Prologue: Ever imagined what it would be like to live in Barcelona and hustle a living as a self-employed travel blogger?
This is an entry taken from my actual diary. Written in 2016, about a year or two after starting my career as a travel blogger in Barcelona, it sets the tone and, I think, hints at the challenges I faced while living off my wits.
I woke up at 9.30am, later than planned. As always, I’d slept like shit and my bedsheets were damp from tossing and turning through the summer night.
I got dressed and checked my emails and social media profiles while waiting for the coffee to brew.
The cats, Erica, Chica and Pablo, were sprawled out on the kitchen table like resting teddybears and they didn’t flinch as I slid them out of the way to setup my laptop.
I listened to BBC Radio 1, as I did every morning, to listen to the news and hear some familiar accents. They talked about Donald Trump’s failing campaign, of suicide bomb explosions in Iraq and how Michael Phelps was retiring after winning 28 olympic gold medals.
I started writing about my trip to Asturias, of the awe-inspiring Picos de Europa (Spain’s first official National Park) and of the plentiful seafood and meat platters I’d eaten in Gijón.
I received a couple of emails from potential clients that wanted to advertise on my blog. It was always a dream to make a living this way and it gave me a buzz to negotiate with them. In total, the two projects would net me around €350, not a huge sum of money, but not bad for a day’s work, and not at all bad when you consider my rent is only €400 a month. If only every day could be as lucrative.
Another project I was working with was creeping up on me and I had arranged a call with the company back in London. They had employed me to write ten to fifteen pages of content for a global brand, which I can’t name, over the space of two weeks.
With a word count of only 100 words per page, I initially thought it would be a breeze. But, as with all of these huge companies, I had to spend so much time signing NDAs and contracts and researching the brand and reading tone of voice documents, that I soon began to feel relieved the daily rate was so high. The writing bit turned out to be easy enough, but the re-writes were arduous.
The call was set up for 3pm and I felt anxious and nervous as the clock ticked on. I wasn’t quite sure what they wanted to talk about as the project had been delayed again (by about 2 or 3 weeks). The coffee hadn’t helped and I felt my heart racing as I researched the client in question’s website. It was a big brand, a huge brand, and here I was sitting in my kitchen in Barcelona with three cats on my desk, purring in the sun.
Talk about imposter syndrome.
I opened a bottle of wine, a 2015 Emporda. Red. It was a beautiful colour, light and crimson, but it lacked both body and bite.
Still, I drank a large glass with my lunch, which was a hobbled pasta pot with tinned peas, chickpeas, red peppers and tomato sauce. It was not in the least bit satisfying, but I shovelled it in my mouth and felt my nerves ease as my blood flooded my stomach.
I had another glass or two, brushed my hair and put on a fancy watch just incase they wanted to video call. They didn’t, and I felt silly for a while after the call, which ended up being a fifteen minute conversation about what we had already discussed via email: that it was a very big brand and that they were taking ages to sign-off on the project.
Relieved and a little buzzed from the wine, which tasted better and better with each gulp, I plugged in my white Fender Stratocaster and played a few licks.
My phone buzzed. Another email. It was Sam, the owner of a tour company in Barcelona I’d spoken to briefly already.
He’d invited me on a tour so that I could write about it on my blog. Very generous, you might think, but do consider that I have lived in Barcelona for a few years now and have pretty much seen and written about it all.
I don’t need to see it all and then enjoy the pleasure of spending another day or two editing photos and writing about it all over again. The deal I suggested, however, was for them to pay for my time, for the time I would be on the tour (not working) and to edit my photos and write the post.
So often as a freelance travel writer/blogger, I find myself reminding potential clients and collaborators that this is in fact my job, my business. That I still have bills to pay and that I do not do this just for the fun of it.
And anyway, Sam would receive significant referral traffic and business from the post I would publish permanently on my site, so he’d make a decent return on the investment for the foreseeable future.
We arranged to meet by the fountain in Place Reial at 7pm, which was significant to me because I had just been talking to my friend Jason about how we used to meet at the fountain with carrier bag of drinks and end up hanging out with random people for the rest of the night.
I replied to Sam’s email and then got back to writing about Asturias. The word count was up to 2,092 words and I wasn’t even halfway through. It’s difficult to know for sure, but I think bigger pieces of content tend to rank better in Google because they offer so much more information. The problem, though, is that they’re a bit much for humans to take in. Perhaps I could split the content up into smaller pieces, into two or three posts, I thought.
