In September 2022…
…I finished my Barcelona photo dump on IG with the following voice over backed by low quality smartphone pictures of sushi and various other vegan tapas:
“So there is this thing that happens whenever my trips come to an end. I randomly make a new friend on the last day. I’m starting to think it must be because I have this sad face since I have to leave a beautiful country, where there is good food, sun, palm trees and the best hospitality. I literally have the returners blues – that’s a thing, right? – written on my face. Be it as it may. I shared – in my personal opinion – the best vegan Sushi with a fellow solo traveler from Scotland / Switzerland. We had the best time, enjoyed every last bit of the five-course menu at Roots & Rolls while chatting about Gott und die Welt and very critical philosophical life questions – what else would you talk about with a perfect stranger you might never see again?! We enjoyed each other’s company so much, that we promised to hang out somewhere on this planet again.”
This was for me the highlight of a very tiring but wonderful five-day business trip to Barcelona, Spain. Yes, you read right. A business trip. Teenage me is shrieking inside. I got paid to visit a conference in Barcelona?! Shut up!!! But it’s true! Here is how it happened.
Let’s start off with the fact, that I wasn’t the first or second or third to be considered for this trip. My job, current role listed in my resume or on LinkedIn, mostly consists of supervising project plans, scheduling meetings, making sure the relevant digital tools for my project are running smoothly and keeping up with the flood of information published online by the initiators of my project, the European Union. Thus, attending the EAIE – a networking conference for higher education institutions worldwide – where most attendees’ goals are to get valuable insights on methods for better collaborations and signing contracts to increase student mobility stats, was not in the cards for me.
Not with this travelholic! One, the first three representatives in line were unavailable. Two, I did not opt for a career in the international relations department of my institutions just to spent endless hours behind three computer screens. A little persuasion game – backed up by my favorite colleague’s encouragement and eight weeks later. I am in Spain! For work of course, which is an amazing privilege on its own. Though, the fact that I get to meet international colleagues in person, elongate my summer just a bit more and enjoy tapas for a week makes this business trip – my first real one – even more special.
Initial euphoria aside, I should have known that attending a conference is hard, super hard work! Needless to say that with over 6300 participants of around 90 countries to possibly network with, 213 exhibitors’ booths to visit and over 240 activities on the extensive EAIE program overview to choose from while navigating the fascinating architecture and 198 000 square meters of Fira Barcelona EAIE conference overwhelmed me.
In spite of carefully making appointments with partners to meet and scheduling my days so that I’d have time to visit one or two sites in Barcelona, I must admit that I underestimated the situation. Here is your hint to unglamorized business trips. The planning ahead is quite intense and costly especially in this economy – trust me your credit card will overheat. The limited budget leaves no room for Instagramable business class flights or hotels. While I absolutely love the dependable metro systems in big European cities, managing distances from one part of the town (hotel) to practically the suburbs (gran via) was a lot. Don’t get me started on the distances within the vast conference venue. I was left with hardly any time to catch a breath, have a proper lunch break or squeeze in some sightseeing in the middle of the week.
By day four extensive fatigue from walking long distances withing the venue and talking against the cacophony of thousands of voices under fluorescent lights resulted in one missed meeting and three rescheduled to digital format. In a nutshell work hard and fall into your unsophisticated hotel bed – not party harder– was my reality. Disillusionment hit. Wouldn’t this be the moment I regret having volunteered representing my institution at the conference?
No, I do not. As with Basquiat’s reflection on painting, insert my hobby – traveling – and you know why I’d never pass on an opportunity for a change of scenery. This hobby is quite expensive and as a first-generation migrant kid from a big Congolese family, traveling was never accessible for me. Not even backpacking. One of the first trips I took as soon as I was granted a passport that allows free mobility was to Barcelona 2015. I fell in love. Mix artistic architecture with golden beaches. Nature and mountains in the backdrop with big city vibes. Warm-hearted people conversing in a melodic language with mouthwatering well-seasoned dishes served on small plates to share with others. How could I not want to visit again?
Let me rephrase my summary of the conference. I arrived at a Monday which gave me enough time to pick up my conference package, go for a stroll in Park Güell and later have my first succulent dinner at Taps Bar. Tuesday to Friday was reserved for work only. Though it took a lot of my energy, the EAIE 2022 was an amazing conference. The organizing team, the staff, the host universities, catering and security team did a remarkable job. Networking partners were a delight to talk to, whether we shared professional or personal interests. Not to mention following highlights; attending networking events at Sky Bar Hotel Iberostar, Mies van der Rohe Pavilion and the historic halls of Universitat de Barcelona where a variety of tapas were offered -yey. I did manage to squeeze in a bit of leisure. Coming back to my favorite painter. As the conference ended early on Friday I got to experience works from Basquiat, Kaws and Banksy first time by visiting Moco Museum Barcelona after the conference. This activity was followed by snacking on Churros and fresh fruits in Mercat de Sant Antoni and ultimately treating myself to Roots & Rools’ amazing plant-based sushi in the late afternoon of my last night in Barcelona.
Marveling over the items on the menu while feeling self-aware as I always do whenever I eat alone in a foreign city. I started to sense the returners blues slowly creeping up while completing the online check in for my next day flight back to Dusseldorf on my smartphone. Essentialy, every departure just makes me want to bawl my eyes out. And then this wonderfull encounter thankfully lightened up my mood.
Maybe it was the mix of all those thoughts and emotions plastered all over my face – maybe just kindness – that encouraged the stranger sitting at the table next to mine to start a conversation. Twenty minutes later, while sharing the specialty of the house over intense conversations on travelling alone and millennial’s career choices, I got this uplifting thought that this was again an amazing solo trip to my favorite european city.
And as if the weather mirrored my returners blues from a couple of minutes ago, I was surprised to observe that it started raining intensely for the first time during my five-day-stay in Barcelona.
Selected Snapshots of Barcelona
The Congolese Travelholic
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