Hot Spanish Hemingway

Favorite tapas bar in Madrid

This Saturday I woke up next to my old roommate Beth in Omaha after one of our party-weekend visits.  She had plans from early-morning on, and I didn’t want to go back to Lincoln just yet, so I went to Blue Line Coffee in Omaha to sit outside in the newly arrived muggy Nebraska heat with the copy of The Sun Also Rises I’d lent Beth months ago.  I had bought it at Shakespeare and Sons, my favorite bookstore/cafe/bar in Prague during my semester there.

As I sipped coffee in the sun, I began the book from the beginning, remembering when I too visited Spain, for a month in Summer 2009.  I saw Barca, Valencia, Granada, and several places in Castilla la Mancha, including Madrid and a village of 300 people where I stayed for 2 weeks with my friend Maria’s family.

Where’s Romero?

My favorite city was Madrid.  I spent two 4-day weekends there during my stay in the village. I stayed at a hostel near Tirso de Molina, where I met several characters.  But most of the time I was alone in Madrid.  I loved just walking around the city, taking in the architecture, the grand parks and the Prado, the men in panama hats and more than anything else, the cafe culture.

I spent every afternoon in the cafes, drinking beer from short glasses, reading and watching the people.  I read The Sun Also Rises again that summer.  I felt the romance of Spain in Madrid.

Castilla la Mancha

I felt it in the country too, in those hot rolling hills of the Sierra Nevada valley.  Many nights I lay awake on the top floor in Maria’s un-air-conditioned house, thinking about my daily broken Spanish conversations with Maria’s grandmother Cecilia, and her friends Puri and Nica.  I thought too about how isolated I felt.  It was the first long solo travel I ever did.  I quickly became well-acquainted to the feelings of loneliness and awkwardness that travel inevitably causes.

Of course, Hemingway didn’t really help in pulling me back into reality.  But sometimes when you’re tired of the effort of living it feels wonderful to pour yourself into fiction.  A fiction that’s only too familiar when its physicality surrounds you.

It will always be one of my favorite passages:

“‘Well I want to go to South America.’

‘Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference.  I’ve tried all that.  You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.  There’s nothing to that.’

‘But you’ve never been to South America.'”

Madrid

Polish daze and bicycles

Benedictine monastery near Piekary

Erik visited Lincoln last weekend.  We reminisced, we partied, we rode bikes.  The last time we rode bikes together was in Stary Sacz, Poland.  They were nun’s bikes, borrowed for us by our Polish friends who were helping us run an English summer camp.  It was a blissful two weeks in the rolling green hills near the Tatra Mountains.

The weekend visit reminded me how valuable all that traveling was. The hitchhiking, the couchsurfing, the days we went without sleeping, in the bowels of Eastern European clubs and on buses and trains.  I don’t know if it is a sign of being young or what, but our haphazard Baltics adventure and all those summer camps were just so pure, so authentic.  We really did it, we lived utterly by the seat-of-our-pants. 

This will be the first summer in 5 years that I will not go to Poland for an English summer camp.  I’ve celebrated so many 4th of July’s there it seems entirely normal to be planning “America Day” skits and barbecues instead of going to baseball games in the States. 

Sometimes when the air blows through my windows or I find Polish beer at the liquor store, or someone from Eastern Europe comes into the clinic, I have a vague feeling that I’m there again.  The small way it smells or someone says their name just triggers something.  It makes me remember this friendly, beautiful country that charmed me from my very first night in the old Soviet bursa.

Those rolling hills around Tyniec, the way the light was soft nearly all the time.  The hilarious, lovely students and the wonderful friendships I made with the other volunteers.

There’s no place like Piekary.  The beginning of so many things.

Riding bikes in Lincoln with my Euro-travel buddy

Impulsive adventure: Chicago/L’viv

Reflection of Todd and I in downtown Chicago.

Todd called around 10:30 pm one Thursday night.  “I want to come to the Midwest this weekend.” he said.  “Can you meet me in Chicago?”

So I bought a Megabus ticket and he found a flight from Boston, and 10 hours later we were traveling to meet in the middle.

It reminded me of my last week in Europe in summer 2011.  A few hours after discussing the possibility of me coming to L’viv, Ukraine to attend our friend’s going-away party, my friend texted me a plan:

“If you can make it Przemysl by midnight I’ll meet you on the border and we can walk across together.” 

I would have to leave right then to get to the border in time. 

So I did the same thing as when Todd proposed the Chicago trip this spring.  I threw some clothes in my backpack, and set off on an adventure.

The Megabus to Chicago was hot and only stopped for a rest break once, and the driver didn’t check our tickets.  Whenever I took the night bus to Ukraine it was the same: hot, cramped, with crazy bus drivers and bizarre seat partners.

That last trip to Ukraine was wild.  I’d run to the Krakow Glowny train station, located only 10 minutes away from my apartment, and jumped on the first train to Przemysl, the border town in Poland.  The 5-hr train rolled in around 1am, and as it slowed I saw out the window my friend Christi Anne and her Ukranian friend waiting on a bench.  They had to come originally to meet another girl who was traveling in the area, who had a last-minute ticket and didn’t want to cross the border alone.

L’viv rooftops.

So the four of us walked across the border together, through the winding sidewalks on both sides, into the shady Ukranian passport control building with missing tiles, surly guards and a semi-broken window under which I slid my passport to be stamped.  Our Ukranian friend was waiting, sleeping in his car on the Ukranian side, to drive us to L’viv, where we all went back to sleep until mid-morning. 

I spent the next two glorious days preparing for and attending a going-away party.  We bought food at the local markets from the babushkas, then prepared delicacies all day in Christi Anne’s apartment just off the main square.  It was July, and we sweated in the L’viv heat while drinking smoothies with fresh berries spiked with koniac.  That night we threw a surprise party for our friend Megan—where not only the party was a surprise, but also my presence in the country.  We smoked apple-flavored Russian lady-cigarettes off the balcony, and remembered the times we’d had that spring, on my many trips across the border.  Being with the L’viv girls was the perfect way to end my always-random life in the old Soviet bloc. 

Nicole and I at Megan’s going-away party in L’viv.

That’s what made Chicago so meaningful.  The weekend began and ended in madness (I almost missed my bus back to Omaha) and in-between was filled with the joys of meeting up with an old friend, and being young and spontaneous and full of life in a big city.  It was just what I needed this spring.  And I’ve had the feeling ever since that somehow things are irrevocably changed.  Maybe I just needed a reminder of what I love about life: friendship, adventures and beautiful memories. 

And maybe I needed a reminder of why I’d made all the choices I have in the last few years regarding travel.  It’s addicting because traveling acts simultaneously as escapism and self-actualization.  You lose yourself while creating yourself.  I will always have faith in moving, changing, growing. 

Especially when you’re with people who are like-minded enough to go along on spur-of-the-moment trips with you.  When you can share the craziness with others.  That’s when life is really, really good.