Friday I moved apartments as planned, to a place about ten minutes away from the centre of Madrid, and straight away it felt like I had made a bad decision. On the plus side, the new apartment was quiet – but that was about it. The area around it didn’t feel particularly safe, inside it was much smaller than I had expected, there was nothing to cook food with, and the wifi connection was extremely poor.
On this holiday I’ve come to look forward to the evenings when I can catch up on my favourite UK TV programmes using a proxy IP address, and in order to catch up on them I need a good wifi connection. I had it throughout my stay in Portugal; at the first apartment in Madrid it had been hit and miss, but mostly it was enough to get by with. Here it was terrible – I couldn’t stream anything. Using my phone’s 3G connection as a tether wouldn’t be possible. I know I’m not on holiday just to watch TV programmes, far from it! But there’s just something about being able to sit down of an evening and make myself feel a little bit at home with my favourite programmes. If I have to sit quietly in the evening doing nothing I can get to thinking about how lonely I am, how much I miss home and want to go back. TV can distract me from that for an hour or two, and it makes me feel better.
I decided I’d worry about the internet connection later as I went out to do some more sightseeing in the city. On my way out of the flat, I fell victim to a really stupid incident with the main door leading to the street. It was a big old wooden door with lots of metal locks and bolts, none of which seemed to do anything. I tried turning all of them and the door wouldn’t budge. I tried really hard not to panic but for a moment I felt like I was trapped and I began to hate where I was staying. One of the neighbours, who had been sweeping his balcony, saw me and started shouting something at me in Spanish. I assume he was trying to tell me how to open the door, but I couldn’t understand him. For five minutes he kept shouting and I kept panicking; his shouting started to become more of a hindrance than a help.
Eventually he came over to show me what to do – why he couldn’t have done it sooner I’ll never know – as he pressed a small button that was hidden away in the dark near the ground and opened the door for me, he gave me a look that told me I was the stupidest person he had ever met. Stupid English tourist, he seemed to be thinking. I didn’t thank him for his help as I walked out and slammed the door behind me.
I was so rattled by the incident all my plans for the day were forgotten and I had to just start walking in a random direction, to get away from the flat as quickly as I could. I walked for ages, not knowing or caring where I was going. It was horrible – one of the things I hate most in life is confrontation. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the man had shouted at me for ten minutes and made me feel like a complete fool. I was a fool. I’ve got two bachelor degrees and yet I can’t figure out how to open a door? It was like I’d exposed myself back there, and I didn’t want to go back. I decided to stay out as long as possible that day. I wouldn’t be able to face going back for hours, and I certainly didn’t want to risk seeing that man ever again. He might not be sweeping the balcony for much longer, but to be sure I made sure I was going to be out for the rest of the day.
I ended up at the river and sat on a bench by the river bank for a while. It was a cloudy day and slightly cold and I felt thoroughly gloomy. I’d made a really bad decision about where I was staying, there was no doubt about it. Just the thought of going back to it made me tear up. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I went on my phone and looked up prices for hotels in Madrid. Everything was really expensive at such short notice. I really wanted to get away from that apartment; I would have gone anywhere. A hotel would have been nice: I would haven’t to worry about cooking food or dealing with angry neighbours any more. The wifi connection in a hotel was sure to be much more reliable.
But I wasn’t that keen on staying in Madrid, the more I thought about it. My flight to Rome this week is going from Barcelona – what if I ended my stay in Madrid early and went to Barcelona for a few days? I looked up hotels there, but of course they were all really expensive too.
I decided to sleep on it. I’d have to go back to the apartment at some point anyway – once I was back inside safely behind a locked door I could sleep knowing the horrible neighbour wouldn’t be able to bother me. I walked up into town and stopped off at a modern art museum, where I saw some great works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Chagall. I wanted to enjoy it more – God, what I would have given to get back to feeling like I was on holiday! All the time the knowledge that I would have to go back to the flat eventually weighed heavy on my mind. As it got later and later the fear grew and grew. I tried to convince myself I was worrying over nothing. I had done nothing wrong. It’s not as if the neighbour was going to kill me if he saw me again. It was that place: it had a bad feeling about it now, and I wouldn’t be able to shake it no matter what I did.
