Our arrival to Barcelona is somewhat harried. It’s the combination of the rental car return deadline and meeting our point of contact for the vacation rental by owner (VRBO) flat both by 7 PM. Oh, and it’s 7:09. Sprinkle in rush-hour traffic in an unfamiliar city. We are raising our voices.
The rental flat is located in the neighborhood of El Raval, bordered by La Rambla, Barcelona’s well-known touristy strip. We discover our street, Carrer de Montserrat, is so narrow we can’t park in front of our door to unload. Plus the one-lane, one way street—could it qualify as an alley?—is lined with two-foot high metal poles on either side to further prevent cars from double-parking (as we had hoped). I jump out of the car, scanning the buildings for the tiny street number among the graffiti-laden metal shutters.
I have sent several texts letting the VRBO contact know we are running behind, but I haven’t received a reply or confirmation. Just this side of frantic, I randomly approach a woman walking towards me on the sidewalk.
“María?“ I say to her. She starts and looks at me with a blank expression.
I guess it’s not María.
Someone calls my name. I stop in the middle of the street and look around.
“Up here.“ A woman with short dark hair casually leans on the balcony’s iron railing one level up. She waves.
“Hello! María!“ I call, relief flooding my frazzled nervous system. I turn back to the car, about 30 feet away and give my husband a thumbs up. I then gesture to myself, then up to the flat. The universal sign for, “I’m going up there.”
“I’ll buzz you in,” María calls, and disappears behind the curtain.
After an express tour of the (tiny but absolutely charming) flat, María departs. I rush out to the street and find the kids already rolling our luggage towards the entrance. We hustle everything upstairs, turn on the AC, show the kids how to connect to the WiFi (European pronunciation rhymes with “leafy”) and tell them we will be right back. My husband and I must return the rental car and it’ll be more fun to do it together. Plus I speak Spanish.
The kids wave goodbye, barely glancing up from their devices. Now in place and connected to the (leafy) WiFi, they are relaxed. After a long drive “unplugged” in the car, they have a few minutes to text friends, scroll through their Instagram feed, and browse Pinterest.
My husband and I are grateful for the WiFi at this moment: a distraction preventing the kids from otherwise worrying that we’re leaving them alone in a flat in Barcelona after just arriving in the city. It is the first stop on our trip where we are not visiting friends. We aren’t too concerned about the sketchiness of the neighborhood. Not yet.
The kids are relaxing, but some stress still lingers for us. We run down the stairs. Will the car company charge us an extra day if we return it too late? We both know we are cutting it close. We navigate to the Barcelona Sants train station and by 7:35 the tires are squealing down the parking garage’s tight spiral ramp toward the rental car return.
The car return procedure is as calm as we are frantic. They are jovial and unconcerned about the return time. The process is speedy. We pay no extra fees. We breathe a sigh of relief.
Leaving the turn-by-turn car navigation behind us, I am now 100% confident in our next transportation adventure: the Metro. This is my jam. We zip down to the station, identify our destination, and purchase a pack of 10 tickets. The arriving trains push the warm underground air around in the station, whipping our hair and my skirt.
Less than fifteen minutes after returning the car we are already exiting the metro at Drassanes, the stop nearest to the flat. The street exit spits us out at the very spot we had unloaded the car. We high-five and stroll victoriously to the flat.
By now it’s past eight and the dust is settling from our drive. No more deadlines, except we’re starting to feel hungry.
We haven’t consulted any maps. I picked this flat because it’s located about 40 yards from La Rambla, a bustling tourist hot spot of Barcelona, but instead of heading in La Rambla’s direction—still unknown to us at this moment—we head in the opposite direction, toward the way we had arrived in the car.
It’s summer in Spain, so dusk creeps in slowly. We spend too many minutes walking, then deciding between the only three restaurants we encounter, all fairly close to one another. They all offer sidewalk seating, and each seems sadder than the last beneath each fading minute of daylight. Only one other person sits at one of the restaurants’ tables. The street atmosphere distinctly lacks festivity. The kids examine each restaurant’s posted photos of meals and bicker like hungry travelers about how they don’t like any of the choices pictured.
We finally choose one restaurant with the defeated parental declaration, “We have to eat somewhere.”
The streets seem to slow down as the darkness covers the sky like a cape. Where is the twinkle of the brightly-lit Barcelona from photos? Not on this street. Young locals walking their dog or pushing a stroller stride past our table. Scruffy homeless guys eye us as they shuffle past our table. The kids look around uneasily. One homeless man stops and ask us “to help him out,” lightly resting his hand on the edge of our table.
In Spanish I tell him we don’t have any money and he shuffles away. Our waiter comes out with a wary eye on the departing man and warns us not to give anyone anything. He also warns us not to leave our phones out on the table where a seemingly innocent hand of a beggar becomes a not-so-innocent handful of our phone.
This cautionary advice adds a layer of discomfort to my kids’ existing layer of hungry.
Tick tok. It must be around 9:30 by now. We are waiting for our food. I am working to distract everyone with tales of what we will see and do here in Barcelona over the next couple of days. This is the moment when I am thankful they aren’t little anymore, or they’d both be in a heap of tears. But teens are hardier! What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that.
Finally, our dinner comes. My daughter who ordered pasta with red marinara sauce has just been served spaghetti carbonara, with bacon in a creamy egg and cheese sauce, instead. I sigh heavily, and explain to our server this isn’t what we ordered.
The meal took forever. It’ll be midnight before a replacement meal—the right one—comes out for her. She looks at her plate, likely understanding the dilemma, and says, “I’ll try it!”
“Oh,” I say, surprised. I explain if she doesn’t like it we can exchange it.
I am proud of her. Though I suspect this is more a testimony of her desire to support the team and get the hell out of here than her willingness to embark on a culinary adventure.
Fortunately, everyone eats the meals in front of them, even my daughter. We are interested in ending this dinner and returning to our cozy flat so we can start touring tomorrow.
We return at a brisk pace. We turn the corner onto Carrer de Montserrat only to find another homeless man throwing a double-sized mattress onto the wide part of the sidewalk and setting up his camp for the night.
The kids stick close to us as we navigate around him and quickly enter our building. We stand at the street door until it locks. Upstairs we carefully lock doors behind us and fall into our beds.
Tomorrow, everything will look better in the light of day.
Stay tuned for next week’s blog: touring Barcelona. Will we find La Rambla? Will we stay safe? What sights will we see?