This is the first installment of my new expat series about living and working in Spain as a Finnish expat. For my last series as an expat in Poland, click here!
ps. Whenever I’ve used names, I’ve changed them. Not really because I want to protect their privacy but more because I really like coming up with fake names. Hi, my name is Katie.
October 25. Thursday.
People you meet: A Blabla car driver, a tight group of previous staff at the end of their lifespan, and a ginger kid called Ian
The straight line of the horizon is growing wavy, rising and falling and rising again until its edges become sharper and more defined, the grey rock jutting from the ground imposing and proud. I’m on a highway in a stranger’s car, and I’ve just caught my first glimpse of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
I found the job through Workaway. The site connects travellers who wish to stay in one place for longer with locals in need of a bit of extra help. In exchange for a few hours of work per day, you get free accommodation and usually meals. Many positions are for short-term commitments in simple construction or farm work, many listing au-pair like jobs in families, but the ones that I was after offered work in hostels.
As soon as I saw the ad, I knew it was perfect for me. Six months contract – longer than usual, which suited me fine. Night work – which would mean I’d get to start out my freelancing career during the day. And located in the south of Spain, a country on the top of my expat’s wish list where I dreamed of finally taking my limping Spanish and raising it to a full-fledged skill.
I thought about the posting for about an hour before registering and applying.
And that’s how I found myself on that highway in late October, cruising towards the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, holding a surprisingly decent conversation in Spanish with the driver who I’d found on the rideshare app BlaBlaCar. Javier was about my age, owner of four dogs and a kitten, and cordial enough to dumb down his confusing Andalucian accent so that I could understand him. By the time he dropped me off by the San Augustin market hall, we’d agreed to meet again to practice my Spanish and his English. I had been in Granada for less than a minute, and I already had a local friend.
For the first time, I took to the narrow streets of the Arabic quarter. The hostel that I’d call a place of work as well as a home for the next half a year was located in lower Albaycin, the oldest neighbourhood in Granada, whose white houses rose up a hill, connected by irregular cobblestoned streets and alleyways barely wide enough to pass through. The street was bursting with colour and light. I passed by shops with detailed Moroccan lamps hanging from the ceiling and leather bags lining the doorways, darkly lit tea shops where tourists sat side by side with locals sampling ultra-sweet Arabic pastries and smoking hookahs, and late-night hustlers offering henna paint and name tags written in Arabic on the corners.
I was arriving at the end of season, which meant that a big part of the old staff was getting cut to a skeleton crew to support the hostel through the quieter winter months. In the past few months, the summer staff has molded into one tight family, forging fast friendships that the life in a hostel seems to force everywhere.
When I sat down at the bar with a few slices of pizza, the air smelled like weed. Rosa who worked the reception – but who was rumoured to have been fired due to rudeness towards guests – was in the middle of some story about a lady who had complained about the temperature of her dorm, glancing occasionally at the security cameras feeding a constant loop on her phone. A French girl, who I’d later learn did not work in the hostel but had become somewhat of a permanent fixture in its fabric, was switching between Spanish and French in two conversations with the dark-haired bartender and and the Belgian trucker who’d been responsible for the communal meals at the hostel all summer.
Feeling a little left out, I started chatting to the only guest brave enough to sit at the bar.
Ian was a small, thin ginger boy with a sharp nose and a pale face, and even with the bottle of beer in his hand he looked a few years younger than his twenty years. It wasn’t his first nor last beer of the night.
But what that has to do with anything, well, that’s a story for another day.
October 27, Saturday
People you meet: A sarcastic Swede, a fake Californian whose name starts with a B, a Maltese salsa novice, a sunshine with a pixie cut, a sleepy French girl and an amicable French guy
I couldn’t tell you how I exactly found my way into that group, but there I was, strutting down the street to meet a ragtag band of backpackers in the first tapas bar of the night. Unlike in most places in Spain, Granada still holds to the true tradition of tapas which means getting free food with every drink you order – or the way I see it, getting a free drink with your food. So there really isn’t any reason not to drink if someone invites you along.
This particular bandit of travellers I’d met the night before. I’d quickly scanned the group in search of a potential love interest, then wondered if it wasn’t slightly inappropriate for a hostel worker to hook up with a guest, so I left it at that. I can’t remember who I met first and how it was that we ended up in a group. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of all the his and hellos. All I know that the previous night I’d gone out with them to a cozy jazz bar, reminiscent of what in my imagination would’ve been a quintessential speakeasy with its outdated memorabilia on the walls and soft warm lighting.
