I arrived in Barcelona at 6 a.m., when it was still dark, and that tender, pink flesh of morning was just beginning to emerge as the scab from the night before slowly broke away. After 19 hours of travel by bus from Portugal, I wanted to freshen up before the two mile walk to my pension. The bus station abutted a regional train station, and as is often the case, wanderers and drunks and thieves hung about, lending a sinister air to the place. I said goodbye to Vinny, a young Brazilian who now calls Porto home. We’d traveled in tandem all day. I had initially spotted him at the Porto Casa da Musica train stop, where we met our first bus. He and a young blonde were tangled in a long goodbye, her fingers stroking the short hairs on his cheeks, just below his ears, as she planted little kisses and murmured into his cheek until the bus whisked him away.
Nearly a day later, the bus stop in Barcelona presented only lackluster options for bathrooms: three portable units with broken handles and secured locks, each tagged in black spray paint. Tucking behind one like one of the bus stop dwellers would do seemed a possibility, but only if all else were lost. I waved to Vinny; no promise to call or text or Facebook or Instagram, just a good, old-fashioned, honest goodbye between travelers who had seen too much of the road to believe that any relationship forged in the journey lasted for long.
I was quickly swallowed up by the chaos of the early morning train station buzz, and as I passed the cursory McDonald’s, my eyes settled on a pay toilet. I dug in my purse for one euro coin, grateful I had one—what other options were there?-and stepped into a little moment of calm and privacy, my first in more than 20 hours. I took care of business and changed clothes so at least I wasn’t wearing the same stink I’d marinated in on the bus for the past day. I slid my backpack back on, pulled up google maps on my device, and hit the sidewalk at a healthy pace.
Just a good, old-fashioned, honest goodbye between travelers who had seen too much of the road to believe that any relationship forged in the journey lasted for long.
As the dark waves of night promised to recede, I played witness to the collision of two worlds. Or rather the seamless ebb and flow of them, as they never really collided aside from the introduction of the odd, perhaps unexpected backpacker, wandering the streets with her face aglow in blue as she stared at Google Maps. It was the handing of the baton from nightfall to daybreak, with no rivals but seemingly everyone on the same team, with the newly-scrubbed, caffeinated and far more hopeful taking over the next shift.
I swung left just past the train station, and in the distance spotted a woman whose pace was matching mine.
Now…there are women.
And then…you see a woman who is so overtly feminine in every detail, you know she must have begun her life as a man.
At six a.m., as I sweated and plumbed my tongue over unbrushed teeth and ran my fingers through rumpled, overnight bus hair, she pranced. Her skin was perfect, her makeup immaculate. She wore a tight tank top and short skirt and heels, as if freshly-ready for a night on the town. She’d spent more time primping for this moment than I had spent getting myself ready over the past two weeks combined. Her eyes met mine and she gave me a coy look, a come-hither type suggestion. Surely, I must have responded with a WTF face. Yet she continued to match her pace to mine so that we met at the sidewalk where we both apparently needed to walk. She cocked an eyebrow, inviting something more maybe than a chance meeting on the street. I motioned for her to go first, (very Minnesota nice of me, don’t you think?). She refused, and in the subtext I read that it was perhaps unwise for a woman of her particular persuasion to bare her back to anyone on a dark corner in the detritus of night. I walked ahead of her, increased my pace, and watched as she veered off toward a man seated on a park bench and disappeared into the shadows.
There are reasons fathers advise their daughters against walking alone at this hour, perhaps as much because they could unwittingly become involved in something unsavory, as they could discover that they like it. That the demons who wander the streets of Barcelona or any large city at night are the type of demons waiting to be awakened within them, one and the same.
This is not the case for me, though certainly I have my demons (and don’t we all?). But rather, I’m an observer in this life, a note-taker, a photographer, a writer. I document what happens. It is a byproduct of being a trained journalist, I think. I cannot turn off my observation of everything. So I am a visitor to the nightscape, and less a participant.
The sidewalks were wet from the evening’s rain, the concrete stamped time and again like floral tiles, the tiny caverns filled with water that reflected the street lights.
There are reasons fathers advise their daughters against walking alone at this hour, perhaps as much because they could unwittingly become involved in something unsavory, as they could discover that they like it.
I passed people sleeping in doorways and at bus stops, the human smells profound and unsettling. Piss. Vomit. Unwashed body. A bus pulled up and a couple lingered just a moment longer on one another’s lips, she in a dress and heels from the night before and he, pulling her toward him again for one last touch. She let go and drifted toward the bus, her skirt ruffle catching the breeze. His hair looked mussed, and happy.
