It was approximately 3:30pm when E. and I made it to the train station in Girona. We were just in time to catch the train to Barcelona. She had to be back in the city to attend a work event that night. When I got back to the city, I was looking forward to taking my shoes off and lying down at my AirBnb flat. I had developed blisters, and my feet were throbbing from all the walking I had been doing around Barcelona and Girona while sightseeing the past week.
The train was crowded, so E. and I had to sit across the aisle from each other. Some passengers got off at the next stop, and a window seat behind E. opened up. I moved to the seat and tried to nap. I don’t know why I was so tired. Maybe it had something to do with all the walking I had been doing over the last several days. Or maybe it had something to do with the diminished amount of caffeine I had been consuming while in Spain. In Doha, I drink at least three to four cups of French press coffee per day. In Barcelona, I drink about one cup of Americano per day. Que pequeno.
Outside the train window, the Spanish countryside rolled by—small towns built atop hills—glimpses of old strongholds surrounded by modern buildings and homes—graffiti spray painted on the walls of the underpasses—rows of trees planted along the train route. In a short time, the scrolling view lulled me into a nap.
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E. was a student of mine back when I was the Program Coordinator for the English Language Center at Winona State University. Technically, she was never a student that I had in one of my classes, but since she was in the program when I managed it, I always consider her to be one of my students. She was part of a very personable cohort of international students that year, and I remember the instructors always raving about the classes that she was in. She was the only student we had from Spain, and she was loved by the Saudi and South Korean students because, to them, she was approachable and personable yet exotic due to her Catalan heritage.
I reached out to E. when I was considering traveling to Barcelona to see if she would be around. Although I could find enough to do in the city on my own, I was interested in getting a local perspective of the sites, shops, and restaurants of the city: things that tourists overlook as they stroll the well-trodden streets that the guidebooks and travel sites gush about. E. responded to me soon enough and was excited that I would be visiting her city of residence.
The week before I was to arrive in Barcelona, E. messaged me, “Do you watch Game of Thrones? Also, I’m just having dinner with my mom, and we want to invite you home for a dinner.”
I responded immediately, “Yes. I read the books and am all caught up on the show. Plus, I would love, love, love a home-cooked Catalan meal.” I was wondering why E. asked me about GOT. Maybe she wanted me to watch some episodes from Season 7 with her and her mother. Were Spanish fans of the show really that far behind? Strange. Still, the possibility of a home-cooked Spanish meal would be worth having to re-watch parts of Season 7.
– – – –
Like Jon Snow resurrecting in Season 6 of GOT, I suddenly awoke from my nap. I can’t have been asleep for more than five or ten minutes; however, there was drool on the side of my mouth. E. had moved to the window seat and the aisle seat next to her was open. I asked if she minded if I could join her. We still had a way to go to Barcelona, and I felt like chatting.
We talked about work, travel plans, and growing old—E. is 31. This made me think about a Garfunkel and Oates comedic song, “29/31.” In the song, a woman sings from two perspectives: her 29-year-old self and her 31-year-old self.
The 29-year-old self exclaims, “I’m at the top of my game, possibilities are endless/ And I just feel really pretty/ I’m holding out for someone who meets my standards/ Won’t settle for anything less than perfect.” Then the 31-year-old self wails, “There’s nobody left!/ I’m all alone!/ Why did I wait? What’s wrong with me?/ In two short years, I’m gonna be 33.”
I asked E. if dating was different now that she was 31 compared to when she was 29. I was curious about the predicament for women on the cusp of 30 that Garfunkel and Oates posited in their song. However, the woman across the aisles from us must have understood English and shot me a dirty look. She probably thought my question was offensive and my small talk was going to lead into a discussion that reinforced patriarchal timelines on women—hurry up and get married; then have kids; finally, give up your dreams and aspirations! What a sexist conversation! (Or, maybe the women giving me the stink eye might have been 33.)