We split up to two back-to back tables and ordered cocktails and Sacromonte beer. Kim, an American with a cute pixie cut, laughed at all my jokes, and our surprise Swedish addition Elsa and I bonded over a similar sense of humour. There was someone I hadn’t met before, a lanky, bearded American who’d escaped his native Idaho or Ohio or Indiana for the West Coast a couple of years before. For some reason, I ended up guessing at his name, and I got through the whole catalogue of anything that starts with a B until he revealed himself as Brandon.
I was glad that I wasn’t starting work until next week. This first week was reserved for getting to know the ins and outs of the hostel as well as embracing the last of backpacker’s indulgences before becoming a responsible member of the team.
This, apparently, means staying out late, drinking lot of beer, and – surprisingly – salsa dancing.
Viktor, a Maltese with a start of a manbun and chiseled features, knew of this hotel a little walk away, so our tipsy progression made our way through the city to find ourselves at Hotel Los Angeles.
For five euros, you get a drink and entry to the salsa club. I don’t dance salsa nor did I have cash as their card reader malfunctioned, but Emile was gracious enough to tip me the five and lead us all to the enticing world of salsa.
Let me tell you: it’s definitely easier to be a girl with no clue how to dance. A soft-faced black guy kept asking me to dance despite my rigid Finnish posture and confused feet. I could see Ian leading a gorgeous Spanish girl to dance, but since he could barely walk let alone salsa, she dropped interest quickly and abandoned him mid-dance. Brandon and Emile, a Frenchman in a plain grey sweater, were getting a hang of the music little by little but only daring to spin around the girls of our own group. Viktor was the most surprising of them all, almost matching the local girls in their kitten heels and quick steps.
‘I’m going to Poland to a salsa festival in a week’, he explained.
As the night progressed, the group dispersed, until it was just me and Kim taking turns dancing with Viktor. The air felt freezing as we walked home, talking about future plans as uninhibitedly as strangers do. In the cold, an air of early nostalgia could be detected: since half of the group was checking out tomorrow, that night marked the last time we’d all be together.
October 28, Sunday.
People you meet: the consequences of your own actions
Ian slept in the bunk next to mine. That’s where I saw him most of the time, laying on his side facing the wall until late afternoon when he’d rise from the dead to order another Alhambra beer at the hostel bar.
He had showed us pictures he’d taken the morning he woke up in a Serbian hospital with his face bashed in and no clue how it had happened, these little confessions punctuated by swigs from the green bottle. A couple of days ago I overheard him telling an Austrian hippie girl about the bad trips on shrooms he’d had when he was 15.
‘You look so young and innocent,’ she had laughed, ‘when honestly that’s so far from the truth.’
A few of my friends suspected that something was wrong with him. He had gone travelling without an end plan or an agenda, maybe hoping to find himself in between plane rides and foreign beers like so many other young backpackers. Brandon told me he’s got rich parents supporting his endeavours.
I found him awake around 5 p.m. as I climbed up to the dorm to fetch something.
‘Dude, where were you last night?’ I asked.
He had left the salsa club way before me but when I had crawled in bed at five, his was empty.
‘I don’t know’, he said kind of sheepishly. ‘But I woke up in a hospital.’
‘What the hell?!’
‘I’m not injured or anything. And they didn’t charge me anything. I didn’t want to really know why I was there so I just kinda left.’
Unfortunately, people like Ian are common in backpackers hostels. Young people out there to find themselves or escape whatever problems they might be facing in life, getting tangled in the devious web of irresponsibility and endless parties… After all, when you change places every few days, what real consequences do you get for being reckless? You’re not an alcoholic, you’re just having a good time. So what if you skipped sightseeing and got so wasted you puked on your own shoes? Who’s going to remember that when you move onto the next hostel?
It’s a phase most backpackers have to go through before they know any better. I hope it’s just a phase for Ian.
October 3, Wednesday.
People you meet: A bartender with a bad taste for shots
Okay, I’ve never really made a big deal out of it. We don’t really celebrate it in Finland. Once the English students’ club at my uni hosted a movie night and we introduced some innocent freshmen to Swamp Thing. It was also the first time my friends met my at-the-time boyfriend who was wearing a full-face zombie make-up. No one else was in costume. I thought it was hilarious.
Anyway, this time I put in some effort. (Coincidentally, I had also celebrated Halloween in Spain three years prior when I’d drunkenly stumbled upon a street in Barcelona named after a Finnish composer, then proceeded to take a dozen selfies with the street sign.) I went shopping at Tiger with Charlotte, a French girl who had basically been living at the hostel for the past few weeks, trying to figure out her messy relationship with a previous workaway volunteer. As we were walking back to the hostel – flower crowns and face paint in hand – she told me ten things she hated about him, and one thing she loved, and by the look on her face I could tell that that one thing made all the difference.
