I’m standing at the bar of a cavernous Seville flamenco club, smiling at two Spanish girls and waiting to order beers for the multinational contingent that I’ve arrived with. The bartender saunters over and asks for my order, but for an instant I’m distracted by the utter tastelessness of his hairstyle. Is that a head of hair, or the hastily constructed nest of a mountain ferret?
other demographic can match Spanish men for the passion and flair they have invested into a dizzying array of mullet variations. The comb-back, the sidewinder and even the Afro-Hedge mud flap all have such pride of place on the streets of Seville that I suspect the Spanish government of secretly offering asylum to legions of Country and Western hairstylists fleeing indictment at The Hague.
For a moment I’m distracted by the utter tastelessness of his hairstyle. Is that a head of hair, or the hastily constructed nest of a mountain ferret?
I shake my gaze loose from the mullet-rats-tail hybrid the bartender has inflicted upon himself and decide to impress the local girls with my impeccable Spanish.
“Hola,” I lean towards the barman. “Dos coño per fevore.”
He looks puzzled. “¿Perdon, dos ‘coño’…?”
Either he can’t hear me over the rowdy crowd, or he’s taking the piss. Either way, I decide to make my intentions clear.
“SI, DOS COÑO,” I shout above the chatter, this time pointing at the two girls and the beers in their hands to make it perfectly clear what I’m after.
As I say this the bar falls deathly quiet and everybody turns to stare at me. The two girls shoot me an icy glare and the barman just shakes his head in bemused disbelief.
What? All I did was ask for two ... oh, shit.
Caña, I was supposed to ask for two caña. Coño, I somewhat belatedly recall from my one and only Spanish lesson with Profesora Zoe, is local slang for what we lovingly describe in English as the ‘c-word’. And not only have I just shouted an order for two of them over the bar, I’ve pointed to two gorgeous Spanish women as I did so.
“Siento, siento,” I raise my hands with a feeble smile in apology to the girls. But to be honest, I’m not as concerned about the girls’ hurt feelings as I am by the appearance of the two beefy boyfriends behind them: they’re tall, angry and wearing skin tight muscle tees to show off their clear love of working out and beating up belligerent foreigners.
The barman, who has served enough tourists with delusions of linguistic grandeur in his time, figures out what I wanted and pushes two glasses of beer towards me.
“Tres euro,” he demands with a smirk, before adding in perfect English, “Here, you can’t order coño at the bar. Why don’t you try buying them a drink or two first?”
As the crowd erupts in laughter I grab my beers, and the remaining scraps of my dignity, and flee west across the border to Portugal.
In my mind Portugal has always been the forgotten child of Europe. Dismissed as a ‘me too’ nation because of its geographic isolation and cultural similarities to attention-hogging Spain, Portugal has spent most of its history playing catch up with its ostentatious neighbour. And to be honest, the only reason I’m paying this country a flying visit is because I know that if I don’t do it now, I probably never will.
All this is a shame, because I soon discover that Portugal is a vibrant and unique country. Its capital, Lisbon, boasts fantastic (if scruffy) architecture, cosmopolitan nightlife and a laid back, welcoming charm. And while Portuguese cuisine may be appear disappointingly simple to those more accustomed to French fine dining--the most taxing culinary skill required of Portuguese chefs is the ability to throw meat onto a grill--the ingredients are fresh the portions are generous.
But what really defies comparison between Lisbon and its Spanish cousins is the city’s wild ethnic mix. Following the decolonization of its colonies in Africa and South America, Portugal was inundated by hundreds of thousands of its former subjects. This party mix of races that now calls Portugal home and fill its streets with samba and laughter have invested Lisbon with an electric energy unmatched by any other city I’ve seen.
But not all of the new arrivals have been welcomed. While immigrants have predictably fallen onto the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, born and bred Portuguese eye them with a mixture of fascination and fear. This is made abundantly clear as I catch the last train home from a day trip clambering over an abandoned Moorish castle perched atop the world heritage town of Sintra.
I’m gazing idly about the scores of chattering Afro-Portuguese families in the carriage and smiling at a young mother and her swaggering lime-green dressed suitor seated in front of me. Minutes later we pull into a suburban station and a native Portuguese woman gets on. Her eyes dart nervously about the carriage before ignoring the dozens of free seats scattered close to her entry point and coming to take a seat next to the only non-black passenger: me.
