I’ve missed trains, buses, and one flight on this trip. All apart of the travel experience and a lesson in time management, which I’ve quickly come to realize I have zero aptitude for. Moreover, if I do manage to find my way to the metro, train station or airport in a timely fashion, it’s by pure dumb luck, not from proper planning. Considering how much time and effort I put into my travel plans, at the last minute, in most cases, I suppose it’s par for the course. In vain, I Google map everything, yet I still get lost. It simply does not matter what I do. I was born a week late and that has set the tone for my entire life. The overarching theme being: it takes a great deal of effort and many hours to get somewhere on time.
Despite my best efforts, I manage to run, not walk, to almost every terminal I’ve encountered this past month or so. Of course with time and experience, my timing is getting better but only by degrees. When you come from a smaller city you are used to smaller airports. International airports are huge. You need a couple of hours to walk to the right terminal, check in, and go through TSA. The queues are long. People are pushy. It’s hot and I usually have to pee. The airports in Europe are not pleasurable, besides all the food options, which I am too tardy to really explore.
Slogging my bags through miles of sprawling airport corridors, I shake my fist at go-carts toting bags with elderly passengers bringing them from one connection to another. Then I immediately feel worse. Travelling in Europe as a much older person must be incredibly difficult. For example, I didn’t see one lift in the Paris metro. It’s all stairs upon stairs and long tunnels. (No wonder I sprained my ankle after a month of travel!) I kept thinking about my dad with his bad circulation and neuropathy. He’d have a bitch of a time getting around. He would have to take taxis everywhere as even the buses have steep steps to get on and off on.
So, you can imagine my shock when my flight home was cancelled less than twelve hours prior to takeoff. By no fault of my own, I was stranded in Spain but it was all on me to correct the situation and get home. I spent three hours on the phone trying to sort out a way back to the States without spending a small fortune. I had to make my own way from Madrid to Frankfurt and from Las Vegas to Portland, but my main flight from Frankfurt to Las Vegas could be changed without a fee thanks to travel insurance.
My defenses were low from the several phone calls, busy signals, and online booking of connecting flights to make it to Portland. When I was offered free Sangria by a girl with green hair, I decided to take her up on it (not as much decide but relent based on the need for a cocktail) and try something different: I participated in a hostel activity. I was wearing a cardigan and didn’t bother to change my outfit.
Travel rule #1: Nothing in Europe is free. Expect a catch.
Now, I’m older and wiser than these backpackers on a gap year or postgraduate twenty-somethings. I know the score. The hostel employs young people, much like the free walking tours, to be affable and charming for tips and to entice you into a paid walking tour or pub-crawl. Tourism is the gig. In Europe, it’s a huge source of income to a country in economic crisis. Customers select their hostel based on location, price, and reviews. Favorable reviews on various booking websites are a necessity. One bad comment could easily change a potential customer’s mind. (It certainly has changed my mind on a few occasions.) The completion is stiff and a cool, attractive staff is essential to creating an alluring atmosphere. You’re not booking just a bed but a bespoke party experience. Your new temporary home away from home comes complete with instant friends in a city where you would otherwise have a language barrier. The unemployment rate of those under 30 with a college degree is 51 percent in Madrid. It’s all about the Benjamin’s, baby. I get it. Sincerely, I do. I am American after all.
However, the bottom line is that I am 33-years-old and have foresight. I know that it’s all an elaborate plan to seem frolicsome and somehow paying 12 euros for shitty shots in terrible clubs all over Madrid is a bargain when you are all alone or just in the city or country for a few days. Yet these places are not fun. Actually, they are dangerous, packed with pickpockets, super aggressive men, and shit music. No one really gets to know you. It’s all drunkenness to mask the awkward situation at hand, which in this case, is crap drinks and even crappier music. Also, the hostel staff is not your friends. Bless their hearts they make it seem authentic after four big cups of Sangria.
When I was younger, like much of the group at this pub-crawl, I’d have no trouble dancing in a ridiculous nightclub with a horrible bathtub gin concoction in hand. Even now that I am older I still love to dance and act a fool with a cocktail or two with my pals. I am not a wallflower. I am an active participant in life. I’m curious about others. I love to meet and chat up new people. I’m not a lame-o stick-in-the-mud. In Madrid, on this particular night, I was glued to the wall holding a shot of something terrible. In fact, some of the substance in the shot glass spilled on my hand and burned. Of course, I did the charitable thing and handed the toxic drink to the 18-year-old Canadian in our group.
This evening made me feel like an old maid and I nearly believed it. I am not even close to that. I know that to my core. But this night, dragged into a fucking pub-crawl (not charged the fee because my flight was cancelled, so I was pitied and given a cheap perk) and I know better. I let it happen. I went to an idiotic thing and paid the price. I went to one club in a fucking beige cardy from the Gap and was made to feel like a fool. The staff would not leave me alone to people watch drunk morons dance to Nicki Minaj. They tried to make me dance to shitty remix after shitty remix. I played along in my silly way. I politely offered my preference for dive bars and indie rock. “This is just not my jam,” I’d offer with a grin and a shrug.
I’m wise enough to try something new and decide to leave when I’ve had enough. I kept thinking of my friends back home. If they were here would they see it my way? I miss having someone close to me. Who knows me and has my back. Would they agree to leave after just one club on this gloriously dumb tour de douche?
I smoke outside with the hostel staff. They keep me close by. (Solo Jenn is getting real tired of this welcoming act.) I look at the grand buildings and oddly decorated balconies above my head in the starless sky. Pitch black with the thumping bass vibrating through narrow streets. I hear bits of four different conversations in three different languages happening nearby. I catch a snippet in English, “some people are just not social.” It could have been about anyone but my skin was raw (not just from the acid in a shot glass) and I felt the judgment. Being alone. Being pitied. They got me wrong. They assigned a persona to me because of their own limited experience and knowledge of others. I chalk it up to youth, bravado, and a little bit of projecting their own insecuries on to someone that seems easy enough to peg as a sad thing in need of friendship.
At the next stop I walk back to the hostel alone. I know the way.