Europe on a Whim

July 6, 2010

The nation’s capital was recovering from the festive Independence Day events, and piles of trash were strewn all over the lawn and pavement. I was on my routine run on the National Mall when I suddenly realized how much better it would be to run in a foreign country. I was on summer break from George Washington University (GWU), and I needed respite from working exhaustively on my startup business plan.

So I stopped in my tracks, pulled out my phone from my fanny pack, and called the Andrews Air Force Base passenger terminal. A C-17 was departing that night for Germany with a roll call of 2210.  I rushed home and started stuffing my garb into my threadbare backpack. Normally I would need a couple of days to pack for these trips.  But today, I only had a couple of hours.

Service members, retirees, and their families were traveling “Space-A” — short for space available — on an Air Mobility Command flight to Germany. If a seat on the 54-seat Globemaster cargo aircraft was available they could travel without charge.

The C-17 with the 445th Airlift Wing normally ferries troops and cargo around the world. On its way to Afghanistan, plenty of people were headed to Europe for the Christmas holidays.  

There were no more seats available. As a military retiree, I was bumped to the bottom of the barrel. A family of four had to rush home to grab some gifts they forgot to bring.  If they didn’t come back in time, I would be assigned one of their seats.

Needless to say, by midnight I sat shivering away on a metal seat, the only cost for the flight was $10 for a box lunch, its baloney sandwich and carrot sticks as hard as ice.  Many families with children were bundled up in blankets and lying on sleeping bags.  The jet was so loud passengers had to wear earplugs and thankfully my dose of trazodone reposed me to psychedelic-like sleep.  When I woke up, eight hours later, we were arriving at Ramstein Air Force Base.  The sun was just rising over the Luxembourg horizon. It was Christmas Day, and there were plenty of rooms available at the Ramstein Inn.

I’ve been to Germany many times over my career. My last duty station in the Navy was at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart.  I would love to enjoy schnitzels and Pils for Christmas, but the main intent on this trip was to run in warmer pastures.

So I found a flight to someplace more sultry and exotic for only 150 Euros. It was an Air France flight from Frankfurt to Paris.  I was fortunate to have an overnight, 9-hour layover in Paris — the only catch — it was in Orly, an airport an hour and a half from Charles de Gaulle.

What a weird concept. It was like having an overnight layover in Reagan. Then hopping on a taxi to Dulles 30 miles away to board the next flight. 

Orly Airport was as dead as a wing joint in Paris.  The terminal was closed but luckily several of us managed to find a spot to catch some ZZZs, away from the custodians and security guards.

The next morning, I hopped on a taxi to CDG and then caught a puddle jumper to Barcelona. I was excited but also dead tired — flying on military Space-A and sleeping on the floor in Paris airports started to take their toll.

I checked into the Party Hostel Kabul, a vibrant oasis located just a 4-minute walk from the Liceu subway station. Its prime location in Plaza Real, nestled amidst the ancient streets of the old city and a stone’s throw away from the illustrious Picasso Museum, made it an irresistible choice. The name itself evoked an aura of revelry, beckoning me into a world of excitement and adventure.

Arriving exhausted, I opted for a mixed-gender dormitory and immediately crashed into bed. When I woke up at 6 pm, I refreshed myself with a shower and checked my email before venturing downstairs to explore the bustling Las Ramblas. It was there, on my way down, that I encountered a group of friendly backpackers – Brazilians, Canadians, and two adorable American sisters named Meagan and Marcy Miller from NYC.

Curious about their plans, I put on my best Southern twang and asked, “Where y’all headed?”

“Marsella, the oldest bar in Barcelona,” Meagan replied.

“Yeah, Picasso and Gaudi used to frequent that place. It’s still exactly the same as it was in 1820,” added Marcy.

Intrigued, we embarked on a journey through the charming Gothic Quarter, wandering its narrow medieval streets adorned with trendy bars and Catalan restaurants. The district, once a Roman village, juxtaposed ancient architecture with buildings from the turn of the century. Artisans sold leather and jewelry near the 15th-century Barcelona Cathedral, where a delightful courtyard housed playful geese. Meanwhile, working girls roamed the winding streets in search of love and fortune.

“10 Euros,” one of them advertised, while another whistled and winked, provoking a ripple of mixed emotions within me.

Cathedral of Barcelona

Barcelona proved to be a shopper’s paradise, offering everything from large commercial stores on Calle Portal de L’Angel to pint-sized boutiques on Calle Avinyo. Our intended 5-minute stroll turned into a 45-minute sightseeing excursion, filled with cultural attractions and delightful diversions..

