Bad Night in Barcelona

Alaska made me strong. My first summer, I worked for a month building a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. For seven hours a day, I peeled ninety 25-foot log poles using only a drawknife. In winter, I snared snow-shoe hares along the frozen Coleen River and trekked through tundra at 40 below. At age 16, I backpacked over the Brooks Range, paddled a whitewater river to the Arctic Ocean, and spent three days trapped on an island with a polar bear. Each experienced tested me, both physically and emotionally. At times, I felt afraid and doubted myself and my abilities. But, over time, I became more and more competent. I saw myself not as a 16-year-old girl following her father’s lead, but as a confident, independent woman.

But, in Barcelona, Spain I learned what it was to feel helpless.

It was our first night in the city. Naomi, my longtime friend and traveling companion, had picked out a tapas bar in El Born, a festive neighborhood known for its restaurants and bars. We got dressed up and walked through medieval cobblestone corridors beneath balconies leaning out into the street. It was a Saturday night and the bars were already overflowing with people. As we passed one, a group of men whistled at us. We ignored them. Both of us had experienced Spanish cities enough to know what to expect when two American girls walked alone. I had never found it flattering, but I never found it aggressive either. This time though was different. It persisted. Every bar we passed, we were verbally harassed.  I thought of the mace my dad had given me sitting on the bed of the hostel and wished I had thought to bring it. Finally, we found the tapas bar, a hole in the wall, and headed for the entrance. A group of rowdy guys moving in a pack intercepted us. They were American, and they were drunk.

They stumbled toward us and moved in front of our path. As we passed, eyes straight ahead, one grabbed me and started laughing. I shouted and twisted away. We sped up, their jeers following us to the door of the bar. But the bar was closed and the men were still watching us. We turned and headed down another street without any idea of where we were going. All we wanted was to find a taxi and go back to the hostel, but the farther we walked the emptier the street became. Finally, I saw a taxi ahead and took off with Naomi following behind me. She stumbled on the cobblestones in her boots. “Run it down and hold it,” she yelled after me. I kept sprinting. I was fifty feet away when the taxi took off. Cursing, I started to walk back to Naomi when I saw two guys on skateboards turn up the street toward her. There was no one else around. The first guy spread out his arms to block her path. The second guy circled behind her. The first one said something and the second one started laughing and moved in closer, while Naomi stood quiet, clutching her purse, frozen against the wall. I ran toward her, holding my steel water bottle over my head. “Leave!” I yelled. The first guy turned. “Leave!” I screamed again. The second guy raised his hands and started backing up. “No — Wait,” he said. Naomi pushed past him. We left the alley and followed a couple ahead of us until the street widened and we reached an intersection. For fifteen minutes we stood on the side of the road, trying to call a cab, but none stopped. Men continued to whistle at us, some with their wives sitting right beside them. As we hailed a cab, one car pulled over to the curb and trailed us as we ran down the sidewalk, the passengers calling after us.

When we got in the cab, Naomi was crying. I was too stunned to feel anything. I thought of the guy with the skateboard in the alley and the look on his face when I yelled at him. He had looked guilty, but also as if somehow he wanted to explain. In the moment, it was all a game: faking Naomi out, circling in, the laughs. I don’t know if he ever meant to do any real damage. But he made us feel powerless.

Riding in the cab through Barcelona, I thought back to my experiences in Alaska. There, I was often afraid. In the Arctic wilderness, it’s hard not to be. But, I had never felt weak or helpless. Instead, my fear, and overcoming it, had empowered me. Bathing in the ice-cold Coleen River, butchering a caribou in the half-light of winter, battling the rapids and the wind in the foothills of the Brooks Range, that gave me grit.

But that night in Barcelona, I felt lost. A part of me wanted to be done with my adventure. I thought about taking a flight back home and camping out in my parents’ basement. But, I didn’t. The next day Naomi and I got up and went out to explore the city; we were reluctant, but we knew that giving into our fear would be worse.

Back In Amsterdam

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Two summers ago, I had the chance to visit Amsterdam on a trip to Europe with my 84-year-old grandmother. During my two days there, I fell in love with the city and swore that one day I would make my way back.

A year and a half later, I am on a train winding its way through the Dutch countryside toward the lights of Amsterdam. For the past six weeks, I have been backpacking around Europe’s great cities as part of my gap year, or, as I like to call it, “My Year of Living Adventurously.” This September, instead of heading across the country to my chosen college campus, I left the U.S. for the sun-soaked beaches of Southern Spain. Since then, I have found myself in Alicante, Barcelona, Rome, Florence, Milan, Bern, Zurich, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Berlin, and now Amsterdam, and I still have Copenhagen and Stockholm to go before I head home for Christmas. For those out there who worry I have gone soft, don’t fear; I have not forgotten grittygal. The fact is that in a number of the cities I visited, my grit was challenged more than I ever expected. In Barcelona, my friend and I were escorted from our youth hostel at four in the morning after being threatened by a crazy-eyed man shooting heroin in the girls’ bathroom. That experience alone made me long for the remote wilds of Arctic Alaska.

In January 2017, I will be returning to my roots, when I head for the hinterlands of Central and South America. But, in the meantime, grittygal will be temporarily overtaken by citygal. So, in the meantime, get ready to hear about beer crawls in Barcelona, romance in Rome, face-offs in Florence, and a body bag in Budapest.

Stay tuned.

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Grittygal to Citygal

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I am sorry Alaska! I have betrayed you. You are no longer the only love of my life. I have found some place else, a civilized, sophisticated city, pulsing with energy. Its name is Amsterdam.

Those who say love at first sight is a lie have never been to Amsterdam: The narrow cobblestone streets, the three-story stone houses, the open-air markets winding through the city, the canals crisscrossing the neighborhoods, the musicians serenading the tourists on the bridges, the bikers zigzagging through cars, the people smoking in the green leaf cafes. Maybe it was the fact that the whole city smelled of marijuana, but there was no resisting it, I was high on Amsterdam.

The city gave me a rush that I had not experienced since Alaska. There, it was the quiet, a silence as big as the tundra.  But in Amsterdam, it was the noise. The torrent of people and traffic, expanding and contracting like the bellows of an accordion.  

That first day in Amsterdam, I explored every street corner and canal I could. Five hours later, I returned to my room and collapsed on my bed. Outside my window, the lights of the city danced over the water like the Aurora Borealis in the Alaskan night sky.

I was just about to fall asleep, when I realized I had forgotten something. I grabbed my purse from the window sill and started digging. Finally I found it at the very bottom, my Leatherman. Every night when I was in the Alaskan bush, I slept with it by my side. It made me feel secure.

Next to me, my cousin turned over in her bed, and stared at me, her eyes wide open. “Are you kidding me, Aidan!?” she asked, glancing at the knife. I laughed and tucked the Leatherman under my pillow. I may have fallen in love with the city, but it couldn’t change the fact that the habits I learned in the wilderness stayed with me. I was still an Alaska girl.

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