After nearly two years in West Africa, I finally left for a vacation. I hadn’t wandered from the Senegal/Gambia/Sierra Leone/Guinea-Bissau zone because I clung to a silly idea that doing so would mess up some sort of living-in-Africa equilibrium I had achieved. Besides, with practically $30 to my name, clicking around on travel websites felt irresponsible. I was content to stay where I was, relegating things from my Western life to a fantasy realm I experienced only through the internet.
Thankfully, and with no foretelling on my part, I was yanked out of that state.
Barcelona would seem an apt destination for someone seeking romance. However, what lured Jeremy and me toward the Spanish city was the ever-glamorous matrix of low airfares on Kayak.com. Thus our trip was never inherently about Barcelona. It didn’t carry the weight of having “always wanted to” study the Sagrada Familia or speak with a lisp. Barcelona was just the result of us bending time and space in such an arrangement that we could be together. It turned out to be one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.
I scraped up some funds from my below-the-poverty-line salary in preparation for the trip. Since I didn’t trust my Senegalese ATM card to work in Spain, I changed my West African CFA into Euro. I did this by walking past the Africa Star nightclub in Dakar, approaching a shady man who rubbed his fingers together at me, and engaging in illegal currency exchange at the low, low rate of 3%. And I didn’t even have to bargain.
I had become skinny, I assumed, due to my low-protein Senegalese diet and the intense heat. It turns out that I also have a worm infection—sexy, though not as serious, as it sounds. Even my malnourished Senegalese colleagues commented on my thinning frame. Once in Barcelona, my mission was to eat. I’m lucky to have in a partner someone whose ravenous hunger is as constant as my own. Jeremy and I embarked upon what was essentially a 9-day all-you-can-eat-a-thon around the city. My body came back, as Pulaars say.
Frequently, we would lay our guidebook on the bed to collaborate on the day’s itinerary. We gave the art and architecture sections the obligatory glance, but what we really studied were restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. We had no loyalty to a set schedule of “must-sees.” It stays light in Barcelona until 10 p.m., and dinner isn’t until at least 9 p.m. (my ideal schedule), making one feel like there is time to do everything, nap included. As two over-eaters in the making, we let our momentary food cravings be what guided us around the city.
In the market La Boqueria, we ate chorizo-and-cheese sticks, aged Iberian ham, razor clams, mixed mushrooms, and dragonfruit. In Raval, we had baby grilled octopus, pan con tomate, and fried calamari. On Montjuïc, we ordered paella and sangria, neither of which I found spectacular—they seemed mass-produced for tourists. At a random octagonal intersection (most crossroads in Barcelona are octagonal), I got a slice of spinach tortilla (savory potato tart) I’ll never forget. I ate it on a narrow street outside an old-fashioned salon where I got my hair cut.
Our most mind-blowing meal was at 41°, the tapas bar run by the famous Adrià brothers of El Bulli. It’s a place where the guest list is strict, the cocktails are serious, and the waiters wear curiously unattractive sneakers bearing the name of the bar. We ate false olives (reconstituted olives which look like olives but instead burst and then melt instantly in your mouth), false pistachios (same idea), beef carpaccio on toast with purple flowers, caramelized foie gras on a cloud (like a luxury marshmallow), parmesan ice cream sandwiches (my personal favorite), and oysters with various sauces of kimchi, miso, and chicken consommé. Neither of us had experienced molecular gastronomy before. It was divine, but it left us hungry.
We wandered around Poble Sec, deferring as we often did to Jeremy’s BlackBerry, held up in front of him like a compass. I noticed what it’s like to stroll with someone again, slowing in unison every several meters and automatically leaning in to see new maps and restaurant options appear on a phone. We finally settled on a place that served burgers, beer, and had a vacant corner window where we could watch passersby. We ordered a Whopper Doble, a steakhouse burger with bacon and fried onions, french fries and a cerveza. It was called Burger King, and to me, it was heaven.
One great thing about living in the developing world for a long time is that you’re like a kid again when it comes to American fast food. McDonald’s, Domino’s—these places become fun cultural landmarks worth discovering, not places to turn up your nose at. The shame I may have associated with those fast food joints in the past has been replaced by nostalgia and wonder. And frankly, I love that what might be seen as pretentious science food at 41° was mirrored by the faux-chicken of (“reconstituted”) chicken nuggets at Burger King.
In the middle of the trip, we rented a car and drove two hours to Cadaques, a town on the Mediterranean near the border with France. We explored the town’s cobblestone streets and conspired to rent a boat. One night we tucked into a menu-less restaurant, the kind where the owner charmingly bullies you into ordering dishes you’re not sure you want, in a language you don’t entirely understand. We sat at a table with other couples who were similarly perplexed. It was delicious! Dorado fish, grilled shrimp, salad, and wine from a nearby vineyard we visited by motorscooter the next day.
The place we stayed in Cadaques was an apartment owned by an Italian family who rented it out when they weren’t vacationing there. It was themed vigorously in nautical blue-white-yellow; it was as if they were inspired by fabric with fish swimming in coral and decided that it wouldn’t really be a vacation home if every goddamn accessory didn’t remind you of ocean and summer. I loved the slightly lived-in feel, the pictures of the family on a wall, the neurotic reverence for their cat (welcome mat: “This House is Purrr-tected by a House Cat!”, decorative pillow: a print-on-fabric picture of their cat). It had a kitchen and a terrace, both of which we put to good use. Waking up to grapefruit juice and home-cooked omelets with chorizo and manchego cheese overlooking the Mediterranean ain’t a bad way to start the day.
In Barcelona, I had wanted to meet Senegalese Pulaars who had migrated there and interview them. I didn’t end up having time for that. We didn’t see many people of color in Barcelona, and certainly not in Cadaques. We also missed some of the protests about joblessness that have swept across Spain. Like Paris, Barcelona has an ultra-clean, civilized feel. It didn’t have the mixed-in grittiness that I love about New York, which is louder, busier, and more diverse. But Barcelona still had layers I’ve yet to discover, and I enjoyed navigating its alleyways while doing things you don’t really do in Senegal—eating while walking, holding hands, and wearing shorts.
On the beach one night, in the area called Barceloneta, people celebrated the summer solstice. The boardwalk was packed with people carrying open containers of alcohol and shooting off fireworks in every direction (apparently neither are illegal). It was kind of like walking through a war zone, except with drum circles and toddlers on bikes
Our hunter-gatherer tourism finally caught up to me. On one of the last nights, we double-mealed it for dinner, then explored nightlife. We found that aside from some upscale bars, Barcelona doesn’t do cocktails. Many bartenders refused to make drinks consisting of three or more components. I asked for a gin and tonic—it came deconstructed (a bottle of tonic water and a separate glass of gin). But I suppose this doesn’t matter much in a country where delicious wine is so affordable.
I managed to get tequila, brandy, vodka, gin, beer, and Red Bull in me (on top of the two dinners) before the night was through. After a few bars and a Euro-trashy club, we finally found a dance floor with hip hop. We danced for hours. Later that morning as the sun came up, we got back to the hotel, and I was forced to surrender. Jeremy gave me some motivational speaking in the bathroom as I coughed up the goods, like a shoplifter forced to hand back all the things she stole. Not since my early days in Senegal had I felt such painful sickness.
Maybe I overdid it, but that’s sort of what I set out to do. As I continue in my last few months in Senegal, eating for two,* and bracing myself for the rocks that might be in my food, I won’t regret how gluttonous I was in Spain.
*The worm(s) and me, that is. The worms will be gone with medication that is en route, (crossing fingers).