It has been difficult for me to write about Barcelona, because I’m not actually quite sure what happened, or what it is. Everything about the week I spent there was a surprise. It is a city that is occupying so many roles, so many identities, trying to find independence and ground when it seems almost impossible to reach it, especially with the influence of governments, movements, and capitalism.
And I, wandering through it completely alone for the first time on my trip, was absorbing this identity crisis, mirroring it in my own internal struggle.
Barcelona is one of those cities that you want to get lost in. It is very easy to set your GPS to one point of interest, begin the journey with every intention of making it there, and end up 30 blocks in the other direction because you saw a building or mural or steeple peeking out from a street corner and you just had to see what it was. One corner leads to the next, and then down a narrow street or corridor, then to another building…you see what I mean. All the while the mountain of Tibidabo, and the Sagrat Cor cathedral perched on its peak, sits as a silhouette in the distance. A heavy, grey horizon that you can never quite make out. Is it real? It looks more like an old vampire film’s backdrop than an actual monument.
This is especially disorienting when you reach the city center and, instead of Dracula or even anything remotely similar to the gothic shadow in the distance, you find H&M, Burger King, countless salons, and of course, Starbucks.
But just when you think you have given up on any romanticism for this city, you turn onto a narrow cobblestone street and there…under Christ’s looming gaze…are rows and rows of shops dedicated to…Punk Rock? Where there might have once been artisans, bakers, tradesmen, markets, or even priests sharing the Word, now there are combat boots, piercers, tattoo shops, and secondhand vintage stores displaying a myriad of rockabilly clothing. All of the store owners are outside, in black, tattooed, smoking cigarettes, and talking to one another. For a moment, I feel like I could fit in, but that moment quickly passes when a man handing out an indie publication rapidly asks me a question and all I can do is just shrug my tattooed arms and say the one phrase I’ve mastered in Spanish: Lo siento, no hablo Español.
And then, you walk a few more blocks, see a steeple, follow it (because, why not?) and there is the Sagrada Familia, which is pretty punk rock too, if you ask me, and the tension between God and Anarchy continues.
I felt this tension in my bones. In my feet. I ached from it. This feeling of wanting to stay true to a path, and also wanting to just say “screw it” and do whatever your Dionysian little heart desires. I was excited to be in Barcelona, while simultaneously wanting so badly to be where I just was. I felt guilty for this feeling—coming all the way to Europe to fall in love with the 2nd place I’d been. But I did, and I wanted to be there now, not in the noisy hostel room I was occupying with 5 other men that were not only all American, but all from California.
They all looked like they were presidents of their fraternity, but they were pleasant enough, and it was nice to have some sort of familiarity in such a strange place, even if it was kind of like the familiarity of knowing your uncle is going to say something about the “snowflake liberals” at Thanksgiving dinner. You know what’s coming, you are happy to be at the table, but you still can’t help but slap a palm across your very annoyed face when you encounter it.
But, for better or for worse, they were who the universe paired me with on this journey, so I tried to make an effort. We sat on the roof of our hostel drinking and talking one night, and the issue of being closer to 30 than 20 in a hostel got brought up. I had decided my first night that I was in no shape emotionally/physically/psychologically to go to packed, expensive techno clubs until 5 am, but the fellas had been pushing through the older-than-twenty-five struggle of recovering after drinking…every night.
“It is kind of strange that everyone in our room is the same age, or close to it,” one guy said.
It was strange. Most hostels are occupied by 18-23 year-olds. We were the old folks, ranging from 27-30 in our six-bunk room.
“Did they put us all together on purpose? Are we in the old room?!” another guy said.
“I think we might be! It is also kind of strange that it is all men besides me,” I said.
We all had an instant moment of recognition, as one of my bunkmates had told me earlier that day that his brother’s name was Sean, and that his family often called him Seanie.
“They thought I was a dude. An old California dude.”
Though this was hilarious, it only further added to the feeling that I wasn’t in the right place. I think I was also coming to the abrupt realization that I was now alone, and understanding the severity of that decision. Some mornings I felt like I was forcing myself to get out of bed, so one day, I just decided not to. I stayed in bed all day, reading and Instagramming, until I got hungry enough to get up, walk 20 feet around the corner, and have a four-course meal at a the neighboring Japanese restaurant for 12 euros.
Then I went back to bed.
It wasn’t even that I was homesick, or if I was, it wasn’t for a home that was mine. Perhaps this was a subconscious disguise of who or what I was really missing. I didn’t, I couldn’t, miss someone this much that I just met, not after all the blood, sweat, and tears it took me to get here, to be able to see and do everything I had set out to do.
Blanche’s voice started echoing again: you came all the way here to do this?
But deep down, I knew it was more than that, just like I knew there was more to Barcelona than shopping, tapas, and black leather. I had to give it a chance, to open myself up to what the city could offer.
And then, he appeared.
And I felt like I could explore myself, and the city, and myself in the city.
I finally understood the sway and swagger of the city, the way the weight blankets you, the way you sweat underneath its hold, the smell of the sea luring you this way and that. The small rebellion of giving yourself things that you want, no matter the time of day or prior obligation. Hungry? Eat. Thirsty? Here’s a bottle of wine. Want to make out on a street corner? No one will even notice. Work tomorrow? Life is too short, stay out until 5 am; you’ll sleep during siesta tomorrow.
Maybe this is why this city is so Punk Rock.
There is something interesting that happens when you give yourself what you actually want, not even impulsively, but just truly allowing yourself to recognize and receive what you want—you begin to learn more about the things you’ve been denying yourself. You begin to see what you have forced yourself to live without, and begin to ask why. Somethings are obviously healthy to live without, sure, but what about the things we are taught not to give ourselves because of shame or guilt or trauma or even learned behavior?
I found myself reacting—no, flinching—to the little things this man was doing for me. Paying for a meal, complimenting me, holding my hand through a crowd, driving 4 hours to come see me (another 2.5 to Calaceite when I missed my bus Sunday morning), looking at me like I shit butterflies—things that are not a huge request in a respectful partnership, but that I had been so deprived from for so long that I wanted to cry and hug early-twenties Shawnie. I wanted to tell her that she would learn to love herself one day; that these men that were using her as an emotional dumpster would leave, and that she would be brokenhearted for a long time, but that one day, instead of filling up on their bullshit, she would fill the hole with love, friendship, creativity, and exploration, and never again would she allow herself to be treated that way.
No matter what was going to happen with this man, I would always be grateful for his help in this realization.
And grateful for myself for continuing to heal from past relationships and loves, something I have been working on in the last three years through trial and error, through community and art, through my family.
To get meta here for a moment: I want to say that I don’t mean to write about traveling as if you have some poignant realization at every location you visit. A lot of days are confusing or hard or uneventful, but then again, so much of it is poignant, even in an annoyingly cheesy way, because you are alone (or not, in this case) out of your comfort zone, forced to see yourself and your life through a new lens. These writings are very much a processing of that examination, for myself, for friends and family.
Patti Smith said that Punk Rock is “the freedom to create…to be successful…to not be successful, freedom to be who you are.”
So, if I’m failing at this, or writing it in a way that hurts your teeth, fine. Read it; don’t read it. The point is to do what you want. I feel like I finally am.
Here is a Punk Rock love song, which is also how I will always think of Barcelona.
I love you all.