Later, we all got drunk at the bar. I painted my face half white, accentuating bones with black paint and fake blood. Multiple people asked me if I’m Catarina. Nope, I’m pretty sure that’s culturally insensitive. Instead I was impersonating Hel, the Norse queen of the underworld.
I was happy to see how many others had made an effort, too. An American with an eversmile had matching creepy masks on with his buddy, and a tri-cultural brunette asked to borrow my face paint to make up another skeleton face. Brandon has had his whole face painted like a cat and even Elsa had me trickle a trail of fake blood from the corner of her mouth. People kept asking her if she was Sandy from Grease and to be honest, the resemblance was uncanny.
As today marked the last night for the summer staff, party is in place. In preparation for the pubcrawl, our winter-season bartender was handing out free sangria and shots that tasted like orange juice and liquid sugar. At the first bar, I couldn’t get one dart to stick to the table. By the second one, decorations were starting to blur. Did we go to a third one? Suddenly we’re at a club and only half a dozen of us are left. Brandon, dressed up as a cat, is grinding against a blonde Australian dressed up as a mouse. I stand to the side and fire up Tinder even though I swore I’d stay off it for the first two weeks in Spain. I think I saw another half-skeleton disappear into the crowd, and if I’m right that’s that girl that grew up in three different cultures and eventually lost my palette of facepaint. Elsa has found me and I start talking to her about –
November 1, Thursday.
People you meet: a waiter who was willing to squeeze a trio into a couple’s table at a crowded restaurant
I woke up in a brightly lit room and reached for my phone. Midday. Damn, I missed the breakfast. I felt nauseous and weak-headed, feeling like a thin film of alcohol might have been plastered onto my skin.
I checked myself in the mirror before stepping in the shower. My eyes hung heavy and my cheeks look puffy and soft, like swollen dough. My hair was greasy and blonde roots were already starting to push through the red dye. There were a couple of faint red lines on my face like warpaint; I scrubbed the remainder of last night’s make up off. Yesterday I was the queen of the dead, now I was just dead.
As if mocking my sorry state, Granada decided to bring out the sun – the first beautiful day since I’d been here. Since Granada is located in the mountains, its climate differs from the sunny cities of the coast. During the winter, day temperatures can reach as low as zero. Today, though, sun was burning from crisp blue sky without one single cloud in sight. As a thank you, I spent my day laying on the couch on the roof terrace instead of my own bed, binging The Haunting of Hill House.
Later, Elsa and Brandon dragged me out to see the sunset.They were the only two left of the original posse I’d first met, both having extended their stays night after night as they fell more in love with Granada. We climbed up to the view point of San Miguel and shivered side by side watching the sun go down. Brandon thought it was hilarious how Elsa and mine combined Nordic energy resulted in the driest, most negative jokes we could muster.
We told each other riddles on the way back to the city. We felt like we should be toasting since both were going away the next day, but after last night’s bacchanal celebrations we were all too tired and hungover to even think of it. Instead, we sat down for a real meal in a vegan restaurant. Obviously a popular spot, the place was packed, but the waiter was happy to fit our trio into a couple’s table in the corner.
That night we talked about therapy and past relationships and being in love over lasagne and chai tea. Completely sober, I looked at the two of them and wished – despite their multiple extended nights – that they could stay a little longer.
It was their last night in Granada, and I knew I was going to miss them.
November 2, Friday
People you meet: A grumpy maintenance man
People you lose: Everyone else
‘Hold on. She’s literally always on time. Just watch.’
We stared at the thin arm of the clock as it ticked towards twelve. When we heard her footsteps on the stairs, Brandon started counting seconds out loud.
Elsa got downstairs with two seconds to spare and I couldn’t help but laugh at her accuracy. We all hugged goodbye. They promised to come back, maybe, Elsa for a holiday in the spring, Brandon in December after returning from Morocco. He was wearing his cat’s ears from Halloween but as he made to leave, he took them off and put them on me.
‘I will put these on a mannequin head and pretend it’s you,’ I promised.
It was a busy day. Nearly everyone was checking out, and the manager had asked me to help with the beds. I got paired up with Pepe, the stern-looking maintenance man with a Scandinavian sense of humour and a self-proclaimed hatred for people.
‘I’m so sad because all my friends left today’, I told him as I was stripping sheets of a dorm bed.
‘How long did you know them?’
‘Oh, I don’t know, like a week?’
‘Then they’re not your friends’, he concluded. ’You can’t become friends with someone in a week.’
