(the majority of this entry was written in my exhausted state on January 10 and 11. Why its so long. But the details and stream-of-consciousness style are fun to read sometimes, I think.)
Boy, am I tired. Like really, really flat-out, I’ve never been so completely exhausted in my life, tired. But, I am here – that gloriously independent city sandwiched between the Llobregat and the Besós, Montjüic and Tibidabo. I have made it to Barcelona.
It all started yesterday afternoon, when I was still running around in my PJs whittling down all the clothing choices and necessities I could possibly use for four months to pack and fit into the two, 23 kilogram suitcases Swissair was going to allow me. Somehow, I finished on time and our whole family dashed to Boston’s Logan airport that evening. I had already checked in online and taken a gamble on a bulkhead-aisle seat on Swiss’ A340, in the hopes that I would have more legroom, and at least no one would lean back on me. I dropped the bags off at checkin – one was 23.6, but the agent was nice to me – and shared a last drink with my sister, mom, and dad. My last 2 hours in America, I thought. What am I doing? On the plus side, that was also my last soft drink sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.
After much hugging and pulling-on-coat from a frenetic mom, and a knowing chuckle from a dad who’s done this countless times before (and never gets any reaction to it, much to his chagrin), I breezed through a the non-existant security line. Of course, it wouldn’t be a good TSA checkpoint if they didn’t mistake your plastic laptop case as highly-enriched uranium from North Korea at least once, and this one proved to be no exception, but I was in no rush. Meanwhile, the full-body-scanner attendant told me to walk over to her TSA colleague and wish him a happy birthday. “One heck of an embarrassing day this has been, with hundreds of random strangers wishing me luck,” his rolling-eyes and funky smile seemed to say when I gave him his umpteenth millionth wish. After probably the first out and out laugh I’ve shared with a bunch of TSA agents, it was time to sit at the gate for a lonely hour (fortunately punctuated by a phone call from a good friend) – not quite gone, not quite going either.
Finally they boarded us. I was sitting next to a guy named Bob, behind a bulkhead that was unforgiving in the room it gave your feet, but did have a nice coathanger, and in front of – as I discovered from some odd barking while taxiing, and later a sharp preventative jab in the back when I tried to lean my seat back – a lady and her Furby-sized dog and Paris Hiltonesque carrier. I have to sit upright in front of a barking dog for 7 hours? Uh uh, no way. I moved over into the middle two bulkead seats in the 4 part of the 2-4-2, where I had an understanding Englishman to my left and a free spot to stretch my legs in an odd-”J” shape to my right. From 12am to 3am EST, when the cabin lights were off, I tried desperately to fall asleep, to no avail. Relaxation, sure, but relief from continuous thoughts and sentience that would come back to bite me today, no.
WHAM! Here comes the cabin lights and sun at 3am with the coast of France, Good Morning, have a croissant, hope you slept well, our German-native speaking Swiss crew comes around. I didn’t, though thanks for asking, it’s just a shame you guys didn’t offer me the empty business class seat I could see all night. Putz around on the inflight TV for another hour, and then we’re descending into a very cloudy, rather rainy Flughafen Zürich. The weather kinda looked like my brain felt.
But the adrenaline surges. One down, one to go! A tram to the other terminal! Schengen passport control! I’m an unemployed student and they let me IN! Where do I go to collect Social Security, snigger snigger? I have an hour before Swiss 1954 to Barcelona, but I figure I might as well go through security and get it over with, thinking it’s as bad as America is usually. Plus, all these duty free shops are still too expensive/boring, though, had I looked around more, I might’ve found a Burger King somewhere.
Zurich security for gates A70-79. No line, wow. “Hello,” I say, indicating through polite subtext that I simply won’t understand should the agent launch into the German, Italian, or French that other Swissair and Swissport employees use with no rhyme or reason it seems. “Any laptops?” he says in return. Yeah, two, actually…Oh, you mean you can put those in a bin with their cases still on, and the Swiss don’t catch you for the terrorist you are? How shocking! No body scanner? Man, no wonder you guys are so untargeted and neutral. No passive agressive fashion divas who are upset you threw away their nailclippers.
