A real travel diarist would take notes, remark on small details, meticulously noted. I’m afraid that I have accepted my limitations and am not one of these. Paul Theroux, another implausible over-achiever can write his way to hell for all I care. What I give you are floury descriptions and pointless padding, whereby if you grasp an iota of what I’m describing, I will feel that I have done my duty. However I will attempt to make an exception in this case because it would be a shame not to document such an interesting experience as searching for rental accommodation in Barcelona.
“No students!” said Olga as I walked into the door of her fifth floor apartment, a few streets up from La Sagrada Famila. Olga was from Russia and being tall, blond and serious, she looked the part. If she had told me that she was a former officer in the Russian army but occasionally sat on the bench for the former Soviet Republic’s women’s basketball team I wouldn’t have quivered a nostril. She gracefully swept me around her neat two bedroom unit as if she were demonstrating the inner workings of a nuclear power plant.
“This is the living room. This is where we watch TV, talk and drink tea.”
The tile floors were clean and the whole place smelled like a combination of pot pourri and pine-o-clean.
“And the kitchen. We keep it clean. There are cockroaches in summer.”
“Big ones?” I ask.
“I like potatoes,” she replied with a straight face.
I felt oppressed just being in the place so I thanked Olga and said my goodbyes. We both knew we’d never be living together unless forced to at gun point. As I exited I passed two Japanese women who’d come to see Olga’s lair. I thought that maybe it would have been interesting to stick around to witness yet another cultural collision but thought better of it – I had another appointment.
This time with Tere, in the same area, who had responded to my advertisement the minute I’d posted it. In any other situation this would have made me apprehensive, and I was to an extent, but it was Saturday afternoon and I had less than 24 hours to find a central place to live otherwise I was heading out to Sant Cugat, 30 mins away by train, to the company flat. Free rent: yes. Kind offer: of course. Perfect chance to save some money: why not? Lightyears away from the action and where I wanted to be: that was the clincher.
Judging by the facade, Tere’s building seemed nice enough. The streets were clean and there were quiet cafes and shops. The illusion was brought to an abrupt halt when she opened the door. The flat had potential – it was small and modern, but all had been squandered by the greasy-haired woman who stood before me. There were boxes stacked against the walls filled with books and clothes. There were more clothes lying over the floor, and the kitchen (I only presume it was a kitchen as it was the greasiest room in the flat) reminded me of a forest cave. Her protruding teeth spat out Spanish like a fascist machine gun firing down upon hapless African immigrants.
“Lo siento, todavia no hablo mucho espanol,” I said.
“No problems, I can teach you. I don’t speak much English, so you’ll learn.”
Great, I’ll learn how to talk to fisherman and hookers.
“Ok, this is the room, the living room, the bathroom… blah blah blah… 350 euros”
“What’s that scratching noise I hear?”
“Oh that is my cat, Bonita. You like cats, yes? He is playing with my son Gonzalo. You like children, no?”
Ok, walk slowly away. Keep eye contact and don’t panic.
Next was Paolo an Italian fashion designer who, with his tight shirt wrapped around a tight body, a shaved head and undeniably radiant tan, definitely looked the part. He also looked the part of the lead dancer in the ABBA stage show, but he was a gentleman and presented his flat with professionalism.
Paolo’s place was no haven of IKEA goods: there were designer lamp shades, low and long coffee tables made of dark woods from extinct Indonesian trees, shag rugs and wooden blinds. Hanging on the walls were framed abstract paintings. The room was huge; pricey, but amazing. One double bed and a sofa, a large desk, a chair, a single cushioned chair for reading in the sunlight that was streaming through the large window. It was the perfect inner city Eurpoean bachelor pad. Paolo knew it, so did I. Our eyes met and before I could ask the question of price, which I expected to be 400 plus, he stabbed at me with his Italian accent:
“I work many hours so I don’t like de noise at night. And you cannot bring de people home. You play guitar? I don’t like de noise.”
Ok, what about breathing? Can I do that or does it have to be under my bed covers? Do you have a toilet inside or is there a vacuum chute to which I have to hermatically seal to my arse so that I may shit outside?
Shame, but goodbye.
There were others not really worth mentioning in great detail. For instance, Hussien: a Pakistani gentlemen who informed me in polite Spanglish that the three Bolivians who were currently occupying the room were soon to vacate and that for a mere 350 euros a month the urine-smelling shoe box and stained mattress could be mine. I wanted to inquire whether I had to pay for my own cockroaches or the ones that I noticed scuttling away from the room were free. Hussein was clearly in no mood to bargain however. It seemed as if he had had plenty of experience ripping off foreigners and I didn’t want to shatter his illusions of Australians. I left without saying goodbye, content in the knowledge that even such a trivial display of humanity would have been wasted on that jerk.
Bu in the end, a softly-spoken Catalan homosexual was my saviour. I took a risk going to see Jordi’s* place as time was short – it was Sunday afternoon and I was tired, hungry and ready to pack my bags and head up to Sant Cugat. But what the hey, I thought. So I followed the map into the centre of the city, climbed the four flights of stairs and knocked on the door.
“We wear earplugs to go to sleep,” he said. There was no humour in his voice.
“People are out on the street until five in the morning every night in summer. We’re on the top floor so it’s boiling in summer and there are eight Columbians living across the hall.” His eyes were sunken like two pits of molten tar.
“I’ll take it,” I said and slapped down a 100 euro deposit.
Life it seemed had given me one more roll of the dice and this time it came up sevens. I finally found my “auberge espanol” moment – something rare and perfect. A room right in the centre of the city, at a low price with cool international people my age, who all had jobs! Sure it was like sleeping in the middle of a university orgy every night, but I got used to it and became one of the revellers on most evenings.
Finding a place to live was what I might euphemistically label as ‘fun and interesting’, yet after a few drinks I would probably reveal the truth: it was tiring and frightening. Deciphering the advertisements (anuncios) I guess, in any big city, requires some local knowledge, or more importantly, an awareness of how far people can tip the scales of bullshit. My advice is to see as many places as you can, talk to people you think you can trust, and be aware of idiots looking to exploit foreigners.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy however just about everyone with testicles in Catalunya is named Jordi or Xavi.