It all began in 1996. 19 years young. As a Navy serviceman, I was offered the very fortunate and life-changing opportunity to get stationed overseas…destination Spain. I had never traveled outside of U.S. borders. The next 3 years of my life would define my purpose, my passion and my tolerance for second-hand smoke, crazy mopeds, loud locals, rum & coke, pumping music all night at the discos, being lost in translation and transport…etc., etc. It was here where my curiosity came to life, my passion for travel and culture was rooted and my very first travel photos were snapped. It was also the first place I had seen a topless beach…(still looking for those photos).
When I left Spain, I was 22. I remember that feeling that I had when I first departed, like I had just been given the keys to the world. It was only a matter of time before I would be wishing to unlock the next door. So after 13 years of living a life that was propelled by my experiences in Spain, I finally got the opportunity to return to the land that had made me the person I am today. My friends kept telling me that Spain had changed a lot from our Navy days back in the late 90’s…but to me it was all too familiar upon arrival. A little confusion with the Madrid airport terminal/arrival set-up and lack of helpful communication from the rental car agents had delayed my meet-up time with my sister and brother-in-law by 2 hours. Not the best start to our trip. But, I had to heed my own advice, which I had wisely given to my travel companions: “When you get there, you have to leave convenience behind and just go with the flow”. What I was really thinking was: “Where’s the nearest bar?!”
Besides that initial setback, what was also familiar to me upon returning to this country was it’s ability to transport you to a magical, Old World and almost surrealistic place while traveling within it’s borders. There is an expression I read recently: “When you travel to Spain, you must surrender to Spain”. This couldn’t be more true. Spain will demand all of your senses. You must oblige in order to understand what this country is all about…and what it’s people live for. It’s traditions are strong, deep and wonderfully shaped by the many cultures who once descended on this land and left their mark. There is the powerfully captivating, gypsy-influenced music and dance of flamenco and Sevillana…the spirit of bullfighting and it’s legendary matadors…remnants of a glorious past from the days of Columbus’ explorations to the New World…the serenity of the pueblos blancos…wine perfected to please anyone’s taste…and some seriously delicious food (don’t even get me started on that heavenly Jamón Ibérico, that’s a whole other blog!). There are constant reminders of the Roman, Moorish and Catholic Monarchy eras throughout the country…and a history, scenery and architecture of unimaginable splendor and abundance. You must taste it, feel it, smell it, hear it, see it and let it work it’s way into your soul…(and your wallet, unfortunately…damn that Euro!).
Now there’s some things about Spain that will never cease to leave their earnest impressions upon it’s visitors. Follow me.
First, the Spanish are the loudest human beings on planet Earth. Call it passionate speech, pure corporeal expression…whatever. They talk louder than an angry mob of Italian brokers with dysfunctional hearing-aids at the NY Stock Exchange. Maybe since there’s so many old people in the country everyone thinks they have to speak at +20 decibels louder than the normal human speech level. I don’t know, but you will swear everyone you hear on the street who is engaged in a public conversation is ready to punch the lights out of whoever they are talking to. Their speech is rhythmic and distinguishingly Castilian, yet can often sound angry and irritable. But, from what I’ve learned, it’s just the unfiltered passion of expression that runs deep in the Iberian bloodline. You hear it in their music, you see it in their dance and you definitely taste it in their food (oh, Gazpacho Andaluz, how I miss you dearly…). I just bring earplugs along so I don’t have to hear the neighbors screaming to each other about how the peaceful the baby looks while sleeping.
Second, you will often find yourself lost as a traveler in Spain. Let me repeat, you will be lost and will be frustrated and will curse the fools who forgot to post the sign pointing you in the proper direction after your umpteenth roundabout u-turn to get back in the right direction. Just accept it. Like I told my travel companions, it just makes the beer and food taste all the more better once you finally get to where you are going. No one is on time anyway, so you’re never late.
Third, you will eat the best olives you have ever eaten in your life, and you will dream about them once you are gone. You will try to order olives at your local Mediterranean restaurant when you return home to try and get the “authentic” Spanish variety…but you will be disappointed and soon realize that you will never eat olives anywhere in the world like you will in Spain. You will become an addict, like I did, and will want to brush your teeth with olive oil every morning just to remind you of those perfect little savory Mediterranean delicacies.
Fourth, you will say “Holy Shit!” on numerous occasions while sightseeing throughout the country. I’m talking about seeing stuff that you won’t even believe you are looking at. Towering Roman aqueducts over 2000 years old, beautiful castles straight out of a fairytale novel, medieval towns that will take your breath away (and your side rearview mirrors if you try to drive through some of their impossibly narrow streets), inspiring landscapes that will transport you to the days of Don Quixote, cathedrals and mosques of impossible beauty, scale and grandeur, and monuments and plazas of such artistry that will instantly drain your camera battery. Yes, you will curse at the sight of these things. No worries though, there is a church at every corner for you to confess your sins.
Finally (to sum up my thoughts), you will leave Spain knowing that you have traveled to one of the most vibrant, impression-lasting, inspiring and history-transforming countries the world has ever known. Chances are, you will be back for more. After 13 years away, it wasn’t so much that Spain had changed. But I sure had, all for the better….and I have Spain to thank for that. It made my new experience there that much richer. In the words of Ernest Hemingway: “If you travel to only one foreign country in your lifetime, be sure to travel to Spain.” I’d have to concur. Although, he also said “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk”….and that didn’t work out too good for me.