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Passing Through: A Tale of Two Weeks in Barcelona



From the time I step off of the bus at Universitat, it takes me almost an hour to find my hostel, criss-crossing the snaking tangle of Barcelona streets as I try to remember where the street it sits on is located. I’m twenty minutes into my search when I realize I have been dragging the wheels on my suitcase over cobblestone in the opposite direction of where I need to be. Eventually, I will roll up to the heavy wooden door of the cringely-named hostel, the “Hipstel” and ring the buzzer eight times until somebody hears and lets me in.

A tall man named Xavier checks me in, flirting through his thick French accent. He wears a red bomber jacket that I will see him in every day for the next week while we sit on the common room couch and he plays me French rap through a pair of shitty headphones. On my last night there he tells me he thinks it makes him look like his idol, James Dean. With his dark black hair and rough beard he lacks the golden boy looks of Dean, but I see the flash of red passing as he climbs the stair well each night with a new woman behind him. During the day, he lets a young woman with long black hair and a cast encasing her left arm stay in his room. She follows him around while he works, speaking thick Catalonian and talking about how she wants a job at the hostel. Xavier tells me one night that she’ll never get a job there because she can barely speak English. He says he feels sorry for her because she has no place to live and she just had an abortion.

We agree to swap lists of rap artists we like at the end of my stay. I leave mine for him at the front desk on my way to catch my flight back home. I don’t expect him to send me his list of French rappers and he never does. Every once in a while, I listen to Niska, washed over by his harsh French accent and wonder if Xavier will ever find a woman who he doesn’t want to send back down the stairs in the morning.

After arriving on the first night, I shove my suitcase in a locker that won’t lock and go sit downstairs to escape the group of New York girls that I’ll be sharing the 12-bunk room with for the next week. In the common area, a 19-year old boy becomes increasingly frustrated with the TV, plugging in and unplugging the reception box, desperately trying to be able to watch the night’s futbol match. As I help him figure out the cable box, he tells me his name is Yogember, which he will ask me to shorten to “Yo” because he doesn’t think I will be able to pronounce it. Eventually, he will teach me how to shape my rough tongue around the volume of his Venezuelan name. Sometimes, I recall him in conversation and have to force my tongue to remember his name.

We go every night to La Oveja Negra, a bar in a grimy back alley off of Placa Catalunya. “The Black Sheep” in English, the dingy bar opens up like a cave inside, hosting hostel workers from across the city and the young travelers they’ve brought with them to drown in pitchers of piss-colored beer and watery gin tonics. Yogember buys so many rounds for the table that I forget how many pitchers we’ve emptied. The next night, in a booth too big for the both of us, he will yell over bachata music that he can barely afford to eat, but wants people to like him so he buys them beer. He asks me why I spent time with him, but I can’t answer. We dance until I ask him if we can leave, too tired from staying up until the sun rises every night.

In a booth of a reggaeton bar, he will drunkenly tell me that when he turned 18, his mother sent him on a trip to Spain to get away from the political strife and poverty for a little while. He never went back. In the week that I spend with him, I will learn that he sells purses out of a market stall with his “business partner,” a front for the drug dealing he and his partner make a real living off of. One night, he rushes out of a bar to clear the marijuana plants out of his storage stall at the market, having just received an alert that it would be inspected the next day. He texts me all night, anxious that the smell of the plants will linger and the inspector will suspect that he’s not just selling awful faux-leather bags. If they find out he has no documents, they will make him return home, he tells me. Home to his mother but also home to violence and corruption, poverty and anxiety. I’m not sure who they is.

When we return early each morning, Yo greets us as he leaves his night shift, swapping out with Xavier as he waves last night’s woman down the stairs. When Yo laughs, which is often, his thin lips pull over one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. Every time I pass through the common area to go find Yogember, Yo is cooking the night’s dinner with Simona, the Italian hostel manager. His chaotic energy sends him tripping through the room as he loudly checks in on everybody, stopping to chat with Yogember, Xavier, and me before running off to a room upstairs to grab something that I never see. He takes a liking to a German girl passing through for a yoga retreat, loudly stressing to me later that they tried to have sex in the closed common area on his midnight shift, but his anxiety was too bad to go through with it. He is the only person from Barcelona who I still speak to, swapping short messages every couple of months. I ask him to send my love to the others, but I’m not sure if he ever remembers. They certainly don’t ever reach out to return the thought.

I spend more time with the hostel workers then I do seeing sites that so many American friends have urged me to see. Their nightly urgings for more “partying” are too persuasive to allow me to stay in and nurse the full-fledged cold that I had contracted from a sculptor’s son in Granada. Staying out until four every morning does nothing for a running nose and sore throat, and sleeping until two in the afternoon severely limits sightseeing in a city where tourist attractions close early so the locals can sleep, eat, and go out until dawn.

On my final night in Barcelona, I stay out until four in the morning drinking the now-familiar pitchers of draft beer with Yogember and Silverio, the mid-forties public health researcher from Mozambique who has been staying in the hostel while he tries to get a Spanish visa. Empowered by the third pitcher, he explains loudly that the government gives him extra trouble because his skin is so dark. They send him jumping through hoops, he says. They send him away asking for more papers, different forms, two weeks to wait for review, another week to review the new forms, a signature that was missed.

Yogember and I try to comfort his anxieties over a consulate visit he has in two days, and he tells us that there are friends that you may only know for a few days but will stay with you forever. By the time Yogember walks me back to the hostel, I only have two hours before I have to leave for my flight. I let Yogember sleep in the bed as I rush to pack. Three hours later, I’ll slump into a plane seat for eight hours, exhausted, nursing a budding cold, and still a little drunk, ready to go home and WhatsApp them for a few days until we all become bored of the distance and the messaging falls away.

They emerge in my memories as fragments, people I will likely never see again but still grasp at my thoughts and rest in the distance, people who consumed my life for days, relegated to the back of my mind as time passes. If I’m lucky, I’ll come across a rare photo posted on social media and stop to remember them. I’ll check on Silverio two days after I leave and he’ll tell me that his consulate meeting got rescheduled for another day. Eventually, he gets a job working at the hostel with Yo and Xavier so he can afford to stay in the city while he gets his papers. Yesterday he posted on Facebook that he will be leaving Spain because he hasn’t been granted the visa he’s been struggling to get for just under a year. Yo got his visa last week, informing all his friends through an Instagram caption of that wide, smiling face pressed up against Simona’s cheek.

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