Things you learn when volunteering on the road, or, I cleaned up puke today but I’m still insanely happy

I’ve been off the grid for a little while in terms of writing, mostly because I’ve been bopping around Spain doing very exciting music projects. More on that story later. I’m also preparing to make my first return to the UK since before Christmas, so stay tuned for a very grumpy British post complaining about the weather and general hooliganism of my native country (have you heard by the way? It’s coming home…apparently).

For the past few weeks I’ve been living and working in Barcelona, the city that started this whole escapade. I visited for the first time two years ago and they’ve been trying desperately to get rid of me ever since. It’s truly a unique city, equal parts beautiful and completely batshit. For me there’s nowhere like it, it’s the place I found myself (HORRIBLE Millennial cliche but it’s true).

In 2016 I was a horribly drunk, recently single human nightmare bopping around the bars and occasionally taking in some of the culture. In 2017 I was based here for three months, volunteering in a hostel which enabled me not only to meet lots of extremely attractive people, but also to learn about the city and Catalan culture. It’s 2018 and I’m back bitches. I’m spending July volunteering in a hostel in the Poble Sec neighbourhood, part of an amazing group of hostels dotted around Europe which really enhance the traveller experience, sometimes by helping people get super drunk.

Even though I’m going to be extremely poor for a few weeks, I cannot recommend this way of life enough to travellers. Whether it’s for a couple of weeks during a short trip or for a few months in the middle of your gap yah, it’s a fantastic experience. Here are a few things I’ve learned during my time volunteering in Barca:

People are super interesting

I love people. Probably a bit too much if my dating history is anything to go by. Volunteering in a hostel, you see people come and go all the time from all corners of the globe (disclaimer: I know the earth is round, Columbus fucked this saying up for us years ago but I’m still gonna use it).  You make friends almost instantly and meet all kinds of people doing amazing and interesting things in all sorts of places and there’s something really cool about all these people coming together to be drunk and ridiculous.

On average people stay here for three days, so there’s a lot of turnover which means lots of new friends. In my current place of work, people tend to have so much fun that they extend their stays, which also means you get to know them better. Free crashing space WORLDWIDE.

‘Age is just a number to keep the authorities happy’-my grandad, 2004

When I dropped out of the rat race at age 26, I was convinced I’d be too old to bop around the globe. Imagine my SURPRISE when I checked into this very hostel and found out I was one of the younger guests at that time. As a perpetual child, this made me extremely happy. You really can up and leave at any time, travelling the world is not just for the pre-university backpack set. Hostels are not just for vodka-blind 18 year olds on their first jaunt away from home. We’ve got guests here who aren’t yet 20 and guests in their 40s, and sometimes beyond. It’s not about age, it’s about the experience of exploring a new city and sharing insight, wisdom, and probably gin. Age really ain’t nothing but a number (Aaliyah said that one, not my grandad).

Who needs cash anyway?

Volunteering typically means you get accommodation, food, and often other perks in return for work which is more fun than probably any job I’ve ever done, aside from DJing. If you’re travelling for a long time, it’s an ideal way for you to get to know a new place while saving money. Even in a more pricey city, you can reduce your outgoings significantly, enabling many more months of travelling and loving life in general.

Don’t screw the crew (unless you’re prepared to deal with the consequences)

I get it, everyone’s super good looking and not a pasty English person. I’ve already broken this rule about 506393 times, so this is less of a rule and more a musing/observation. If you’re young, free and single, get on it by all means, but be aware that if you’re getting jiggy with another volunteer, you’re going to be in close proximity to this person A LOT. So if you get bored of each other, make sure you have an exit strategy so you don’t accidentally walk in on them boinking the cute new volunteer from Sweden. CURTAINS PEOPLE.

It’s a lot like babysitting at times

Adults really are just large drunk children. The part of hostel life which facilitates partying and a good time will always be an integral part of your experience – my current hostel gets the balance between culture and cocktails just right – but be aware that while this is everyday life for you, it’s vacation for people staying here. People are going to get WASTED. I can’t count the number of times I’ve cleaned up puke, half-carried people to their beds, warded off comical unwanted advances using only a broom. It’s part and parcel of the gig and it’s very entertaining – well, until someone poops their pants (as one of my colleagues found recently).