My map compelled me to walk down a wide, pedestrian boulevard briefly, before I discovered my little blue dot was off path. I backtracked, then proceeded down the sinister, narrow, winding streets of old Barcelona, the smell of bread hot from the oven on the breeze. Every once in a while, I’d come across an aged cathedral, or another building so gorgeous it seemed to be divinely inspired, yet still dressed in night. A young man approached me, mumbled something in garbled Spanish. I shrugged. He moved on. I knew he had wanted a cigarette, or change, some small comfort. They all do, these creatures, these transients lost between the light and the darkness. We all do.
Another man stumbled up the cobblestone walkway, shoving something in his mouth which he clutched with both hands, a sandwich perhaps, pausing to stare at it with deep love and wonder, stumbling again.
Time and again I’d switch sides of the street—a trick all women learn to employ when walking at night or even in dodgy neighborhoods by day. Better to keep them in your sights. Better to keep them on the opposite side of the street. Walk with purpose. Never look lost. Keep them at a distance.
I knew he had wanted a cigarette, or change, a small comfort. They all do, these creatures, these transients lost between the light and the darkness.
We all do.
More winding, dark streets, and I came across four women. The eldest of the group split away to my side of the street, walking her dog and glancing back at the other three. They looked harsh, this trio, even in this next-to-no light of dark, wet alleyways. They laughed like women who knew things, and not all of them pretty. The one in the middle, flanked by her friends, faced her butt toward the building, pulled down her shorts and peed on the sidewalk. And it occurred to me that 1) there are not enough public restrooms in Barcelona, if any, and 2) I’m not sure if I have any people in my life I’d pee on a sidewalk in front of. Certainly not two of them.
I continued on, and passed a group of four men who were clearly engaged in a drug deal. “You pay him back in euros, okay?” said one of the guys. A couple of them turned their heads furtively in my direction. They stank of alcohol. It’s best not to show that you have seen anything. It’s always best to play oblivious, while being acutely aware.
Joggers began to infiltrate the winding ways, the sound of their footsteps echoing softly off the granite buidings. Alleys seemed to brighten and darken without warning, as if dawn were still making up her mind: a lover at a bus stop, hesitating, lingering, before doing what must be done.
It occurred to me that 1) there are not enough public restrooms in Barcelona, if any, and 2) I’m not sure if I have any people in my life I’d pee on a sidewalk in front of. Certainly not two of them.
Maps showed an impending turn. I looked to my right, where under an ebony-clad archway, I could make out the backlit bodies of several people huddled under blankets, a dog sleeping to the side. “Please not that street,” I thought. There is a difference between walking around someone who is sleeping on the streets pretending not to notice them, and actually stepping over them. It’s too intimate. It cuts like privilege should.
Google Maps urged me onward, bypassing them.
The red battery on my device warned me that I was running out of juice, yet I knew I was close. I had just one more turn to go to my pension. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get in at this hour; the owner had told me I could drop off my bag at 8:30, check in at 11 if the previous guest were gone and they’d had time to clean. But I wanted to orient myself. I wanted the promise of a private room and a bed where I could collapse for the remainder of the day after a long, hot shower.
There is a difference between walking around someone who is sleeping on the streets pretending not to notice them, and actually stepping over them. It’s too intimate.
It cuts like privilege should.
Google Maps isn’t always fail-safe, so when it showed I was off the path, I asked for help from a local walking her short-legged, dark brown mutt with big, black eyes. “You must go up,” she said, pointing toward a hill. Inwardly, I groaned. I’d had enough of “going up” on Portugal’s hillsides. A light rain began to fall, hitting my pack with the sound of Minnesota summer sprinkles on a tent, an insistent, thick knock at the tarpaulin.
I climbed the hill, surprised by my fortitude. But at the top, Maps told me I’d veered off path, so I descended again, passing the woman and her dog. I turned left, then left again and climbed a different hill, this time, the right one.
Europe looks entirely different by day and night. By day the doors are flung open and flowerpots spill onto the sidewalks and café seating invites you to stay, linger, have a coffee and a cigarette and talk about politics or sport, or in my case, watch everyone else doing these things and scribble mental notes. But by night the heavy garage doors are pulled, metal gates that are often spray painted, with bits of trash tucked into the nooks, crushed papers, stubbed out butts, wads of gum. Doorways become unrecognizable. It can be impossible to see if you are where Maps thinks you are.
And so there I stood in the rain, looking at the address of the pension where I was supposed to be, yet hours early and the foreboding gate pulled closed. Caught like all of us, somewhere amidst the collision of comfort and discomfort, poverty and wealth, love and loss, dusk and dawn, on a rainy street in Barcelona.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning features, food and travel writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog, she applies her worldview to her business, Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, providing powerful storytelling to her clients.
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Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.