Here are a few things I now remember.
1. Learn the language. Many years ago, I was chatting with Lieutenant in the Thai Air Force. She mentioned a certain fruit, the name of which sounded like a letter in the Thai alphabet, one of the n-type letters. I traced out the letter on the bench, and her eyes got big: OMG, you know a letter in my alphabet? Lesson: a little effort is really appreciated. Learn to say please, hello, thank you. Learn to ask for the check. It is not only helpful but also respectful.
[The international symbol for “check please”, the pantomime of signing, still works. And why do we still put our hand to our head, thumb at the ear and pinky extended, to signify “call me”? Will we someday touch a finger to our upturned palm?]
My problem is that 40-year-old high school Spanish doesn’t go far in Spain. First, ¿Dónde está la biblioteca?” isn’t actually that handy of a phrase. Second, they talk fast. I mean really fast, and it seems to get faster when they know you don’t understand Spanish. Fair enough, Americans probably deserve that. Third, Spanish is not the only language spoken in Spain. The official languages in Spain are Castilian, Catalan, Galician Basque and Aranese. Castilian is “Spanish”—remember “Bar-Thay-Loan-A”—but the others are not. And they are not dialects of Spanish. They are languages apart from Spanish. And people choose to speak them, along with Spanish, instead of learning another language like English.
What I forgot was that I didn’t really speak Spanish. I should have been studying it for months before my trip. I’ve been hitting the Duolingo since I’ve been here, but have not yet found the library.
2. Learn to pack. Packing a bag properly is the key to success. If you have a big bag on wheels, you’ll be tempted to empty you closet into said bag and head to the airport. When you get home, you’ll find the things you never wore or even took out of your bag. No harm done.
When you have to carry everything from the train station to the hotel, you need to learn to pack! Step one: decide what you’ll need and pack it. Step two: find the things you might need and minimize volume and weight. Step three: take the things you don’t need and take them out of the bag. I forgot I knew step three while at Fort Vinnie. Those hiking boots, denim jeans and long-sleeve cotton T-shirts that I knew I didn’t need or want for the long, hot summer. Yep, they went into my bag. There was room, so why not? Why not schlep them from train to hotel to bus in 100F heat? And while I’m on a rant, why pack all that stuff that I just happened to have? That big bottle of shampoo, why not pack it? It’s not like they sell shampoo in Europe.
But, you say, that multi-region electrical plug adapter with integrated USB ports, you should pack it. Right, I would agree. If… I… Was… Going… To… Multiple… Regions. Turns out that 2/3 of my US-UK-Europe adapter isn’t really useful in Europe. I also want to charge my phone bedside, my laptop I’d like to plug in at the desk. Spanish hotels are like American hotels in that there is never an outlet where you want one. What’s a boy to do? I bought a European adapter for my laptop. And, if I could find a compact USB adapter, I’d buy that too.
3. Learn to plan. Prior preparation prevents piss poor performance. I know that I am a planner. I enjoy the process. In the time before modern days, I would create a little notebook (a kind of papery iPad) with train schedules, directions to hotels, airport maps, calendar of holidays, and, in general, everything I needed to move efficiently and never to worry that I might not have place to stay. I put it all in a small notebook which I could pull out and reference anywhere.
But then I saw everyone having a great time just winging it. Four years ago, I followed those loonies and winged it. It was a disaster. If you had asked me to plan a trip following the longest, most expensive and worst possible itinerary, I could not have done a better job than just winging it. That was when I remembered what I had forgot: plan. But then I forgot.
Not forgot, really. This was a great adventure and there’s no planning in great adventures. I had an airline ticket to Barcelona and a room for the first week. After that, I would just head to the station and hop a train to the next adventure.
Why Plan? Well, while Spain has an extensive rail system with 200 kph trains, clean, quiet, comfortable and affordable, they are laid out in a hub and spoke system. The main hub is Madrid. Want to get from Seville to Valencia? Go through Madrid. From Valencia to Bilbao? Go through Madrid. And the 100km journey from Bilbao to San Sebastian? It’s an 800km trip via Madrid! (I’m taking the bus.)
Madrid has multiple train stations, by the way. That free-wheeling connection won’t be one platform to another, it will be from a station on the south side of Madrid to one on the north side. Have fun freaks, I’ll be over here planning.
Wonder what else I forgot? Oh, yeah. Don’t start an extended trip when your credit card is about to expire!