Three months in Europe spent keenly observing and scribbling in my little notebook. Six months of turning scribbles into coherent sentences. Three months of proofreading, editing and polishing.
I am both thrilled and incredibly relieved that my debut novel – a travel humour memoir – is finally complete after a year of sleepless nights and midnight chocolate raids. It’s called La Mochilera (which means The Backpacker in Spanish) and I’m hoping to publish it at some point this year.
In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview from one of my favourite chapters. With strong language from the outset, it’s probably NSFW or reading in the vicinity of little ones… Enjoy!
Chapter 5 – Valencia
“Never be afraid to do the things that make you feel free” – Unknown
“Can anybody tell me what that gargoyle is doing?”
We all squint into the sunlight.
“Throwing things at people?”
“Nope,” Pablo grins. “He’s masturbating.”
The squinting intensifies tenfold. If he didn’t have our attention before, he certainly has it now.
“Look at his face; his expression of pleasure. And where his hand is.”
There is a hum of assent as it dawns on us that Pablo is quite right; here we are outside one of Valencia’s best-known buildings and what do you know! There’s a gargoyle wanking into a jar. Pablo speculates that the architects who built the Llotja de la Seda (Silk Market), the magnificent example of fifteenth-century Gothic civil architecture before us topped with no less than twenty-eight obscenely amusing gargoyles, were moonlighting as comedians – and after circling the building we’re willing to put our money on it. Next to the gargoyle with his hand wrapped around his knob is another pissing down on passers-by. Round the corner, there is a figure facing away from us with his arse hanging out.
With a perfectly straight face, Pablo explains: “It’s unclear whether he’s having a shit or fucking the building.”
And with that, we head towards the market.
In my head, I’d imagined the Mercado Central to be similar to the Plaza de San Miguel in Madrid, with readymade snacks to take away or enjoy at one of the long tables shoulder to shoulder with strangers. However, it has more of a supermarket vibe, with big packets of ham and generous lumps of cheese packaged up to be taken home. In addition to the usual fare is a rather less appetising section, displaying all the parts of an animal you’d rather not see, let alone eat. There are livers, lungs, hearts and kidneys. There are pig trotters (patitas – I make a mental note not to confuse these with patatas) and a lamb’s head with eyes and all. It reminds me of an incident in Istanbul several years ago when I stopped at a street food cart to order a wrap. At least, that was the plan until I saw the exotic selection of fillings. Without batting an eyelid, my Turkish friend ordered a cheek, tongue and brain wrap – and then offered me a bite. NO FUCKING WAY, I screamed inwardly, trying not to be sick. But I am British, so instead I smiled and said “No, thank you,” like he was offering me a jelly bean. They probably have brain flavoured varieties of those too.
The stench of the offal is starting to get to me, and I am relieved when Pablo leads us out into the fresh air to continue our walking tour. I take a deep breath and trail behind the group for a few minutes, thinking nice thoughts and looking up at the blend of Roman, Baroque and Gothic architecture. The fusion of old and new is everywhere: huge great towers with arrow slits opposite a thriving tapas restaurant; ancient churches and cathedrals looming over hostels and homes. Narrow towers are scattered throughout the Ciutat Vella which you can climb up for a fee. Tucked away at the side of a plaza is the third narrowest building in the world, measuring just one hundred and seven centimetres wide. Valencia is full of secrets and stories, which Pablo is keen to share. He tells us the tragic tale of a nun and a priest who fell deeply in love but, unable to be together, jumped to their deaths from the top of the Iglesia de Santa Catalina. He points out the best place to try traditional horchata, a thick, creamy, ice cold drink made from crushed tiger nuts, sugar and water.
Despite a three and a half hour walking tour I still haven’t got my bearings. It doesn’t help that the paper map I was given by the hostel is in castellano and the street names are in valenciano, a dialect of catalan. Even with my paper map fully unfolded and Google Maps on the go, I have to ask a local at each corner how to get to the hostel (which isn’t even on the map because the tiny avenue is obscured by an enormous church). Eventually I make it back, puffing and panting from the heat and the weight of a gigantic watermelon that inconveniently caught my eye several kilometres from home.