If the mother or her Romeo take offence at this rather unsubtle racial slur, they don’t show it, but an awkwardness descends on our corner of the train. The Portuguese girl is fidgeting nervously, while a crowd of young men glower at her in frustration. Since we’ve got another half an hour till we reach the city centre, I try and diffuse the situation by reaching into my bag offering a handful of gummi bears to the young mother’s delighted toddler, and then to all those within arms reach.
With this small distraction everybody visibly relaxes and the aspiring Don Juan beams at me, shaking my hand.
“Falle Portugês?” he asks.
“Ah, name Remmie … Angola! Good to meet you!” he greets.
I spend the remainder of my trip chatting to Remmie, a first generation Portuguese, in a combination of sign language and drawings. Whenever communication become too frustrating, he just shakes my hand again and repeats the one English phrase he knows: “Name Remmie … Angola! Good to meet you!”
When we reach the city centre, Remmie insists I come with him to a nightclub in the city’s happening Barrio Alto district, and after descending a flight of dank, nondescript stairs he opens the door to a club filled with Angolans wildly convulsing to the drum beats of a performing electro-percussion group. Remmie is showered with hugs and handshakes on his arrival, and as his guest and the only white boy in the club, I suddenly find myself being offered drinks, smiles and doomed attempts at conversation. I discover that Remmie’s sister has just gotten engaged and that a squadron of their friends has booked out the club to celebrate.
Needless to say I enjoy myself thoroughly and as the first streaks of light leak out over the horizon, I find my friend and bid him farewell.
“Ciao!” Remmie grabs my hand and shakes it warmly. Wanting to say something else, but unable to find the words, he just beams. “Name Remmie … Angola! Good to meet you!”
If there is a traveller’s hell, this must surely be it. Granted, overnight buses are never the most comfortable way to travel: bad ventilation, cramped seats and non-existent suspension soon make sleep impossible and dull the luster of a night’s saved accommodation expenses. But not every overnight bus from Portugal to Spain has Sam, a Quebecan conversational parasite who is busy sucking me dry of patience as he recounts inane anecdote after anecdote from the inexhaustible supply of his mundane life.
My biggest gripe with Sam isn’t that his babbling could drive Ghandi to homicidal rage, though, it’s that he stinks. He absolutely reeks, like he hasn’t washed for days and even when he did it was using the Ukrainian basketball team’s jockstraps as a loofah.
I fight back the urge to gag on the musky stench of stale sweat, faeces and garlic and try to ignore the irritated glances of passengers kept awake by the steaming heat and Sam’s machine-gun chatter. I’m exhausted after a day spent exploring the charming medieval town of Evora, but realize there’s little prospect of getting any sleep before our 6.30 am arrival in Madrid. Oh well, I console myself, at least things can’t get much worse than this.
later we’ve pulled into a lone rest stop half-way to the capital and I burst out of the bus, almost weeping with joy as I gulp down the crisp air of the Iberian countryside. I run some laps around the service station to stretch my protesting legs and canter back to the bus a little happier, only to see its two red tail lights fading into the foggy darkness.
My biggest gripe with Sam is that he stinks. He absolutely reeks, like he hasn’t washed for days and even when he did it was using the Ukrainian basketball team’s dirty jockstraps as a loofah.
But the driver said we had fifteen minutes! It’s only been nineteen … oh.
I close my eyes slowly and take stock of the situation. I’m stranded at a lone roadside gas station three hundred kilometers from my next stop. My rucksack and daypack, along with the passport, travel documents and wad of cash they contain, are all sitting on a bus that I’m not on. It’s 2:47 am, it’s cold and I desperately want some sleep.
Things, I guess, can always get worse. Much, much worse.
I make a calculated guess that we’ve already crossed back into Spain, so when I spot a pot-bellied truck driver with a five day growth heading out of the toilet, I run up to him and point hopelessly to the horizon.
“¡Mi autobus para Madrid es salida!” I explain, breaking every known rule of Spanish grammar.
Despite the fact that the conversation that follows between us hinges on my understanding of Spanish, gleaned largely from road signs and the Barcelona Olympics theme song, the driver grasps the situation, jumps in his cab and points to his passenger seat.
“¡Prisa [hurry]!” he urges, gunning the engine before I’ve even closed the door behind me. The semi-trailer rumbles to life and within seconds we’ve taken off down the road in pursuit of my bus, my bag and the smelliest Canadian on Earth.
I spend the following adrenaline-fuelled hours hopping from truck to truck as I chase my runaway bus across the Spanish countryside. I switch trucks twice, with each generous driver taking me to the next rest stop before explaining my plight to a colleague who doesn’t hesitate to offer me an onward lift to Madrid. So having spent an unexpected night at the helm of three tonnes of detergent, pet food and what I think was plumbing supplies, I finally track down the bus and its precious, stinking cargo an hour from the capital.
