The first time I visited Spain, I went with my mother. She had been before, one stop among many on a European cruise. She had only gotten a glimpse of Barcelona, though, just the slightest taste of what the city had to offer, so when she mentioned the idea of venturing back, this time with me accompanying her I of course, accepted immediately – especially as it was on her dime.
The trip began differently than any other I’d taken. She had scheduled it all through a tour company, so it was a lot of name tags and weird small talk as we met our guide and a few other group members at the airport. For me, a self-described “seasoned traveler,” it all felt a bit kindergarten. We arrived at our hotel and I was ready to rest, long flight and all, but I was soon to discover that we were on a schedule. Before resting was allowed, there was a meet-and-greet with fellow tour group members, and then careful directions about how and where we would all reconnect for dinner.
Now, the retirees and older couples seemed genuinely excited about this group dynamic. My own mother, curmudgeon though she is, was enthusiastically interacting with the other group members. I, however, was tired and young and felt fenced in by this situation. I was accustomed to leisurely exploring, setting my own agenda, making my own plans. Lunch and dinner were at whatever restaurant I happened to mosey by at the moment. My tours were self-guided and mostly uninformed and my sense of direction was slapdash and mostly determined by what streets looked interesting rather than a specific route to get from point A to B. These forced and awkward interactions with other Americans felt … weird – like we were part of a club which I didn’t want membership in but was forced to pay dues for, anyway.
By the third day of stuffy bus tours to visit the old Olympic Village and the Gaudì house of the day, I’d had enough and told my mother so. I had other plans.
That evening, we met up with a girlfriend I’d met on Instagram who lived in Barcelona. She and one of her friends took us down alleyways to tapas bars we’d never seen. They took us to cafes serving pintxos and vermouth, house wine and cava. We tried dishes that had never been mentioned by our tour guide or showed up on our pre-approved restaurant menus. We ate and ate, and drank and drank some more. We talked and went from one tapas bar to the next, a drink here, a snack there, a tipple here, a bottle to share across the street. Places where the only voices we heard spoke Catalan and we needed no reminder that we were in the heart of Catalunya, thousands of miles away from our normal lives. The sharpest and best reminder of traveling is feeling like everything around is completely foreign, and yet utterly natural. The rhythm of the conversations, the music, the shared small bites and bright peals of laughter. The feeling of community, real community created by good conversation and getting outside of normal – that’s traveling.
So, as much of a gift my mother had given me in the trip itself – the hotel and the bus rides and the idea of adventure – I felt like I, too, had given her something.
An experience, new friendships, women across the ocean with whom we shared an evening of complaining about men and laughing about fashion, discussing our favorite places and commenting on how delicious this shrimp was or how tasty that croqueta. It was a true holiday away from the world and yet, we felt more at home than ever.
My mother took me to Spain for the first time, and this summer I will take my young son there for his first visit. I hope I am able to capture even half of the excitement and adventure she gave to me … minus the other obnoxious American tourists.