I walked out the bus station and up into the street, breathing this new air with excitement.
I had no idea where I was going, aware only that walking down a street of an unknown city with nothing but a rucksack on your back, open to whatever happens next, is exactly the feeling of freedom and possibility that I had been craving.
I walked down an anonymous street, then another. This corner of Oviedo was nothing special, just bland streets with unremarkable buildings. It was already late afternoon, and so I looked up at the buildings, looking for a hotel or Hostal sign so I could dump my bag, wash my face, and at least know I had a safe place to sleep for a couple of nights. I was all for adventure, but adventure with a bathroom and a comfortable bed!
A few more minutes walking and I saw a little Hostal sign, stuck to an apartment block, two floors up. It looked like the kind of place I’d stayed at in Madrid the previous two nights, just someone’s flat with a couple of spare rooms. I preferred the anonymity and infrastructure of a proper hotel where I’d have my own bathroom with free shampoo and would be invisible among the many comings and goings. These tiny hostels varied as much as the people who owned them, so you never knew what you were getting.
In my previous visit to Spain, backpacking with friends across the north coast, we had been met by a woman called Maria at San Sebastian station who had offered us a room for the night.
“Cuatro mil” (4000) she had said, with sufficient clarity for my phrasebook-level Spanish to grasp it.
Naturally suspicious of the probable extra-legal nature of her business, I confirmed our understanding by laboriously pointing to each of us and saying: “cuatro mil” in turn, then “or mil, mil, mil, mil” – again pointing at each of us – as a way to check if it was a pricey 4000 pesetas each (about £20) or a very reasonable 4000 pesetas for the room.
She laughed, and pointing to us individually said “mil” and then circling us all said “cuatro mil“
We nodded, and she took us to the apartment, explaining that a hot shower was 100 pesetas extra (I paid, but the shower wasn’t hot). We paid 8000 pesetas for two nights.
We were hungry and it being only 7pm, we fell into the common tourist trap of trying to get food before midnight. In the Basque Country this is the same as trying to find water in a desert on a particularly arid day. The Basques don’t eat their dinner until late and most restaurants won’t even open until after ten, and so for four ignorant Brits (two of whom were vegetarians) scratching around for some dinner at 7pm, San Sebastian appeared to be a food-free zone.
We eventually found a Chinese restaurant. It wasn’t great but at least it was open and had vegetarian options, and so we were able to try to match the dishes that arrived with what we’d ordered, none of which – save my bowl of boiled rice – matched what we thought we’d ordered … oh well, you go with the flow …
The next day Maria came and asked us for another 8000 pesetas, explaining how silly these comedic misunderstanding are, but it was 8000 pesetas per night. I said no, it was 4000, we had checked with her and paid for two nights, she laughed a gentle laugh and explained that no, we had paid for one night … I checked the other rooms for assistance, but the Italian guys who had been in the room next door had checked out, probably not a coincidence.
I asked her to speak more slowly, not because that helped in any way but because it was the only other thing I knew how to say in Spanish, my phrasebook spelling it out phonetically: pwe-dez ab-lar mas des-path-ee-oh.
We sighed, unsure what to do about being so obviously ripped off by the now detestable Maria. We could occupy the room on principle and force her hand, but given the pro-ETA speech she’d made the previous day as we’d walked from the station (suggesting she might know some burly toughs), and the four of us crammed all day in a small airless room not matching our idea of holiday fun, we decided to cut our losses and go with this less-good flow and (not before scrawling a warning in Biro on the heavily graffitied wall) head to Bilbao.
I learnt my lesson, and so when I got to the little hostel in Oviedo that day, I was careful to get the price in writing and pay for only one night at a time.
I needn’t have bothered, the family that ran this much more professional hostel were kind and generous. My room was small with one tiny window high up in the corner, but it was clean and basic, and sort-of comfortable if you had low standards, which I did. I dumped my bag, had a quick hot shower (included in the price!) and decided to go searching for Helen.
I had Helen’s home address and phone number, but I knew she’d be working at that time and I thought it would be fun to turn up unannounced and surprise her. I knew she worked for a language school called Naranco College, and so with a map I’d grabbed from Tourist Information at the bus station, I headed off to an area called Naranco, assuming that it must be there somewhere.
I walked through the newer part of the centre, pedestrianised streets crowded with shops, and on to a nice wide avenue next to a park, and turned right toward the railway station. This part of the city was much nicer than what I’d seen previously and I started to feel optimistic that maybe this Oviedo place would be quite nice after all.
I passed a McDonald’s and being an uneducated fussy eater with no understanding of Spanish cuisine, I thought I’d play it safe and not complicate things at this stage. I refueled.
