My first ten weeks in Madrid were spent worrying about finding an apartment, worrying about finding another apartment, making friends, starting work, filling out the necessary resident paperwork, and flopping around in Spanish. Because one of the main reasons I chose to come to Spain this year was to travel to places in Europe I didn’t get to see the first time around, the pressure began to build as soon as I felt settled.
Over the first long weekend I had from work, I went to Lisbon with the brand-new boyfriend. We took Bla Bla Car there and back. It was my first time using it, and I was initially nervous–not because I was afraid the drivers were serial killers or rapists, but because the idea of driving in a car with a stranger for six hours sounded like a true nightmare. I made myself small in the backseat and talked as little as possible. I probably looked like the killer.
Lisbon isn’t what I thought it would be. I imagined this ideal city, a romantic one in which the people speak not only a language I speak, but one I love, and who are more melancholy than the average Brazilian. A place I’d want to live forever, if only I had the opportunity. In reality, I hardly got to speak Portuguese because everybody there assumes no tourist knows it, and also because they’re all rock stars at English. I tried to force it anyway, which more often than not just made the exchange awkward and probably a great study in code-switching. I found the melancholy stereotype pretty accurate, which was refreshing after so many years in close-talking, loud-speaking, hand-flinging countries. Lisbon looks a lot more like Brazil than I thought it would. I assumed the run-down colonial buildings in Rio were a product of a lack of money or care to maintain them, which does lend a feeling of derelict romanticism, but the buildings in Lisbon look much the same. I felt like I was back in Brazil, which was not a feeling I was expecting to have. What stands out to me about Lisbon is that although it’s certainly a whimsical place full of grand things, the city feels abandoned once dark falls. It’s eerie how hard it is to find a substantial cluster of people after 8pm. The streets feel dark and lonely and almost dangerous in their emptiness.
Two weeks later my Christmas break started, and a few days later I headed to Istanbul with my roommate and her sister.
Istanbul is a magical place set in the past. I stayed in Sultanahmet, which is where the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque reside. Men sold ornate lamps and silk scarves in the Grand Bazaar, beginning each potential sell with “Yes, please.” “Yes, please, come inside.” “Yes, please, give me your money.” Never before have I been to a country where I didn’t speak the language at least a little bit, and considering something as simple as “thank you” in Turkish is the six-syllabled “teşekur ederim,” I didn’t learn much before going. It was daunting, but not as difficult as I had imagined. Not many people spoke English well, but most spoke at least a few words. I’m always impressed that so many people around the world speak English. It’s amazing how global a language it has become, regardless of how that makes people feel.
Istanbul is the closest I’ve ever been to Asia–technically just inside it, upon arrival at the airport. It was a treat to experience something different, to wake up and drink Turkish coffee and eat lentil soup with pita bread, to smoke hookah more in three days than I ever have while watching a dervish whirl. To go to a reggae bar and pet all the workers’ pets they bring with them (it’s been too long since I’ve pet a kitten). To be awoken at dawn by the call to prayer, which sounded ominous the first day, but by the last day it just lulled me back to sleep, barely a punctuation mark in my dreams.
We had only a brief stint in Athens, two extended layovers on our way in and out of Santorini, a Greek island. Our first was on Christmas day, when we ate a lackluster meal and were plied with free wine. A quick night’s sleep in a drafty hostel and we were off again, bleary-eyed and hungover.
We spent four days on Santorini. The entire island was a ghost town of apocalyptic proportions. It rained three out of the four days we were there, me umbrella-less in suede shoes. Many of the businesses close during the winter because there are so many fewer tourists, so we had trouble finding an open restaurant that served more than coffee and drinks. We spent one rainy day at the salon, where the hairdresser told us December isn’t even the slowest month. I imagined that by going in a down-month I’d have a paradise all to myself, but as we sat in a barely-open restaurant on a non-existent beach in what I can only describe as a gale, rain soaking my inappropriate shoes, I saw how wrong I’d been.
There was one sunny day, a burst of hope. We rented a car and drove to Oía, the first settlement on the island, high up on the cliffs. I got to drive for the first time in months, up and up around a winding mountain road til we could go no farther. We got out and walked among the steep, white houses like you see when you google “Greek islands”. We stayed for the sunset, a pink thing bursting behind a volcano. Present-day Santorini is shaped like a crescent moon with a volcano in the middle, but it used to be a circular island, before the volcano erupted and formed a caldera around it. The water is dark, deep-blue, and lethal-looking.
One afternoon I had an unusual solitary moment, walking back from a few hours of coffee and reading. I rounded the bend to our place and from that hill I could see the sea. I was on an island in the Aegean and it was mostly gray and my shoes were kind of wet but it wasn’t raining and I was on an island in the Aegean. For me, for now, it’s worth the sacrifice of a well-paying job and a car and roots and less debt to spend one more year living this.
We made it back to Madrid on New Year’s Eve in time to watch everyone eating their grapes at midnight. I heard someone dies every year from choking on the grapes, unnoticed among all the flailing and revelry. I smoked a stranger’s rolled cigarette against a guardrail at the stroke of midnight, happy amid all the spilled champagne.