I’m literally gagging with joy.
Less than four days later I’m brushing my teeth on a subway carriage as it hurtles me towards the centre of Barcelona and smiling sheepishly to the only other passenger as he studies me with disdain. So this is what it feels like to be homeless.
As a backpacker on a tight deadline and an even tighter deadline, days in transit, booked out hostels and unexpected events often leave you stranded without the security of a bed to call your own. Over the past six months I’ve slept on Serbian park benches and under German bridges, bathed in Spanish streams and Italian fountains, changed my clothes in dark Bosnian alleys and entertained myself by watching locals from Italian church steps with nothing but a bottle of cheap wine to keep me company.
So it’s almost second nature when I spy a strip of empty grass beside a swanky Barcelona office block on my last afternoon in Spain, ignore a sign forbidding pedestrians and lie down in the sun for an afternoon nap. I drift off to sleep deciding that Barcelona is my favourite Western European city so far: it’s funky without being pretentious, relaxed without being pokey and the nightlife and food are sensational.
fact I’m dreaming of my own Barcelona penthouse an hour later when I’m abruptly woken by the sound of heavy panting and something wet nudging my crotch. I open one eye to find a menacing German shepherd--lazily leashed by its irate, security-guard owner--trying to decide whether my testicles are friend or foe. Meanwhile the guard is pointing at the ‘no pedestrians’ sign and bellowing something at me in Spanish.
... I’ve slept on Serbian park benches and under German bridges, bathed in Spanish streams and Italian fountains, changed my clothes in dark Bosnian alleys and entertained myself by watching locals from Italian church steps with nothing but a bottle of cheap wine to keep me company
I groggily prop myself up on my rucksack and look around. My peaceful slumber must have looked inviting, because a dozen of Barcelona’s more bohemian vagrants have joined me on the lawn, busily chatting with sunshine on their faces and bottles of Jack Daniels in their hands. The guard has somewhat accurately identified me as the catalyst for this minor act of civil disobedience and wants us all to clear out, now.
“My train leaves in an hour,” I promise. “I’ll be gone by then.”
The guard is clearly unhappy with any response that doesn’t involve me begging forgiveness, or at least responding in Spanish. He yells a command to his dog who obediently starts barking and straining against its leash. I roll behind my pack for protection and prepare to bolt, but the bums have sensed trouble and come to my aid. Perhaps emboldened by recent protests by squatters in Pampalona, they surround the guard and taunt him, presumably about his streaking spray-on hair and split pants. The guard shrieks something angrily back, but all I understand is the word “Policia!”
I’m not sure what to do. I have no desire to become the hapless love slave of any prisoners named ‘Vigo’ that may or may not be waiting for me in the dank cells of Bareclona’s central police station, but on the other hand I feel like I’d be deserting my saviours if I leave.
As the guard calls for help on his mobile phone, one of them--a middle-aged man wearing a tattered Metallica t-shirt and a tipsy smirk--makes my decision for me.
“Go,” he tells me in tattered English. “We do this always. You, you go to jail.”
“Are you sure?”
“Si. We drink beer when you come back to Spain.”
I decide that it’s a date, turn, and run to the train station.
“Here’s the key to the apartment,” explains Frederique as she walks out the door of her small but funky abode. “Just don’t steal anything.”
This is a change. Within a few hours I’ve gone from vagrancy on the streets of Barcelona to unpacking my rucksack on the floor of a complete stranger’s home in Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France. Frederique, a young French woman with a ready smile and a couch to spare, has kindly offered to put me up for a couple of nights, despite the fact that she lives alone, we’ve never met and I won’t be paying her a cent.
Welcome to the world of couch surfing.
While searching for a cure to financially-induced homelessness in Spain, I’d stumbled across a new breed of website matching independent travellers with potential hosts. At sites like CouchSurfing.com users can create profiles for themselves and then search for fellow members and their couches in any city on the planet.
Fred has taken a significant risk by inviting me, and a fun lovin' Kenyan couchsurfer named Eric, into her home. After all, this is her first time hosting a traveller and my vague online profile can’t have done much to assure her that I haven’t redecorated my bedroom with a pastel-MDF feature wall studded with the skulls of my decapitation victims.
“How can you be so trusting?” I ask her as she hands me some sheets. “Eric and I may have spent yesterday sharpening long knives and making sacrifices to our Lord Satan. Even worse, we may have brought along the latest Avril Lavigne album.”
you might also be the two nicest people I meet this year,” she counters. “If you give up on strangers, well, that would be so sad.”