Naranco was a hilly neighbourhood on the other side of the train lines, and finding a school just by wandering around optimistically was not as simple as I thought it was going to be. I went up and down every street, climbing higher and higher, eventually getting to a an old convent school called Colegio Santa Maria de Naranco and decided to go in to ask.
The nuns were kind and patient, and went off to check if they had a native English teacher called Helen. After a few minutes they regretted to inform me, in very good English, that no, no such teacher worked there.
I was tired, I had been walking for nearly two hours, mainly uphill – or so it seemed – and I was way off the little map I had in my back pocket. My sense of direction is pretty good, but it’s not as infallible as I sometimes think it is, and gently curving roads can fool you into thinking you’re going one way when you’re actually going another … but undeterred by these facts, I decided to take a totally different route back just in case I stumbled across the school. I wanted to give up because I was exhausted and lost, but I wasn’t quite ready to fail, and so taking a different route in a vaguely hostel-ward direction was a way to keep hope alive and still generally crawl back toward the safety of my nest.
I plodded down a curvy road called Avenida de los Monumentos and eventually got to a busy roundabout. I crossed the road, ducking into another small side street that went generally in the direction I thought headed back into the centre (it didn’t). I was miles from Naranco now, and the road was slanting away, so I cut left and right at the next few junctions, trying to zigzag back to the map so I could locate my position and work out what to do. My explorer’s mind was fading way, ceding ground to my desperate need to sit down in a cocoon of safety; that initial idea to surprise Helen by showing up unannounced was dissipating. I could phone her tomorrow, I said to myself, she’s not expecting you now anyway … I just wanted to find my way back to my room.
I stumbled out of that maze of streets on to a main road. Looking left I saw some large fountains in the distance – I had seen these on the map! – suddenly I knew where I must be. I was off the edge, but I at least I knew which edge! I walked toward the fountains, then thought … if I can just take a short cut up this street it should bring me down further over toward my hostel and save a long walk around the park … so I turned right up a tiny residential street running behind the old football stadium (now a conference centre). I walked up, passing several bars, and buoyed by having found myself on the map again, I decided that instead of crawling back to my room like a frightened animal, I should access my inner Jack Kerouac and sit down and have a beer.
I approached the first bar, then decided that I didn’t want a beer and I was only having one for the sake of it and so walked on past a second, then decided that this was silly and I should jolly well have a beer whether I wanted one or not, I decisively entered a third bar a little higher up the street. There, decision made, I said to myself … now for that beer … I turned around and there was Helen, having a quick cup of tea between classes.
I had been walking for nearly three hours, got hopelessly lost, was in a completely different part of the city, and had randomly picked the third bar I had passed having decided to take a short cut up a hill … and she just happened to be there for a ten-minute break … was it fate? was it God? was it my long-dead Grandpa looking out for me? was it just a coincidence?
I didn’t know. I had Helen’s home address and phone number, so even if I hadn’t found her then, I would have found her the next day just by calling her and arranging to meet, so it wasn’t the sort of circumstance that required divine intervention, but the coincidence was so unusual that it was hard to conclude that that’s all it was.
I sat down in front of her and she looked up, “Oh my God, hi!” she said, smiling broadly.
“Hi, how are you?”
“I’m good, you?”
“Tired, but fine. Just got here a couple of hours ago, I’ve been walking around looking for you”
“It’s great to see you, did Rosa tell you I was here?”
“No, who’s Rosa?”
It turned out that although the school was headquartered in the Naranco neighbourhood, the branch Helen worked at was in this totally different area. It also wasn’t a school in the sense I had imagined, it was a private academy that looked more like a little shop hidden at the base of a block of flats than it did a school, and so all the time I had been wandering around I had been looking for the wrong thing anyway.
I was excited about the job of teaching and so followed her back to observe her final two classes of the day, then we headed into the centre for a drink and a chat, agreeing to meet the next day so she could show me a room in a flat I could rent long-term.
The next day she led me to a bar on the Calle Gascona, a street just around the corner from my hostel. She introduced me to a man called Felix who managed the rental of some rooms in an apartment above his restaurant. He led us down a long dark corridor, up two flights of steps, and into a tatty old apartment with only one external window. My bedroom was large, its window opening out on to an internal space shared with the kitchens of the apartments at the front of the building. Only one other bedroom (of five) was occupied, by a Korean student called Kim.
It wasn’t great, but it was clean, thanks to a weekly clean being wisely included in the rent … I lay down on my new bed and settled down to read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” … my new life was starting.
(The publication date of this post has been changed to match the time I was writing about, rather than the time it was written. This was just to keep things in the right order. In case you’re interested, it was written in early 2021)