The early morning can be a strange and confusing place for a man in his early 20’s.
We had taken the midnight train from Madrid and arrived in San Sebastian early, so early we were left without much to do. The town was still, with the exception of a few of the usual early-risers: the paperboys, the bakers, women with their newborns, the elderly men down by the pier.
After walking across town a few blocks from the train station, we checked into our hostel. We put our bags down, puzzled about what to do next. The museums were closed. The restaurants were closed, for the most part. It was too early to drink. We settled on wandering aimlessly until everyone else woke up.
The main part of the town was based around a short stubby peninsula, curling gently to the west. Starting from its eastern edge, we walked its outer perimeter along the water, up to the north, across to the west, down south, all the way to the bottom of bay. The arm of the peninsula came so far around that the bay had the feeling of a lake with one-quarter open to the sea, a small cocoon.
It was the summer after our last year of college. Seven of my friends and I had made the unique, not-at-all-expected decision to backpack through Europe for the summer.
As a kid, when people referred to “backpacking through Europe,” I always imagined walking from town to town, along the hillsides, perhaps passing a lazy flock of sheep led by an old man in suspenders and a hat.
This trip had been much more like college in the States: doing nothing with your friends, spending long hours trying to find cheap food, spending longer hours trying to find weed of any kind and failing, waking up with a hangover, and repeating.
The early morning was a nice reprieve. We had a chance to walk the streets with a sense of clear-headedness. The best part of being in a small town in early morning, I was finding, is you couldn’t find an obligation if you wanted to.
Despite the beauty and peace of the scene that morning, I felt a bit melancholy, dull, a twinge of hollowness. My dad had died just months before. I had decided I wouldn’t let myself miss out on such a defining experience just to wallow in grief. But still, the whole trip was colored by the loss. Every day, there was a distinct moment, amid laughing with my friends or in the middle of visiting some church, when I really remembered for the first time that day what had happened, a jolt of electricity through my veins. It always took some time to recover, shake free, and forget again for the time being.
But we had also just been traveling long enough that the novelty had worn off. That was enough to make anyone a bit dreary. I was glad to be with great friends in such historic locales, but the constant inability to decide where to stay or eat, the inevitable decision to just get a kebab from a mass of meat rotating around a stick, the need to always be bunking with 3-4 unshowered men, the different bed every night, etc. was beginning to weigh on me.
As the day crept on, we struggled to find things to do. Joe split off to take a nap. Once it became socially acceptable, George and I got in our trunks and headed down to the beach, what seemed to be the center of life in San Sebastian.
It wasn’t a particularly busy day. It felt like it was probably very normal and unspectacular to the locals.
The complex surrounding the beach had the feeling of a place that would have been the height of luxury in the 60s, not quite fitting today, but with an air of decor and high-society slowly washing out. Waiters and other service people were all in uniforms too formal for a place with sand in every crevice, too outdated to be truly formal.
Now, George wandered off on his own – something about going to make a phone call, or going to find a book, or going just to wander. I can’t remember. We agreed to meet back by a certain beach umbrella at noon.
That always annoyed me about George; he seemed perfectly content going off on his own, leaving me to no one. He didn’t seem to particularly care if he had people around or not. It annoyed, even angered, me. Fuck that shit. As a friend, he was supposed to not leave me hanging.
I wandered the beachside with my headphones in for what seemed like forever. I spent most of my energy trying to give the appearance of doing something, rather than actually doing something.
As I went along, I felt my anger at George starting to boil up inside, my mind turning around imagining how angry I’d be if he didn’t show at noon, projecting future conversations. How dare he leave me on my own? Didn’t we have a responsibility to each other as friends? If we didn’t want to hang out together, why did we travel all the way to fucking Europe together? Part of this “backpacking through Europe together” thing is we actually do it together.
I found a spot on the beach and sat down. Another hour and half left. I sat there for a while, just turning over the injustices done to me. In retrospect, I actually admired George for doing his own thing. What I truly resented in the moment was not having anything to distract me from just being by myself. I now had to find a way to explain my existence not in relation to someone else.
50 minutes left. I decided I’d go for a swim. I might as well try to make the most of it. No point sitting here wallowing like a loser.
I got up and slowly walked down to the water, wading in with my feet, then my ankles, then my knees, into the warm bay. I now had a sense not only of isolation, anger, and sadness at George, but annoyance with myself. This was not an unfamiliar feeling. I seemed to find myself feeling “wronged” and taken advantage on a regular basis.
I felt myself turning around toward the beach, looking at the lazy day ahead of me. I was in Spain, in a beautiful, sleepy town without any obligations or responsibilities. And yet here I was spinning a story of how bad my life was. Mid-thought, I let go and felt myself lean back, all the way back, like a trust fall but with no one but the waves to catch me.
As soon as I was fully submerged, I had a visceral, ecstatic feeling of the negativity and pain just washing away. In a moment, it all left my body and drifted out to sea quietly. With the anger, judgment, and loneliness gone, my whole body exploded with a strange sensation of nothingness, a joy and aliveness created out of something’s absence.
One part of me could observe this strange sensation. It was confused, even alarmed. I had never felt this way. But another part of me, deeper in, pushed the other to the side and allowed itself not to think, at least for a few moments. For what seemed like an eternity, I splashed around in the water by myself, then floated peacefully looking up at the Sun, then splashed, then floated.
That first part of my brain knew what I must look like to others. Who’s the fucking freak with the sheet-white skin prancing around by himself in the water at 11am on a Wednesday? On another day, the fear of judgment would have kept me on the beach blending in. But today, that too simply washed away.
The feeling was complete and utter ease. I felt no strong desires for the present moment. I felt no expectations of what needed to happen in the future. I was mostly just interested in feeling the pulse of my body, a positive energy emanating from it.
I was high. But I wasn’t.
Soon enough, I found myself leaving the water, walking back up to the beach. It was a little past noon. No sign of George. I got my stuff and took off, wandering through town, in a dream-state.
This whole trip I had felt such apprehension and guilt around my English-speaking. I felt nervous to go ask people simple questions, not wanting to put myself in an awkward situation or be seen as a stupid, intrusive tourist. I wouldn’t eat by myself to save me from the pitied gaze of other customers. Anything so I wouldn’t have to stand out too much.
That was all gone now. I went around town with a sense of freedom. I went into restaurants, using broken Spanish to find the best tapas. I made conversation with some Australians sitting across from me in the bar. We walked around the seaside for a bit, before eventually parting ways. I continued to walk up and down the streets, feeling more alive than ever, feeling no responsibilities, no obligations, no fear of judgment.
The night went on in peace. When I finally did meet back up with the guys, I didn’t say much. I went to bed early.
Ever since, in moments of anxiety, stress, or intense negativity – if I can find a moment of presence – I go back to San Sebastian. I remember that I am always a moment away from a new reality. I remember that I can let go, if I choose. I breath in more deeply. When I breathe out, part of the heaviness goes out with it.