Finally, we arrived at Bar Marsella, stepping into a bygone era of old Barcelona that still clung on but was slowly fading away. The walls, stained chocolate brown from years of cigarette smoke, and the century-old whiskey bottles covered in dust created an atmosphere steeped in history. Chunks of paint fell from the ceiling, while thick cobwebs adorned the vault and antique chandelier, adding to the bar’s mysterious ambiance.

Our bartender, Sebastián, greeted us warmly, boasting, “Hemingway was a regular here. We’re famous for our absinthe.”

“Really? Absinthe is banned in the US,” Meagan remarked. “They say it causes hallucinations.”

“Absinthe is a spirit, not a liquor,” corrected Sebastián with a crude smile. “And we serve 100 proof here.”

“Well, we’ve made it this far. There must be a reason why Picasso was such a great abstract artist,” Marcy quipped playfully. “I’ll buy the first round of shots.”

“You don’t drink the absinthe straight. It’s too potent and disgusting,” Sebastián said flashing a crude smile.

“Then how do we drink it? As a cocktail or a mixed drink?” I asked.

Sebastián explained that we could order it in a cocktail, mixed with a mojito, or experience the traditional French way. Intrigued, we opted for the latter.

Sebastián prepared the Marsella, a concoction of one part absinthe and five parts iced water poured over a sugar cube on a fork until it dissolved. He advised us to sip it slowly, warning of a scalding sensation if we gulped it down.

The absinthe’s wormwood and anise flavor proved acrid and potent, but the sugar mitigated the bitterness, while the water diluted the drink, making it more palatable. It was a Mediterranean ritual, marking the beginning of an extraordinary European adventure.

“Swallow this slowly,” Sebastián suggested. “Or else it could scald your throat.”

As the night progressed, Marcy exclaimed, “Ok, the next round, I wanna light it on fire.”

“You can get lit tonight Marcy as long as you live tomorrow to tell the tale,” Meagan quipped.

“And I’ll be sure to wake you up early so we can catch the beautiful Barcelona sunrise,” I added, raising my eyebrows for emphasis.

The next morning, Marcy and I caught a glimpse of the first rays peeking over the Mediterranean Sea at Port Olímpic.  Built in 1991, the marina hosted water sports and sailing for the ’92 Summer Olympics. 

We ran on the spacious stretch of sand alongside sculptures of sea life to the Barceloneta fishing village.  Then we ran past the ferry station and the largest Marine Aquarium in Europe.

“We went there yesterday,” Marcy said, pointing to its unique, cylindrical shape. “It’s a Mediterranean-themed aquarium, and they have a large tunnel which gives you the feeling that you are swimming with the sharks.”

“I would love to pay a visit, but I’m running out of time here. Where else did you guys go?”

“We visited Camp Nou. Meagan and I are both Barcelona FC fanatics.”

“Is that right? I’m a big fan of Lionel Messi, too. He’s the greatest of all time.”

As we ran past the World Trade Center, we saw Christopher Columbus pointing to the distant west over an ornate Corinthian column.

“The hostel staff told me that this is the top tourist spot in town,” Marcy stated

We stopped to admire the statue and then approached to read the plaque. 

Monumento a Colón

Monumento a Colón — constructed for the Exposición Universal de Barcelona in 1888. Location of the site where Columbus returned to Spain after his first voyage to the Americas. The monument serves as a reminder that Barcelona is where Christopher Columbus reported to Queen Isabella and Ferdinand after Columbus’ most famous trip.

“Columbus is such a hero in this country.”

“But he’s not adored back home,” Marcy rebutted. “Many consider him a villain who embraced slavery, colonialism, brutality, and theft of indigenous land.”

After discussing the significance of the memorial and watching people starting to accumulate, we ran back along the tree-lined promenade on La Rambla. 

“So now that you’re retired from the Navy and getting your MBA, will you be working a government job?”

“I dunno, but I really hope not. I want to do something entrepreneurial, something that will help people and continue traveling not just overseas, but in the US.”

“How old are you?”

“42, and you?”

“24, I thought you were a lot younger.”

“Age is how you perceive it.” I replied with a grin.

Returning to the hostel, we witnessed fellow backpackers emerging for breakfast, enjoying sweet rolls with jam and café con leche. Meagan descended the stairs, stretching her arms and yawning before giving her sister a warm hug.

Meagan came down, stretched her arms, and yawned. Then gave her sis a heartfelt hug.

“Glad you’re alive after last night.”

“We’re very much alive. We ran three miles and saw many Barcelonians jogging,” Marcy uttered. “The city is most spectacular at the crack of dawn.”

“So I’m sorry to see you go tomorrow,” Marcy said with a twinge of sadness. “Where’s your next adventure?”

“Normandy, France, then off to London to see my folks. You guys should join me.”