We’re pretty much all the same (take note Mr Trump with your racist ginger ass)

The beauty of this lifestyle is the diversity – every day you meet people from different parts of the world, with different backgrounds, languages, cultures, outlooks on life. But one thing you realise is that we’re all basically the same, we all want to be happy and experience all the good things life has to offer. And sometimes boink the cute volunteer from Sweden.

So if you’re considering taking a break from sleeping on train floors to settle for a month or two and volunteer in a hostel, DO IT. I promise you won’t regret it, even during your worst hangover.

 

 

In defence of romance while travelling, or, why I was wrong to think that cute boy from my work was a knob

He was playing a song he’d written. It was dusk and we were lazily gathered amongst the ruined bunkers, watching the sunset. Beer cans littered the floor. People were laughing, joking, but many stopped when the music started, listening intently to his playing, confident and uninhibited. One or two girls eyed him hopefully. He stared out over the city view as he sang, his eyes fixed on the horizon, or the clouds, or an idea, a thought that none of us were privy to.

God, I hate this bloke, I thought to myself.

I’d come across him once or twice during my initial days in Barcelona, usually as a grumpy night receptionist at the hostel where I would eventually end up working. He was undoubtedly attractive, I grudgingly admitted to myself. But he knew it. The hair, the tattoos, the sexy accent, the dippy American and Brit girls hanging around him at every possible opportunity. He was a talented musician, I acknowledged that too. But it seemed to me that he utilised his talents solely for the opposite sex. He was standoffish, superior, so serious.

One week, I didn’t see him smile for three consecutive days. Without doing very much, he made me feel like a child that was permanently in trouble. I heard stories of the female guests who had fallen victim to his charms. A couple of them even came back to visit. Surely he can’t be that good in bed, I thought. When we started working together I felt a slight sense of annoyance that I was going to be stuck with this new exotic version of a fuckboy.

What a knob.

Of course, my annoyance stemmed from the fact that I had a huge crush on him.

Working together turned out to be less traumatic than I had expected. We butted heads on several occasions, argued, some days it seemed like we would never co-exist peacefully. But the more time we spent together, the more I realised I’d been a little unfair in my initial judgement. The seriousness was actually a genuine passion for his work, a desire to do things well and do them properly. The ‘look at me I’m so mysterious and brooding and foreign’ vibe I’d initially picked up on was actually a deep spirituality and connection to the world around him. The near-constant impromptu concerts came not from arrogance, but from a deep love of music. When I listened, really listened, to the songs he had written, I discovered just how talented he really was, how intelligent, how insightful. He was funny. He understood people. His often brutal honesty commanded respect, not abhorrence.

Here, amongst a generation of protein-packed poseurs, dickpics and complicated internet-based misunderstandings, was a truly genuine human being.

Maybe he’s not such a knob after all, I thought to myself.

Our chronology was peculiar, as is so often the case when you meet someone outside of your regular routine. We lived together before we knew each other. We lived together before we were friends. He saw me naked before our relationship became sexual (profuse apologies to all my previous housemates for my inability to wear clothes). We slept together before we made love, curled up on a tiny single bed, half-dressed. We were both somewhat involved in other romantic entanglements. I hated him at the same time that I fell in love with him. These things never did run smooth.

When we finally kissed for the first time, in the most romantic of settings – a hip hop club in the Placa Reial – it felt like home, like familiarity. When, not long afterwards, we consummated our relationship, he was totally present, totally uninhibited. Something I thought didn’t exist in men of my generation.

Later that summer, when I became sick and spiraled into the OCD and anxiety that have at times, threatened to destroy aspects of my life, he was unwavering. A relationship barely two months in the making and he was subjected to me, stripped down, bare-faced and tear-soaked, in the midst of a panic attack that lasted on and off for several weeks. He stayed. Where others would have dismissed it, would have left, where others before him had dismissed it, he stayed. He scooped up all my anxiety, my confusion, my depression, into a big ball and made me better. We left Barcelona eventually, stronger, closer, more connected.

