Does such a thing even exist?
I ask myself this a lot because I am now 23, and in that many years I have never quite figured out how to stick with one. I planned to study abroad in college. That never happened. I never planned to be an au pair, and I became one. I planned to be back in the United States by now working an honest job. Instead, I decided to put my things into a backpack and bum around Europe for an unspecified number of months, planning as I go just so I could avoid having to really have a plan.
If you could call what I had a plan, I’ll break it to you now: that plan has changed.
My travels started in Coimbra, Portugal. I had planned to take a train to Barcelona, Spain. I did (way to follow through, Hailey). I had planned to leave Barcelona after five days and take another train north and eventually head to the Netherlands.
That hasn’t happened. I’m still in Barcelona. I’ll tell you why.
¿dónde está el puerto ?
The sun was setting over Port Vell, Barcelona’s old harbor, the first night after I arrived. I was walking with my photographer friend I had met on the train along the water trying to find a building where I had a meeting with someone the next day.
This someone was a woman I had met a few months ago while traveling between Spain and Paris. We had gotten to talking and she told me she worked for a new university in Barcelona. The people building the university needed a writer who was a native English speaker, she said. We kept in touch.
Fast forward and here I was sweaty from carting my backpack around, elated from my stroll down Passeig de Gràcia, the fancy shopping street that cut through downtown to the central Plaça de Catalunya, one of Barcelona’s two main squares. A walk down the busy, touristy Rambla and me and the photographer friend found the harbor. As we traced its edge, the buildings grew older and nicer. A barricaded part of the marina protected rows of gigantic yachts from the commoners walking on the street nearby. But according to Google Maps, the building I had my meeting in was inside of the barricade.
A security guard let us in, and after a walk past the superboats we found an ultra-modern building covered with a circular webbing. The Gallery Building. I had been living in Paris, but this place challenged its classiness. We were not quite sure how to get into the building because the doors were seamless shields of glass, but I would figure that out when I had the meeting.
On what was to be my second-to-last day in Barcelona, I put on a cotton dress that sort of looked nice and did not wrinkle when I folded it into my backpack. I tried not to sweat as I took the metro from Vallacarca to Barceloneta, the metro stop by the harbor and the beach.
I told the security guard at the barrier that I had a meeting in the Gallery Building and he gave me an official-looking badge, which I snapped a picture of before putting around my neck (with a yacht in the background, of course). The glass wall that had been seamless the other evening slid open when I arrived. I found myself in a futuristic office building being greeted with an hola from a woman at the front desk. She told me to go to the corner office just up the shiny white stairs.
Before I knew it, I was in a room with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. A group of people sat on laptops around a big white table, all of them talking on Skype. A friendly brown-haired woman stood up and greeted me, asking me if I wanted a coffee. Soon, I was shaking hands with the woman I had met those few months ago. The group and I walked outside to the back deck, and we sat by the water as they told me about why they needed an English writer.
Launching its first course this month, Harbour.Space University teaches technology and design to a small number of students from around the world. Its teachers are entrepreneurs and inventors; data scientists and cyber security experts. Sitting across from me on the breezy deck, the CEO explained she wanted to create a school that would prepare students for tech careers in ways that normal universities weren’t necessarily doing. She assembled a small group of people from around Europe and Asia, four of them who were sitting with us as she spoke. The rest were on the other side of those Skype calls; professors and administrators in Amsterdam, California, and a handful of other standalone cities.
But few of the people involved in the project were native English speakers. And because all of the courses are taught in the universal technology language, they needed someone who could string a few words together and at least pretend to know English grammar well.
The staff’s words were energizing. I could tell they all really cared about the university and were vivaciously getting things together before students arrived. “How long are you in Barcelona?” the CEO asked me. I told her I had been planning to look for trains as early as the next day.
“Tomorrow?” she said, her electric eyes shocked. These people are like me in one respect at least: they plan and plan, but they know things can change at any moment. They welcome uncertainty because they know how to adapt.
The CEO thought for a second. “You should stay,” she said.
So, here I am. I had been planning to travel around mostly because I hoped that would lead to an adventure; to good stories. To interesting sights to awaken my brain after a year of babysitting.
The plan has changed. But I still plan to have all of those things.
For the last three weeks, I have been staying in my new friend and co-worker’s apartment in a colorful beach-side neighborhood not far from the marina. Every weekday morning, we walk through the colorful, pleasantly worn-down neighborhood to the Gallery Building a few streets away. We grab a one-euro café con leche from a neighborhood shop where old ladies chat behind slices of pastry dripping with golden marmalade named after angels’ hair. We trade the sunny, sand-covered streets and the puddle of dog urine in the stairwell for the pristine, air-conditioned calm of the office. We and the rest of the staff stay there until late evening, typing and Skyping.
I write. I actually get to write for a job. I am learning again. The staff members ask me if they are missing an article in the title of the webpage they are creating. Their English is nearly perfect, but a language is an endless onslaught of details, so I have been there to help make theirs even more faultless.
This will continue for three months — one thing I have to plan on because that is when my 90-day tourist or business visa ends and Europe will have had enough of me. In that time, students will arrive on campus and be wowed at the Gallery Building and Harbour.Space becoming an everyday place for them, just as it’s starting to for me. I will try to learn Spanish.
I am much more foreign here than in France. In the supermarket, cashiers ask me if I want a plastic bag. I’ve heard the phrase over and over again but I still don’t understand. At the beach this morning I rinsed my feet under a high shower head, and a Spanish grandmother started shouting something from a nearby bench. I asked my new roommate what the lady was talking about. She said she was saying, “how can you be such a dummy?! There’s a lower shower head right next to you! People are so stupid these days!” (Luckily, a man next to her started in, saying, “why do you care? People can shower their feet how they want.”)
Their words were just sounds to me. Sure, I can say the very basics. But even gracias and perdón are lost in the drag race that is Spanish people’s speech. Oh, yeah, and most of them are actually speaking Catalan.
But I’ll try. The university has a Spanish course. I’ll take it — ¿Por qué no?
Why bother planning?
Because in reality, no matter how much we plan, we never know what’s going to happen. So why say we know what will happen when we don’t? And why say no to an opportunity just because it does not figure into a plan? I certainly can’t justify that.
So here I am, still traveling Europe, but in a very different way than I had set out to. I’ll be staying in one place, and like in Paris, learning more deeply about the life here. Perhaps I’ll see fewer cities, but I’ll see a lot more of one. And I think that is my preferred mode of travel.