I haven’t seen the sea yet but I know it’s nearby.
Anchors on ankles and waves on wrists give the game away. Girls with bodies as waxed as their boards push by. Boys flip and flop, but stay in one place: they’re chilling, bro. They talk about the sea as though it were a drug: with a heavy dose of respect, a tinge of fear and an evident addiction.
Not even the tepid waters of the Mediterranean could ease the July heat in Barcelona. It’s a wet, heavy heat that forms a barrier not unlike a strong oncoming wind, slowing down the pace of life to a barefooted wander. So that’s what I did this month in Barcelona: I wandered. I got lost in the windy alleyways of the Born district, I was led by locals through the greenery of Montjuïc, I metro-hopped until my travel card ran dry and I walked the coast without a plan. I traded in my maps and guides for Catalan kindness.
The more time I spent with the locals, which, as the necessity of sleep was overruled by the exhilharation of wandering, became around 20 hours of my daily ration, the more I adapted: the longer I left the salt festering in my hair, the less I worried about tan lines, the more I relaxed. You know that feeling of panic when you’re floating in the sea and you’re obsessing over what creatures might be licking their lips at the sight of your ankles or over your fear of the rising waves or over the possibility that your legs might tire of treading water before you make it back to s
hore? You might not but I definitely did. Until one day when I was bobbing up and down in the Mediterranean, I realised that the only thing I could focus on was the hypnotic ripples on the water’s surface.
All throughout July, I looked around me and saw people living life. They were soaking up each day, drinking it through their pores until they felt it in their bones. In Britain, there are days when I wouldn’t even make eye contact with a stranger in the street. In Barcelona, I got on the back of his motorbike just to feel the droplets on my face as we raced down the backstreets. No questions asked.
August comes and they plan their migration to the north where the waves are bigger and the sun is cooler. I’m heading north too, but I’d like to think that what Barcelona gave me, I’ll take with me as a souvenir.
Ever since I was little I’ve been told ‘All good things come to an end’. I grew to hate that phrase, which was batted around during the bed-time of every birthday, the home-time of every holiday, as though consistency were a comfort. I understand that in order for something to be special, it must be temporary. I get that. But when summer comes, I find myself sucking up every ray of sun, soaking my skin at every beach, imploring my highly-evolved body to find a way to register this feeling and to reproduce it in the dark days of December. Where my biological makeup seems to have failed me, writing never has.
Where The Sky Meets The Sea
There is a place where the sky meets the sea:
A bold blue blur, a sanctuary.
The sloshing ceases, the seagulls don’t squawk,
An immaculate silence as you sleepwalk.
The clouds shuffle off to a different bay
And the waves waltz with infinity.
You don’t know if you’re floating or flying,
Or somewhere in between, but you’re alive.
I’ve got that feeling again: that strange sensation in my stomach. It could be excitement or maybe the delayed digestion of the truffle oil pizza I inhaled at dinner. New York will do that to you. It worms itself deep inside you and pulses through your veins, feeding you like your new oxygen.
The metro plays a symphony. The brakes screech out the high notes; the chattering is a steady bass; the unabating pacing of passengers keeps the beat while the preacher in the corner takes the solo. The phrase ‘melting pot’ falls short when describing the metro in the Big Apple. A suited-and-booted business man with a Rolex and a frown is sucked into the screen of his iPhone, unaware that there’s child wiping her dirty hands on his briefcase. At his back, a gang of hustling teenagers bust a move for a dollar bill, while some French tourists loudly try to decipher their map. The whole scene is framed by a series of advertisements in Spanish. Are you dizzy yet? If not, then you’re about to be.
The metro screeches to a halt at 42nd street and we flood out onto the streets. It’s late at night but Times Square is lit by its own galaxy of superstars. Models, footballers and actors stare down at us from the sides of skyscrapers. On a recent trip to Florence, I was bemused by the idea that some of the tallest and most beautiful buildings in the city were built by aristocratic families who wanted to get one-up on the others by being the owners of the most grand palazzi. I think Times Square would be the modern equivalent. Brands and campaigns enter into the contest of who can create the biggest, flashiest, most colourful advertisement, of who can blind the tourists most extravagantly. When you remove yourself from the square’s glare, your eyes readjust as you melt back into the maze, but you never get over that sense of pure excess. On the most humble corner of the most discrete alley, the most unassuming diner will brag about how many grams their excessively-whopping whopper weighs. You go to a sports match and they surround you with screens showing other sports matches. That old custom of ‘waiting’ has been stamped out by an army of busy bees that drives around the city, ready to whisk you away at the wave of a hand. It’s the biggest, fastest, shiniest, loudest mass, bursting at the seams. The energy overflows the neat grid of concrete lines which are entrusted with the impossible task of imposing order on chaos. New York is a benevolent beast that lives and breathes and helps you to do the same. And all the metaphors and similes in the world will never do her justice, because New York isn’t a city you can describe, it’s a city you have to feel. And even when you make it out of the maze, the vertigo you felt at the top of the Empire State Building remains in the form of that strange sensation in your stomach, calling you back.