My first real holiday abroad as an adult was to Barcelona with a couple of school friends, to celebrate our early forays into gainful employment. As lowly members of the London workforce we were just about able to stretch to some budget flights and a shared triple room in a dingy two-star hotel off the famous Las Ramblas. This was in the era before we all had high-def digital cameras in our pockets. Instead, we used something called a “throwaway” camera that, once you’d taken about 25 pictures, had to be taken to a shop to be developed. And a week or so later they’d hand back to us a load of (usually blurry) printed photos! So the image quality here isn’t great and only a handful of pictures from this trip were of good enough to be shared publicly.
I remember we flew from Luton airport, back before they started suffering delusions of unearned grandeur and billing themselves as “London-Luton”. This was about a year after the 9/11 attacks in the USA and so, unsurprisingly, this trip was also my first introduction to the curse of #FlyingWhileMuslim. I didn’t realise it at the time but being aggressively cross-examined by contemptuous border guards would be a constant aggravation throughout my world travels – even when arriving home at British ports! No matter how much progress we make as a species, border staff will always be the one occupation where being racist not only remains acceptable, but seems to be a pre-requisite for getting the job!
NOTE: In the interests of fairness, I will give credit to the handful of airports where I’ve never experienced racial profiling or been made to feel like a criminal. So kudos to Melbourne, Las Vegas, Houston and most places east of the UAE – where I suspect the clout of my European Union passport spares me from prejudice at ports.
Anyway, the three of us arrived in Barcelona in September 2002 for a 5-day holiday. I was the only one who didn’t speak a word of Spanish, while the others had gone to the effort of learning the basics at least. This left me feeling pretty powerless and very vulnerable, if I’m brutally honest. I was so embarrassed by my inability to communicate that I made sure the next time I went to visit Spain I spoke enough of the language to make myself understood and navigate the country with more confidence.
We did get plenty of opportunity to see a lot of the city itself, as all of us were young and fit enough to walk for hours. Which we did. And we also got lost… a lot. (No smartphones or Google Maps in those days, kids!!) But that also meant we saw a lot of things that most tourists never get to see.
We also managed to find time for a day trip to Montserrat in the Catalonian mountains to see the Santa Maria de Montserrat monastery. I vaguely remember the train and cable car journeys. But I’ll admit I might be imagining it and we may have walked up there.
Memorable highlights? There were plenty of them, even though we weren’t there very long.
- Wandering through the Vila Olímpica area and seeing the kind of hedonism that sheltered young boys from religiously conservative families like us have never experienced before.
- Getting propositioned by prostitutes any time were out and about after dark, including outside our hotel – which we’d booked without realising it was in a red light area of the city.
- Visiting the Nou Camp football stadium, Gothic Quarter and Sagrada Familia in person was an amazing experience and made our humdrum home town seem very small and banal in comparison.
- The new experience of being able to sit outside a cafe to sip coffee and munch on tapas, which is rarely possible in wet and dreary Britain.