Maybe. Maybe not. Only time will tell which hostel friendships stay and which fade.
November 3, Saturday
People you meet: Neve Campbell; anonymous stinkers
Listen, I like dorms. I really don’t mind them. They’re okay.
But to live six months in one is a stretch, and I can’t wait to drag all my humble property downstairs tomorrow to move into a private dorm.
For the past two nights, a girl in the bed opposite to mine has been waking up screaming for help. Last night she dashed out of her bed and sat on the floor cowering next to her bunk. I asked if she wanted a sip of water, but she refused and apologized. I watched her climb back into her bed and take out her phone. In the wan light that illuminated her face, I saw her hands shaking as she started typing a message to someone.
She checked out today but when I walked back into the room, a pungent smell hit me right in the face. The girl and her unknown nightmares might have been gone but they had been replaced by five big, burly guys, each one looking like they’d just got home from rugby practice.
Many hostel dorms pick up weird smells. You get used to it.
November 6, Tuesday
People you meet: A hiking Israeli; a short-tempered Briton; another Briton, calm though; a girl character; and a drunken German.
Some anthropologist should study the sociology of hostels.
A group of peole arrive, all on their own, and check into a hostel. They start talking to their dorm mates or perhaps bond over a beer at the hostel bar or ask for help using the hot plates in the kitchen. In a matter of hours, they have created a complex social canvas that exceeds nationality and language. Of course, all of them are speaking varying degrees of English since it’s the only lingua franca they can figure out.
They’ll go out for dinner together and talk about their jobs and studies and past travels until they have exhausted every conventional topic. A couple of them will know Duolingo Spanish and use it to order for the whole table while the British and the Aussies and the Americans lament the fact that they never learned any foreign languages in school.
This group, coincidentally, is spending a similar amount of time in the hostel. They break up over the course of one or two days and scatter around to regroup in a new hostel, or they return home and post a gloating Facebook status of their amazing trip and how they’ve enjoyed meeting everyone they did. Maybe the’ll even tag every new Facebook friend in that post. A year later, Facebook reminds them to congratulate some person with a strange name on their birthday and you can’t be quite sure if you met them at a nightclub in Barcelona or on a desert in Sahara.
Another one of these groups checked in today. I hung out with them for a bit but I still missed my group from last week, and I didn’t get along with these new peeps half as well as with my old crew.
I could tell that it was the kind of group that was literally just brought together by the happenstance of all being in the same location at the same time. In real life, these people were likely to have nothing in common. There was only one girl in the group, an American with pretty make-up who had read her Lonely Planet cover to cover. There was an elderly English man who seemed to mostly smile and sip his beer as the rest of them glue cards to their foreheads and start playing drinking games. Of course, he was not the only representative of the fine British nation – there was at least one other, so averagely blonde and averagely tall that I would not even remember him if it wasn’t for his unexpected temper tantrum at a tapas restaurant when the Israeli guy asked for the waiter and he wasn’t ready to order.
Oh yeah, I got along with the Israeli. He had just finished walking Camino de Santiago and he was the kind of a dork that started most of his sentences with ‘When I was on the camino…’ I bantered him for it, fully admitting though that I was exactly the same with all my travels and would likely be the same after the camino, too.
Then there was the German guy whose eyes never seemed to focus. At first I thought he didn’t speak English that well since he didn’t seem to understand me at all; then I realized he was literally never sober. He told us he took three beers on his Ryanair flight to Granada, and hadn’t stopped since.
At midnight I went to kick them out because, well, silence, and it took them 35 minutes to leave. My boss referred to my role as “Night Queen”; a Tinder match called me “Sheriff”. I used to jokingly call my job title “the Night Goblin”, but now I’ve found an alternate spelling for it: “The Resident Joykill.”
November 8, Friday
People you meet: Maybe a Galician?
So this morning I came to the reception to find out that two people had changed rooms because someone had been profusely vomiting in their room for the second night in a row. Technically I guess I should have been the one to handle the situation but since no one informed me during the night, it fell to my overworked manager to take care of it.
The first instance had just been some drunk guy. I never found out who it was, but I had a feeling it might’ve been my tipsy German friend. But then again, maybe you learn to handle your booze if you’re literally drunk 24/7.
The second, though, was a thin-faced, small man with glasses and a balding head. He was too clean to look like a homeless man yet too shabby to be a hipster, and still his sheep-skin lined denim jacket reminded me of both. Someone told me he was from Galicia, but I also heard he was a native Andaluz. In any case, he had a thick accent that I was unable to understand.
