Once upon a time, a girl sent a message to another girl about some black and white pictures the second girl had posted. The second girl replied back and one of the two girls found the other girl on Facebook. A Facebook friendship quickly became a real-life friendship when the two girls met and connected instantly. In the summery streets of Amsterdam, the two – still strangers – enjoyed bits and pieces of each other’s life stories over coffee and tea, right next to the canals. Their friendship continued to grow and Amsterdam quickly became a second and a third place to meet. During their two-year and still going friendship, they travelled through both counties to meet, while staying in touch via social media and mobile phones.
The reason this story deserves to start with ‘once upon a time’ is because these two girls could have easily met in a street in a town they both resided in. They could have easily gotten in contact with each other as one of them spotted the camera slung around the other’s shoulder. They could have met in a coffee shop, at a photography meet-up, or met like strangers having found each other through each other’s writing. In fact – these girls could have easily met in a different country, perhaps even on the other side of the world. Sharing both a passion for photography, writing and travelling, holding an open heart and keen to see and discover the world and all it’s got to offer, they could have met anywhere.
I guess this is the foundation of my friendship with Ozzie – we could have met anywhere and whilst we have already met, we still meet each other anywhere. So when it became clear that Ozzie was leaving for her big trip about a month before I came back from my big trip, a dilemma unfolded before our feet. We would not see each other for at least ten months, quite possibly longer. And since we could meet each other anywhere, we decided to do so. Ozzie would, at some point during her trip, be in Madrid. I decided to fly to Madrid to spend a few days together after which she would continue onwards down under and I would return to the Netherlands. And so the adventure began.
I was too caught up in my thoughts, not yet having constructed a plan of how to find Ozzie, when part of my brain registered that familiar face, the wide smile and the blonde hair that helped me spot her at Amsterdam Central station’s square a few years before. We give each other a big hug and in a split second I realise how incredibly special this friendship is to me and how awesome this whole thing is anyway. The first few words are stuttered in Dutch, but we quickly ditch the language that doesn’t suit us and continue our conversations in English. It’s strange, seeing her after all this time because my mind is telling me that it has been such a long time. However, it doesn’t feel like there are eight months of not having seen each other between us and I guess that’s part of our friendship too. There’s no need to see each other on a regular basis (though, eight months might have been too long!). After some initial troubles, we navigate our way to the city of Madrid and from there on, with the help of some locals, manage to find our apartment. Bags are quickly dumped and our feet hurriedly take us outside again. We manage to figure out the bus routes and we head straight to the centre. Oz and I decide to catch up over coffee in the hopes of organising all the words that are spoken between us as we randomly tell each other our stories and adventures, switching back and forth, left and right, forth and back and back and forth again.
We roam around the city, visiting some of the tourist hot spots, but overall trying to find our way through the maze of streets and small alleys that lead to who-knows. It’s not getting intentionally lost, because having the intention to get lost makes getting lost not genuine, not real and I doubt one could get intentionally lost. It’s a part of wandering, the art of wandering, of putting one foot in front of the other, gazing up, mind open and just absorbing all that crosses your path. That it happens to be the case that both Oz and I share the same ideas on how to explore and thus we seem to fit into each other’s lives seemlessly for this short period of time, is not to my surprise, but I am amused to find that we actually do ‘fit’. At the same time, because it’s so natural, so unforced, that might just be the key. We put one foot in front of the other and it just happens to be that we move in the same direction.
Our heads are up towards the tall flats, trying to take in the many details of the colourful streets, the cute balconies and the many plants covering the walls in green and flowers. I found that if I just keep looking up, almost obscuring the view on Madrid’s car filled streets and instead, look up, I would find some magic here. Sometimes, we’re lucky and we stumble upon some (small) squares that seem to hold a history, or at least have lived a life. Most of the time, however, I find that I carry a certain kind of disappointment. I was expecting cultural homes, the foundation of the flats covered in blue and yellow and green mosaic art, a disorganised assemble of multi-coloured houses – some in a shade of pink, some red, or yellow, or blue – along with the typical Spanish high rise office and apartment buildings (usually white). I was picturing fat, old ladies with aprons and socks in their sandals screaming at each other from across the street in rapid Spanish, the butcher on the corner of the street with half a cow out for display, coloured streets, cheeky young boys running around in their soccer outfits, pretty girls in pretty, swirling dresses with dark eyes, long eye-lashes turning heads, and local, small restaurants and tapas bars on every corner. Instead it almost feels as if I’ve evaporated, as if we’ve become ghosts in the fog. I am missing the culture, that Spanish something I can’t describe.
