The first city in my Grand European Adventure was Madrid. The plane touched down on the runway at Madrid Airport, and suddenly I was on foreign soil. For the first time in my life I was outside the UK on my own. I had officially become a Wandering Bean. As I stepped off the plane I was expecting the heat to hit me. Heat is not my friend, but I had braced myself for the ginger person’s most dangerous weather. It didn’t knock me off my feet, in fact it was kind of pleasant. Until we all got squished onto a sweaty bus to take us to the terminal. Passport control was easy, seeing as I have a valid EU passport (for now). I breezed past baggage reclaim because I was a Clever Bean and had packed everything into a backpack. Smugly, I strolled on towards the long corridor to the Madrid Metro system.
Boy, it was a long corridor. I walked for aaages before reaching the very end where the Metro station is. Pretty sure I walked the entire length of the city. I thought that part was challenging enough, but then came the first real challenge: figuring out the ticketing system for the metro. It’s actually super straightforward, and I spell it all out in this here post about the Madrid Metro system. Initially I joined the queue to the ticket machine, waiting ages to just stare at the machine blankly, before finding an actual map and figuring out what I needed to do.
At first I felt conspicuous. I felt stared at. After a while I realised it was because I am really not used to people making eye contact in public, and definitely not on the tube. This eye contact thing made me uncomfortable. I know, it’s me being British about the whole thing, but that was my first culture shock. Subtle but important.
After my scare (yes, strangers looking at me made me scared) I was relieved to find a familiar shop right by the metro station. I found an Aldi! Never in my life have I been so pleased to see an Aldi. Tentatively, I wandered in and started looking for all the toiletries and things I needed for my stay. I ended up with some of the stuff, but not the All-Important Sun Cream. Given the blistering sun I was kinda surprised they didn’t have any. I would find out why later on.
The neighbourhood around the shop looked a bit dodgy to me. In hindsight, it was just an unfamiliarity with the nature of a different city. Torn and faded posters covered boarded up shops, the roads and pavements were dusty, and the buildings old and towering. Not dissimilar to much of London. There were so many roads the flat was kinda hard to find, but my host had given me good directions so I didn’t get too lost.
Social anxiety started to set in a bit when it truly sunk in that I had to not only talk to a stranger, but also stay in their house for two nights. Naturally it eased a bit when I met the cat that also lived there. The flat was nice, though I did notice that flats in Spain seem a bit crammed in. As in, the way the rooms were seemed like someone had squeezed them all into a space they were never meant to fit in and just said “that’ll do!”. The bathroom was really long and narrow, and I’m pretty sure the kitchen was on what was once a balcony. My room was more than sufficient for me though, and I was very happy with my host and my accommodation.
However, that did not stop homesickness from setting in. In all my life I have never, ever been homesick. When I was little and on residential school trips it used to baffle me that people missed home so much that they actually cried. Suddenly this was me. All those illusions of popping back to the place to check in then exploring the city after a quick nap were shattered. Instead, I ended up on the phone to Dan crying about how far away from home I was and how alone I was. Turns out solo travel can be really hard.
Maybe I’m different, but no amount of reading other people’s travel blogs prepared me for this. I expected to go and “find myself” and meet loads of new people. I thought I’d be coming out of my shell once and for all, but instead I was firmly stuck inside it. If anything, in those first few days I curled up further into my shell than ever before. After a lot of tears I did finally get that nap, and I actually went exploring the city. Homesickness gripped me tightly, but it wasn’t going to stop me seeing stuff.
I found my inner brave lady and set off in the direction of the Metro as the day was cooling down. There was the vague hope of meeting some new people so I wouldn’t feel so alone, but mostly I knew I needed to get outside. It surprised me how little English is spoken in Madrid. I hate to be one of “those” people, but I expected more people in the shops to know basic phrases. They didn’t. And I didn’t know much beyond “hello” and “thankyou” in Spanish. Few things are more isolating than not even being able to converse with the guy at the till in a shop. I did find sun cream though. It was locked in a cabinet behind the till, which was very fun to try and explain to the cashier. Sun cream theft must be a big thing in Madrid.
I went on a little adventure, seeing a bunch of stuff whilst secretly looking for some fellow English backpackers. None were found, but I did find the Bear and the Strawberry Tree which is famous Strange Thing in Madrid. It’s actually a sculpture which I’m sure isn’t strange to people who live there seeing as it represents the city’s coat of arms. It was strange and wonderful to me though. I like the Bear and the Strawberry Tree.
Homesickness did get on top of me again and I retreated back to the flat as it was getting dark. My insides felt like lead and my eyes started to sting as the tears threatened to make an appearance once more. I don’t know if this happens to other people who travel alone. I’m supposing it does, they just don’t really talk about it. Maybe I did it before I was ready, but it did get better so I don’t regret a thing.
Believe it or not, I did survive the night but I’ve already rambled enough here so I’ll talk about the rest another time 🙂
Please share in the comments if you have your own homesickness experience. I can’t be the only one!