Then I watered Chris, my lemon tree, which I named after travel writer Chris Stewart. His book about his life on a little farm in the Alpujara mountains, Driving Over Lemons, was one of the big inspirations behind me moving to Barcelona and becoming a travel writer. His was the sort of simple, self-sufficient life that I hoped to build for myself.
I drank another glass of the wine and headed out on my bike to meet Sam in Placa Reial, this time taking the extra-secure bike lock I’d bought after having my other bike stolen from Passieig de Gracia. I’ve had so many bikes stolen in Barcelona. Or worse, I’ve had bits stolen off bikes that have rendered them worthless (because it would have always costed more to replace the bits than simply buy a replacement bike).
I cycled fast and hard down the cycle track that runs the length of Carrer Consell de Cent. Past the bars with colourful rainbow flags outside and the trendy brunch spots that seem to pop up on a weekly basis in Barcelona.
And as I hit Passeig de Gracia, I found the city was crawling with people, hives of phone-wielding, camera-toting tourists that held me up. It was 7.10pm when I arrived at the fountain and I hoped that Sam would understand I was running on Spanish time.
A small white scar was visible on his clean-shaven top lip and he spoke with a soft German accent, avoiding eye-contact. He was Irish, he explained, but had been raised in Germany. His oaky-brown hair faded to toffee and gold at the tips and added a few inches to his height, so that he seemed to tower impossibly over me.
We shook hands and he introduced me to his counterpart. Juan was a much shorter man with dark skin, dark hair and dark eyes. “I was born here, but lived most of my life in England, in Liverpool,” he offered before I asked. Not that I would have asked.
His ears drooped long and low and with an empty hole I could have poked my thumb in. His other lobe was tattooed, as were his forearms, which were decorated with silhouettes of dinosaurs, while spikes of more sinister looking designs peeped out from the cuff of his t-shirt. He’d have been quite an imposing character if not for his diminutive stature.
We headed over to Ocaña – “so that Sam can smoke” – and sat under the portico where we sipped on cold cañas from glasses dripping with humidity. Juan asked for ice, which he plonked not his beer before nearly draining the entire glass in one gulp. I was impressed.
Sam and Juan both reached frantically into their pockets, pulling out pouches of tobacco that they rolled effortlessly into perfectly formed cigarettes.
“So a bit about the tour company,” Sam started. “I started running them back in Germany in 2012. I was the first to offer a free walking tour and within two months it was the most popular tour in town. I’ve been moving around Europe ever since, setting up free tours, bar crawls, cycling tours and alternative art tours. Now I’m here to set up the Barcelona tours. Juan is the city manager.”
The leaflet he’d given me listed the destinations as Amsterdam, Vienna, Belgrade, Berlin, Budapest and Barcelona, which impressed me.
Sam finished his spiel once satisfied with my level of awe and allowed Juan to chip in with a few words of disbelief at Sam’s rapid success.
But it didn’t quite add up. Jittery and fumbling, Sam didn’t strike me as the type to lead tours of 50+ drunken stags. And it suddenly struck me that I still didn’t know exactly why we were meeting in the first place.
Normally when I’m invited to go on a tour so that I can write about it, I simply turn up on the day of the tour, introduce myself and away we go. There’s no preamble meeting beforehand.
If his tours were so successful, surely he’d have had better things to do than spend the evening sipping beers and nervously rolling cigarette after cigarette with me. Surely his company would be turning over enough cash to make my fee of a few hundred euros negligible.
Suspicious as ever, mind raced: what was I being vetted for? What did they really want from me? Was this all some kind of elaborate setup? Why was he so quick to plant the brochure in my hands when we met? Was there even a tour company at all?
I sensed an awkward silence approaching and, unsure as to exactly what the point of out conversation was, I responded with my own spiel about my arrival in Barcelona and about how popular my blog had become, how fortunate I was to be living my dream, and how I was happy to work hard for less but to do what I loved. This seemed to be something they wanted to hear and Juan was envious of how civilised it all sounded.
“I’ve been travelling around for a long time, doing six bar crawls a week, all sorts of things, in Thailand, in Australia, in America. I’m thirty five now and the thought of just being able to go out to a restaurant for the evening, or go to a museum… I dream of that.”