E. didn’t have any problems with my question. No, dating wasn’t any different for her at 31 compared to 29. She was just leery of marriage. She was addicted to traveling, and her life revolved around working in Barcelona, saving money, and traveling inexpensively whenever she could. She was worried that if she got married, it would clip her wings.
“Yeah, that happens in some relationship.” I responded. “Bad relationships will clip your wings, but the better ones will only pluck a few feathers.”
– – – –
When I first arrived in Barcelona, E. had a prior engagement planned for the weekend. However, she was able to meet up with me on Monday when she got back to the city. That was fine with me. I had plenty of things I wanted to do. Nothing was going to prevent me from walking all over Barcelona! (That was my pre-blistered feet thinking.)
The first weekend that I was in Barcelona, I visited locations proximate to my AirBnB. I was exploring the city, sampling food, and taking pictures. After posting a picture of some tapas to Instagram, my brother messaged me, “Be careful eating the tapas. Sometimes they sit out all day. That’s how I got food poisoning when I was in Spain.”
Pssh, I thought. I was having a great time because the culinary possibilities were endless. And I always felt pretty hungry. Everything here met my dining standards. I have a strong stomach, so everything is perfectly fine to eat. (That was my pre-stomach bug thinking.)
The day before E. and I were to meet up, I had some late-night empanadas: carne, pollo, and espinacas. At the time, they were delicious, but as I was walking to the L’Aquarium Barcelona the next day, my stomach started to feel weird. Also, I was a little lightheaded and achy. Uh oh. What was happening? I sat down and tried to compose myself.
I needed to eat something to try and settle my stomach, but what could I eat? There was a mall next to the aquarium that might provide some options. I queasily wandered around the mall considering my choices. There was a Udon restaurant on the second floor of the mall; however, although it was 11:30am, the restaurant wasn’t open. Ugh. Barcelona with its crazy daily schedule! People go to work at 9am and eat dinner at 10pm. That probably means that lunch isn’t until 1 or 2pm. Fine. I’ll go to the aquarium and eat lunch afterwards.
I explored the aquarium in a bad mood. Not only was my stomach gurgling the entire time, but there were various groups of young children who must have had field trips to the aquarium that day. I hastily made my way through the aquarium—skipping over the groups of kids—and wasn’t really impressed by anything. I figured out that I have a very specific bar for aquariums: from now on, if the facilities can’t house whale sharks, like the Atlanta Aquarium, then I’m not going to bother.
I left the aquarium and ordered a bowl of ramen soup. The noodles and broth seemed to settle my stomach for the time, but I needed to lie down for a little bit. Maybe I could go to E.’s apartment a little early and take a short siesta. However, when I arrived at her place, she was ready to go. It was time to get a local tour of the Barcelona! ¡Vamanos!
– – – –
In order to make ends meets and support her travel habits, E. had to two jobs. She worked for a company that planned events, but she also had her own business—she created social media content for small businesses. The side work wasn’t too difficult, and it paid well. Eventually, she hoped to amass enough clients so that she could quit her other job and work fulltime creating social media content. If this venture ever got off the ground, she could do this remotely from anywhere in the world—as long as she had a smart phone and an internet connection.
“So,” I asked, “what social media sites are the most popular with your clients?”
E. responded, “Instagram is on. Snapchat is on. Facebook is off, and MySpace is way off.” As she spoke, I was imagining light switches being flipped on and off. She must have sensed my distraction and clarified, “In Barcelona, we say things are ‘on’ when they are popular. If they are not popular, then we say they are ‘off.’”
– – – –
Two days after E. and I first met up, I was going to accompany her to her parent’s home in Girona. There her mother would cook me a dinner and her father would take us on a walking tour around the old city in Girona. And, E. explained, parts of GOT were shot on location in Girona: we would be visiting those locations. ¡Qué bueno! This was better than having to re-watch episodes of Season 7.
