Photos by Ethan Jacobs

The bookbag is a ruse, makes me look competent like I know where I’m going or what I’m doing. I don’t think anyone suspects I’m moving around with contraband: a stolen bundle of bed sheets that used to be white. By dawn, they were blotchy—red, yellow, orange—splotched pell-mell like a 500-thread Pollock with crusty bits of half-digested who-knows-what that was in my stomach a few hours ago. At least I missed the pillows. Thank God for that marching band that passed by at six in the morning. It was the only thing to muffle my retching.

I need a laundromat. Slip in, sort these sheets out, and get them back on my bed before their owner finds out. If confronted, I’ll use one of those marketing words, like ‘festive,’ to describe them. They have a pop to them. Against a blank canvas, their new colors are vibrant, like the Hogueras I’ve come to watch—or squint at, given my current state. I should be much more upbeat, it’s just that a four-day festival to commemorate the single longest day of the year seems gratuitous. It’s a miracle this festival even exists. There was a time when all of this was illegal here. When setting off fireworks or lighting bonfires would get you fined. But these days, money talks—tourism has seen to that. Burning things in the street, it seems, makes tourists burn through money—laundromat coins included. All that said, the only thing not burning is my desire to be out and about. My head feels like a Rube Goldberg machine and this mid-afternoon sun needs to take a few steps back. Festival or not, I don’t need any reminders of how long this day is going to be.

I start on Avenida Alfonso el Sabio. I figure it’s as good a place as any to begin, plus its proximity to my flat makes things easier. It’s a yawning avenue that bisects Alicante hamburger-style, separating the touristy center to the south from the university and residential areas in the north. Lined with shops and department stores, it’s the main artery running through the Mercado Central area where I’m staying. Today it’s a zoo.

Stores are closed in honor of the festivities, and the street is almost entirely blocked off. Yesterday was worse. A large stretch was transformed into a makeshift catwalk, either side lined with a phalanx of black and white plastic chairs from which spectators watched parading orchestras and troupes of minueting dancers pay homage to the region’s folklore. Today, pedestrian traffic is still at a standstill. Every corner from here to Plaza Luceros, a posh roundabout and popular meeting place replete with fountains, statues, and palms, is a morass of idling humans. Shortly, there will be a mascletá (mah-skleh-ta), a series of rhythmic explosions that crescendo in force, climaxing in a bone-rattling boom. I just can’t right now.

In 12 hours, this place will look like a post-skirmish conflict zone. The remains of pyres will smolder and cloudy trails of water and ash will slake an otherwise parched street. Here and there, firemen will stand by—absent-mindedly pointing hoses in the direction of embers—while tractors scoop up small piles of debris. The pop of an occasional firework a few hundred meters from where I’m standing will feel stale, a callback to four days of festivities that are fizzling out like the fireworks that marked them.

For now, I don’t like my odds of getting through this crowd. I think about turning back when I spot what looks like an opening. I swim for it, ducking onto Carrer Navas. Off-streets like this one are empty, a welcome respite when it gets too people-y. Others are pocked with groups clustered outside of taverns and cervecerías. They chat and sip beer, occasionally letting out the odd “jolín!” or “madremía!”—those exclamations Spaniards love to blurt when expressing surprise among raconteuring friends. In extreme cases, streets stop being streets altogether. Those that verge on being too narrow for motorist traffic under normal circumstances morph during the holiday season—the gaunt Calle Periodista Pirula Arderius, for example—transformed into a series of street-side patio tables where parties of two and three sip aperitifs and larger groups divvy up pitchers of tinto de verano. Cloistered between five-to-six-story apartment buildings on either side, it’s a shaded pedestrian street sheltered from the late afternoon sun. It’s exactly what I need.

I crane my neck at each intersection, looking down either end of whatever street runs perpendicular for signs of a laundromat. I’d rather be among those seated. What I wouldn’t give for a little hair of the dog to wash away the cobwebs from last night instead of having to rinse the remnants of this morning. I don’t know if they’d even seat me in my state—wan and sweat-drenched. I feel like a fish out of water, though that’s probably just the dehydration talking.

