travel and the art of mental maintenance: II. Madrid, the arrival

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

the arrival

I was supposed to take the train from Paris to Madrid. It was one of those things that I had planned out well in advance like the responsible adult I had thought I was. I bought my Eurail pass and everything.

If I remember correctly, it was an overnight train. In the planning stages, this was a good thing because it meant a night I didn’t have to pay for a hostel.

But then, as Paris wound to a close, all the ephemeral friends I had made in my hostel there were starting to drift away… some back to their everyday lives, some onto their next adventure. The loneliness was creeping back in. The tide was coming in again.

Suddenly, an overnight train journey was starting to feel a bit too much like claustrophobia. As if the train would trap me with myself and the bleak possibility of unwanted social interaction. Loneliness is strange sometimes in that you know social interaction should be good for you, but you fear it ever-the-more intensely.

This was the beginning of a pattern that would repeat over and over while I travelled, in one of those unearthly hybrids of art and mathematics.

So I looked up Ryanair. It was something absolutely absurd (like only 20 Euros) to fly from Paris to Madrid. So I booked it. I get irresponsible with money when faced with potentially anxiety-ridden situations. Anything to avoid it. Take my money. I booked a flight leaving that night. It would get into Madrid at about midnight.

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I took the Metro to the dying embers of central Paris where I had to catch a coach to this tiny little airport, the name of which eludes me. It was one big room lined with vending machines on one side, and windows on the other. You could watch the rickety planes come in and airport staff push the staircases up to them. For someone who grew up in a city with a major airport, this felt like time travel. As it I would see The Beatles descend at any moment. A pretentious, privileged thought, but one I had all the same.

Ryanair doesn’t book seats. It’s a free-for-all. I would come to learn the best entrance strategy (always go for the back set of stairs; most people rush the first), but at this point, I just went with the crowd.

I had my Lonely Planet travel guide and I spent the flight plotting my route from the airport to the hostel in Madrid. Easy peasy, it looked. Just one metro line, with one change. Doneskis.

But by about one in the morning, I discovered that part of the Madrid Metro was down for maintenance. I had to find the surface and find a shuttle bus. I got on the wrong one.

When I realized something was wrong (which took an embarrassingly long time), I got off the bus, and hailed a cab. I handed the address to a hostel over to the driver and he took one look at it and gave me a long, tired look. Without a word, he started driving.

Madrid in the middle of the night is an odd place. It is funny to compare it to other cities, especially my own, Vancouver, which shuts down at about one-thirty am, just after the last Skytrain pulls out of downtown.

Madrid is one of those cities that goes all night. Sure, it’s quieter than during the day. But there’s still stuff going on. It feels like an underground of sorts. Like you’re somehow complicit in this secret world.

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By two-thirty am, the cab pulled up at the end of a long alley. It was wide enough to know that it was a viable walkway, but narrow enough that the cab driver silently said no fucking way.

I gave the cab driver a look as if to ask where the hell am I supposed to go?

He pointed down this Spanish Knockturn Alley and said, “Down. Just little. On left.”

“Thanks.”

He looked solemn. By now, I had assumed this was his natural state of being, solemnity, but as I opened the cab door, he said, “Careful. Bad town. Very bad.”

I had sincerely wished he’d not said that. How could this have helped? Like now I could watched out for maniacs but before I would have embraced them with open arms? Did he think I was expecting the residents of Spanish Knockturn Alley to break out into a rendition of the Lollipop Guild at my arrival?

I side-stepped a few leering types, but I made it to the hostel unscathed. I managed to get a room and snuck up to it quietly, tiptoeing amongst the already asleep. So as not to cause unnecessary noise, I slipped off my shoes and slid into the bed fully clothed.

As tired as I was after such a long day, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes. I pulled the blanket up to my chin and stared at the underside of the bunk above me. My heart was pounding. I could feel my pulse in my ears.

Holy shit! How had I taken the events of the evening in such stride? I had been stranded in the middle of the night in a foreign city I had not even seen in the daylight. And I had been alone. Completely alone. No one had known I was even in the country.

How stupid could I have been?

Once I replayed everything over in my mind, it was impossible to calm myself down. I had to repeat over and over: You’re safe now. Calm the hell down. It’s over.

It was a strange day, but an important one. I realized I could handle it. Things would be thrown at me and I only had myself to rely on. But I could handle it.

And maybe I needed to be a little bit more responsible with myself… and my money. But I wouldn’t learn that lesson until years later.

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