Around the same time each year as the sweltering heat begins to subside, as the leaves start transforming into brilliant autumn palettes, my inner light begins to fade. The rest of the world seems to welcome the change of season, citing particulars such as hot cider, pumpkin pie, fall festivals and such. For me, fall only means one thing, the inevitable is lurking right around the corner- my dreadful October birthday. The closer the date, the deeper I sink into some dark ominous place I can’t quite name. I dread spending the day forcing a smile, pretending to be thrilled with reminders and recognition of how I’m a year closer to taking the eternal dirt nap.
Growing old is just too damn depressing for me, so last year I decided my next birthday would be different. I’d spend it doing exactly what I wanted instead of spending the day trying to avoid appearing grumpy; I’d wander around Barcelona- completely and utterly alone. As a photographer and writer, solitude is not only preferable, but also necessary. What person in their right mind wants to sit around for hours while I wait for the light to change so I can get the perfect shot? And who could stand my need for total silence when I write, especially in a small space.
This year, with birthday fate in my own hands, I decide to isolate myself from everyone and everything I know to see if I can shake these birthday blues that have haunted me my whole life. So, after almost twenty hours of traveling on three different planes, I make it to Barcelona disoriented from lack of sleep, but filled with hope. Even the airport, with its gleaming black marble floors and upscale shops, makes me giddy. After a 30-minute train ride and short walk, I arrive at Central Garden Hostel, a place with glowing on-line reviews and my choice for a home base. I rarely make reservations, but Barcelona, even online is overwhelming. The dozens of warnings about pick-pocketers doesn’t help either. I chose this place because it’s in a safe area and walking distance to most everything. Hostels are a good place to stay for the first night or two in an unfamiliar country, a good way to get familiar with an area without the isolation hotels sometimes bring. Central Garden is charming, quiet, and small enough to make me feel like I’m visiting a friend, yet big enough to allow privacy if I need some alone time.
When my birthday arrives, my camera and I make our way through the city, getting lost so many times I lose count. I stroll through Park Guell to admire Antoni Gaudi’s peculiar work. I try to avoid the dozens of unkempt peddlers with their shifty eyes and knock-off purses, but they’re perched around every corner clutching the edges of their blankets, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice at the first sign of the policia. I wander up and down La Rambla, the street famous for its peculiar street vendors and performers. Where else can you buy an ice cream, original painting, and maybe a parakeet. I find my way to The Boqueira market and end up there a couple of times a day, every day. This lively place is a photographer’s dream. Markets in every city are always my favorite place to be. This almost 8oo-year old market is crammed with people from every walk of life- tourists and colorful locals shop for produce, meat, cheese, and candy- lots and lots of candy. Customers are crammed elbow to elbow at the tapas and coffee bars. People push their way through the aisles, making personal space non-existent. Old gypsy women wait at every entrance with paper cups, begging for a few spare coins. In one aisle, my mouth waters from the aroma of hot steaming seafood, a few steps later, the scent of sticky sweet treats makes me wonder if its possible to gain weight from inhaling the euphoric sugary goodness. A few more steps, the pungent smell of raw pig carcass slaps me back to reality. The aromas and luminous colors change dramatically from stall to stall. I tuck myself into a small crevice in the corner to observe the activity, but it doesn’t take long before a gypsy woman with a paper cup encroaches in my already too-small space. Fearing, she’s about to pick-pocket me, I move on.
Slightly exhausted both from walking and from a serious case of jet-lag, I make my way back to my hostel-home and unlock the old wooden door to the hostel. When I step inside, Alessia, the owner and her staff burst into “Feliz Cumpleanos.” I stand frozen, my face burning with embarrassment wearing a sincere smile from ear-to-ear. I don’t know what to say, so I thank everyone and go shower and change so I can find a place to celebrate my birthday dinner. Alessia suggests a great little local restaurant for some authentic Paella. Knowing my less-than-stellar sense of direction, she draws out a route on a map for me.
After about a 15-minute walk to the restaurant, “Hola, ” the hostess greets me. I ask if anyone speaks English and she shakes her head no. I’m not surprised as I find very few people, other than those in the hospitality industry, who do. While I’m lead to a corner table in the back of the restaurant, I try my best to communicate with the hostess, but she looks confused until I say, “Alessia,” her eyes brighten and she smiles, “Ah, Alessia.” I gather, with the help of my language book, Alessia, probably with her birthday pity for me, called ahead to tell them I was coming and to order for me. Paella is only cooked to order and can take a very long time. I look around and with the tiniest bit of melancholy, admire the groups of diners nearby, studying their body language and expressions as they converse in a language I don’t understand, with the exception of an occasional word or two. Their laughter makes me smile. Here I am, alone in a foreign country on my birthday. A glass of house red warms my heart and lifts my spirits.
Paella for two, the only way it’s made, arrives in a black cast iron pan. Calamari, shrimp, lobster, mussels, and clams sit atop yellow saffron infused rice. Dozens of eyeballs and tentacles before me unnerve me a little, so I pour another glass of red wine from the jug on my table, take a deep breath and dig in. After finishing the least offensive looking sea creatures, I ask for a take-away container. I spot the waitress and rest of the staff coming from the kitchen carrying candles and heading right towards me. They gather around my table and break into “Feliz Cumpleanos,” while some of the other diners join in and sing along. I’m overwhelmed. While, my cheeks are once again burning with embarrassment, my gratitude at the thought of these total strangers singing to me is tremendous. Why, I wonder do I feel so touched by strangers with their small sentiment, when I feel nothing of the sorts from loved ones back home? I catch myself losing sight of the enchanting feeling just for a moment, as I think I see the pity look in a nearby woman’s eyes. Why is this strange American woman all alone on her birthday? I shake the thought away and realize it doesn’t matter. This solitude in this country was a dream of mine and here I am, making it happen.
“La cuenta.” The check arrives and my meal is less than €25. The wine, like all of the wine I’ve had so far in Spain, is smooth and inexpensive. This jug of house red was €2. Earlier today and because it’s my birthday, I purchased the most expensive bottle of red I could find. I dropped €6 on a Spanish Rioja that ends up lingering on the palate like some of the finest wine I’ve ever had in the states.
On my walk back to my hostel home, I stop in a little pastry shop to buy a slice of chocolate sacher torte to accompany my wine. What’s a birthday without cake? Alessia greets me with a gift. She came to the restaurant to meet me, but I had already gone. I spend a few minutes sharing my leftovers and wine with the staff, before saying goodbye and heading back to my room. I lie on my bed reflecting on the day and trying to understand why birthdays past have been so dreadful and why this one was so special to me. As a kid, I remember waking up some years wondering if my estranged dad would remember and acknowledge it was my birthday. Most years, busy with his own life and new family, he’d forget and I’d be crushed. As I got older, I stopped expecting recognition and instead began to dread my “special” day. Now, in order to avoid making him feel bad in his old age, I usually call or text my siblings to remind him so he’ll call me and feel proud he fulfilled his parental duty. Who knows if the past has anything to do with it, maybe I’m just happiest alone. All I really know is this was my best birthday yet and I hope I will make this an annual tradition.
I close my eyes grateful for this day and try my best to sleep, but am so filled with anticipation thinking about my early morning flight to Italy. Here’s hoping my Barcelona birthday is only the beginning to what is yet to come….