Bleary-eyed, I switch to sonar. The corner of San Illdefonso and Carrer Castaños is an auditory estuary. Glasses clink, and chatter normally no more than a low murmur, swells to a sharp roar. Somewhere nearby, fireworks sound with metronomic frequency, a far cry from a mascletá. They don’t pop, it’s more like a cough, clearing the phlegm of last night’s debauchery. Later on, just a few blocks down, they’ll be more resounding. A lit fuse—seemingly innocuous—triggering a round of crackling, rapid-fire like a cloudburst on a tin roof. There will be a pause, an intermission of near-nothingness save for the fizz of sparklers and the arhythmic clap of a few fireworks behind it. In the moment, it will feel like a tease, but in retrospect, it will probably have been just the pause I needed to watch myself burn.

A few blocks west, Carrer del Teatro spits me out at Plaça de la Muntanyeta, a staging area for all things festive—nativity scenes, Christmas lights, all that jazz. As an exchange student, I’d come here in the winter to gawk. In late June, it becomes a public gallery of award-winning ninots (knee-notes), doll-like papier mache effigies, the very same that’ll be burned later on. Aesthetically, they’re somewhere between Pixar and Candy Crush. Svelte, ruddy-faced Victorian characters in waistcoats and crinoline dresses, a portly family of four frolicking at the beach, ignorant of the havoc they’re wreaking on its ecosystem. It’s this, rather than the art alone, that draws people in. Sardonic social commentary just playful enough to avoid offense. In a way, the subject matter is immaterial, just a pasquinade destined to be destroyed. Still, it offers a window into how Spaniards see themselves, or perhaps how they wish to be seen. Plastered on the faces of the ninots is a certain brightness—an unwillingness to take things too seriously; a non-negotiable proviso in their social contract: life will be enjoyed. I used to think they were just lazy.


I was, for all intents and purposes, still a kid the first time I came here, probably more scared than I was willing to admit. My worldview was insular, I thought I had everything I needed back home. I only went abroad because it’s what my friends were doing. I didn’t want to be left behind. My language ability was limited to words and phrases used less than you’d think in real life, and I lived with a 70-year-old Argentinian woman who spoke less English than I spoke Spanish.

Operating hours made no sense. A three-hour closure in the middle of the day to eat and take a nap seemed like something gleaned from a focus group of 7-year-olds. Not sitting down to dinner until ten each night felt like fasting. The magic of abruptly being able to drink legally fizzled almost instantly when I realized that no one around me was doing so to get fucked up. What I wanted, like so many Americans the first time they go abroad, was the comfort and convenience of the United States, just along the shores of the Mediterranean.

At least half of what got me through that adaptation period were those around me. I was lucky to have as crutches friends and a girlfriend that were locals. When you get to see a place through the eyes of someone who knows it well, it gives you a different appreciation for it—makes you hungry for access to the things and places off limits to outsiders. The other half of the equation was probably more existential. I didn’t want to look back on my time abroad, whatever its duration, thinking I hadn’t made the most of it.

That meant forcing myself to watch hours of electoral debates I barely understood, trying to figure out who PP and PSOE were and what they wanted—turning a blind eye to Obama’s upcoming title defense. It meant getting acquainted with Pedro Almodovár—Tacones Lejanos, Volver, Mujeres al Borde—instead of cozying up to Seinfeld or The Office after a rough day. I’d tell you it meant growing to like David Bisbal, but not all cultural novelties stick. But it did mean egg tortilla sandwiches instead of burgers, 2-euro Don Simon instead of Rubinoff, and a handful of pilgrimages to Estadio Mestalla to watch Valencia play.

Being forced to change the way you live, the way you speak, the way you think about things changes you. In a semester, I went from being bolted to the idea of job security and never wanting to leave the States to craving discomfort, eschewing whatever felt safe, and yearning to get out and never come back. All that cultural novelty became a drug—living abroad, an ongoing bender—fixes coming in under-the-table corporate stints in Asia, then Latin America.

In the early days, after a stretch spent working in Korea, I succumbed to pressure from family, friends, and interested employers—I figured America and I could work things out. I spent nine months living in my parents’ house, getting ghosted by the HR reps who encouraged me to come back for interviews, and working a temp job for which I was overqualified. Somehow, I still managed to get fired. Going from a world of opportunities to seemingly none will fuck with you. But I think that on a deeper level, trying to reprogram yourself to a way of being that no longer suits you, especially after going to such great lengths to adopt something new, is usually too much to ask. To paraphrase from The Shawshank Redemption, you come to depend on a new set of walls; new surroundings. It’s cultural institutionalization. I weighed suicide in those few months more than I have in the near-decade since, convinced that my moment had gone and that the best was behind me. My strength came from letting go—realizing I’d been trying to keep up in a race not meant for me. When I finally got out, when I gave up on the American dream, I ran. It’s funny, in retrospect, that everything I’ve done since then has felt like one long sprint—maybe toward the life I wanted or perhaps, away from the one I didn’t.