OK…gate 72…73…74, ah ha, the 12:20 to BCN. Oh, we don’t a plane yet. Right, the 12:30 to BCN. Now to find some food. Coffeeshop with german menu…vending machine….hmm, maybe if I go down this corridor….Other coffeeshop with german menu. Whelp, I guess we’re skipping the Whoppers. “Tomaten und Motzarrellen,” I understand that, sure. Oh, and that sugarized Coke I keep hearing about. 7 CHFs? 5 CHFs for a soda? What’s a CHF? You mean the Swiss have their own money? This sandwich the size of a potato chip is 7 of anything? I have 10 Euros…that internet kiosk gives me a CHF/euro exchange rate of 5 minutes per CHF versus 8:24 per Euro…I didn’t do so well in calculus, so that doesn’t help me. I have an American $20, does that count? Apparently, as he yanks it from my hand, and gives me three diminutive little coins back. You think a country that prides itself on its banking would care more about how substantial its coinage looks…but I have edible calories now.
Now boarding. I wait for row 11 to be called, walk down, and find it is indeed an exit row like I hoped…but what’s this? Another exit behind? I can’t recline? Curses! At least I have a window. And there’s nobody next to me. Maybe I’ll put my jacket down there. Fredrich von Swissair attendant comes by, yaps some German at me (I probably look the part better than all the Catalans), and he puts it in the overhead. Shoot, my book and ipod were in there. I guess it is just an hour long flight. If we ever get off the ground. This is your captain speaking, once again in German, English, French, and Italian, (it’s rather amazing how well I tune out the other languages and then zero in on his English message), we’re negotiating with our ground crew to wait for some of your bags from connecting flights in just a few minutes. Good, I think, those could be mine! “Also, we have a passenger discrepancy between our manifest papers and the number of people on the plane.” Well, that might not be good. Wouldn’t want to be on the first Swissair hijacked flight. Certainly would challenge the neutral stance, I bet. Glad they’re figuring that out too.
Takeoff! Yay, another sandwich, this time it’s free! And drinks. Oh, I wonder what german is for apple juice or carbonated mineral water. Hey, my row mate got both in one. That’s even better. Think fast Andrew….”Al mismo” I utter in my most convincing Castilian. The attendant understood it, wahoo! I sit back, admire my first quick-on-the-feet interaction in the language I have to live with for the next four months, and watch Grenoble and eventually the Pyrenees pass by my window.
Before I know it, we’re descending. I see plenty of tiny mountain ranges along the coast and in the distance…several pueblecitos on the coast with their recognizable white plaster walls and red terra cotta roof shingles. Yes, this is Iberia. I’m relaxing already. Then, without warning, a large metropolitan expanse erupts into view. Could it be? I only see a few tall buildings, probably Diagonal Mar. That kinda looks like the Torre Agbar…oh, wow…OK, confirmed, that most certainly totally couldn’t be anything but La Sagrada Familia. Touchdown! ¡Estamos aquí!
I walk out of the plane from my privileged row 11, and into…wow, this may be the newest/nicest/most elegant/gigantic airport terminal I’ve ever set foot in. It sparkles, for Pete’s sake! As un edificio designed by Ricardo Bofill should, I discover later.
I get my bags, emerge from customs, and sure enough, there are those friendly black IES letters. The three of us who were on the Swiss flight gather up, and our guide takes us to the business center, just as I read in the arrival papers. A nice lady shows me where to put my stuff down, and its off to registration. It only takes the IES staff about 30 minutes to ask for our cell phone numbers, get our passport numbers, and show us the addresses of our homestays. At the suggestion of the housing director, “John” from Indiana University and I will share a cab to our somewhat-close homestays. First, I go back to change USD$200 into Euros, but not before I get lost, and have to practice the Spanish again and ask the tourism office for the “oficina para cambiar dinero”. Now, with my E$144 in hand, John and I cram our bags into a Prius and approach Barcelona on the expressway with Lady Gaga on the radio.
The traffic signs are different! The cars are really tiny! They have roundabouts! There are really tall freaky modernist buildings next to the ocean! And I thought flying in was cool.
