The pace of life in Spain is palpably different than anywhere else I’ve visited thus far. Without any effort, one quickly becomes caught up in the timing of the locals. There’s no rush to begin the day which is evident if you wake up before 10am and wander the quiet streets. In Barcelona I found my day shifted hours later, waking up around 11am to eat a quiet breakfast before easing into the day. This time of year the sun is up for 18 hours, which makes each day feel extra long.
Barcelona is a very lively city – wandering through the small streets, which would more aptly be called alleys, you pass restaurant after restaurant, bar after bar, shop after shop, which are mostly housed in small, narrow openings guarded by a garage door when not open. I found Barcelona to be a bit claustrophobic, but the saving grace was definitely the beach. The city actually didn’t have a beach until 1992 when it hosted the Olympics – the sand was imported from the desert in Egypt and the palm trees from Hawaii. My favorite day was spent at the beach with a friend from Austin Texas that I met in the hostel, playing volleyball and looking out to the sea.
At any time during the day, many of the outdoor tables are filled with people sipping on beer and hanging out with friends. It doesn’t feel as though restaurants ever get too quiet, as they rarely appear empty. In the afternoon, the city quiets down as people take the afternoon siesta. Dinner begins around 9pm, and the young crowd stays out until the early morning at the multi-level clubs.
I preferred Madrid over Barcelona – the streets are wider and cleaner, the buildings are colored beautifully, and there are trees and greenery everywhere. It’s interesting to learn the history behind the way of life in a city. For instance, three of the most popular things in Madrid (and much of Spain) are pork, tapas, and Sangria – and there’s a historical reason for each (warning: the following were told on a free tour, and could be completely false). During the Spanish Inquisition, the only way to prove that you were Christian and not Muslim or Jewish was to eat pork. You could attend church and pretend you were Christian, but if you weren’t seen eating pork in public, your life could be in danger. Sangria became popular during the Black Plague. With the water contaminated, the safest thing to drink was wine. In order to be able to drink all day (and not get their children hammered), they mixed in orange juice. Still, drinking sangria all day could get you in trouble – so tapas were popularized as a way to absorb the alcohol with each drink.
Again, since dinner isn’t served until 9-11pm, citizens of Madrid have a lot of time between getting off of work and eating dinner. Many will visit a few bars with their friends after work, sitting outside and enjoying small beers. That is one of the most notable changes in habit that I’ve at least temporarily adopted – small portion sizes. In the states, I’ll usually order the largest coffee or beer served (as a true American). I’ve become acclimated to much smaller sizes in Spain, ordering a cana (small beer) to sip on at one outdoor patio before moving along to another. I’ve actually thought at times “this beer is too big!” something a younger version of me never thought I’d say.
On one of my last days in the city, I ran into a familiar face in my hostel – the hostel mate from Barcelona. Funnily enough, we didn’t know each other was going to be in Madrid and randomly chose the same hostel. We went out with a small group that night (Sunday) and the bars were absolutely packed, even at 2am. Spain does a few things very well: sleep, eat, and drink.
Amid record setting floods, striking garbage and train unions, and a heavy increase in police presence, I made my way to Paris on Friday 6/3/16. That day happened to be a record level for the Seine river, which was at its highest point in 34 years. What first appeared as a normal large river to me soon became a spectacle, as I began to notice streetlights, signs, and stoplights mostly underwater along the side of the river.
By chance, my cousin Thomas and his wife Loreyn happened to be in Paris the very same weekend. With wi-fi being my only connection to the world, and Paris’ lack of ubiquitous wi-fi, we hadn’t had an opportunity to discuss meeting up on Saturday. I decided to start the day off with a free walking tour of the city which happened to end at The Louvre. As I stood listening to the tour guide, I recognized Thomas and Loreyn standing just 20 feet away – a completely unplanned encounter in a city of so many sights!
After they left Paris I became a bit anxious – until this point, I had always had friends or family to look forward to seeing on this trip. For the first time since moving to Los Angeles, I had absolutely no idea when I’d see a familiar face again. Those qualms were quickly quelled when I arrived at a new hostel and met a friendly group of people who were all traveling solo. It began with sitting around in the common room watching TV, evolved into drinking and discussing politics, religion, philosophy, and materialism, and was cemented with a game called Werewolf. The group of 12 was aged from 20-34 and hailed from New York, Austin, Boston, London, Germany, Chile, Brazil, Iceland, Montreal, and Australia. A day later, I ended up on the lawn of Versailles drinking wine and eating baguettes and cheese (as foreigners, we decided that’s as French as it gets) with 12 people who didn’t know each other 24 hours earlier.
The beauty of staying at hostels is that they are generally occupied by people who are open, positive, and have their guards down. On top of that, the diversity of age, homeland, and profession allows for very invigorating conversation in which you are able to laugh about both what you share in common and what you don’t.
I ended up staying in Paris a few days longer than initially planned due to the train union strike, but I’m thoroughly glad that I was able to spend more time in such a spectacular place. The detail on every building, the history on every corner, and the lifestyle among locals is all something to cherish. Parisians have a much slower walking pace than I’m accustomed to; they sit for hours outside at a cafe, looking into the street while enjoying coffee or beer with a friend (without a laptop or phone visible); they read books while they wait in public places. It’s provided a welcomed contrast to what I’ve become accustomed to as “the norm” in Los Angeles, where there’s a heavy sentiment of “if you’re not getting ahead, you’re falling behind.”
The first stop on my journey was Ireland — a country which I had honestly never had a huge desire to visit, believing that it would only be foggy farmland with not much to see or do. I’m fortunate that the airline gods chose Dublin to be the most cost effective city to fly in to, because my ignorance otherwise may have prevented me from seeing some fascinating landscapes and enjoying Irish hospitality.
After spending one night in Dublin I headed to the southwestern part of the Island by train to meet a friend of my father, Ogie, who was kind enough to host me for the day. From Tralee, he and his wife gave me a scenic tour of the Dingle peninsula – a coastline that rivals Malibu with its beauty without any of the traffic or commercialization – and with many more sheep.
We stopped in the small harbor town of Dingle, which is a colorful village of fishermen. We settled into a beer garden for some fresh fish and chips. Once the restaurant became a little busy, the older gentleman who owned it actually shut the gates to the entrance in the interest of not being too busy – seeming to value a calm and relaxed lifestyle over a busy business.
After a few pints along the coast, we headed to Ballybunion, a small Irish coastal town, and ate dinner at a steakhouse while watching the sunset over the cliffs and the sea around 10pm. Afterwards, we walked to a pub which had a local musician playing cover songs of classic American rock and pop songs. I have been a bit surprised by the ubiquity and popularity of American pop culture – in Ireland alone, I heard “Sweet Home Alabama” covered by three musicians at three different pubs. As the night wrapped up around 2am, both of the local cab drivers were busy (yes, both) so the musician ended up giving us a ride home.
Ireland provided me with some perspective on lifestyles around the world. I often get entrenched in the Los Angeles bubble, thinking that buying a house is insanely expensive; living in a small town means living in midwestern America; and that productivity is a key contributor to happiness. To see small towns on a beautiful coastline full of kind people who enjoy a slower pace and know nearly everyone they encounter was to expand my horizon of how one can choose to live.