When I landed in Madrid, I immediately remembered just how alone I was. People gathered at the terminal exit, crying and embracing loved ones as I quietly slipped past. I looked at my phone and was unable to connect to the airport Wi-Fi.
My stay in Madrid was marked by poor connections of all kinds as I failed to make friends, much less find the handsome European lover that all of my friends talked about. Though my expectations for the trip were high, it seemed like the expectations of my friends and family were even higher. I fed them a constant stream of tourist photos on Facebook, all the while searching for the person that I thought the typical solo trip To Europe would make me.
I wandered the streets alone and quietly observed the nighttime festivities in the hostel lounge, drinking Mahou and questioning my purpose in traveling there in the steaming summer before my junior year of college. The last night of my stay, after I re-packed my massive Osprey backpack and settled into my routine of observing my drunken peers, a tall and moderately attractive man sat next to me.
"The Americans are making fools of themselves again," he said in a heavy German accent, motioning to a group of men who were swaying in their seats and shouting about American football.
I raised a single eyebrow. "I'm American," I said shortly.
He laughed. "But you aren't making a fool of yourself. Do you want another drink?"
So the night went. We talked about politics, compared German and American education systems, and moved closer with each Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier, a German beer that cost an entire Euro more than what I'd been paying for my drinks. The words that were now pouring out of my mouth grew thick, and my meticulously non-regional accent began to slip into its old Southern ways. I was reveling in the company, though we had little in common. Around 1:00 a.m., he kissed me while I was in the middle of speaking. Upon sober reflection, I realized how strange kissing is when you feel no connection, physical or otherwise. That is when he said the words that every hostel-goer loves to hear.
"I have a private suite."
I allowed myself to be coerced into sloppy and unimportant sex, though I'm still unsure what my motives were at the time. Did I think it would make me feel better about how miserable I was with my life back home? Or less alone? Would it somehow add value to my trip, or make it more impressive? Was this some sort of odd, subconscious bucket list item?
When he fell asleep, I looked at my watch. I had a flight to Barcelona in a few short hours, and I quietly made my escape. As I watched the sun rise from the taxi window, I laughed to myself in realization that we had never even introduced ourselves.
Despite arriving with a vicious hangover, I landed in Barcelona with newfound confidence in my ability to survive on my own. This would be the city that changed everything, in my mind. This would be where I discovered myself, where I tore down the wall in my head that stifled my creativity and prevented me from writing all summer. Barcelona would redeem me.
I sat in the lobby, halfway dozing, while I waited for my room to be cleaned. In bounced a man, tanned, undoubtedly, from a long stint on the road. His energy and smile intrigued me. He enthusiastically tried to sell his friend on going to the Picasso museum but had no luck.
"I'll go," I said in an uncharacteristic show of spontaneity.
What? I thought. Who am I? I do not do things like this. He turned to me and smiled. All of my doubt vanished.
We spent six and a half hours in the small museum and I forgot about my headache as I hung onto every fascinating word he said. I could tell he was intelligent and well-read, having an extensive knowledge of art and giving a better history lesson that the tour guide. He was six years older than I was, and I was a fool— instantly falling for the blue-eyed Australian who spoke of philosophy and stars and mortality. He was the kind of person who you felt you had known for years, and who I thought I wanted to know forever. I felt the familiar letdown that seemed now commonplace in my life when I found out that he was leaving for Paris early in the morning. But he promised to make the night unforgettable.
We never went to sleep that night and never stopped talking. We sat at a crowded cafe, people watching, drinking wine, and eating calamari. I thought the night would never end; I felt invincible. The food never tasted quite that delicious again. All too soon, I stood in the doorway of his room, sleepily watching him pack. I walked with him to the train station, where he kissed me on the cheek and his beard tickled my face. We promised to keep in touch, and he shot me a smile as the train pulled away. Though I still had another week of traveling left, I already dreaded my return to Boston. I knew that, thanks to my inability to make friends at Emerson, I had no one waiting for me. Our connection reminded me of what I missed in my failed search for companionship at home.
My first night in Barcelona haunted me for the rest of the trip. It left a taste in my mouth that I could not get rid of, a space I could not fill. I moved on to London, while he went to Paris, and the English Channel never seemed so large. I spent the rest of my time in Barcelona trying to replicate how I'd felt with him, to no avail. I wasted night after night on people who did not matter, texting him whenever I had internet. He was another broken connection, one I wished I had never made.