Our cab driver expertly finds the Carrer in the foothills that my homestay is at, and John and I talk a bit and split the fare 50/50, which works out to E$15 for each of us. The driver gets my bags, and zoom…he’s gone. Good thing I looked this place up on Google Streetview, so I kinda-sorta think I know what’s the right building to go to. I cross the street and…
“Ah! Andrew, estás aqui!” a shout comes from inside the large recessed entranceway. An older woman rushes out to me and opens the gate. “You are Andrew, yes? You speak Spanish, any Spanish?” she interrogates. “Un poquito…tú estás Maria Fernanda?” I manage to muster. “Sí, sí, just Fernanda, is easier. I can speak English today but tomorrow – is forbidden. IES says this. Bueno.”
She leads me into the atrium of the apartment complex and over to an elevator, and here comes a man introduced to me as Alberto – I promptly forget his name after perhaps half a second, my brain is so swamped. I’m not even sure who he is, whether another apartment owner or what. Didn’t even cross my mind at the time that he might be Fernanda’s husband.
We ascend the four floors with my two huge suitcases in a very small two-person elevator. I can already tell Fernanda loves to talk. “Cuantos años tienes?” Veinte. I can barely stand up straight at this point, much less condend with this stimulus.
We reach the apartment door, Fernanda opens it and we move to the right. “This is your room, the others already arrived and are over there.” A single free neuron in my brain wonders why one of my other two roommates didn’t take the single if they arrived first before I realize I probably shouldn’t question my good luck. My beyond-all-expectations good luck. Fernanda walks around and shows me the dresser, closet, window, lights, plugs…wonderful information, I know this is all useful but my head is just spinning right now.
Alberto shows up again, and interrupts the tour of Vital Apartment Information. Still don’t know who he is or why he came into Fernanda’s apartment. “Fernanda, Fernanda, mira mira, esta cansado! Él nesecita a dormir! Fernanda!” They start to bicker a bit in Castilian. I really don’t know who to agree with. Yes, I would like to know how to get to the bathroom, but resting would be good too…
Finally we have some resolution. Says Alberto, “OK, Andrew, pack your suitcases and rest a las seis o siete, por dos horas, y después we take tour with others and dinner, yes? A las seis?” I don’t remember but I must have agreed to this, because the two of them left the room, closed the door, and I was alone again.
In my sleep deprived state I had the single, amazing contrary-to-what-I-normally-do stroke of genius to unpack all my suitcases entirely before sleeping. I would later thank myself for thinking this a thousand times over. The adrenaline was catching up to the stimulus of not two minutes before, I guess. Running on fumes, I put all my shirts on hangars and then fell down on the bed. I feel like I slept for a bit, because the next thing I noticed it was 6:30, but it must have been very shallow. Man, am I messed up now.
I change clothes and walk out to the bathroom, where I run into Scott and Jeff for the first time, my IES homestay-mates, and Fernanda and Alberto again. Fernanda makes us turkey and cheese sandwiches to tide us over, and Alberto gets his coat and leads us outside to take a tour of the neighborhood in the dark, street-lit, brisk, post 7pm fresh air. We see the train station, get tickets, find the plazas, walk down cobblestone streets, see a really old church, and find the park. I learn Scott is studying Finance and Econ and Jeff is studying business. Alberto learns I’m an “architecture” major, which provides much for him to talk about on this tour (I will dumb down “Augmentación y estructura de ciudades” for the rest of the semester to “archquitectura y planificación urbana”. Thankfully everybody in Barcelona understands urban planning is a field.). When we’re in the park, Alberto points out a jagged gateway as evidence that “Barcelona is the capital, world capital of design.” In my tired and shivering mind, I may have feigned more interest than I actually had in this zig-zaggy blue door, but to its credit, it was unusual. “Looks like a Picasso painting,” I say. Scott chuckles, “Yeah, like something out of his Blue Period.” It did, and I remember Scott’s response here instantly – OK, I’m going to be able to get along with this guy. Anybody who makes jokes about something as liberal artsy as Picasso’s Blue period is OK in my book.
We’re back about 2 hours later for dinner. Chicken, salad, and pan con tomate, or if you’re catalan, pa amb tomaquèt – the dish all the guidebooks have been telling me about. Fernanda’s cooking is quite excellent, and just the thing I need to go to bed.
Day one in Foreign Continentlandia, complete.