“Well, it’s not like we have much going on. What do you think Meagan?”

“Thanks for the invitation, but we really have so much more to see and do in Barcelona.”

“Like what?” Marcy asked with a twinge of displeasure.

“Well for one we have to do the obligatory girly thing and lots more shopping on La Rambla. And two, we still have lots of museums to see such as the Picasso Art Museum.  

“Those things are important, but recognizing the sacrifices of the greatest generation is priceless,” Marcy replied.


As we looked over Omaha Beach, we paid homage to the D-Day troops in Normandy.  The troops faced a daunting challenge. The invasion was beset with ineffective air strikes, and poor naval bombardments. This set up the Allied troops against an almost unscathed German front, armed with formidable machine gun fire. The only chance of cover, was to run towards the enemy. 

Sixty-five years later, the hilly seaside bore few scars from the dark and gray day of June 6, 1944.  But on that longest day, things had turned to hell in a hurry.

I could not imagine these young soldiers jumping out of their LCAs (Landing Craft Assault), crossing the slippery beach and climbing the cliff face via ropes and grappling hooks in the face of nasty fire.

It was extremely unnerving. The soldiers could hear the heavy thump of shells bombarding the exterior of the coffin-like LCAs as they were approaching the shore.  They knew death was knocking, but they kept approaching.  They kept their mind affixed on the Star Spangled Banner and Her Majesty the Queen.

Some shells hit dead on, the LCAs exploding into tiny pieces like a box of eggs dropped from the Eiffel Tower. Many soldiers perished from gunshot, blast or drowning before even hitting the shore. They would never set foot on the foreign beach they aspired to reach, the sea crimson red, their faces, white with shock and trepidation.

It was a travesty to see so many young, unbounded lives forever lost on the blood-soaked beaches. At the American Cemetery, we could see thousands of white crosses and Stars of David facing patriotically towards their homeland, saluting with only their solemn smiles. This is the final resting place for 9,400 Americans along with a monument to 1,500 more listed as missing in action.  How sad that we never found their bodies — brave Americans who never got to come home, their bodies washed away in the English Channel.

“Have you lost close friends in the current conflict?” Marcy asked as she placed her hand softly on my shoulder.

[ Image: American Cemetery .png ]

American Cemetery

“Yes, one to each war – a buddy who I went to school with and a coworker at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda.”

“I’m very sorry. D-Day was necessary to allow the Allies to complete the liberation of Western Europe. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unjust and a tragic verdict of 9/11.”

Marcy and I continued on our run along Av. Moulin flanked by hedgerows and surrounded by geography very similar to what our soldiers faced 67 years ago.

A couple of km later, we were back in Omaha.  The beaches still bore witness to the immense human sacrifices.  Numerous German battery sites were maintained in excellent condition (since countless, young Germans had surrendered without putting up a fight). As a result, we were offered a rare glimpse into a living, life-less museum that clearly depicts the power and plight of the mighty German defensive.  Luckily, many of the troops from Eastern Europe and Asia would surrender at the first opportunity.  Many of them were comprised of an international army made up of troops from throughout the Soviet empire and even China and Korea.  Can you imagine the looks in the eyes of our GIs when they first faced their enemies?

But still, many Germans fought viciously and effectively.  The Germans had four huge casements with a 205 mm cannon. These guns were effective in dueling with American battleships.  For eight days, the German soldiers stayed inside the casements with virtually nothing to eat and drink but stale bread and bad water. They had no place to use the bathroom — yet they stayed.  Many did not surrender until they ran out of ammunition.

“If you were a young soldier during Normandy, would you risk your life for your country?”

I thought long and hard. “The simple answer was yes, but would I be brave enough to carry out my duties the same way these men did on these beaches?  That is an enduring question that bears no easy answers.”

“Why don’t you plan a run back home,” Marcy suggested. “Kind of like the run we did in Barcelona, to see all the amazing sights and to ponder on the significance of these historic landmarks?”

“That’s a wonderful idea. It’s a great way to understand different cultures and to navigate through the sights and sounds of the old continent.”

The English Channel was rough and choppy the next day when I caught the Normandie Express to Portsmouth, England — a high-speed catamaran cruise ferry. I would have time to reflect on the profound question and consider the interesting suggestion from Marcy.  She and her sister would catch the Eurail to Paris, and I thanked them for giving me incredible ideas to ponder.

In London, I visited my sister, Kim, my nieces Kae and Rio, and nephew Rintaro at their Chiswick, West London flat. It was a special, last-minute, family reunion – my first time seeing everyone all together.

I gave Kim a tight embrace. “I’m very sorry for the loss of Grandma.”

“Thank you. She will always have a special place in my heart.”