THE DEFINITION OF TRAVEL inherently speaks to place — a difference in geography, a movement across this or that latitude — but to travel is to experience just as much a change of characters as a change in scenery.
What follows is a brief look at the impacts made by the characters I encountered living, traveling, and occasionally teaching English in Spain.
1. Border officer
He wears all navy blue, military hat to waist, which vanishes beneath the passport booth before me. Never raises his head from his papers, never raises his eyes but to inspect my document. I have been thinking of him and this moment for the past four hours. What questions he will ask. Whether I will comprehend them. What happens if I don’t. He doesn’t speak, just nods. I proceed, check the passport. He didn’t stamp it.
She has been expecting me, or someone like me, for months. She makes a living as a massage therapist, and as a host for eager foreigners in need of temporary lodging. We meet in the lobby of a hotel. She looks 37, tall, caramel skin, raven hair, green eyes that look directly into you yet somehow still not at you. Her apartment overlooks the river, 50 or so yards from a bridge I will photograph more than 100 times. For one month, I will live in a 50-square-foot bedroom in her apartment across the hallway from her eight-year-old son, who must be 11 or 12 now, and has witnessed countless other strangers sleeping in that room.
3. Jose Maria
Jose Maria is the troublemaker of one of my classes at I.E.S. Mediterraneo—the 7th graders—and yet one of the most earnest contributors. He gels his hair every day, except for the day he arrives with a black eye from his father. Then it lies flat. He tells me how it happened, his voice sunk low and timid, but in English better than ever. Then he gets distracted, makes a loud joke at the student next to him. La Linea de la Concepcion—or, more commonly just La Linea, meaning “the line”—is the last stop in Spain on the way to Gibraltar, where I’ve come to teach (or assist with the teaching of) English. It is, by nature, a border town and the entire identity of this place—and perhaps in turn its inhabitants—is predicated on being a middle zone, a gray area of intermixed cultures.
Anouar is a Moroccan semi-pro bodyboarder who manages one of the most popular bars in La Linea. He speaks English, Spanish, French, and Arabic—all perfectly, as far as I can tell. He looks like the kind of man who appears in a movie, emerging in slow-motion from a pool, with the sole purpose of removing the woman you love from your life: Tall, large arms, a thick neck, he was given much and nature apportioned it with an even brushstroke. He lives in a dilapidated apartment. He drives a miserable white van that’s been re-coated with house paint. He might be the kindest individual I’ll ever know.
Rafa is the son of our landlords, two of the wealthiest in La Linea, and the conduit through which all information between us and them is conveyed. He is 19, lean with youthful muscle. His manner of being commands respect inherently from everyone except the person he’s talking to, because he absorbs the weight of what you’re saying rather than deflecting it in order to proffer his own expression. When we first moved in I found his old passport, long expired, dog-eared, lying in the drawer where we all placed our rent checks. He wasn’t older than three in the picture. Why does a three-year-old need a passport?
Encarni is the wife of one of my teachers (who, to be clear, do not teach me, but are the teachers whom I assist). She has asked me to help her with her English, though to be honest I have no idea why. She is nearing 40, but looks maybe 32, with long, reddish-brown hair and a lack of confidence that makes her seem even younger. Her family is from Ronda, where, every spring, she returns to assist with the slaughtering of pigs. One day I ask her to teach me to drive a stick-shift. She agrees. We head to an empty parking lot. I fail spectacularly many times.
7. The Argentine grillmaster
He presides over the grill every night, small face dwarfed by his forearms, one of which is never far from a knife. He cooks the most soul-gratifying pieces of meat I will ever consume, always pre-cut into small squares. My mother used to do the same. He is quiet to the point of intimidation. It seems strange that someone who gives you something so impactful, so day-changing, should go on without much emotion.
Mar wishes, at all times, that she were in Sevilla. New York, Berlin, or Paris, sure, but she is reasonable. She hates this town—its narrowed life experience, its lack of curiosity, its predictability. This town, the final cliff of Earth extending from Iberia into the Mediterranean, kissing Gibraltar; where two continents and three countries are closer to one another than my childhood home and the high school I attended; a thin strip of civilization squeezed ever smaller by the sea.