“How can you be so trusting? Eric and I may have spent yesterday sharpening long knives and making sacrifices to our Lord Satan. Even worse, we may have brought along the latest Avril Lavigne album.”
So I spend the following day strolling beneath Lyon's catalogue of monuments stealthily poached from other French capitals while discussing war, peace and racism with Eric before treating Fred out to a night on the town. And a few hours later, as Eric punches the air and whoops with delight as yet another Abba song blares out over the sound system of a cheesy Irish pub, and Fred giggles manically as she tries hopelessly to sing along, I declare the Lyon Couch Surfing Experiment of 2004 an unqualified success.
The French are really beginning to annoy me. And it’s a good thing too, because I never wanted to be here in the first place. I was planning to miss Paris and it’s infamous arrogance altogether--I'd had my fair share of rude waiters in Rome--but I suspected that if I returned to Australia after seven months in Europe without having at least munched on a croissant outside the Louvre, airport officials would smack me on the head and send me back to do the job properly.
But what I can’t stand about the Parisians themselves is that they’re just far too nice. I’ve been offered nothing but smiles, advice and patience with my pitiful French. Not one waiter has turned their nose up at me, not one shopkeeper has muttered something about uncultured English speakers. Don’t these people realise they have a cliché to live up to? After all, I’ve seen a guy wearing a black and white striped shirt and a red kerchief drinking wine and reading Camus, why couldn’t he have just spat on me as well? I would have been so much happier.
In fact the only problem I have in Paris comes during my visit to the Eiffel Tower, which has been put on a terrorism alert along with the rest of the city. Public bins have been replaced with clear plastic bags, two military helicopters are buzzing about the spire and dozens of uniformed soldiers are swarming around the tower’s base, stroking their sub machine guns and scanning the crowd for facial hair.
I pause to consider why a terrorist would try and take out a handful of Japanese tourists huffing their way up the world’s most useless lump of steel, before remembering that the government itself has tried to do it before. Long considered a blight on the Parisian skyline, it was the deft thinking of a ministry official who saved the International Expo showpiece from demolition by sticking a telegraphic antenna on top and Voila!, a tourist attraction was born.
I’m dejectedly calculating how many coffees I’ll be missing by forking out €3 for the climb (1.2) when a squad of soldiers and their aforementioned sub-machine guns rush in and surround me. Everyone in the queue jumps back, convinced I’m about to kill them all, and the squad leader barks something to me in French, which I loosely interpret to mean “Hey you Middle Eastern looking, unshaven foreigner, take that potentially explosive device off your back or we’ll use our shiny new guns.”
“Ne pas de problem,” I offer nervously, laying my pack on the ground to a collective intake of breath from the waiting tourists, probably convinced I’m about to press the emergency detonation button.
I motion for the soldier to open the pack and he does so carefully, while I regret having packed my dirty laundry at the very top for all to see. Two other soldiers join their leader now, emptying the contents of my bag onto the ground. It takes ten nerve-racking minutes of rifling through my clothes and assailing me with the usual list of questions before everyone seems satisfied I’m guilty of nothing more than mixing colours and whites.
“Bien,” concludes the leader as a gust of wind blows across the base of the tower, scattering my clothes. “Enjoy the view.”
I’d like to follow this advice, I really would, but unfortunately my lasting memory of the Eiffel Tower will be darting madly back and forth, chasing my dirty underwear around it’s feet to the delight of the photo-snapping gawkers.
At least I now have one reason to hate the French.
“Hi, you must be Ally!” chirps Narham as she greets me at her door with the obligatory three pecks on the cheek.
Having reclaimed all my clothing from Eiffel’s base, I’ve set off to meet Narham, a glittery young local fashion designer (and fellow couch surfer) who has saved me from Paris’s seedy hostels with the offer of some spare floor space. I don’t know it yet, but I’ll be spending the night partying with Narham and her friends as she celebrates her 29th birthday and her imminent departure to New York’s Fashion Week. I’ll be up till five in her stylish studio, sipping champagne, getting’ down to some neo-Funk and yet again having a unreasonably good time thanks to the generosity of total strangers.
But I don’t know any of this yet. All I’m thinking as Narham bounces through her flat to show me where to stash my rucksack is that I’m about to spend yet another night in yet another foreign bed, in yet another foreign country, surrounded by yet another group of total strangers.
Narham opens the door to her living room with a flourish. “Welcome home.”
Yeah, I guess it is.