I can’t remember when he had checked in, but for sure he had been at the hostel for a better part of a week by then. Last night I had commented on the delicious smell of his chicken leg dinner; today I found out that was that exact thing that has caused him misfortune.
‘Food poisoning?’ I asked Valeria, our reception girl, thinking about the uncooked chicken I’d seen in the fridge and wondered how long it had been defrosted.
‘Kinda’, she said and proceeded to tell me he used to be an alcoholic, and last night he’d cooked his dinner with some red wine sauce that had severely upset his stomach.
So our two performers worthy of auditioning for The Exorcist were them: someone who was too drunk, and some who wasn’t drunk enough.
November 11, Sunday
People you meet: The Luis Fonzi & Daddy Yankee Ensemble
You know what’s hostel magic? Hostel magic is a group of Argentinians gathered in a circle in the kitchen like around a campfire, singing along to one dude playing Despacito on a guitar.
For a second weekend in a row, we had had a huge Erasmus group staying at the hostel. I didn’t mind it too much; I had been sulking in my room buried in Lightroom tutorials and reruns of Arrested Development anyway, or out with friends I didn’t even know I had.
Normally having groups in hostels sucks, though, because it makes it harder for solo tarvellers to get together. But sometimes when you don’t mind hanging out in the sidelights and watching the show, it’s not that bad.
November 12, Monday.
People you meet: Ghosts of
Christmases trips past
The best and worst part about living in a hostel are the people.
Let me explain.
Hostels are the most social places in the world I could imagine. Most of my friendships outside of school have been made in hostels. They offer a place for like-minded, mostly young travellers to gather, and since most are travelling alone, forming bonds is quick and effortless. People you meet at hostels get to know your deepest secrets faster than your friends because when you’re only together for a few days, it grants you certain anonymity and at the same time courage to be as much yourself as you are.
It means meeting people who understand you and think you’re cool instead of crazy for having hitchhiked through the Balkans for four months. These people know what it feels like to have restless feet.
But at the same moment you introduce yourself to a new friend, you start preparing to say goodbye.
Because of the nature of travelling, travel friendships are fleeting, shallow and deep at the same time, a hello just waiting for a goodbye. Normally I’d be moving on, too, but it feels strange to let people go while I’m growing roots in the same place.
I often wonder if people remember me the same way I remember them. With all the new folks you meet, it is impossible to keep tabs of everyone, even with the help of social media. It’s very easy to fade out of contact as soon as you lose sight of them. When I think of people who have left an impression on me, I wonder if they remember me the same way:
Like that British guy I hung out with for five days in Cairns and who stayed up with me for all of his last night in the city to make me breakfast before I went snorkelling;
Like that girl with whom I shared an Uber to the Rio airport after Carnaval who shaved her dreads off a few months later; she was one of the most openly vulnerable people I have ever met and a talented writer;
Like that Croatian that danced with me on the bar in Cusco and took me out to a dinner the next night, one that he forgot about by the next time we met each other.
I sometimes wonder if these people ever think about me, or if I ever make a quick cameo in their travel stories the way they do in mine. Somewhere there might be someone who has never even met me, knowing a slice about ‘that Finnish girl’. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe I’m the only one who gets nostalgic over people that passed through my timeline for a day or two. And I know I forget a lot of people, too, and it makes me feel a little sad. All the woulda-beens and coulda-beens.
And sometimes it’s hard, knowing you’ll be forgotten and to forget yourself.
November 12, Monday
People you meet: a Canadian full of wisdom
After a long and fruitless day of job hunting, I had evacuated to the rooftop patio to catch the last bits of sunshine. I was giving my best effort to The Name of the Rose – and kind of starting to regret exchanging my Hemingway for it with the Israeli – when a brunette in slacks and a white t-shirt joined me. She slipped her shoes off and gathered her legs under her.
She’d been to Alhambra; an impressive Moorish fortress that dominates the profile of Granada. While she was excitedly describing her visit, the snowy caps of Sierra Nevada and the fortress itself rose behind her as a backdrop to her story.
I didn’t even realise I had already met her before I asked for her name, and I recognized her as the girl I had talked to at breakfast the day before. You know how most people tend to forget names but remember faces? I’m the exact opposite. Yep, it’s awkward.
She was living in Valencia to teach English but didn’t know what she’s going to do after. Me neither.
‘I’m here until April and then’, I shrugged, ‘who knows?’
‘You know’, she replied, ‘I actually read somewhere that you should only ever plan your life six months ahead to be able to be flexible but also to keep a direction.’
It sounded like bullshit but honestly? Give me any bit of reassurance that my life style isn’t completely crazy and I’ll take it.