I tried so hard to sabotage it, as I always have done when something truly wonderful comes into my life. I told myself countless times that my first impression of him had been correct, that when we eventually took our separate paths, he would forget me in an instant, move on within minutes. I was mean. I was inconsiderate. It never happened, of course. Something in him said to me, to my innermost self, “Try all you want, I’m not letting you go”. And he didn’t.

We had to separate, eventually. The curse of travelling couples who meet on the road. Soon, we’ll be separated by even more land mass when he travels further afield. In a previous life, I would have left it, moved on, succeeded in sabotaging the fledgling relationship, replaced him with someone inferior. I would have convinced myself that I didn’t deserve him, that what we had was nothing.

The new me took a look at the old me and said “Fuck you, you’re not screwing this one up. This is a real thing, don’t you DARE do what you always do. You’ll regret it forever”.

It’s not easy, where we’re at now. Being separated from the person you love is like having your arm ripped off. In a few short months we’ve done and been through so much together and to me, that tells me, more than anything else, that this is worth the distance, the poor WiFi connections, the tears, the empty beds. I was sceptical before. When you find something real, distance and proximity should not be a deciding factor. Make it work, however you can. Set your own rules. Do what you have to do to make it work, because it’s so rare to find something, someone, like that.

He makes me laugh. He’s incredibly intelligent. He’s articulate in both Spanish and English, without being pretentious. He works harder than anyone I know and puts his soul into everything he does. He commands respect from everyone he meets. He’s honest. He’s wonderfully weird. He has beautiful hair. He makes me want to work harder, to be better, to overcome my demons. I respect and admire him so much. He is himself, unapologetically. And I’m so proud, so honoured, to love someone like that, to have their love in return.

I guess he wasn’t such a knob in the end.

Update: sadly since posting this, my first impressions did turn out to be correct and we split up.

 

The crippling embarrassment and comical ridiculousness of learning a new language

When I lived in Barcelona, most people spoke better English than I did. No joke, Most cosmopolitan cities in the world boast a plethora of languages, with the Queen’s native tongue being fairly high on the list, but this was ridiculous.

I spoke English all day, every day, and despite attempts when out and about, plus the advantage of a Spanish-speaking boyfriend and several Spanish-speaking friends, we all kind of got stuck in English. The hostel we worked at took mostly guests from North America, Australia or the UK, and those who weren’t from those particular reasons still spoke excellent English. My colleagues were a mixture of Europe, the US and South America (with Spain, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay represented respectively), but even for them it made more sense to continue in English. Locals, sensing my trepidation when I tried to order groceries, kindly switched to English (partly because they would have had to wait an additional twenty minutes for me to respond to them).

It was a nice introduction to my new country of residence, in a way, however now I’m living in a much smaller city, I’m wishing we’d all made a bit more effort as I’m getting to grips with the difficulty and general hilarity of learning a new language.

Salamanca has many English speakers – students from overseas, young people, a few expats here and there, however it’s not uncommon to come across someone in their twenties or thirties who doesn’t speak English. Even those who do will continue in Spanish in shops and restaurants, and why shouldn’t they? This is Spain after all. I’m happy that my new city is pushing me to learn Spanish, but it’s bloody hard work.

This is the first time I’ve really worked to learn another language. Most of my English friends are monolingual – unless we had a strong aptitude for a language or had family to keep up with, we were never encouraged to continue much past GCSE. I have a decent level of French but I’m nowhere near fluent, and although I have a handful of useful phrases in German and Italian, I can’t claim proficiency in either of those language (apologies here to my Italian auntie). The older you are, the harder it is, not just because of the human brain’s capacity to retain information, but also because of the additional shame that comes with messing up. And boy do I mess up. My understanding of Spanish is decent and I can write reasonably well (albeit with some dictionary-based guesswork). My spoken Spanish, however, is still comically slow and full of errors.

