Just beyond Customs, a woman, one half of a sleepy couple who look like they just rolled out of bed and tumbled, still murmuring, to the airport, holds a sign with my name on it. In the car I think, they could be serial killers and I have fallen for an elaborate ruse, but as we drive further into the city, she grows kind and starts to point out landmarks and discuss the program and my living arrangements while I'm here: two other students will share the apartment; she personally has stocked our kitchen; call if we need anything.
The city stretches out along the sea like an ancient, beautiful statue turned on its side, its face open to the sun. "Did you know that Christopher Columbus was from Catalonia?" she asks as we circle around a priapic tower with a figure of Columbus at the top. Past the port we continue up La Rambla, a main artery clogged with tourists and bursting with colorful markets and noisy cafes. Finally, we plunge into the Gothic Quarter where light is choked off by old buildings, which are connected by raggy ropes of laundry drying overhead.
At first glance the neighborhood looks like an American's realized fantasy of Old World Europe with cobblestone paths, gas lamps closed in foggy glass and cool, gray-faced buildings. Snaky streets dart this way and that and then open onto squares and courtyards with gushing fountains.
Our apartment sits on a street so narrow you feel like you could stand in the middle and touch the buildings on either side. At the top of the interior stone stairway, a tiny window in the ceiling lets in a drop of sun; otherwise the space is dark. The man, still rumpled and withdrawn, drags my suitcase up three flights.
Key in the lock: "Home." The door opens and a pillow of musty air hits me in the face.
My roommates have already arrived and are sleeping off jet leg behind closed doors. I put away my things in the last small room with a thin mattress and a sliver of a window. I look outside and feel a stunned ache at the novelty of this home. The cold tile floor seems coated with three hundred years of dirt, a grime impossible to clean with normal soap. One would have to scrape it tile by tile, on their knees, with a putty knife to make any progress. And, yet still it would not have a distinct color. The entire place seems to have a dusty veil thrown over it.
After unpacking my deep suitcase I go investigate the kitchen and find that the overhead light doesn't work. The apartment is so dark it feels like a cave I've tunneled my way into, like I'd opened a manhole cover on La Rambla and shimmied underground to find this place.
Opening the fridge I am unimpressed. Yogurt, milk and a jar of tomato sauce are the only contents. In the pantry: boxes of dry pasta and muesli. I want to wait to meet my roommates before venturing out and don't feel like cooking, so I shake some muesli into a big bowl in the dark kitchen, pull up a chair to the formica table and take a bite.
It tastes fuzzy. It tastes green.
In the shadowy kitchen it looks fine, but clearly something isn't right. I take the bowl into my room and hold it under a dim lamp. The oats are suspended in a soft white mold. I run back to wash out my mouth and just then, one of the bedroom doors opens.
My roommate looks like a bright sunflower against the apartment's gray walls.
"Hi. I'm Emily."
"Hi. I just ate mold."
We cross La Ramba on our way to the subway station. The streets are clean and Barcelona's populace looks dazzling and regal, like the descendants of bejeweled Renaissance royalty. Businessmen in suits stand at cafés reading the morning's news over tiny cups of strong coffee, and women walk with purpose in tall heels, swinging shiny leather briefcases.
In white sneakers and big backpacks slung over our shoulders we are from another world; we are the descendants of scrappy Puritans.
In the subway station the crowd grows thick and loud, and we hurry with the throng down the steps, rushing toward the platform where the train, already packed with people, waits. A warning from the conductor. Quick. People push behind us, and I thrust my arm between the subway car's closing doors with enough momentum that my backpack slips off my shoulder, down my arm and into the car. The doors don't bounce open.
I'm able to jerk my arm out of the closed doors, but my backpack is caught inside and I grip it by the one strap that is sticking out of the jaws of the train.
Through the windows of the car, passengers look at me with blank eyes, motionless. The train starts to move.
Emily grabs the strap too and we jog along the track with the moving train, shrieking, pulling as hard as we can. We make it halfway down the platform when the conductor finally concedes defeat to the American terriers in this fierce tug-of-war, stops the train and opens its doors.
We stumble back onto the platform with the backpack containing my passport and my laptop and my life. The commuters still watch like bored, impassive ghosts.
We wait for the next train.
Young, we feel bullied by the strange circumstances presented, again and again, by the city and the selves we have discovered within it.
The romance of the Gothic Quarter has been whittled down, day after day, until I am left only with grotesque splinters of images: at night the gas lamps illuminate endless piles of cat shit; a man flashes a knife at a girl on her walk home down the cobblestone; drunks in ever-gray doorways piss and leer.
On the last day I am burning up with fever. I've been kept out late for long midnight dinners and awoken, always too early, to learn. I've been stuffed with tapas and saturated with sangria. Now I yearn to eat something not bathed in olive oil, something not caught from the sea, something not served out of terracotta.
I would like a tasteless microwaved dinner before going to bed at a reasonable hour in a high-ceilinged suburban room, frozen with conditioned air.
One night like that would give me strength for the continuing journey.
We trudge down the street to pack our rental car. No one is here to drag our suitcases for us or tell us what to do. We are our own navigators, and so we've readied ourselves with maps and guidebooks, one of which explains that only Catalonians believe that Columbus was Catalonian.
We will drive north along the Mediterranean with everything belonging to us within this small car.
But first, we want America in our mouths.
To spite the city and to try to capture a taste of a faraway, and therefore mythic, home, we walk to the ubiquitous, unofficial embassy for all longing Americans. But, this McDonald's does not look familiar. My fever and the crush of people make it feel like a wavering, chaotic dream. I slump in the long line.
Though it's the middle of the day, all the customers look like the nighttime demons of the Gothic Quarter come to life. Next to us, a man, whose face is covered with wounds, some stitched, some fresh, inches closer and closer to us until we shrink, guiltily, away from him. He sees our repulsion and smiles, showing yellow teeth, and puts a hand on my shoulder and then slides it slowly down my arm. The gesture begins as reassurance and ends as an insult.
We fight our instinct to run, and we wait for our warm paper bags and cold waxy cups and take a last walk down La Rambla to the packed car. Though not hungry, I eat my fries through my fever and taste tears in my throat.
Emily looks over at me, her roommate turned inside out by the city, and drives.