It's been a long time since 22...

by Phoebe Blyth

 

It had been a hell of a travel day.

Travel day (n): a day in which one undertakes the arduous process of relocating oneself from one place to another.

See also: 'protracted, self-inflicted hell'; 'near-divorce-inducing-frustration'; and 'the-reason-most-people-choose-not-to-leave-the-comfort-of-home-in-the-first-place'

  Are we there yet??

Are we there yet??

After surviving our first year as international educators living in Saudi Arabia, our long-awaited summer in Spain had finally arrived, and things were not exactly going as planned. Our original, one-leisurely-stop-over-in-Paris-yay-lounges-macarons-and-wine flight (for which we had been so excited) had been cancelled a few hours before departure, and we had been rerouted to a refuel-in-Jeddah-at-three-am-with-40-minutes-to-make-our-connection-Islamic-airline-no-wine-for-you flight (for which we were less thrilled). Mercifully, we had made the connection (we weren't keen to start our summer by repeating the unplanned sleepover we had had in Addis Ababa back in April...)* and were currently descending into Barcelona. 

*I realize that the punctuation is getting a little out of control. I shall try to reel it in.

I watched through the window as the country side become pock-parked with buildings, and slowly rose up to meet us. I love having an aerial view of the world. I love looking for places you can't see from the roads or sidewalks. I love getting that perspective. It's one of the reasons I'm drawn to climbing tall things, I suppose. As we touched down in Barcelona, I remarked to Ronnie (my more-than-usually-bearded-because-of-Summer husband**) that this was the airport I had visited most in the world, in which city neither I nor any of my family had ever lived. Let me explain. 

**Eh. I tried.

My mum died, suddenly, when I was 21. The year I turned 22, I deferred my post-graduate studies, broke up with my boyfriend, bought a one way ticket to Europe, brought forward the date of that ticket, went out on my own and did stupid, dangerous things, and (unbeknownst to me at the time) fell for the man I would eventually marry. Barcelona lay at the geographical epicenter of all of this drama. Barcelona was the first city I had flown into completely alone, with no plan, and no safety net, and I had flown or driven back into it at least five times over the next few months, as I fumbled to make sense of my own decisions. 

  Dancing to a busker in the shadow of a cathedral courtyard in Barcelona, age 22. Photo by future husband.

Dancing to a busker in the shadow of a cathedral courtyard in Barcelona, age 22. Photo by future husband.

As our (present day) taxi drove us from the airport to our AirBnb, I scanned the buildings hungrily for memories of the place which I felt had been the catalyst for so many decisions I had made in my life. I willed myself to remember what it had felt like to wander these streets alone, feeling apprehensive; and later, hand-in-hand, feeling elated and infatuated; and later again, feeling hopeless and defeated. And yet, I struggled to really feel those memories. Had I been here five times? Or was it three? Had I really spent two weeks wandering around by myself? Or had it only been a few days? My memories were eluding me.

It's been a long time since 22. 

When Ronnie and I first travelled together, we often found ourselves on long bus or train rides, since we couldn't afford to rent a car. We saturated one another with music - one headphone each - and tried to outdo each other's knowledge of obscure covers and live versions. One of the albums we listened to was a live recording of various artists telling the stories behind their famous songs (imaginatively titled "Storytellers") and on one track, John Mayer seductively outlined the creative process behind the song "Who Says" (well, I found it seductive, anyhow). He talked about having come up with the lyrics for the verse and chorus separately, and not being able to tie them together until he thought of the line "it's been a long time since 22". He talks about how we try to stay true to who we are, but how we change as we get older. Well, he includes a not-so-subtle plug about how famous and rich he is, but the general sentiment is universal.

  Flowers in a church courtyard in Barcelona

Flowers in a church courtyard in Barcelona

Coming back to a place which symbolizes so many emotional turning points in my life, but which was never my home, has been disorienting. Over the last few days, I have been frequently startled by memories. I made elaborate (and, ultimately, futile) plans to visit this "really cool, really underground" club, and when we drove past it (and saw that it was closed) I was suddenly slammed with the realization that 22 year old me had been there (I remembered having to search all five floors for my friend, who had ditched me at the door). We were eating lunch in an area I was sure was new to me, and I was gazing idly at a non-descript, vegetarian restaurant across the street, when it dawned on my that I'd met up with a Spanish climber from Couch Surfing there, three days after first arriving in Barcelona. A girl in a bar recommended a live music venue (which was amazing), and as we left in the wee hours of the morning, I stopped short, confronted by a stone fountain next to which I had sat, waiting for a moment of panic to subside, the sound of the water as clear in my memory as it was in my ears. I have been following the ghost of my 22 year old self around this city. 

  Where we slept in 2012

Where we slept in 2012

However, this isn't just about me. After the first time we broke up, and got back together (there were multiple times), Ronnie flew to meet me in Madrid, and, when his other plans fell through (see: travel day) he decided to come with me to the mountains. Even though he had never climbed before, and I warned him there was very little to do there but climb (and have raging, screaming fights, as we discovered***), and even though he had NO camping equipment (not even a sleeping mat), we drove together out to Rodellar.

***It's important to point out that this was a very confusing time, and we were very young, and we now employ much healthier methods of communication when we have a disagreement. Like passive-aggressively washing the dishes in the loudest way possible while the other person pretends they can't hear. 

The week we spent in Rodellar, post-break-up-and-reunion, was a turbulent one, and yet when we started planning what to do with our first fully paid Summer holiday (yay for careers in education), this was the first place to which we wanted to come back. We had fantasized for hours in those days about having more time, more money, a better plan, a car... hell, a sleeping mat would have been a big step. And so we planned our dream climbing holiday for our first summer. 

Driving back up the road to Rodellar was different from being in Barcelona. This time, both of us remembered, and would exclaim at intervals "I remember that little sign!"; "that's where we pulled over to look up directions that one time"; "I forgot how windy this road is!" We were both nervous about what it would mean to come back here, but excited to see if we could "get it right" this time.

  Ronnie looking out over Rodellar valley, having stood in the same place six years earlier

Ronnie looking out over Rodellar valley, having stood in the same place six years earlier

I spent the last couple of months of the school year discussing The Great Gatsby with my year ten English class, and I agree with Nick Carroway - "you can't repeat the past" - but nor would I want to. I do, however, want to hold onto a little of what it felt like, experiencing these places for the first time, and reflect on all the things which have changed and remained constant in the long, long time, since 22.