E. and I met up at the Passeig de Gràcia train stop. She sent me a very detailed message about when would be leaving and what to do in order to purchase my ticket. This made things easier for me. I got to the stop early, and a little later, E. arrived. Then we were off to her parents’ home in Girona.
We got to Girona at around 8:30pm and walked to her parents’ apartment. They had a two-floor apartment in a building. The first floor is where the family resided, while the ground floor was where the study, guest room, and garage were located. The home was cozy. E.’s mother greeted us and apologized for her English. I thought that she communicated well. E. told me that her mother spoke Spanish, Catalan, French, and English. Her French was much stronger than her English.
We would be eating dinner around 9pm, which was strange for her family, because usually they ate dinner at 10pm. This was to accommodate me because Americans like to eat earlier. Shortly before dinner, E.’s father joined us. He greeted me and apologized for his English. Although his English speaking was more broken than his wife’s, he was a gregarious man and was quite excited to have me as a guest.
Dinner consisted of traditional Catalan dishes: fresh olives, tomato bread, egg and potato torta, slices of jamón, salmorejo (cold tomato soup), and a type of swordfish. All the dishes were excellent. I was recovered from my bout with the stomach bug, so I was able to eat a second helping of the various dishes. Also, throughout the meal, E.’s father plied me with a variety of drinks: Spanish red wine, a Catalan port, and finally an Italian sparkling wine. As he noted, to E.’s embarrassment/amusement, “It was a night to remember!”
Throughout the dinner E. and her family broached a number of Catalan-related topics. For example, they were very dismayed at the turn of events surrounding the Catalan vote for independence. The Spanish leadership in Madrid had been very heavy handed, discharging around 9,000 police officers from the capital to the Catalan region in order to suppress an independence vote. Additionally, E.’s mother recounted how Catalan language and culture had been suppressed during her childhood because of the Franco regime. It was not until she was 18 that she was able to study the grammar and writing of her native language, and by then, she missed out on vital formative development.
Towards the end of the dinner, E. wanted me to learn about two very important Catalan Christmas traditions: “El Caganer” and “Tió.” El Caganer translates to The Pooper. He is a crouched man with a swirl of poo underneath him, and the figure is included in Catalan nativity scenes. I had seen The Pooper around Barcelona and was wondering about him. Tió is friendly Christmas log that is partially covered with a blanket. Kids are supposed to feed him, sing carols about him, and then beat him with a stick so that he will shit them presents around Christmas time. I was quite happy to learn about these Catalan traditions and resolved to find Pooper figurines that could be included in my family’s nativity scenes back home.
The next day, E. and her father gave me a tour of the old city in Girona. We walked along it’s wall and made are way to the Girona Cathedral. Construction of the cathedral started in 1417, and the interior is massive. E.’s father told me the cathedral has the biggest arch, and according to Wikipedia, it has “the widest Gothic naïve in the world” at 72 feet. The structure was very impressive. E. pointed out to me the locations in Girona that were used in GOT. After the tour, we all dined before E.’s father bid adios. E. and I then had to catch the train back to Barcelona.
– – – –
“So,” I asked E., “what’s on and off for you this season?”
“Broccoli is on. Bananas and yogurt are off. Even though the Lakers suck this year, they will always be on. What is on and off for you?”
“Barcelona is on. Paella is on. Pork is on while I’m in Barcelona, but off when I get back to Doha. Walking is off for the rest of the night. Oh, and empanadas are off for the rest of this trip.” E. laughed.
Soon we were back at the Passeig de Gràcia train stop, and we bid adios.
Blog Post Addendum
- Day trips with former international students to their hometowns
- More awareness of the Catalan independence movement
- Pooper figures in nativity scenes
- The old city in Girona
- L’Aquarium Barcelona
- Inquiring on the train how dating is different for 29- versus 31-year-old women
- Police suppressing the right to vote
- Blisters from walking