Driving along the road of life, sometimes you’re going and going and then you fall into a ditch. A stubborn ditch that you treat as a minor annoyance you’ll be out of in a few minutes until you gradually discover how deep and wide the ditch really is and only then, when you grasp the true magnitude of the situation, do you realize that you’re stuck. That could describe my visit to Torrevieja.
When I set out from Barcelona I was imagining a few days of beachside relaxation in a little town full of young Spanish people inviting me out to bonfires every night and then walking back at dawn to my own private condo with a rooftop patio and fast Wi-Fi.
Never has reality been farther from fantasy.
It had been years since I’d spoken Spanish, but the first thing that happened when I sat on a train from Barcelona to Alicante was that I fell into an hour-long conversation in Spanish with the lady sitting next to me. As our train chugged along, she calmly informed me that there was a strike today and half the trains weren’t running. We were lucky enough to be on one that was. Suddenly, all my surroundings looked a little different….
For that hour my Spanish was rejuvenated as we talked about my travels, how different people go for different things while traveling (I vented about being surrounded by people who solely wanted to get wasted in Paris), life in Spain (on this subject she was spoke wearily, citing the ridiculous unemployment rate and that she was lucky to be retired now). She was incredibly friendly. I was finding Spanish people to be far more open to strangers than most of Europe, but still with that well-groomed, reserved air so characteristic of Europeans. In mannerisms Spanish people reminded me of the French, at least in the north.
But the landscape was vastly different – reddish brown, dry, and rocky, the only green being a dark forest shade that dotted the swirling rock faces in patches of hardy shrubs. This was disappointing; I’d been harboring baseless fantasies about one day moving to Spain, but my home state has spoiled me too much. I don’t think I could live somewhere that wasn’t as green as Maryland.
In the late afternoon, we arrived in Alicante (ours was not a fast train) where in the chaos of its bus station I found a bus to Torrevieja after much struggle. Rather than meet young, exciting Spaniards there, I met my mother’s friend’s father, an elderly Ukranian man whom we shall call Al. He rented the condo from her and, deciding he would hang out in the sun a little longer, came to pick me up. I had a roommate.
First thing, he lectured me about how a girl shouldn’t be traveling alone, adding that he could tell I was a masochist because I carried that huge backpack everywhere. My feeble explanations of “adventure” and “challenge” seemed silly to him.
“Don’t slam the door so hard,” he critiqued when we got out of the car.
The condo was well-furnished by his effort, spotlessly clean with everything in its proper place. He had made himself a cozy little niche here, enlivened with the most Ukrainian of kitchen decor. He showed me to the second bedroom with two twin beds and made no comment over the fact that he’d taken over the master bedroom, though why, I never knew, since every night he fell asleep on the couch to the same Russian news program that blared through the condo at full volume. Every night around midnight I would turn the volume down on the TV and then my laptop.
“Come eat dinner before it gets cold,” he commanded as I started settling in.
Awaiting me was a home cooked meal of borscht with fresh fruit on the patio table, which was already set with glasses, plates, and silverware. He brought out a bottle of wine, and we talked for an hour about “intelligent things,” consisting of him lecturing me on right and wrong and how Ukraine had really won the war.
“Your husband should be at least fifteen years older than you,” he told me. I can only assume that that is the exact age difference between him and his wife.
Then he brought out a second bottle of wine and “pht”’d when I declined, complaining that I don’t drink enough as he poured himself a glass.
“Have some more grapes,” he said.
“No, thank you.”
“Just have some,” he motioned at them in that eastern European way as if I were being silly.
“Should I wake you up for breakfast tomorrow or will you get up on your own?” he asked once he freed me to retire to my room and make the best attempts at blocking out the same music of the Russian news channel I had grown up loathing and now was hearing again.
Breakfast was a delicious vegetable-filled omelet and was again served on the patio. I sat in the early morning with my tea, wondering what I would do on a dead Sunday in searing hot weather, when Al brought out breakfast and a bottle of wine.
“Will you have a glass?”
It was nine in the morning.
“No thank you, I have tea,” I said.
Al was shocked that I wasn’t drinking and exclaimed that all normal people start their day with a glass of wine in an attempt to shake my confidence and get me to drink some wine.
“How about a beer then?” he asked when it proved a lost cause.
“That’s not even real tea. It’s chemicals,” he criticized my green tea bag. “I’ll show you some real tea. Voi!” he brought out a jar of dried herbs and flowers that came from, no doubt, Ukraine.
“That’s not technically tea,” I said, and we had a pointless argument that did nothing beneficial for our relations.
I had stuck myself on a lazy Spanish weekend with a man who was making me contemplate murder, and was unable to get anything useful accomplished. Al suggested I come to the pool with him, but I declined and went to explore the area instead. (“It’s too hot for that!” he said.)
This was not Spain – it was a newly-built sprawl of crowded vacation condominiums – hundreds of them, a sea of them, extending to the horizon from the rooftop – all owned by wealthy English, Irish, German, and Dutch who came here to enjoy weather they never got at home. But Al was right about one thing: I walked around dying in 40°C afternoons. Any time I would hear the phrase “heat stroke” in my head, some Englishman would whoosh past me on his bike wearing a huge smile, looking like he was living the good life.
Every Villa (ours was Villa Martín) had at least one shopping center that looked like a small American strip mall, complete with cheap Chinese restaurant. The local grocery store was stocked with every English, Irish, German, and Dutch alcohol imaginable, and nothing Spanish, except for the cashiers. The general stores sold only cheap plastics.
