largely undone. I'd never met another individual who'd scootered a great circle around North America, and the ego within me relished the thought of being the first, found a subtle satisfaction in hearing news of my travels ripple outward through the concentric circles of my society, so unique an adventure it was.
Backpacking through Europe, by contrast, was something more pedestrian, almost a rite of passage for a great number of us. A summer spent abroad, riding the rails with a pack on one's back, was undoubtedly a wonderful experience, I knew, but was it an adventure? I felt silly giving such weight to my little trip, titling it and documenting it at such length ... as though the next three months of mine, sipping coffee aboard trains, reading in parks, meeting fellow travelers in crowded hostels, would provide adventure worth recounting.
But as our plane taxied to the runway, my seat neighbor Sherri turned toward me and asked where I was headed and why and for how long, and I told her Europe and for fun and for three months, and she squealed with delight, eager to hear more about my plans, and suddenly I felt silly for ever doubting the confines of adventure, foolish for thinking that a tried and true trip is any less for its tried and true nature. Europe would be an adventure because adventure is everywhere, in every shape and every form and every last mode of transportation, and though the stories may be different, I needn't doubt that there'd still be stories.
Those stories couldn't come soon enough, however, for my first day of travel was dreadfully mundane. After a pleasant but brief flight to New York, I found myself stuck in the terminal for a six-hour layover, already frustrated by the waits of communal transportation, already missing Rousseau and her ever-readiness to just get up and go. It wasn't until eight o'clock that night that our transatlantic plane departed, eleven hours since my day's travels had begun, and I found myself too bored to stay awake yet too uncomfortable to sleep. No window to lean against in my aisle seat, I feared a droopy head finding itself either in the busy aisle or on the unwelcoming shoulder of my neighbor, so instead, I spent the night with my face rigidly planted on my laptable, body contorted in a forward bend that could hardly allow for an form of rest or relaxation.
This went on for some time, then finally we hit land some thirty thousand feet below, the coast of Spain, of Europe, of a new continent. The sun quickly rose as we raced toward it, steady descent beginning, landing gear deploying, seatbelts buckling, and then: Madrid.
Madrid was a logical starting point for my travels, tucked away in a corner of the continent, a travel hub, a capitol city not unlike my home of Washington, DC. I knew I wouldn't be staying long in Madrid, and thus I didn't expect much, so as my bus worked its way toward the city center, I wasn't disappointed to see what I found to be a very ordinary city, pleasant and clean and bustling, modest expectations met but not exceeded. I got off the bus a few miles ahead from my chosen hostel, fancying a walk through the heart of town, entering the vast Parque del Retiro as I wandered west. The park was beautiful, green, spacious, full of life, a bit like DC's Italian-inspired Meridian Hill. Simple, nice.
But then I turned a corner and suddenly the park opened into a magnificent sprawling garden, statues and sculptures everywhere, a picturesque foreground for a great heaping of this great city, towers and palaces and Spanish architecture stretching into the distance. Suddenly, I had arrived in Europe.
I followed the cobblestone streets through cozy corners, narrow calles where early risers ate breakfast in the swelling sun. Amidst pastelerias* and plazas I found my accommodations for the night, a well-situated international youth hostel, quickly stowing a few of my bulkier belongings and heading out to take in this new city.
I walked, mucho, turning at random and leaving my itinerary to chance, left at this fork, right at that, through Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol, finding myself deposited afront el Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, a massive edifice housing an impressive and, I'm told, world-renowned collection of modern art. I strolled about its corridors and courtyards until my stomach began to growl: necesito comida.
Finding vegan food in Madrid, I soon learned, was muy deficil. Those Spaniards love their cured meats, their hams and chrizos, and so too their queso. Fortunately, my rusty-and-never-well-oiled-to-begin-with Spanish allowed me to squeak out a garbled list of my dietary restrictions—sin queso, sin carne, sin huevos, sin pollo, sin pescado, sin leche ... vegetales, si, !vegetales!—and I found myself devouring a delicious bocadillo almost an hour after my hunt for almuerzo had begun.
My stomach was satiated, but I had become drowsy, a potent mix of jetlag and a sleepless night. Unwilling to waste such a gorgeous day unconscious and indoors, however, I made instead for the park, welcoming sleep and shade underneath a grand eucalyptus tree, the sounds of Spain all around me.