After a quick dinner in McDonalds I returned slowly to the apartment. Luckily the neighbour wasn’t out when I got there, so I crept along the balcony to the apartment and closed the door firmly behind me. As soon as I’d taken my coat off I went online to look up hotels in Barcelona again. I was determined to find a good price. I would stay one night in this apartment, but I couldn’t do any more than that. I needed to go to Barcelona the next day: I needed the familiarity of it. I’d fallen completely out of love with Madrid. Barcelona was calling me.
Thanks to the weak wifi signal it took me about three hours to book a train and a hotel. As soon as I was done I felt a little better, and I could go to sleep looking forward to the next day. Every now and then I heard a neighbour walking around in their flat next door. The noises were strangely close, as if they were in the flat with me. I knew they weren’t, but it spooked me every time it happened nonetheless.
I slept fitfully. When dawn came I got up pretty much straight away to start packing. My train wasn’t until 1.30 in the afternoon, but I thought there could be no harm in preparing early. I messaged the owner of the flat to tell them I was leaving early. I was terrified of them telling me it was such an inconvenience, there was nothing wrong with the flat, they’d be leaving me a bad review on Airbnb. I knew logically that me leaving early would make no difference whatsoever to the owner – I’d paid for the full stay in advance and I wasn’t expecting a refund. Still, the whole upsetting experience had made me extra sensitive to anything that could go wrong, and I was sure that I’d be leaving this owner with a really bad impression.
I checked my messages all morning at regular intervals, but there was no reply. The owner had either had a really late night and was still asleep, or he just wasn’t that bothered about me leaving. At 10 o’clock I’d had enough of waiting and decided to head into town with my suitcase. When I closed the door on the apartment for the last time I was so glad I can’t tell you. I’d never disliked anywhere as much as I disliked that place. Thinking about it even now gives me the creeps. It really did spook me. I don’t know what was the worst thing about it. All the things that happened were bad, but even together they don’t seem like enough now to make me loathe it as much as I did. There was just a bad energy about it. Thank God I’ll never have to see that place again.
I hung around in Costa Coffee for a few hours until it was time to head to the train station. The wifi in Costa was thankfully strong and I could surf the internet normally as if I was at home. When it was time to go to the train station, I felt like jumping for joy. I was going to my favourite city, Barcelona! I must admit, it felt a little crazy having spent all that money to change my plans at the last minute. I am never normally that spontaneous. The need was urgent, admittedly, but I guess I could never do that sort of thing before because I would never have been able to afford it. Thank God I can afford it now. Maybe I’d been a little frivolous in choosing a nice beach hotel in Barcelona rather than another cheap Airbnb apartment, but at that point I couldn’t face another apartment. I needed to be in a hotel, where rooms are properly managed, where people are around all the time, where they do breakfast, where I could watch TV and order room service and not have to make my bed in the morning.
The train was relatively quiet when it left Madrid. If it had been in the UK, it would have been packed. The three hour journey to Barcelona didn’t go too slowly, thankfully. When we got here I can’t say how relieved I was. It was a little like going home. I knew Barcelona so well – this would be my fifth visit here in five years. The metro was easy to navigate thanks to its familiarity, and although the hotel was all the way on the other side of town from Sants mainline station, it didn’t take long to get there.
Check in at the hotel was smooth and painless. I opened the door to the room and my breath was taken away by how large and lovely it was. I’d certainly chosen well. I jumped onto the bed and sighed with pleasure. Now I felt like I was on holiday.
After resting for a couple of hours I went out to find somewhere to eat. The beach is only a ten minute walk away; I walked along the promenade that I knew so well, passed the gay beach where P and I go every year; past the bar on the gay beach where we always sip our diet cokes and watch the men go by when it’s hot and sunny. I was surprised to see the bar open in late October, despite it being dark and a bit chilly; there were even people in there. I briefly considered having dinner there, before I realised it would be really expensive and I wanted to be closer to the centre of the town.
I ended up at a slightly more lively Italian restaurant further down the promenade near the port. I enjoyed a delicious pizza there and I also enjoyed my own company. So far on this holiday I haven’t thought much about being on my own and trying to enjoy my own company. On Saturday night I tried to act as if I was treating myself, or taking myself out on a date, being nice to myself. It was nice. It had been nearly two weeks since I last had a conversation with another human being, and I didn’t mind because I was being my own friend.
