The first hostel I ever stayed in was Posada de Huertas, in Madrid, Spain. It was situated in the neighbourhood of Huertas, also known as the Barrio de Las Letras, or the Neighbourhood of Letters, because many of Spain's most eminent writers, such as Cervantes and Lope de Vega, had lived and worked there, although in more recent times it has become known for its nightlife. A review of Posada de Huertas that I read warned not to expect too much sleep.
I arrived in Madrid and found the airport metro station. Taking the metro from Barajas Airport into the city, I found myself sitting across from three American tourists, all college-aged young women, nattering on about how excited they were to be in Europe. At Antón Martín station, I alighted, as did day. I trailed behind them at a safe distance, as I watched them walk out the exit I needed to take out of the station. As four sets of luggage – first their three, then my one – clattered over the cobblestone roads, I realised that the Americans, too, were headed to Posada de Huertas.
At Posada de Huertas, I stood behind the Americans as they stood behind an earlier arrival being checked in at the leisurely pace I would learn to associate with Spain. It was mid-afternoon, and I needed to get to a ticket office somewhere in Plaza de Colón. The ticket office was going to close in under an hour. The receptionist gave the guest his key, which was a silicone wristband with a fancy transponder that would unlock his room door and locker, and moved on to slowly and leisurely checking in the American trio.
Can I have your passports? You will need to pay a ten Euro deposit for the key. You will need to pay a five Euro deposit for the linens. Please wait, let me get some change. You are in Room God-Knows-Where. If you go down this hallway, there is a lift so you don't have to carry your luggage up the stairs. There is a kitchen at the back and you can cook there. Breakfast is until 9am. There is also laundry, you have to pay three Euros. Wifi is only in the lobby. Here is a map of Madrid and now I have only half an hour to get to Plaza de Colón and here is where we are on the map. There is a walking tour that meets outside of this hostel at 11:45 AM every morning. How can it take so long to check in? Thank you, have a nice stay in Madrid!
Finally, it was my turn. Can I have your passport? You will need to pay a ten Euro deposit for the key. You will need to pay a five Euro deposit for the linens. You are in Room I-don't-care-I-want-my-tickets. If you go down this hallway, there is a lift please please please be done with this spiel so I can dump my bags in my locker with my fancy silicone transponder wristband and make a dash for Plaza de Colón. Here is a map of Madrid and here is where we –
"I'm sorry, I need to get to Plaza de Colón. Is it far?"
"Oh! No, that's not far at all. It's only 40 minutes on foot."
I found my room, dumped my bags in my locker and my linens on my bed, and bolted out Posada de Huerta's front door. At the main road I found an idling taxi, pulled the door open and asked, "¿Está libre este taxi?" and jumped in. I now had twenty minutes to get to Plaza de Colón and find the ticket office before they closed.
I gave the taxi driver the address of the ticket office, which was confusing enough that at Plaza de Colón I asked him to let me alight so I could look around myself. I paid the fare, jumped out of the taxi and spotted a large Información Turística sign that pointed to an underground office. The helpful officials at the Plaza de Colón Información Turística office had clearly never had to deal with a flustered tourist looking for the bullfighting ticket office, and pointed in a vague direction at the roof of their underground space to tell me they thought it might be that way. I now had less than ten minutes to find the ticket office and emerged back into the open plaza, no closer to finding the place than when the taxi driver deposited me by the road. Finally, a waiter clearing up the outdoor seating at a café after the Spanish lunch hour decided I looked lost enough to offer help to, and pointed out the building I was looking for (though he didn't know anything about a ticket office in it). I thanked him and walked over to the building at a distinctly un-Madrilenian speed, where I got through the door of the ticket office with under three minutes to spare.
As a Singaporean based in New York City at the time, this first experience with Spain taught me a new form of tolerance that I hadn't been aware I needed: patience. I had come to Spain naïvely expecting some measure of administrative efficiency, and I could hardly get annoyed at the Spanish for not displaying it. It was like expecting New Yorkers to be polite: don't, and you won't be disappointed.
Looking back, I recognise another trait that I would later come to think of as peculiarly Madrilenian, or perhaps Spanish: the inability to give accurate directions. The following year, when I returned to Madrid as a study-abroad student, the student welfare office warned us about this. Two Spaniards will earnestly and confidently give you different and contradictory directions to your destination, even if they have absolutely no idea where you are trying to go.
By the end of my first day in Madrid, then, I had managed to experience three very Spanish things: Spaniards' notoriously laid-back attitude to life, their equally lax attitude towards giving directions, and a bullfight. The bullfight is quite another story, best kept for another time.