For a simple, three-day trip (without dog), one would expect to have packed light. I did, were it not for the fact that I’ve decided to gather a special kind of souvenir – (morning) runs. I’ve made it my mission to collect runs in as many countries as I can. Hence the running shoes and clothes were packed, making my trusted backpack slightly heavier and bigger. Oz convinces me to go on the morning of our second day as I had some doubts, but the fast-paced, short run did do me some good. For some reason, I always feel more connected to a place once I’ve run through and around it. Filled with positivity (read: adrenaline and endorphins raging through my body) we prepare ourselves for a second day. However, having barely set foot outside our apartment complex, an old man called ‘J’ sparks a conversation. We’re invited to drink some coffee with him in the café next door and we can’t decline his offer out of respect and a certain kind of astonishment that an older man would just ask two girls to have some coffee with him. The hospitality and kindness silenced any objects we could, would, might have had.
Ozzie kept trying to tell me that her Spanish wasn’t all that good in between the times she was repeating the same line (“What’s ‘how much is it’ again?” “Quanto costa…”) and translating for me, but she was having a seemingly entertaining conversation with our new friend J and I was honestly impressed. She’ll probably tell you that it required a lot of hand gestures and J had to guess some words as Oz tried them in English, but she managed as I was sipping my coffee.
We said our goodbyes to J and take the already familiar route to the city centre. I had read about a hippie flea market that might be interesting and we head in that direction, getting lost again in the small streets, me on a quest to find something that would colour Madrid for me and we find some cute shops that we hop into on our way. The flea market turned out to be either A. half-closed, or B. only very, very tiny, but Oz and I managed to find ourselves a very suiting souvenir. We picked up some lunch as we head to Parque de El Retiro to enjoy it in the warm sun and in the company of countless, bold birds.
I was aiming for another something that I like to take with me as a souvenir – sunsets and/or sunrises – and read that there was a good café with a rooftop terrace from which you could see the sunset. Since the weather was perfectly suited for a good sunset, we decided to head in that direction and find our way back after nightfall. On our way, we stumbled upon a great coffee shop that had one of the best décors I have ever seen and we immediately felt like home, as well as feeling like we didn’t want to leave.
With a photography book in Ozzie’s lap, me tempted to steal that tea pot, we talk and talk and talk and exchange stories, adventures, dreams and random thoughts. We could have sat there for an hour, maybe it was three, but I lost track of time and we were both so comfortable that we didn’t really mind. At some point, we manage to tear ourselves away from this place, suddenly feeling the pressure of the coming sunset, and we move forward.
Only to come across a photo store that turned out to keep us entertained, amazed, greedy and hopeful until well after the sun had begun to set.
We set off early after a light breakfast, having decided to go for second breakfast at the gluten free bakery, filled with delicious cupcakes, cakes, breads and cookies. We found our way easily, almost like locals, and run into travellers from the States, Australia and Israel. We leave when our bellies are filled with gluten free yumminess and head towards our last day of adventuring. We discover an area with second-hand shops left, right and centre and hop in and out for a while until we’re bored with it. For hours, we just wander, knowing our destination but not knowing the route nor deciding on a particular way to get there. We stumble upon a tiny, tiny flea market on a plaza with history and have the worst tea of our lives in the second cutest café we’ve seen so far with open doors towards the square. We find the palace, play tourist and enjoy what little sun we had. We keep walking, even though my feet feel broken by now with the many miles behind us, and find a comfortable pace. The night slowly sets and I was hoping to catch the last sunset, but the sky is hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. We wander on, until finally, we find our way back to our flat. We go to bed at some point, only to be awoken too soon.
Wake up, the adventure is over.
Fate had thrown us a last surprise on the second day, when we discovered we actually had the same flight back to Amsterdam (to think I wanted to save a few euro’s and fly a few hours later…). The last few hours together slowly slip away, like sand in a hourglass sand timer. Oz is quiet, busy scribbling down in her travel journal. While Madrid couldn’t offer me what I hoped for, or perhaps my expectations just didn’t meet this city, I had the best time. Perhaps it’s a good thing, I came to meet with one of my dearest friends and if the city had required all my attention, I wouldn’t have spent so much time being focussed on the exchange of our adventures and being with a friend I knew I wouldn’t see for a long time. Or perhaps Madrid’s lesson was simple –
it doesn’t matter where you are. It matters who you’re with.
It’s been a few weeks since I came back from my big trip and I’ve spent those months in solitude, almost mourning over not travelling anymore. The reminder that people make such a difference was something I could use – maybe even needed.