Here’s a typical conversation in my house (translated into English to show you how difficult this language lark is):

My flatmate: ‘What’s for dinner? Smells great!’
Me: ‘Dicks (pollas). Um no, wait, I mean chicken (pollo)’
My flatmate: *dissolves into laughter for the next ten minutes*

Here’s another typical conversation:

Friend: ‘We were just saying that normally, A has a beard, but he’s gotten rid of it!’
Me: ‘Ah that’s a shame. I am beard. My dad is a beard. My boyfriend is a beard’.
Friends: *tumbleweed*
Me: ‘I mean, I like beards’.

See what I mean? As a child, I would have found the above hilarious. As an adult, I still do, although I feel a huge sense of shame and embarrassment at not yet being able to form sentences. I feel bad for new acquaintances who have to speak to me extremely slowly, as if I’m recovering from a severe concussion.

I sometimes worry I’ll never get it right. I want more than anything to speak Spanish fluently, to be able to think and dream in Spanish, to speak to my boyfriend’s family in their native language. I don’t want to be the one everyone has to translate for, the one everyone has a little bit less respect for because they didn’t make the effort. It’s sheer determination right now that is spurring me to keep going, to keep trying. I will, for comical effect, be making a documentation of all my errors, because when I get really good I can look back on them and laugh. A lot.

The ambiguous traveler, or, why I sometimes pretend not to be English

“So which part of Australia are you from again?” asked the drunk boy from Leicester.

“Sorry, what?” I looked up from my computer. It was five in the morning, I was working the night shift at the hostel and I was pissed. Monday nights were my favourites at that point, not least because the popular Barcelona bar we took our guests to offered an hour of unlimited beer or sangria. I’d spent the night folding laundry, watching Netflix and being grumpy because the boy I liked was out, probably having more fun than I was. The drunk boy from Leicester and his equally drunk friend had returned early from the evening’s festivities and were conducting a perilous expedition to the back of the communal fridge. Both were covered in spaghetti. All I wanted at this point in the evening was to go to sleep and I was contemplating how easy it would be to slip out for a nap when they began questioning me.

“Which part of Australia did you say you were from?” He said, flicking his new spaghetti fringe out of his eyes. And just like that, my evening picked up. Apart from the impending spaghetti clear-up operation, of course.

Despite being almost comically English, I’ve always been able to get away with blending in to a certain extent when I travel, avoiding the dreaded ‘Brit abroad’ label which haunts my fellow countrymen/women/children/pets wherever they go. With the exception of my trip to China in 2013 (for obvious reasons), I’ve been able to move through crowds without being singled out as a tourist, a potential target for overpriced souvenirs, pickpockets and all manner of madness. This is not to say I am in any way racially ambiguous – I’m extremely white, due in part to my exotic Scottish heritage.

When I first arrived in Barcelona, struggling across Sants station with my bags, a Swedish family came over and spoke to me in Spanish, asking for directions. When I explained in halting Spanish I’d just arrived myself, they laughed, and said they’d assumed I was a local. Being not even remotely tanned at this point, I was extremely flattered. In Athens, a cashier in a clothing store once fired off a bunch of Greek at me because she thought I was a local. In Germany I’m practically a local. Once a guy thought I was American ‘because I had nice teeth’ (disclaimer: my teeth, while nice, are not up to the standards of American dentistry). For some reason, nobody places me as English, which is something I’ve come to like and find useful, especially in the current climate.

I have no idea why this happens but each time I feel a sense of achievement at having successfully blended in. In a world of ludicrously dressed stag parties and A Level students projectile vomiting onto a pavement somewhere near the Adriatic, I take it as a compliment. No handkerchiefs tied around the head for me, thank you very much. No complaining about the heat or asking loudly for ketchup. It’s incredibly unfair to place all British tourists in this camp, of course, but I use the unfortunate stereotype here as an illustration. No smoke without fire and all that.

