I once had breakfast belly up to the bar at a dive somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Spanish countryside wearing only a pink Victoria’s Secret night shirt. This may not be going where you think it’s going.
I studied abroad in London during my junior year of college. I lived in a flat not far from Kensington Palace in distance but about as far as you can get from Kensington Palace in size and décor. I shared this two-bedroom fourth floor walk-up flat with three great friends 23 years ago. They are still great friends today.
Two of the friends and I traveled together throughout much of Europe for a month during our university’s holiday. (I am speaking with a British accent in my head as I type this, and I just sat up straighter in my chair.) These friends — we will call them Tracy and Jill because those are their names and they said I could use them— and I planned out our trip in advance in as far as choosing the cities we would visit and a general time frame for when we would visit them. That was about it. We packed efficiently for the trip rolling our jeans, leggings, flannel shirts, turtlenecks, t-shirts, and I my pink Victoria’s Secret night shirt, into our oversized framed backpacks which quite possibly weighed more than we did. We shared one copy each of a dog eared 1995 Fodor’s Europe and Let’s Go Europe guidebook book in lieu of any portable online resources that had yet to be invented.
We stayed in hostels throughout Spain, France, Switzerland and Italy often sharing rooms with strangers – many European travelers, several Australian and a few Americans. We slept with our passports and traveler’s checks secured in our canvas and velcro wallets on strings hanging from our necks to ensure that our stranger roommates would not steal our most precious and necessary valuables.
We shared one overnight train car from Seville to Barcelona with one tough looking, large Spanish stranger who smoked and told us he was in the F-ing army. We made little conversation with him and less eye contact. Our train car had two sets of mini bunkbeds decorated with thin itchy blankets. Tracy and Jill shared one set, and I shared the other with the F-ing army guy. He chose the top bunk. I settled into the bottom one for the six plus hour train ride.
In a not so well thought out move, I changed under my itchy thin train blanket out of my jeans, bra and t-shirt into my super soft and worn in light pink Victoria’s night shirt. It was hot in the train car. I wanted to be cozy and get a good night’s sleep thinking ahead to touring the Gaudi architecture in Barcelona the following morning. I dozed in and out of sleep that night imagining, or perhaps dreaming, that our train had stopped and was no longer moving.
I wasn’t dreaming. Very early the next morning, we were woken up by an announcement in broken Spanish that our train had been stuck for most of the night unable to pass an accident ahead of us. At least that’s what Jill’s four years of high school Spanish said. The F-ing army guy rushed us out of our train car motioning with his big Spanish F-ing army guy hands to move on and get out of the train car. We threw our giant framed backpacks on our backs and got off the train as fast as we could. We thought we smelled smoke.
We made our way into the early morning light of the Spanish countryside and walked beyond the train tracks into a cloud of dirt. It was old Western movie kind of dirt — the kind that billows in the air and then clears for the movie villain to appear ready to fight the good guys for the land. There was no villain, but we definitely felt like the good guys. Where the villain was supposed to be standing sat an old building, and we followed our fellow train passengers into the building which we soon discovered was a bar.
And that is when I found myself sitting belly up to the bar with Tracy and Jill on either side of me wearing nothing but my pink Victoria’s Secret night shirt. We were hungry having not eaten since an early dinner at the Seville train station the evening before. The bartender gave us water, and we split a pack of wint-o-green lifesavers that Jill fished out of one of the small compartments in her giant backpack. That would be our breakfast, and it would have to do.
It was then and there over the water and wint-o-green lifesaver breakfast that we broke into smiles, then giggles, then fits of laughter. We laughed harder than I had imagined I could, letting go of what felt like hours of pent up what the hell is going on here nervous energy. We laughed so hard, tears came out of our eyes.
Almost a full day later. We made it to Barcelona via two long bus rides which we hoped but didn’t know at the time (based on Jill’s high school Spanish) would get us to the right destination.
Tracy and Jill live in Northern California now not far from each other. I live 3,000 miles away from them in Eastern Pennsylvania. We are legitimate grownups now each with kids of our own who are legitimately closer to the age we were during our night with the F-ing army stranger guy on the train that left of us somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Spain.
Every once in a while, via an in-person visit, a phone call, an email or a text, one of us will mention the F-ing army guy, the night on the train and the lifesaver breakfast at the bar. Then usually the conversation will turn into a walk down memory lane as we recall the time we jumped the subway turnstile in Madrid, dried our soaking wet clothes off with the hand dryer in the public bathroom at Monet’s gardens in Giverny or the night we slept at a convent in Switzerland and nursed Tracy back to health with strange looking and apparently very strong over the counter Swiss drugs. My favorite memory will always be the one with the F-ing army guy on the train in Spain.
The 21-year-old kid in me is smiling ear to ear right now remembering how clueless we were and how hard we laughed. The 44-year-old mother in me has a pit in my stomach imagining my own kids in a bar somewhere in the Spanish countryside with no access to anything, not much of an understanding of the language, no way to get in touch with me and such a poor choice of wardrobe for this kind (or really any kind) of situation.
My parents had no idea where I was for most of my travels (and really for most of my teenage and young adult life.) On the big Europe trip with Tracy and Jill, I’d check in with my parents a few times from a payphone in some city square, and if they weren’t home to receive my call, I’d try again in another city — maybe.
Somewhere in the middle of that 21-year-old kid and the 44-year-old mother is the overthinking, contemplative, writer me. I’m wondering if a memory like the one in the Spanish bar could be made today. Kids who go away to college, to study abroad and to travel anywhere are much more connected to life back at home through technology. This is a good thing says the mother in me who texts my kids to tell them I’m running five minutes late to pick them up at the soccer field seven minutes away from our house.
If my kids found themselves stranded at a dive bar in the Spanish countryside early one morning, the whole internet could know about it in a matter of minutes through a Snapchat or Instagram story. My kids could look up an alternate route to their destination on Google Maps, find out when the next train is coming through a transit app and maybe even find a ride on Uber. (I’m thinking Uber X what with the bar being so remote in the Spanish countryside.)
I want my kids to have access to all of this technology, I want access to it. I want to know that they are safe, and I want to know where they are. But I also kind of don’t want to know where they are.
I want them to laugh their asses of early one morning or late one night in some place with some friends in some situation that they could never really describe to me even if they tried.
I want them to feel untethered to me — in a way in which I am not sure is possible — but also in a way I want to be possible — I think. I want them to go out and experience the world in their very own ways and create their own no one would understand this memory but me.
I just want them to make better wardrobe choices when they do that.