Travel Essays

An Open Letter to Barcelona

I had forgotten about the dense heat in your metro. As I trotted down the stairs, the air got heavier and warmer, and before I knew it the back of my shirt clung to my spine. I remembered the gaze of teenage boys following me in your metro, taking note of my blue eyes, fair skin, bare legs, and brightly colored clothes. It got old just as quickly the first time and the second time I came to you.

I fell right back into my posture on your metro: my stance was slightly offset to withstand the curves of the tracks, and I avoided eye contact with everyone while at the same time taking in my surroundings. With my hand on my bag, my mind drifted away while I waited for my stop to be announced.

Settling into your ways was like breathing. After three months of being away, I got on the metro and was once again a strange part of you. Everyone was going somewhere, and everyone was in it together: the heat in the summer, the delays that put a kink in our day, the long wait for the first train out after a long night of partying created a sort of unity on your public transportation.

I took the 64 bus up into your heights toward Pedralbes to pick the little girls up from their posh school in Sarrià. I had never seen this part of you, and judging by the ivy-covered gates guarding multilevel houses, that little part of you wanted to keep it that way. And I was curious, but I handled myself just fine and didn’t poke and prod.

At the 64 bus stop, I eyed the teenage girls flicking back their neatly straightened hair and clutching their designer purses. My attempt to look like a professional that day made me almost fit in with them; we were all nice clothes and smooth leather bags. It was something that I had never expected—I, who wandered the streets of eclectic Gràcia, sipped vermouth in underrated Sant Antoni, and ducked in and out of bars in El Gòtic, resembled the same people who sneered at my most beloved haunts.

Each time I came to you, I had a different role: first I was a student, then I was an underappreciated English teacher, and now I’m a Cambridge-certified and very much appreciated English teacher. Each visit took less and less adaptation. Courtney-abroad and Courtney-at-home was finally a continuum. Or so I thought.

Being an adult was hard enough, and looking the part was another battle. I traded in cotton t-shirts and flip flops for polyester blouses and practical flats. I noticed that all your girls my age were wearing smashing red and coral lipstick, the color brightening their faces, still tan from their long hot summers. I worked in San Francisco during the summer, and even with the drought and uncommonly nice weather, the sun didn’t kiss my cheeks. I managed to posture my way into international businesses to do English lessons, only to return back to my host family’s flat to make silly faces and participate in rousing renditions of “Let it Go.” It was like living an onion life: teacher Courtney with grammar handouts and whiteboard markers, babysitter Courtney with puzzles and glitter, weekend Courtney with gin tonics and loud music, Sarrià Courtney with easy grace and polished attire, Gràcia Courtney who hunted for the next cool bar, and Sant Antoni Courtney who compared wine and vermouth like it was nobody’s business. If you, Barcelona, could be all those things and more, couldn’t I?

I could never fully fit in with you and your crowd, but you and I had come to terms with that long ago. I would do my thing, and you would do yours; I would love you, and you would humor my presence with a gracious and infinite opening of your arms. Coming back to you was easy, almost too easy.

This is how I know that after these three months, it’ll probably be best that we break up. We had a good run, but it’s wise to break things off before we get too serious and start talking about jobs with insurance and the price of real estate. I just don’t think I’m emotionally ready for that sort of commitment. And every good relationship is just a stepping stone to the next one. But we can have fun for the next three months.

No, you were not a fling. You were a full-fledged love affair. I really did love you. Actually, I think I loved you before I even knew you. If I’m really honest, I love you still. If I’m even more honest, I will probably always love you; first loves are like that. But I hope we can still be friends. I’ll come back when you finish Sagrada Família, I promise. Just please finish it in the next 50 years.

Con amor eterno,

Courtney

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