I enjoy this inexplicable ability to become a pseudo-local, even though I can’t put my finger on what it is about my appearance or character that makes it so. Physically I’m tall, blonde, average build (if you discount the somewhat unexpected bodacious rear view which seems to run in my family), reasonably tanned for at least six months of the year. I don’t look particularly anything except white and probably European – I’m not quite blonde enough to fit the Scandi stereotype, my body type is a little larger than is common in the Mediterranean, my dress sense is very much homeless Jesus, gap yah, ‘I’m a citizen of the world daahhhling,’ which could place me as anything from a Dutch exchange student to a lost American. I’m not quite stylish enough to be French. I don’t own a North Face jacket, which rules out North America. I drink gin, I swear a lot and can be found quite frequently wandering around with a large paper map, scratching my head and uttering unmistakably British exclamations like ‘OH BUGGER’. Despite this, however, nobody ever thinks I’m English.

Being an ambiguous traveller can be extremely useful. You’re less likely to get robbed or targeted with absurdly priced taxis. You’re able to go off the beaten track in a fairly low key manner if you wish. It can even keep you on the right side of the law – a Moroccan police officer who thought I was French (thank you, remedial GCSE language skills) decided against arresting my then-boyfriend, who he suspected to be an illegal immigrant.

Seeing as I seem to have fallen into this by happy accident, I’m not sure I can offer advice to my fellow travellers on how to do the same. Speaking the language helps, even if it’s a few words as does your body language – try to look like you know where you’re going. Otherwise, don’t wear a t-shirt that says ‘Lads on Tour’ and you should be alright.

Sitting at the desk during my graveyard shift, I smiled and mentally ticked another country off the list of ‘fake nationalities I can use someday’. “I’m from Melbourne, mate,” I said in a mock-Aussie accent. At that moment, a group of real Aussies tumbled through the front door in search of kebabs, followed closely by my crush du jour (now boyfriend, G if you’re reading this, hello!)

The drunk boy from Leicester said goodnight and exited the kitchen, tripping over an imaginary step on his way out and sending spaghetti flying across reception.

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Spain: first impressions from a cheeky expat

If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that I recently jacked in my job and London life for something more, shall we say, not London-y. I chose Spain for the culture, climate, people and of course, some of the sexiest music known to man. I’d visited the country several times during my life, everywhere from beautiful Salamanca and exciting Madrid to the frankly embarrassing UK-On-Sea, Salou. I knew I’d made the right decision in terms of weather, food, et al, but had I made the right decision in terms of lifestyle?

As I write this, I’m on month No. 4 in Spain, having spent the past three in Barcelona working in a hostel. I spent the next month in rehab (aka my parents’ house) to save money and more importantly, my liver, before returning to Spain and to my new home Salamanca, to take up a teaching job.

In Spain, everything runs about four hours behind UK time. They might be an hour ahead, but nobody’s rushing here. Even the average walking pace is slower. Granted, I spent six years in London where everyone moves as if there are tiny segways attached to their feet, but here people actually amble. This can be hell if you’re carrying large bags of shopping up the hill to your apartment and stuck behind several old dudes, but there’s something to be learned from the Spanish way of walking. You’ll get there eventually, so why rush?

Spain is weird. It’s not just the slow walking, everything is done with a kind of laissez-faire attitude which is both something we Brits could learn from, and incredibly annoying. During my first week in Barcelona, I made three trips to get my social security number. One didn’t work out because the official I was scheduled to see was out at breakfast, the second time he couldn’t find his pen. This is not a joke. Government workers especially can afford to be very chill because of their job security, but this attitude extends to everyone – office workers, bartenders, bus drivers, possibly strippers. Everybody’s chilling.

I’ve experienced a lot of this first hand when it comes to work here. My first hostel job in Barcelona required me to ‘just show up on Monday’ and they actually seemed surprised when I did. Needless to say, I didn’t stay there very long, there wasn’t much to do. Or maybe I was just four hours early. My second hostel job, while much more ordered in terms of activity, still left me with hours of chill time that I didn’t know what to do with. In London, we’re used to getting up at the crack of dawn, going to bed exhausted around 11pm and not really stopping much in between. Lunch is a hurried sandwich inhaled at your desk in between emails, not a leisurely two-hour affair. Dinner is whatever you throw together when you’ve finally gotten off the tube, not another leisurely two-hour affair. It takes some getting used to – I spent my first weeks in the country feeling like I was permanently skiving from an imaginary job, hiding from a boss that didn’t exist.

