Do you remember your first trip abroad? Do you remember everyone telling you to take lots of photos and keep a journal because you would be really glad to be able to go back and remember? I know people roll their eyes at the thought of writing a journal or carrying a camera (thank God for smart phones). I know it’s a pain to actively record the good times rather than just go out and have good times and I don’t advocate trying to commit every sensory experience to paper. All that aside, if you are going somewhere amazing or doing something important, you really should create some type of basic record.
One of my first trips abroad was a school trip to Spain. Everyone told me to take photos. Everyone told me to keep a journal. Everyone told me I would cherish those records for my whole life. I ignored everyone. To be fair, I was a new freshman trying to fit in by not standing out. I did bring a colossal camera (circa 2002 model) but I didn’t use it much and soon lost it. I don’t have a single photo from that trip.
It was a costly lesson to learn. Unlike other trips I’ve taken since, my memories of Spain are very foggy. That trip changed who I was and shaped me into the person I am now. But, all the same, I don’t remember much about it. I vaguely remember that I saw some Moorish arches. We stopped at some sort of palace that was used in a scene in The Phantom Menace. I remember an antiwar protest in the streets of Madrid and driving by olive trees. I remember drinking Fantá Limón in highball glasses, which made me feel like an expatriated Hemmingway drinking wine as he roamed the cafés and bullfights.
And so we come to the heart of this essay in which I’ve recorded some of the most distinct memories from that trip. Each memory is important because it taught me something about who I was. Those experiences helped define me. They helped me navigate the treacherous waters ahead as friendships were formed, experience grew, and the tone for high school was set. Now, all I have left is a salvage operation but better late than never.
My first memory is of getting sick. Dangerously sick. I felt like I was going to die but we’d just arrived and I didn’t want to spend the day sleeping in the hotel. I wanted to adapt to the time zone quickly and see everything with everyone else. Our group walked around for hours. By the time I reached my hotel room for the night I never wanted to be conscious again.
In the middle of the night I started hallucinating. I woke up freezing cold and feeling feverish so, in a semi rational state, I thought a hot bath would help. I lay there soaking until the water got cold. I completely lost sense of time. It felt like years. It could have been five minutes. The water might never have been hot in the first place. At some point, I realized I was cold again and I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the hot water. I started turning the water on and off. As I did this, I started hallucinating that I was a witch adding something to a magic potion.
Eventually, I woke my roommates up and they knocked on the door. Despite their concerns, they didn’t want to come in to help, considering I was probably naked. Instead, they awkwardly asked if I needed some help. Their tone suggested they would prefer I dye naked and alone in a bathtub of cold water. I (apparently) yelled back angrily, “I’m washing my feet!” I then became totally enraged, got out of the bath, and stormed back to bed. The three of them looked at each other in confusion and relief, feeling they had dodged a very uncomfortable bullet. The next day they told Sarah Parker (a senior and the hottest girl in the school) about my nighttime wanderings. She thought this was hilarious. It was highly embarrassing but it did create a kind of friendship between us. All in all, it was a win.
Later I would have the opportunity to redeem myself. One of my roommates was in the bathroom when he started yelling in a very panicked voice for me to “come in and help!” If you think helping a sick, naked boy out of the bathtub is bad, imagine having to go into help a friend with an undisclosed bathroom emergency right after you hear the toilet flush.
“Do I have to?” I yelled back. My friend became even more hysterical at this so I rushed in. Fortunately, he had his pants on. Apparently his manhood extended only as far as peeing while standing up, but not to retrieving the toilet paper, which he had clumsily knocked into the bowl. Because I am a hero I gingerly snatched it out before we had a full-scale overflow in the bathroom. Then I washed my hands for about 30 minutes all the while thinking that this little endeavor, terrible as it was, would probably be a bonding experience and we would be friends for the rest of our lives. We lost touch shortly after, but that’s high school.