Unsure of what to say, I grinned and stared at Sam, hoping he’d have something to say. But, as his boss, as someone who needed Juan to run the tours, he had little to add. But at least I was beginning to buy the story.
“I have a couple of questions from my SEO guy, if you don’t mind?” Sam muttered nervously as he pulled out his phone.
“Of course, fire away!” I said.
“What other bloggers do you know? And which other websites do you write for?”
I reeled them off, suddenly aware that almost all of the bloggers I knew had young children and were unlikely to be tempted by a night of open bars and all night drinking.
“How much traffic do you get and how much can we expect to receive from working with you?”
I rattled off some numbers that seemed to impress them both and pondered that perhaps it was possible this was why they wanted to meet in person, so they could ask what many bloggers may deem to be highly sensitive information. They might as well have asked how much money I earned.
“What percentage of your traffic is organic?”
I explained my history of working at an SEO agency in London and talked a little of my strategy, that I didn’t pay for traffic, that it was either straight from search engines or social media.
Seemingly happy with my answers, we ordered another round and the conversation turned to more casual topics. Juan talked of his love for Bristol in England, a city we both agreed was where we’d like to live if we were ever to return to the UK, and of his previous ambitions to get a licence to sell beer in the parks of Berlin.
“Everyone there sells beer by the bottle, see, so they have to manoeuvre these huge cases around. And the council charges sixty euros a day, so you need to sell a lot just to break even. But I had the idea of going in with a big keg of beer. One hundred pints in one go, and I know how much I can get a keg for. I’d have made a fortune, but then I came to Barcelona. And I’m just so, so in love with this city.”
Sam responded with great affection. “Berlin, Germany… It’s a great place to do business, but sometimes it still feels communist. You try to make deals with places and they just want to know exactly how much they’re going to get. They’re just not willing to try things.”
Sam mentioned a few other cities that he’d like to open up tours in. Juan suggested Singapore. “There’s a lot happening there. I mean, you can’t chew gum and you’ll get arrested for spitting, but it’s so rich and it’s beautiful. So clean. Proof that being governed by a benevolent dictatorship can actually work,” he said, laughing.
I was taken aback by his eloquence, by his openness and affection for the world and all he’d seen. I wondered if, in a different life, if he hadn’t spent his youth bouncing from country to country, from bar crawl to bar crawl, he might have made a great philosopher or a writer.
Aware that we were hijacking the conversation, Juan and I turned the attention back towards Sam and his success. This was his show after all.
“What was that story you were telling me about your family running a huge flower import and export business in Ireland?” Juan asked Sam.
“They owned the whole market at one point, but then the industry grew and they moved into importing different types of flowers and selling them to the newcomers. It’s just about strategy.”
“It’s in your blood,” said Juan. “I think if you grow up always hearing these conversations, about making deals, about sales and negotiations, you’re going to end up doing something similar. My parents were travellers, and although I’m quite different to them, I’m still a traveller. The core of me is still from them.”
“Both of my parents were travel agents,” I replied, “and I’m a travel writer. The apple never falls too far from the tree…”
I glanced at their glasses and noted they were both empty. Juan rolled yet another cigarette with inky knuckles that read L O V E and answered a message on his phone. “I’m going to have to go.”
“Yes, me too,” said Sam with a cigarette hanging from his lip. “If you can email me the details about what we discussed earlier, that would be great.”
We shook hands and I left them to, I assumed, discuss either how much of a poncey writer I was and that I wouldn’t last two minutes on one of their bar crawls, or, I hoped, how I was much more normal than they’d expected and that it would be a perfect collaboration.
I was happy to find my bike still chained to the railing and breathed a sigh of relief. I cycled home, speeding down Gran Via with the traffic honking and lighting up my path like a Christmas tree. I was dripping in sweat by the time I got back home to Sants.
I guzzled a litre of water. And then I ate gazpacho, Spanish revuelto (scrambled eggs with herbs and chunks of vegetarian sausages and mushrooms thrown in) and finished off the red wine from earlier.
Before downing tools for the day, I folded myself into my laptop. It hadn’t been the worst day ever, but I’d spent a lot of time doing a lot of things that made me zero money. I needed this investment of time to pay off, so I started compiling the information I’d promised to send Sam.
Hopefully I’d done enough. Hopefully it would all come to something.