Madrid was supposed to be easy. The only task I pencilled in was to enjoy myself. Eat, drink, and walk around this gothic country. Maybe visit nearby towns for the day, here and there. No pressure to pack it in and make the most out of it. Maybe see a museum on the free hours but no need to spend the entire day among El Greco. This was my time to relax and write and bask in the glow of my new self. To behold and greedily praise myself for a job well done.
I’m an idiot.
There is a part of me that wants to hold on to the fear, worry, and anxiety. My ego is desperate for control. I can feel an internal struggle between my old persona and the new one emerging from the radical discomfort of a life aboard. A life on the road. Alone. No one to rely on but me, the self I have the least compassion for, the one I blame for all the missteps and mistakes. The one relationship I need to repair the most is the one with myself. If the old adage is correct, and it must get worse before it gets better, than I am finally on the road to recovery. It hit me hard my second night in Madrid.
I’ve still not managed to eat out alone for dinner this entire trip. I’ve cheated and had late lunches, snacking for dinner, or going to bed hungry. I tried to go it alone. I knew the words in Spanish. My neighborhood is a bustling and lively part of town: bars, clubs, cafes, and restaurants line all the meandering narrow streets of Central Madrid. For all my wandering, I’ve never been lost. There is a gravitational force that keeps me correct among twisting and turning routes. I walk with my freshly bandaged ankle and look for an enticing spot to conquer my fear of eating dinner alone in a foreign country where I don’t completely know the language. I am going to do this. I have the reserve. I diligently look for a place to seat myself. I walk through countless streets. I pass by a number of menus – some handwritten in chalk, others a static menu encased in hard plastic or glass on brick.
The one thing I love about dining in Europe is that most places allow you to seat yourself and it’s not rude to flag down the wait staff for service. I’ve not seen one waiting list or need for reservations; perhaps, at the most posh restaurants but none that I encountered over the course of my trip. It seems that everyone just kind of shows up and all places are crowded and busy in an instant. Dinner begins here at 8:30 p.m. and can go until 1 a.m. The bars stay open until 3 or 4 a.m. and the clubs go until 7 a.m. The Spanish are a culture of nighttime creatures on the hunt for all the pleasures that the darkness can provide: food, drink, music, dance, and sex. I’ve never seen so many people game for heartbreak and diabetes.
As you can imagine, I stuck out like a sore thumb looking for a table and ready to cross this action off of my mental to-do list. Noticing all those happy people eating, drinking, talking, and laughing amid sips of wine made me feel small and incredibly lonely. I just couldn’t bring myself to plop down on a vacant table or go to the bar and order dinner for one. I even wore my new European leather jacket filling my nose with the undeniable scent of brand new leather for maximum support. (I imagine this is what a young Mick Jagger smelled like upon donning his first super cool jacket.) But my confidence quickly faltered and I crumbled into a weeping mess. For the first time on this entire trip I broke down completely. No tears of joy and gratitude this time. If I’m being honest with myself this waterfall of tears is the culmination of weeks of isolation and tiny defeats. The little heartbreaks, miscommunications, and brief but lasting humiliations have bubbled up from their hiding place and came tumbling down my freshly rouged cheeks.
I cried for a long time. Loud, choking sobs from the bottom bunk in a top-rated and centrally located hostel in Madrid. My roommate heard me. They spoke about me in Spanish, but didn’t speak directly to me about my distressed state. The next morning my reflection was unkind with puffy dark circles under bloodshot eyes. My roommates invited me to breakfast. My head ached from a fitful night of terrible dreams as I arrived to the restaurant downstairs. I had a cappuccino and toast. Once I felt my blood sugar regulate from the quick injection of caffeine, sugar, and carbs, I let my roommates in on my private sadness. Retelling last night’s defeat induced tears once again. For a brief moment it felt like I failed to learn the big lesson on this solo mission. The independence I fought for this entire time slipped away over something as superficial as dinnertime loneliness. They were lovely and understanding. They agreed that it’s difficult to go it alone for this long. It was bound to happen. I apologized anyway.
It’s a strange thing to tell the truth to people I owe nothing to. I could have easily kept it to myself. They weren’t going to pry. Unwritten solo lady traveller code: be inquisitive but not intrusive.
After my confessional breakfast, I decided to go to Toledo, a medieval town atop a massive hill. Alone. Taking the Metro with one change and two buses an hour outside of Madrid. My ego does not control me. I will reboot and try again. I’m not the sad girl. I’m the woman who won’t give up. The one who continues no matter what. (Unless it’s a game of Monopoly because that shit just drags.)
Nicki Minaj is playing on the bus to Toledo as I stare out the window leaving the town that turned me into a puddle.