I remember going to a Flamenco dance performance. We sat at this table, ate a few overpriced tapas and watched the performance. We’d been sitting in complete darkness for about an hour when, suddenly, a flash of the brightest white light burned into our retinas. It was a photographer who sold photos after the show. I’d never experienced anything like this before so I really didn’t understand the concept. To me, it was just a complete stranger skulking up to our table in the pitch black and taking a photo for no reason. Needless to say, we didn’t buy the photo at the end (my friends and I were recoiling from the brightness and looking completely shocked).
The next and final memory I have is about chasing women. This concept was very exciting to 14-year-old boys, although we didn’t have the foggiest idea how it was done. We had gone into the girls’ room, hoping for a little 9th grade flirting. The girls were never interested in us to begin with since we were silly immature boys with acne, but our timing was terrible. Upon arrival, we discovered the girls were already swooning over some dreamy Spaniard who had come looking for some ice wearing only a towel. As they told it, he was a tall, dark, very cut underwear model with sexy accent. The man in the towel reappeared in the hallway and the girls literally shoved us out the door so they could go loiter by the ice machine.
We went back to our rooms to mope until someone happened to look out the window and saw an amazing Spanish woman in the skyscraper across from us. She had just gotten out of the shower and could only be described as a Victoria Secret model. It didn’t take long before every single boy in our travel group got wind of this and came crowding into our room to take a look. We were all shoving each other to get a better look out the window and then darting behind the curtain. We kept turning the light off so that she couldn’t see us spying on her, but people kept banging into each other in the dark, forcing us to turn the light back on repeatedly. If the girl hadn’t noticed us before, she certainly did when our room turned into a strobe light. She closed the blinds.
Things settled down for a moment but then the Victoria Secret Model came out onto her balcony in nothing but short shorts and a bra. Naturally, we assumed she was so turned on by the attentions of a group of 14 year-olds spying on her that she decided on a little exhibitionism. We started yelling sure-fire pick-up lines like, “HI” and “WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” from our balcony. I, being the biggest buzz-kill in the group, started to worry we could get into some kind of trouble for this. Everyone else in the room was just asked, “What could happen? She has no idea who we are.” I responded that she could obviously call our hotel’s front desk to say that a large group of English-speaking tween boys were catcalling her. We would certainly be carted off to a Spanish jail for sexually harassing a Victoria Secret Model. The guys paused for a full second before turning around and yelling out the window “YOU’RE HOT! WHAT’S YOUR PHONE NUMBER?”
By the grace of God, she waved at us. It was a breathtaking moment. We had found our primal masculinity. No woman could resist us. We were Casanovas of the traveled world with set jaws of cold steel. Then it got better: she started yelling back to us. Although we couldn’t understand her, she was clearly inviting us to come over to her room for… a nightcap? I have no idea what. I was 14. I wouldn’t have known what to do with a woman if I had one. I just knew I wanted one.
And then it all came crashing down. She yelled something very sexy in our direction and someone yelled something back. But it wasn’t someone in our room. It wasn’t even in our language. The underwear model was a floor above us and he had also been lobbing romance at the Victoria Secret model from his balcony.
He was a much more successful Romeo then we were. She seemed to be shouting an invitation to come over, but it wasn’t for our benefit. She hadn’t even seen us. We were as insignificant as the white noise of the honking traffic below. There was a moment where everything became clear. We were not the apex of masculine appeal. Maybe one day we would be the older sexy underwear models but for now we were just boys barely past Legos and matchbox cars. In complete silence some of us hid behind the curtain and someone switched the lights off. Dejectedly, the group splintered off until only my roommates and myself remained. Later that night everyone sneaked back up to the girls’ room to play cards. It wasn’t much fun. They were equally gloomy at their inability to entice the Spanish underwear model and neither sex was particular interested in the other, given the current options.
These are my memories of Spain. They are foggy at best and I am sure none of it happened exactly the way I remember it. Although my memories are not clear, I know that this adventure was formative for me. It made me realize for the first time how vast the world really was. It’s a remarkable experience when a 14 year-old boy starts to apprehend the scope of creation for the first time and reaches out to touch it. You don’t want to miss that. Bring a camera.