Istanbul is caked in white icing. It glitters in the early morning sun. Street dogs nuzzle empty plastic bags in the bus station where we arrive, bleary and sleep-deprived, after 12 hours shifting into ever-decreasingly comfortable positions on the night-bus from Marmaris.
We make our way to Taksim Square as the city awakens and bustles into its usual frenzy. We hobble to the anarchist cafe and guzzle çay (tea) while checking emails.
Ross meets us after work in the usual bookshop-bar at the top of his street. My life feels like it’s a re-run of a well-watched TV show at times like these. This time though, he’s clutching our flight booking, which he printed for us in his office. Last time we stayed here a few weeks ago, we were on our way east to Armenia. This time, we’re heading west.
Another friend of mine is in town. It’s his first time in Turkey, and due to an amazing nugget of synchronicity, we are flying out of Istanbul just a few hours after his plane lands.
I first met Aleksa in 2011, while cycling through Hungary and Serbia with my friend Samantha. Since then, I always stay with Aleksa and his father when I come through Novi Sad, Serbia’s second biggest city. His mum always comes round with a big pot of cooked beans, and Aleksa and I have those long, effortless conversations that meander through reflections on the world, little-known musicians, and my latest travel tales. This time, he’s on his own adventure. I fill his arms with maps and scribbled tips about the best bars and cafes, the food he just has to try, and survival Turkish expressions.
Aleksa has just got off his plane; we’re about to get on ours, so we’ve arranged to meet in an area within easy travelling distance of the airport. Aksaray isn’t an area I know well, usually just glimpsing it from bus and tram windows on my way across the city. Bars are not plentiful, but we find two places: one with only old men, who scowl and stare when we stumble in fully-laden with grubby backpacks. In the second, the woman working behind the bar smiles and says hello. I order three large beers.
Hrach and I lumber into the airport three hours later, tipsy and a bit late. Much dashing and some stern facial expressions from the staff ensue.
Fortunately, this airline company gives decent vegetarian meals and unlimited free drinks. I take three generous servings of whisky. Hrach manages four large vodkas. “Certainly sir,” says the air hostess stiffly, when he asks for the fourth.
We touchdown in Barcelona Airport a little after midnight. We’re arriving a bit late for our Trustroots host, so have booked into the cheapest hostel in town. A shuttle bus and rather too much plodding through unknown streets later we find it, finally, and climb into squeaking bunk-beds.
We awake in a whole new land, the sun rising to greet us. We have flipped from winter into an effortless spring. It seems the world is again full of infinite possibility; that we are finally on our way.
Barcelona was once my favourite city, but it was a very different me who first arrived here almost twelve years ago.
My three week trip to Spain in 2003 was the first holiday I ever took alone. This was before the days of Couchsurfing, before I knew that hitchhiking was something that real people did, not only in films. I saved for months for that trip in my job in an off-license (that’s a liquor store to you American folks). I took night buses whenever possible to save money on hostels. I got lonely, at times desperately so, and had no idea how to meet other travellers other than by hanging out in hostels and getting drunk. Even so, that trip to Spain shot an injection of itchy-footedness into me that has lasted until now. Spain was the first land I headed to when I took my first hesitant steps on a full-time travelling lifestyle in 2009.
Since then, I’ve spent most of five years heading East and haven’t been to Spain at all. I’m eager to see how we have both changed, and if Barcelona and I are still as compatible as we used to be.