On top of the dramatically reduced pace of life, there’s the language barrier. I’m learning Spanish, but it’s a slow process. In Barcelona, everyone spoke English and my job was at a hostel for backpackers, chiefly from the US, Australia and other such places, so a knowledge of Castellano or, for that matter, Catalan, wasn’t a necessity. In Salamanca, where I’m now based, it’s a different story. You can easily go a full day without hearing a word of English, particularly if it’s out of tourist season. To be fair, that’s the whole reason I wanted to work here, to improve my Spanish, but it’s definitely a culture shock. Translating everything in and out of Spanish in your head is exhausting. It took me fifteen minutes to order a baguette yesterday.

Despite the difficulties, I’m (very slowly) becoming accustomed to the lifestyle here. I stand by my decision. It might be slow, it might be relaxed to the point of madness, but the Spanish lifestyle – indeed, the Mediterranean lifestyle as a whole – has got something right. Life isn’t something to be rushed through. It’s time we were all a bit more chill, a bit more ‘whatever’.

I’m embracing this because I wrote this post four weeks ago and couldn’t be bothered to publish it.

 

 

 

Deciding to leave: part dos

In my first post, I talked about my *cough cough* perfect Millennial life in London and the steps I took to get me into a resemblance of a grown up lifestyle. Now I’m going to talk about how everything went a bit mental.

People will look back on 2016 as the year that the world really, really messed up. Britain chose to depart from the EU, the Americans put a tiny-handed ginger Hitler in the White House and to make matters worse, we lost a bunch of beloved celebrities (whatever year it is that you’re reading this, there’s still a good chance that I haven’t gotten over the death of Prince yet). I decided to follow the trend.

At the beginning of 2016, I’d accepted an exciting new job opportunity, I was looking for a house with my then-boyfriend, we were planning our future, I was even making my own green juices (I know, I know). By June I was broke, single, and rapidly regretting my decision to take the aforementioned job as I became disillusioned with my chosen industry. I wasn’t on a huge downward spiral as such, I was just a bit lost.
It wasn’t all bad. Things hadn’t been right with my boyfriend for some time and we quickly realised that we weren’t ready for a major commitment. I re-evaluated the industry I had chosen to work in and realised that there was a lot that I didn’t agree with, but that was ok – I didn’t have to dedicate my entire life to it. Things weren’t terrible, I didn’t quite move into a garret and start drinking laudanum, but I had no idea where I was supposed to go from this point.
Then came the obligatory clichéd epiphany moment. I went on my first solo trip in October, to Barcelona, a city I’d always wanted to visit, and it was there that everything changed and suddenly the world wasn’t quite so apocalyptic anymore. It was quite possibly the large quantities of sangria, or the excellent weather, but either way I fell totally, irretrievably in love, not with a person, but with the city, and indirectly, with the idea of freedom. I realized that this new period in my life shouldn’t be seen as a failure or a crisis, but a time for new opportunities. Why should I settle into the same pattern everyone else was, when so many of them clearly weren’t happy? Why should I settle down when I actually just wanted to explore?  I was single, I had no ties, I was finally having the quarter life crisis that everyone else had been banging on about and there had clearly never been a better time to indulge the crazy streak.
So I decided to quit my job and move to Spain. I studied for my TEFL certificate, quit my job, accepted a job in Barcelona for the summer, and tried to learn Spanish properly instead of picking it up from Pitbull videos. I’m leaving in a few weeks. Some days I’m beyond excited. Some days I feel like I’ve gone completely insane. Either way, it’s pretty crazy, but I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life other than the fact that I need to make a change.
I don’t know whether I’ll make this into a blog, or a book, or just hide it somewhere on my hard drive never to be discovered. It’s a form of therapy for me in one sense, allowing me to articulate my thoughts. I also hope it will be a hilarious insight into moving abroad and all that guff about finding oneself. If anyone does read this, I hope you enjoy it. Let’s see how it goes – and don’t forget to remind yourselves of the craziest things you’ve done lately – see if you can top it.