In Madrid I had meant to meet P’s friend, C, but due to leaving early it couldn’t happen. On Saturday night he kept messaging me to ask me what happened, why had I left so suddenly. I found it strange that he seemed so concerned about me, given we had never met. P would have said oh he’s just a really nice considerate person – I couldn’t decide whether to buy it or not. I tried to explain via whatsapp that I hadn’t felt safe in the apartment where I was staying, that I had changed my mind about Madrid and wanted to spend some time in Barcelona instead. C didn’t seem to get it. He kept asking if I was really all right. In the end I decided to ignore his messages. They were too distracting and I wanted to enjoy the night by myself.
After dinner I walked up through the Ramblas and the lights of Catalonia Square. It was a pleasant stroll. The air was warm and the streets were crowded with tourists. It was nice to see there is still a tourist industry here at the beginning of winter. At 9 o’clock I caught the metro back to the hotel feeling refreshed and happy.
The wifi connection here is, unfortunately, about as bad as it was in Madrid, which is a real bummer. I desperately wanted to watch that evening’s edition of a programme that I love, but I couldn’t. I had to give up and go to sleep. I was a little upset, but because I was in Barcelona in a nice hotel, I didn’t let it get to me too much. I’d wake up in the morning, go for a lovely stroll by the beach and have a nice Sunday with myself.
Yesterday I did just that. I spent a few hours in Costa with my laptop later in the afternoon, and I actually managed to write 2,000 words for my novel. In the evening I couldn’t think what to do for dinner, so when I was passing the Hard Rock Cafe on Catalonia Square I randomly decided to go in. A brave thing to do, perhaps, given that no one goes to the Hard Rock Cafe on their own. I wanted to see what it would be like. And it was actually OK. No one looked at me like I was strange for being on my own. I enjoyed a huge spicy beef burger and non-alcoholic cocktail whilst watching 90’s rock music videos on the TV screen near me. I forgot all about Madrid and what happened there.
After dinner I was stuffed and kind of ready to go back to the hotel. But P kept asking me if I was going to pay a visit to our favourite gay bar in Barcelona, where it’s always friendly and you can easily have a good time on your own. I wasn’t that far from it, and I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go. Although I normally hate going into gay bars on my own, I was in a good mood, and since I do really like the place I couldn’t see the harm in supporting them by spending some money there.
My heart was beating anxiously as I walked in – that fear of being seen as a loner was back with me – I forced myself to ignore it and walk in like I was perfectly entitled to be there. When I got inside I was amazed to see it was completely packed. It was their happy hour, apparently a popular time for all of Barcelona’s gay community to be seen there. I fought my way to the bar and ordered a diet coke, then fought my way to a free corner where I could stand and appear friendly.
As much as I was in a good mood, I couldn’t completely shake this cynicism that I always get about talking to people in gay bars. I noticed a friendly looking, much older guy standing near me who kept looking in my direction. He obviously wanted to talk to me. I didn’t know whether to encourage him or not. P would have encouraged me to encourage him, whether I was attracted to the person or not, because it’s nice to speak to people in bars and it couldn’t do me any harm. I wasn’t so sure. All of my experience in gay bars over the years has led me to the conclusion that if you give anyone the slightest encouragement they will assume that you want to sleep with them. I don’t know if I’ve ever just had a friendly conversation in a gay bar that didn’t have any expectations attached to it.
Of course it would have been great to chat to someone there last night. The place was full of friendly looking people, and other guys who I had noticed on their own at the beginning were chatting to neighbours within fifteen or twenty minutes. Back home over the years friends have told me that the way to get talking to someone, anyone, is just to smile and say something pleasant. You can make a friend and feel like a part of the world. But I can never just do that. With the threat of expectations hanging over me I could barely stop myself from looking at my phone every five minutes, the phone acting as a crutch so that anyone seeing me would think I was too busy to approach. I really didn’t want to lead anyone to think that I was after sex, because I definitely wasn’t.
After half an hour I decided I’d done enough and went home. I refused to see the night as a failure, even though I’d chatted to no one. Why do I need to talk to someone in a gay bar anyway? I’d done the hard thing by going in and standing on my own for half an hour. I’d supported a business that I like; I’d even enjoyed some good foot tapping music. Whether I could have made a lifelong friend by being more approachable or not, I hadn’t had a terrible time. If anything, it had been something interesting to do for half an hour, instead of just sitting in my hotel room watching TV.