Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Going Got Rough & The Expat Manifesto

I arrived safe and sound in Madrid - yaaay!

That's the good news. The bad news is I had one hell of a first night.

You see, the whole process of getting this internship was a huge struggle - every step of it, including finding the internship, getting a contract, getting my contract signed by all the people who need to sign it, getting my visa, etc. The only part that wasn't a massive and trying struggle was finding a place to live - I should have taken that as a sign.

I taught a French course in Toronto earlier this year, and when it ended, I wrote an e-mail thanking my boss for the opportunity, telling her it was a wonderful experience (I had the best students ever!) and when she asked, I told her that my Next Big Thing was to go to Madrid for an internship.

"Why do I keep losing all my best teachers to Madrid?!" she exclaimed. Apparently last year, another girl she hired also went to Madrid to do an internship after teaching a course at her company. So my boss very kindly introduced us over e-mail to each other so that there'd be someone who could answer any questions I had.

My sort of co-worker (SOCW) and I discovered that I was to arrive in the city a few days after she leaves, so she offered me the room she lived in to save me the stress of finding a place to live. It was within my budget and reasonably close to where I'm going to work, so I happily and gratefully accepted - last time I went apartment-hunting in Europe was a total nightmare, so I was very glad to be spared from that process this time.

SOCW had told me that she'd notified everyone of my arrival - the roommates, the landlady (who lives next door) and the doorman, who has a copy of the keys, so all I'll have to do is show up at the apartment when I arrive and I'll be let in.

The day I arrived, SOCW's former co-worker, who's still interning here in Madrid, offered to pick me up, so I waited at the airport for her to get off work to come get me. She took me to my new digs, but no one was home. The doorman told us that the landlady asked him not to let me in because she wanted to show me in herself (or something like that), so I had to wait for her to come home. He informed us that she normally gets home at about 7pm, and as it was 6:30pm at that time, I told SOCW's former co-worker not to wait with me, that I could manage.

So I waited. And waited and waited.

It was two hours before anyone showed up. At that point I was starving, because the last time I ate was seven hours ago, and even then, it was just an airplane muffin. I was also exhausted because I just went through 11 hours of transatlantic travel, during which I didn't manage to sleep much or well. The person who showed up, however, was not the landlady, but my roommate U. My other roommate V was out of town.

Roommate U promptly told me that the room is not mine, that I can't live there because the landlady never consented to have me rent the room. She told me that I'll have to get a hotel room and find a place to live on my own. She also asked patronizingly if it was my first time away from home, how I could possibly trust people so easily, how I could possibly expect to get to live somewhere without having met the landlord before. Well, I lived in Nice, France for a year and arranged a whole rental agreement with an out-of-country landlady, so I know it's possible - and I also doubt that my roommate's ever lived outside of Spain before.

"But I just arrived from Canada! I waited on your doorstep for two hours! I was told that everything was ready and everyone knew I was coming! I don't know anyone here; where am I going to stay tonight?" I practically wailed in my limited Spanish.

Roommate U was pretty unsympathetic. She told me that apparently, they (both roomies and the landlady) had a ton of problems with SOCW, so they didn't want me living there because they think I'll be like her since we're friends.

"But we've never even met before! We were introduced over e-mail less than two months ago!"

Roommate U didn't care. She did, however, generously agree to let me put my luggage in the apartment while I went to a phone booth to make some calls and arrangements.

When I walked to the apartment, I remembered walking past a grocery store owned by Chinese immigrants, so on my way to make a call, I walked in, explained my situation and asked them if they knew of any cheap hotels, if worse comes to worst. They advised me to go to a district where apparently there were a lot of cheap room rentals from Chinese landlords, and a single room is only 15 euro a night.

I then managed to make a call home and I called my mother, distraught, and told her what happened. My poor mom had been worried enough - she must have been super distressed because she couldn't do anything for me. But she's a tough cookie and she told me to toughen up as well. She told me not to go to those hotels because any establishment that cheap could be disgusting and/or dangerous. Rather, she told me to go back to the apartment, plead with the landlady to let me stay, if not the full time I'm in Madrid then at least just for the night, so that I can be in a safe environment before concentrating on looking for a place the next day.

I was half prepared to have to take all my stuff and sleep on the doorstep of the Canadian embassy to wait for them to open the next morning. My God, I was so scared.

So then after some more walking around to calm myself down, I made my way back to the apartment. The landlady turned out to be a kindly oldish lady, and she made the decision to let me stay after speaking with me. Apparently, according to her daughter, they asked SOCW to give me their number so I could call them so that they could decide whether to let me live there. I was only told that everything was ready so I could just go.

She let me stay, but not after many, many, MANY interjections from Roommate U about how terrible SOCW was. As they showed me around the apartment, Roommate U had a ton to say, and every sentence out of her mouth was "This is the (room). Don't ____________ like SOCW because she did that and we hated it."

She also laid down all the ground rules. If I'm spending more than half an hour in the washroom (like SOCW used to do all the time), that's too long. I'm not to have men over because she lives here too and she'd feel unsafe. If I were to bring female friends here, keep it short and make sure we don't make too much noise (like SOCW did). The house should be as close to silent as possible because they sometimes have to wake up at 5:30am to work. If I listen to music, it should be super, super soft - or I should use earphones (which SOCW didn't have the decency to do). I should always do my dishes, dry them and reshelf them immediately after eating (SOCW always left them on the counter to dry apparently, which I don't see a problem with). When I come home I shouldn't make any noise (like SOCW did) because they often work from home....and so on, and so forth.

I felt so unwelcome. I was being warned against all these transgressions that I'd never committed. But I held out hope that perhaps Roommate V would be nicer.

This morning she returned from her trip and I met her. She's Asian but she obviously grew up here, and she was really standoffish.

"Nice to meet you, but I'm working right now so I'll talk to you maybe on the weekend or something."

When I came home, all the negative feelings from my roommates were roiling in my stomach, so I took a quick shower and pretty much barricaded myself in my room. The previous night, hot water ran out on me, and I lived in an apartment with no hot water when I was in France and I'm not eager to renew the experience. So when I showered, I did what I used to do in France: I turned off the water when I was lathering up, I used water that was just lukewarm, and I made the shower super short - 8 minutes. The water still seemed to run out on me, but I was done by the time it did.

Two hours after I arrived home, I heard that one of them came home and had a shower. I meant to stay in my room all night, but I had to go to the bathroom at one point and I came out. When I did, Roommate V summoned me and asked rather abruptly if I used the hot water. Sensing there must be a problem, I lied and said no. Well, she said, there's no more of it.

What am I supposed to do?! I feel like I've done all I could to ensure there's enough hot water for all of us - I took a super short shower, used almost cold water, and my shower was VERY quick. What's with all these European apartments I keep living in that don't have enough hot water for three people?! How do people survive in the deep of winter???

So I feel pretty unwelcome in my own apartment now. I'm constantly on edge because I feel like I'll inadvertently do something to piss them off and they'll give me a really hard time about it. I'm too terrified to use my own kitchen for fear that I won't match their expectations of cleanliness (even though I saw some gross, unidentified shit on the kitchen counter when I first got here).

But despite all this, at least I have a place to live, instead of having to camp out on the embassy's steps.

I'm also trying to take everything in stride because I read Ben Curtis' Expat Manifesto - don't complain, have an inordinate amount of patience and soak it all in because you CHOSE to be here, to be outside your comfort zone. So let's hope the home situation gets a little easier! And if it doesn't, well, it's not forever!

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