There’s an instinct to Monday-morning quarterback those choices, sort of an existential accounting exercise. In each moment, each leg of whatever this race is, things that now seem like steep sacrifices just felt like the cost of doing business. I think that at the time, in the face of so much novelty, I thought more about what I stood to gain than whatever I might lose. So, for all my gallivanting and global experience, what I also accrued were more missed family gatherings than I can remember; a turned-down six-figure offer when I was 25; and the abrupt ending of a handful of promising relationships, one of which I tell myself to this day would have ended up in a proposal. All of those were my choices, one self-inflicted wound after another. But the toll that took on friendships has been the toughest. I’ve systematically watched any remnants of meaningful social life evaporate, I lost touch with a friend I’d had since I was four when it became clear I wasn’t coming back to the States, and each time I moved—from Korea, from Malaysia, from Colombia, and from Spain—I went through the repeated dance of saying goodbye to some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, a minuet I learned when I left America. Walking away from that involves a kind of purging because though you tell yourself you’ll stay in touch, you’re forced to rid yourself of the coziness that being there physically ensconces you in—knowing you can meet for drinks or dinner, or whatever at the drop of a hat.

The flip side is that wherever you end up isn’t a like-for-like swap. In bouncing around, you never fully let one culture, or group of friends, or set of sensibilities replace another. You just pick up pieces, constantly forging new identities with the parts. It’s a great way to make yourself adaptable; impervious to change. You appreciate the present in ways you never did before, observing your surroundings through a lens that’s removed, non-judgmental. But you never feel at home. Your social skills suffer, largely because of all of the walls you’ve put up in expectation of friendships and relationships ending abruptly, and you question your values and allegiances, having seen things from both sides. You become whatever the adult version is of a third-culture kid.

For whatever little time I’m in the States these days, I’m not me, not really. I’m a version of myself that I think is most compatible with the people I’m around. A sort of pastiche of what I maybe would have become had I stayed; a sardonic satire on the way I see American culture. When I leave, I burn it to the ground, just like I do wherever else in the world I end up. I envy everyone I know that gets to be themselves without giving a thought to cultural faux pax because they don’t know any other way to be. They don’t need to wander around trying to avoid suspicion by rinsing the remnants of whatever they just purged. Maybe they don’t need to purge at all.

Time has a funny way of leaping forward in Spain, it’s always later than it seems. Maybe that’s why I didn’t wake up til late afternoon, or wash my sheets til night, or find myself back in this city for a decade. In the morning, when this is over, when the embers have died out, I’ll leave—the city and this version of myself—again. Sooner or later, I always do. Running towards the life I want, or away. I’ll say goodbye to those people I haven’t seen in years, each of us stumbling through some version of “we should do this more often,” knowing we can’t, and won’t. Then, as our paths diverge and I hand back the keys, I’ll sneak a final glance before they shut the door—a peak at where their life took them, where mine might’ve taken me. Familiarity. Coziness. Stability. Things I used to associate with complacency—laziness—all those years ago.


On the verge of giving up, I find what I spent all afternoon looking for just a few blocks north of where my search began. That’s the kind of day it’s been. It’s gotten dark. There’s barely enough time to get everything washed and dried before the fireworks start. Somehow, this day hasn’t been long enough.

Around two in the morning, I find myself leaning against a light post across the street from a kebab shop, struggling to keep my eyes open. Thousands of spectators watch firemen blast gushing streams near a ninot engulfed in flames. I have a front-row seat to my own immolation. In the fire, I see version whatever of me that I’ll torch when I leave, the same ritual of naive hope that I’ll someday be flame-resistant, that I won’t need to pick up the recycled bits smoldering in ash to forge something new. But if I’m honest, whatever it is—however I wish to be seen—is just a ruse. It makes it look like I know where I’m going or what I’m doing.

Ethan Jacobs is a writing coach who works with kids ranging in age from 10 to 18, as well as adults, primarily in areas of essay writing and other non-fiction formats. His award-winning work has been published domestically and internationally and can be found in Deep South Magazine, Kind Writers Literary Magazine, The Bogota Post, and elsewhere.