I woke some hours later and felt well enough to walk some more, so I continued west toward the true structural wonders of Madrid, the breathtakiing Cathedral of the Almudena and then the famed Palacio Real, de juro home of the Spanish royal family. I sat on the steps outside the latter and snacked on some fruit I had purchased along the way—fruit, I found, was the safest bet for sustenance—watching the crowd of families and friends and students and Segways and lovers and little old ladies wander about the plaza, photographing and laughing and running and kissing (the lovers, not the little old ladies), and I smiled as I took it all in.
As though life wasn't good enough at this very moment, here on my first night in Europe, we were all soon joined by a lively accordion player who played the worldly classics with joyful ease, encouraging those before him to get up and dance and sing and clap along, which they did, and doing it all for nothing but smiles and spare change in return,
The street performers were universally wonderful, I should say: a cloaked boy playing the harp like an angel outside the cathedral, magicians luring passerby in with their good humor and decent tricks, painted performers so still that they looked like stone statues, magically moving only once some spectator dutifully dropped a couple coins into a bronze bowl. I stopped often to admire their performances as I walked back toward my hostel, amazed at just how much the streets had come alive in the few hours I was gone. Those sleepy narrow calles were now bustling, shops and bars and restaurants all open for business and receiving much of it.
Back at the hostel, I took a much-needed shower and changed and headed downstairs for some complementary sangria with the other guests. I'd stayed at many international hostels in America during my prior travels, and a few in China a few years back, so it was great once again to be on the receiving end of an international hostel, to be an international hosteler. There were, expectedly, a few other Americans in company, but also Germans and Turks and any Spaniards, others from Poland and Slovenia and Denmark, all with different lengths of travel and different reasons for it, all doing their best to communicate in awkward English or another shared language.
From my side of the pond, I also met a friendly fellow who was just wrapping up her own four-month European backpacking journey, Madrid being her penultimate stop before flying back to Winnipeg by way of London. We talked for over an hour about our respective trips, experiences from hers and vague plans from mine, and the conversation felt symbolic, perhaps a little sad for her, the passing of a baton from one backpacker to the next, her adventure drawing to a close and mine just now beginning.
By this point it was late, and sleepiness had returned to my weary mind, so I bid her goodnight and a safe return and I thanked her for her advice and I went to bed.
The next morning, I ran. Barefoot through the once-again empty streets, I ran at random, again discovering Madrid through serendipity, leaving my turns and my route up to chance. As chance would have it, however, I wasn't the only one running that morning; I had't gotten far before I found myself in a head-on collision with thousands of women, long legs and bright pink shirts, racing toward me like a stampede of flamingoes.
A women's half-marathon, it seems, was afoot, and I was directly in the middle of the course, which hadn't been well-demarcated through the skinnier alleys. I quickly veered down a side street and continued in that direction to leave the racers to their race, but only a few minutes later the course had folded back in on itself, and again I found myself running toward the women as they ran toward me.
And so it continued like that for the next four miles, dodging the flamingoes through the streets of Madrid, sometimes running opposite them and sometimes with them, a lone male in bright green inadvertently disrupting their proud pack. By mile five, I gave up, the next train to Barcelona leaving soon anyway, and returned to the hostel for a shower and checkout.
I walked to the train station and arrived early, leaving me time to marvel at the little slice of jungle, live turtles and everything, growing right out of the center of the atrium. Navigating around it, I found myself at the tickets and reservations desk, where I hoped to both activate my rail pass and make a compulsory reservation for a seat on the next high-speed train to Barcelona.
"Buenas dias," I said, "quiero un reservacion de aqui to Barcelona, a las, um, once y media?", inflecting my voice and wincing an eye and turning what had started as a confident statement to something of a did-that-make-any-sense-whatsoever? sort of question.
My new friend didn't speak any English, so she replied in Spanish, which I appreciated, and we worked out the remainder of our arrangement over a few more sentences and shrugs. Passport needed, credit card needed, price for the reservation: a few unexpected caveats that I lacked adequate vocabulary for, but all in all nothing too insurmountable. Far too proud for the elementary task I had just accomplished, I walked away from the counter with a toothy grin and un bilete firmly clutched in mis manos.
* Author's note: For ease of blogging on the go, accents have been omitted from all foreign languages ... which is just as well, for my feeble American mouth and tone-deaf ears likely couldn't properly acknowledge them anyway.