Travel Essays

Snapshots of Sitges

The beach was quiet at the end of an abnormally cold Spanish winter. Ariana, ever the bird-whisperer, tried to see how close she could get to a pair of swans slowly nodding their way along the beach. Minutes before, we sat on a stone wall surrounding the church to admire the colors of Sitges: we were in awe of the crisp Mediterranean blue, golden sand, and white apartments lining the coast. The sky was clear at the end of February 2012, but it was still cold. We wore coats, longingly eyeing the ocean, promising to make the short train trip south of Barcelona once summer arrived. We would bring bathing suits and sunscreen, sunglasses and breezy summer dresses. We would walk down palm-lined paths and order tinto de verano, red wine mixed with orange soda, at the cafes facing the ocean.

We contented ourselves with writing messages in the wet sand and letting the tide carry our words out to the ocean. I love you. I miss you. But life here is beautiful and slow and it will take some convincing to bring me home and keep me there. Our hair whipped aside in the salty air as we leaned on each other, all of us filled with the typical study-abroad recognition of fleeting beauty: We may only get one chance to see this. But it was a thought that none of us liked, and so we swept that out to the ocean as well and went back to getting as close as possible to the swans and dreaming of summer.

*****

We wondered if we would ever get the confetti out of our long hair. It was no use. We had been living in Barcelona for six months and most of us had not dared to cut our hair, with the exception of two girls who chopped their hair into daring pixie cuts because you-only-live-in-Europe-once-and-shampoo-is-more-expensive-than-beer. A gleeful little girl in a Renaissance-era Carnival costume doused us with handful upon handful of confetti from the float where she stood. It was cute, and it was Carnival, and we were not going to fight the confetti or the glitter; it would stay in our hair for as long as it wanted. We wore imported Venetian masks, plastic golden crowns picked up from the dollar store down the street, and costume makeup to give into the madness of the festival. My mask was beautiful: rusty gold that deepened into a rich bronze around the eyes, trimmed in silver thread and ribbon that tied behind my curls. For a day, I got to be an enigma, a pair of dark blue eyes and a mysterious smirk.

Carnival in Sitges was notorious in Spain, only third to the festivities on Tenerife in the Canary Islands and the coastal town of Cádiz in Andalucía. Sitges—with its love for film and zombies, its beautiful coastline, and its fabulous LGBT community—had all the ingredients for a spectacular Carnival parade. It certainly didn’t disappoint.

The women of Sitges pranced in bikini-like costumes; I figured that the beads, feathers, glitter, and alcohol-induced frenzy was all that kept them warm. Hips shook, music blared, and the energy seemed to increase as the night continued on. At some point during the parade, I gave up taking pictures: my camera hardly did the spectacle any justice and things started blending all together. As each float crossed my vision, I felt like a world passed me by. I went to Paris with can-can girls twirling their skirts around the Eiffel Tower. I coasted to the exotic Egypt with its sultry maidens and rugged bandits. I looped around to the Mayan ruins in Latin America, to the classical columns and togas of Ancient Greece, to the barely-there loincloths of Native Americans, to the Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy lands of serendipitous insanity, to the leather jackets and greased hair of America in the 50s, and to the topsy-turvy rowdiness of the young, drunk, and spontaneous. The less sense the costume made, the more fabulous it was.

The hours rolled on and so did the floats, carrying yet more people, musicians, and dancers that trailed behind. I hardly knew where to look, and I felt exhausted. Even the stunning mask that I had worn was getting heavy on the bridge of my nose. I never got to see the king and queen of Carnival and slumped back to the train station without regret long before the festivities concluded. It was a truly Spanish affair; people had work and school the next day, but it would be a competition of who stayed out the latest and slept the least. I had one chance to see Carnival and didn’t even see it all, but I still felt like I had seen everything.

When I got home, I brushed my hair, showered, and went to bed. And when I woke up, there was not a piece of confetti left. All that remained were blurry pictures and almost-as-blurry stories; it was hard to piece together the floats and costumes that crossed in front of me. I placed the mask on a shelf, its gold paint glowing before I turned the lights off and eased my aching limbs into bed.

*****

102_0342A month before, I cut off seven inches of my hair. My curls, lighter than ever, bounced and brushed my shoulders as I strolled the palm-lined promenade of Sitges once again. This time, it was late fall 2013, the last weekend of summer clothes. I wore shorts and a tank top, sassy sunglasses, and my precious flip flops that hadn’t seen enough sunshine that summer.

The air was hot and humid, but dark clouds floated above the city, falsely threatened to rain before breaking into clear, blue skies. I remembered the colors of Sitges: the Mediterranean blue of the ocean and sky, the white buildings on the oceanfront, the yellowish stone of the church, cliffs, and sand. Children ran up the stairs to the church, giggling and laughing while cannons peered out to the ocean, looking for pirates and invaders that would never come to its shores. The ocean was darker that day, and a statue of a woman’s bust warningly held a hand up as if to instruct the dangers of the waters behind her.

It was the summer-in-Sitges that I had imagined with my friends from almost a year ago: it was that day when we would have escaped from our city simply because we could, and we would have towed beach towels and sunscreen to a simpler coastal life. We would have hidden behind sunglasses and drunk cool Fanta soda, our fingers catching the cold condensation that would have dripped down the sides of the aluminum can. But it was a day that never really happened in the mad rush of must-see-everything-while-abroad madness. I looked back at pictures of me and my friends at the end of our first Barcelona summer: we were so tan and skinny and happy, all muscles from walking, white teeth, and bright eyes.

But that was then.

I sat on a bench in the sun and read, desperately trying to get some color on my skin before winter arrived. Sitges was quiet like the day when I first sojourned down the coast in 2012; it reminded me of the town where I studied at university in California for three years. In Sitges, I was comfortable, a little too comfortable. That comfort was what had made my friends and I so keen on going back for a beach day; that comfort was also what made me end Carnival before the festivities had finished. It was only a half-hour train ride down the coast; I could always go back.

And I could always leave.

And I did. I tied up my short, bouncy curls and thought maybe next spring, right when the weather turns, perhaps in May, I can just take the train to Sitges and…

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