The area was not big on cultural activity. It was the kind of place people went to for brain dead vacations to spend all day lounging on the beach (which was invariably crowded). There was so little to do, I spent an hour looking at a store display of outdoor furniture one day.
I figured I could at least use this time to get caught up on my blog, but as evidenced by the fact that I’m still writing it more than a month after I’ve returned, that didn’t happen. I blame it on the lack of Wi-Fi for those few days. Al had lost the Wi-Fi code after putting it into his computer and searching, calling the guy who’d installed it, and getting his voicemail led to nothing until I found it, days later, taped neatly under the router.
“Tochna!” Al exclaimed, remembering.
The next day he insisted on driving me to Torrevieja where I needed to pick up a backpack, claiming that the buses I was going on about using didn’t exist.
“There’s a bus schedule printed on all the stops!”
“I’m telling you, there are no buses! I’ve never used them!”
The mall, like most malls, but especially those in poorer areas (and I don’t mean destitute – I mean anything less than posh), was derelict and depressing. I was one of the few people walking around and picked up what looked like the only backpack left. Then I explored Torrevieja a bit. It was your average city, cramped, much larger than I’d imagined, nothing distinguishing to it, but not bad. It had neat streets and nice restaurants. It seemed infinitely more interesting than the surrounding Villas, not to mention that most of the people there were Spanish. With time to kill before I took any of a number of buses back, I got lunch at a nice tavern that served tapas. “Patatas bravas” – it’s essentially French fries.
The bus driver didn’t announce the names of the stops on the way back, so I asked the lady sitting across from me. Luckily she was getting off at the same stop and was a very friendly Irish lady vacationing in her condo in the next Villa, and invited me to get coffee and tapas (more tapas) with her once we got off at the bus stop. I’m not so candid about my feelings with strangers (with anyone, really), but I found myself ranting unstoppably about the pains of life with Al, listing off all the grotesque things he had done up to that point:
- Asked me to help him buy plane tickets, a process that took a total of four hours spread across two days as he searched every possible connection from every possible company, refusing to buy anything for the prices he saw and insisting that we (I) find something cheaper at least seven times.
- Asked me to buy $300 plane tickets on my credit card in exchange for cash (luckily his went through in the end).
- Offered a proposition over dinner on the second night that would make me a million dollars. I write, so I could write his book about Ukraine and the war since he hated writing. I explained that my mastery of Russian was not up to literary standards and he said, nonsense, if I just took a year to read some Russian literature I would be in tip-top shape. “Well fine, you could have made a million dollars, but if you don’t want to there’s nothing I can do,” he was annoyed.
“He sounds like a sweetheart. Just let him indulge you,” she said languorously, then pointed out “the oldest Irish pub in town.” I knew then that I had to get out of here. This was not what I had come for.
That night, I tried to mend my broken relationship with Al, which had culminated in a blow-up the night before during the infamous airplane ticket ordeal. We cooked together (“Who peels potatoes like that!?”) and had a nice dinner and a nice conversation. Things seemed repaired.
Until the next day when we took a surprise trip to the post office after picking up my glasses and he tried to convince me to let him mail something under my name and passport number.
“No,” I flatly refused, dropping the respect for the elderly I’d been holding on to for the past four days. My patience with him had come to an end.
I spent the rest of the day alone, finally visiting to the nearby beach, a top optional one that all the vacationers were basking in. Well, no one here knows me so I’m going to join in, I thought. It is strangely liberating, on the one hand, and not a big deal on the other. I’d grown up with my grandmother and great aunt complaining that they couldn’t go topless on American beaches and finally reveling when they got to Mexico.
“Put your bathing suits back on!” I remember shrieking at them when I was ten, everything I’d learned about etiquette and appropriateness racing through my mind, but they just clucked and told me not disturb them.
Here, too, all of the shops sold bright plastics, but the houses looked nicer, cheerier, or maybe I was far away enough from Al. The walk back to Villa Martín went through a dingy area full of huge, ugly warehouses and up over a bridge atop a highway before sloping back down into flowered trees and expensive condo complexes. I didn’t take many photos of the surroundings this whole time because there wasn’t much to take photos of. The scenery was, like I said, dusty, dry, and brown, and not beautified by the busy highways and unseemly signs posted throughout.
At night I checked off another box on the list and got paella at the nearby restaurant I’d been recommended. Waiting for my food alone with a laptop while around me were families and couples was the last great depressing moment of the trip. I had hit a low point in my travels and felt hopelessly trapped after five days in this unique hell. I took my paella back with me and onto the roof and devoured it in the dark, seafood and all. I didn’t know what I was eating but it tasted wonderful. When I took it into the light and saw that it was squid I set all the maritime creatures aside and ate the remaining chicken and rice.
Finally, Wednesday arrived. Al drove me to Torrevieja early in the morning and I caught the first bus to Alicante, where I finally had a short look around. Alicante was cramped, crowded, and dingier. It felt almost like walking through crowded high school hallways. The entire city was overrun by Russians, but not the kind I saw in Avignon. These were average, world-weary souls who said living here was alright and the constant sun was wonderful. I stopped in a café and had a drink, chatting with the two Russian proprietors.
I was restocked and half-burdened: I’d left my warmer clothes in Torrevieja until I’d return on the home stretch; I wouldn’t need them in Croatia and Italy. Driven to get as far away from here as possible, I boarded a bus that would take me across the country to a place I’ve wanted to visit since I learned of its existence: the Basque Country.