I can’t say I’m hugely impressed with this hostel. It’s unclear whether the irony was intended when they called it Home Backpackers, but the showers spit water at you like the presence of your naked body is an offence, the ‘personal’ lamps are so bright they light up the entire room and the towel rack is situated above my roommate’s bed, so you can’t use that either lest your damp towel falls onto their feet (not a desirable situation for either party). The air conditioning unit is about as effective as a soggy lettuce leaf, the taps are boiling hot and run for a full minute which is a huge waste of water and the glitchy key card locks me out of my room more times than I can count. Don’t keep it near your phone or credit cards, they say at the desk, warning me about magnets. Where the bloody hell am I supposed to keep a credit card shaped card? Down my pants?
But the receptionists are nice and I meet some cool people, including a French guy in the room next door who insists he is called Pablo. French Pablo and I wave at each other in the hallways but never quite make it past the acquaintance stage. I make friends from Canada instead: a solo traveller in his thirties called Brandon and two brothers, Jay and Regan, who are both incredibly well travelled. One has worked on the Galápagos Islands; the other on mainland Ecuador. One has just finished his Erasmus year in Ireland; the other has seen an impressive amount of Europe. Everywhere I’ve travelled, they have too. All of our stories begin: “When I was in…” and no one calls you out on being a travel wanker. We have a lot to talk about and spend a lovely day together cycling through the city. The four of us rent bikes for €7 each and cycle through the old river bed which is now a nine-kilometre-long green belt enveloping the city with colourful flowers in bloom, burbling fountains, play parks and yoga classes in full swing under the boughs of shady trees. We cycle slowly through the City of Arts and Sciences, a unique, multifunctional and futuristic landscape of museums, aquariums, an IMAX and the opera. We end up, of course, at the beach, where the sand is so exquisitely soft that I immediately sink my feet into it and stand ankle-deep gazing out at the ocean. The water is warm so I go for my first proper dip and spend a couple of hours chatting, sunbathing and embracing the siesta.
We get some food and while the boys aim to be as Spanish as possible I order a ham and cheese toastie with patatas bravas. Food-wise, I’ve not been overly adventurous here; I don’t even get around to trying Valencian paella, which is a mixture of rice, chicken, rabbit and vegetables. I’m still on a roll with the sangria though and knock it back at dinner and at the hostel before we head out (when premixed bottles are €2 a pop it would be rude not to). I also try agua de valencia which is a dangerous concoction crafted from vodka, gin, cava and orange juice. I liken it to a Long Island Iced Tea: two or three down and you’re either good for the night or out for the count. The following afternoon, I go to Subway for the first time since landing in Spain, but only because I am horribly hungover so I don’t give myself a hard time over it. I do, however, chide myself for ordering a Burger King the same day – although I’m too busy laughing at a shop called Gaes to dwell on today’s gastronomic and cultural failures. The resident twelve-year-old at my core is highly amused by this linguistic faux pas – although it’s not quite on a par with a week in Hong Kong where I stayed in Fook Kiu Mansion and visited the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Sha Tin District.
The next day, temperatures soar to an obnoxious 37°C so I stay inside all day and write. Despite being one of the prevailing reasons for coming to Spain in the first place, I have managed three paltry pages in four weeks, so I put on my favourite pair of elephant trousers and write until the sun goes down. I’m all too aware of the cliché: going overseas to work on your novel is dreadfully predictable. It’s even more predictable to declare how writing a novel has always been a dream of yours and worse still when that novel turns into a memoir (my life is so interesting and important that everyone else simply must read about it!).
“Where are your trousers from?” someone asks. “Thailand, Bali…?” I smile, because here it is perfectly acceptable to wear a pair of baggy, bright orange trousers embellished with oriental elephants. Back in Buckinghamshire I’m embarrassed to wear them out of the house. I feel at home on the road, like it’s where I belong. Here, there are people who share my priorities, who not only understand my lifestyle but are also living it with me – and sometimes even wearing the trousers to prove it. There’s no pressure to conform and bury aspects of my personality that have no place at home. The road is autonomy, immunity and ultimately, my salvation. I cherish the freedom of my life on the road. When it comes down to it, I wouldn’t have it any other way.