To me, Tarragona sounds like a magic trick.
Or an Italian pasta dish with a thick, creamy, tomato sauce. But regardless, it’s not really Tarragona that’s important. It’s what happens, or more what doesn’t happen, on the way there that truly matters.
12:34pm, “Proxima estacion: Universitat Autonoma”
It’s 12:34 and we’re still at Universitat Autonoma, 45 minutes outside of Barcelona. Bronte, my traveling partner, and I always go on adventures after our photography class and this week we decide to go to Tarragona, the Roman ruins one train ride and an hour outside of the city. We leave our university at 12:34, pick up a 20-pack of Principe cookies for the road, throw our matching cameras around our necks, and go along our way.
1:32pm, “Proxima estacion: Plaza Catalunya”
We meander up to the tracks at 1:32 and see the train just about to pull out. I fling my purse over my shoulder, hold my red sundress down to avoid any unintentional street performances, and sprint ahead. I grab Bronte’s hand as we squeeze through the closing doors of the RENFE train and flop into our seats. We start giggling with pride that, just like that time we snuck into the front row of a Barcelona football match or swooned our way into getting free VIP service at the club, things always seem to work out when we’re together. We sit back, rest our head against the mustard-colored plastic cushions, and watch the automated screen flip through “Proxima Estaciones.”
As the list starts to repeat itself, we realize that we don’t see Tarragona ever flash across the screen. About five minutes and six list-repetitions later, we ask a woman and a boy across the aisle for their help. The woman tells us that this train doesn’t go all the way to Tarragona, but we can switch trains at the last stop and then get the train from there. The boy promises that he will show us the track once we reach the final stop. Bronte and I break into a fit of laughter as we find it even more comical that we confidently ran ahead to catch the wrong train. Thanking our new friends, we shrug this blip in our journey off. I put my head on Bronte’s shoulder trying to find a comfortable pillow somewhere between her chin and shoulder bone. I open the roll of chocolate cookies and stare out the window, watching as the flashing stops on the automated screen are physically manifested into the Spanish countryside.
2:37pm, “Proxima estacion: Valencia Joaquin Sorolla”
The train jerks to a halt as we watch everyone, including our mother and son, file off. The boy motions for us to follow him. He’s walking fast and we’re trying to keep his smurf blue backpack in sight as he’s weaving through the crowds. “¡Muchas muchas gracias por esto! ¡Eres muy simpatico para ayudarnos!,” We yell as we brokenly try and express our gratitude to him for going out of his way to hand-deliver us to the next train. We get to the track: Línea 2. “This is the stop?” we ask. He smiles, nods yes, and explains that the train should be coming on this side of the tracks “muy pronto.” We give our thank-yous to the blue bundle on his back as he runs off.
Bronte and I take a seat and stare at the #2 sign above the tracks. We’re overcome with an eerie sense of dread, as the automated screen, usually flashing red with the time of the next train, is blank. We walk along the platform, trying to pinpoint a train in the distance like a stranger emerging from the fog. After staring back at the black screen of Línea 2, we resolve to, once again, rouse our help from strangers. We belt across the track to ask the waiting passengers if this is the train to Tarragona. An old man hollers back that the two isn’t running today. Línea 10 is where we should take the train to Caspe, and from there, get the train to Tarragona. We give him our gracias, climb down the stairs, and reemerge on Línea 10. Bronte and I chuckle and cross our fingers that this train is finally the one. Bronte continues to tell me about her life in Montana, filling me in on the first few chapters of her story before I, and her journey to Barcelona, was thrown into the plot. Somewhere between six-and-a-half year-old Bronte hiding her stepdad’s wallet in the fish tank and her mom’s remarriage, the train comes. We hop onboard, 45 minutes away from our almost final destination.
Mid-afternoon, when the sun just starts to lose its overpowering strength to the onset of cool night air, “Proxima estacion: Caspe”
As we step onto the platform, we decide that it might be time to rely on the knowledge of a train attendant, rather than our previous, well intentioned, strangers. We walk up to the taxi-cab looking man, plaid in a black and white checkered shirt with a neon-yellow vest, and are informed that the next train to Tarragona isn’t for another 45 minutes on Línea 4. There are no benches on Line 4 so Bronte and I sit with our legs dangling over the tracks. I take off my purse and put my head on her lap. We continue talking like we have been all day. Countering each other’s breaths with stories and simultaneous silence where it’s comfortable. I suddenly realize that I haven’t once thought about the fact that we are almost four hours into our journey and still just as far away as when we first started. I feel this unexpected sense of calmness amidst a pandemonium of missed trains and empty train tracks as I lay on the cool concrete. The weather outside is a degree colder than perfect as I put on Bronte’s sweater and stare into the waning sun.
Three Principe cookies away from a sugar overload, “Proxima Estación: Murcia”
Sometime into the final train ride as I’m passing the time on yet another chocolate crème cookie, we hear it, the sentence we’ve been waiting to hear all day: “Proxima Estación, Tarragona.” One more stop and we’re there! Bronte and I grab each other’s hands and start jumping with excitement. The train pulls us forward and our jig of enthusiasm starts to lose balance. Unaware of unsteady feet or uncomfortable strangers, we skip our way to the sliding doors, getting ready to disembark at the following stop. We glance at the automated screen and realize that, to our dismay, Tarragona was actually the stop we just stopped at. We just missed it. Slightly disheartened, but more determined than ever, we hop off at the next stop, sprint underground, and jump back on the train going back the opposite way. Tarragona, we’re coming for you—for real this time.
An empty Principe wrapper, Four degrees of determination, and One conversation later, “Proxima Estación: Tarragona”
As we squeeze into the train car just as the doors are closing, our coinciding laughter and trying to catch our breath is interrupted by the train attendant asking us for our tickets. We frantically explain to her that we missed our stop, we’re going the opposite direction than intended, and thus, we don’t have a ticket. She glares and snarls at us in Spanish, clearly displaying her lack of patience for these two ticketless American girls. We put the Bronte and Schuyler magic to work, flash smiles of doe-eyed confusion, and miraculously, get let off the hook. We pounce off the train, hastily ask the security guard the direction of the Roman ruins, and start power walking up the hill alongside the ocean road, finishing our journey to Tarragona on foot.
Twenty-three photographs before sunset, Tarragona
There’s something hauntingly peaceful about Tarragona at sunset. The sand-colored ruins look out over the ocean, carefully perched on the side of this mountain like its job was once to protect the sea. Bronte and I are bundled in this hollow cavern where we too feel protected in its embrace. I feel like we’ve taken a time machine back in history. The voices of thousands of years flood each other into a resounding silence. We feel the dynamism of past spectators crowded around this coliseum, cheering on whatever spectacle was once occurring in its center, all eyes focused on a fleeting performance of the present.
And as Tarragona pulls me back into the past, it also forces me into the now. I’m seven train rides, nine strangers, and six hours of spontaneity away from the comfort of my gCal. And as the pinks and salmons begin to fade with the setting sun, we sit out over the edge, watching the silvery traces of the moon begin to emerge. A mountain above the ocean and land, I know that if I stand on my tiptoes, I can wipe the sunset away and uncover the hints of this white crystal ball, holding all the secrets to my future, underneath. But in this dichotomy of old and new, stuck between the time machine of ruins and a lunar crystal ball, I’m not thinking about the future, just how I never want this wasted day to end.