The year is 1986, the place is Huesca a provincial city in northern Spain. I am sitting in the town square wondering what to do. I am here to work as a field assistant to a geology PhD student in her final year of fieldwork. I have just finished the first year of my undergraduate degree and have that fantastic arrogance that comes from knowing nothing useful about the world. And now I have a bit of a problem…
I travelled down through France on the train. I speak no Spanish and virtually no French. This is only my second time out of the UK and I firmly believe that I don’t need to speak any other languages because I will make myself understood. How hard can it be?
My well planned route had gone to shit when I got to the border and was thrown off the train at gun point. I have no idea why but at least I was not alone, there were four of us, two clean cut german boys and a scruffy, older American. The Germans kept themselves to themselves but the American was friendly. He was patient and forgiving of my arrogant attitude and told me that I would need some Spanish if I was going to spend any time in Spain. He tried to teach me a few key phrases – Key-Aero is “I want” and Key-Aero Ear is “I want to go to”. Donday is “where” and with that he tells me if I spend any time in Spain and if I fall in love with it, I will remember his name forever. He was called Don and he was correct, 24 years later I still do.
We spent the night sleeping outside on the train platform in Hendaye and next morning I continued my passage. As I approached the final part of my journey on the train I tried to call ahead to the hotel where Liz was staying. Each time the phone was answered I would insert the coins and say. “Hello Key-Aero Liz ”. Each time the elderly woman at the other end hung up so I enlisted a guy on the train to help. He was Spanish and dressed in white, I am fairly sure he was gay and hitting on me, but he spoke bad English, which is better than no English and was happy to help me. At Huesca we used the phone box in the station to call the hotel and he got me through the old lady to Liz. She was pleased to hear that I was alive and in the area but her van had broken down. She told me to grab a hostel for the night and then catch a bus in the morning.
I didn’t tell her that I had no cash left and the banks were closed for the day. That was my problem and I loved the idea of being destitute for a while. I used the small amount of money I had left to buy some bread, cheese and a bottle of wine in the tiny supermarket and I sat in the square, surrounded by short old people dressed in black who come to pass the evening with the friends they have shared since childhood. Once it started to get dark I headed to the park and lay out my sleeping bag in a flower bed behind a small hedge. The evening was warm and I was enjoying the vagrant life. This felt like an adventure.
Through the night I was disturbed a few times, mainly by inquisitive dogs, who found something new and interesting to smell on their late night exercise. Even later a couple made noisy love in the bush next to me, oblivious that I was lying there silently listening, complicit in their stolen moment. After they finished and stumbled off giggling, I drifted into a deep sleep and dreamt of long train rides, boarder crossing and old hippies.
I awoke suddenly as water splashed my face. I sat up to see that the rain came from a hose pipe, in the hands of a park attendant 10 m away. When he saw me he was less than pleased. He sprayed me with the hose as I swore back at him and stuffed my things into the old, ex army rucksack. I beat a hasty retreat as he chased me out of the park swearing in colourful Spanish I didn't understand.
I headed to the bank and changed a travellers cheque. Feeling rich I splashed out on coffee and a croissant for breakfast. Then things started to go bad. Over breakfast I suddenly realized that the address and phone number of the hotel were missing. I searched every pocket repeatedly, as if the piece of paper would magically appear in my pocket the third time I looked. Then I searched my bag, no joy. I had had it the previous evening, where could it have gone? Was it in the floor bed with the angry gardener? was it in the super market, dislodged as I pulled out my last few notes? I thought to myself, "where ever it is, I am in shit!"
So I took stock of the situation! I was in a town I didn't know, infact until 2 weeks ago I had never even heard of; in a country where I didn’t speak the language. I did not know where I was supposed to be going but I knew its about an hour away. I had no way contacting the person I was supposed to meet and no way of getting home for the next 6 weeks. I was also pretty sure that nobody else who I could potentally call would have any more of a clue than me. Things were not looking great.
I had a vague recollection that the hotel was called “Jabali”. So I searched the phone book in a phone box until an irate woman, who wanted to use the kiosk shouted at me. I am not sure what about but I left. Then I headed to the bus station and tried to ask someone. “Ollar, KeyAero Hotel Jabali”. I pronounced the J in the English way so it sounds like a boxers jab. Nobody understood me, but a crowd gathered, keen to join in. One guy figured I must be French and two French students were enlisted to help. This did not help it just meant that there were people shouting at me in two languages I don’t understand. So after 10 minutes I gave up and forced my way out of the crowd. They carried on arguing, oblivious to whether I was there or not.
So now I am back sitting in the square, pondering my next move. I am in shit! Despite this, things don't feel too bad and at least I am having an adventure. This is kinda cool in a very fucked up way. I laugh to myself but I have to admit I don’t see a solution just at the moment.
I look up and I look around at the square with its big shady trees and it's old buildings. I am just contemplating the Spanish Civil war and what may have gone on here when suddenly I see a white ford escort van drive past. I notice the yellow of a rear UK number plate and stand up. Could it be? Surely I can’t be that lucky but I don’t wait to think too hard about it, I throw the sack on my back and run into the road. The van is indeed real and british and by now it is stopped at some traffic lights 200 m down the road. I sprint through the traffic which honks and swerves and honks some more. I ignore the irate drivers because I know that I only have one chance…
I reach the van as the light goes green and I open the door and jump in. Liz’s immediate reaction is one of shock. It’s not every day that a 6’2” hippy with long greasy hair and cheap imitation aviator sunglasses, who literally has just slept in a hedge, jumps into your car unannounced. She recovers quickly when she realizes it is me and says “hola chico”.
I have no idea what she is talking about, but I have arrived…