Hostel Confessions, Part 1: Never Live With Your Landlady

After my time abroad this year, I have spent a lot of time in hostels. They’re without a doubt the cheapest housing option for long-term travelers, especially solo backpackers like me who didn’t have anyone to split an Airbnb with as I gallivanted across Europe. For the young or young at heart, hostels provide the perfect environment to meet other travelers. They tend to have bars, common rooms, and welcome events designed to help guests socialize. Hell, if you stay in dorm rooms like I did, then you pretty much have to meet other people, unless you want to make three to seven other people deeply uncomfortable by being that person who refuses to so much as say hello as you clamber into your top bunk. (I’ve met several travelers like this, and I just don’t get it. Why must you make everyone suffer by being weird and anti-social? Toss out a greeting when you wander through in your PJs and shower shoes; this shit isn’t hard. Plus, you’re less likely to get the last shower time if people like you. Kindness = hot water.)

My point is, there are many good reasons to stay in hostels, especially if you’re traveling for a while and need to both save money and prevent yourself from becoming a hermit in the absence of your usual group of friends. This year, I stayed in hostels in Madrid, Barcelona, Córdoba, Sevilla, Granada, Málaga, Venice, and Rome, sometimes various ones in the same city. In the past, I’ve bunked in Paris and Lisbon. (I have amazing friends in Umbria and the Netherlands who housed me while traveling there. I bet Amsterdam hostels are wild fun, though.) I love hostels. And I’m not alone, which is why you’ll find a million and one articles out there offering tips for the hostel-bound traveler.

This blog is different, though, because I’ve got the inside scoop. I lived in a hostel for ten weeks. And no, I don’t mean I shelled out fifteen euro a night for an extended stay in a bunk bed. I did a work exchange, meaning I lived in separate quarters and helped the staff run the operations behind the scenes. And let me tell you, I’ve seen some shit. But before I tell you my war stories from my hostel stint, I need to tell you how I ended up there in the first place.

Dream Casa

When I first decided to move to Córdoba, I needed a permanent address. Part of the requirement for my long-term visa was to establish residency in a city in Spain and apply for a residency card in that city (the process did not go smoothly for me, but that’s another story for another blog post). In order to do that, I needed a fixed address. Because I was still on the fence about my whimsical desire to stay in Córdoba rather than move to Madrid as I had originally planned, I booked a bed for five days in my favorite hostel in Córdoba and told myself that if I didn’t find a house I loved, I would move on to the Spanish capital.

I’m relatively new to the concept of the “law of attraction,” (and I know there’s tons of pseudoscience behind it, don’t @ me) but I’ll be damned if I didn’t find the exact house I had imagined myself living in when I first wandered the winding alleys of Córdoba. I had fallen in love with the casa patio there, a type of traditional house centered around flower-filled, riotously abundant patios used to keep residents cool in the summer when temperatures on the street reached well over forty degrees Celsius. There’s an entire festival dedicated to these patios, and UNESCO placed them on the list of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” Ever since a man in a flamenco bar had given me a book about the patios of Córdoba, I’d imagined myself living in a room perched above blooms and fountains—the most quintessentially Andalucían thing ever.

Lo and behold, after checking out two depressingly dingy student apartments that smelled like chorizo and stale cigarettes, I found myself knocking on the heavy double doors of a medieval house. Wandering inside after a woman about my age let me in, I came across not one, but two inner patios, plus a raised sunlit terrace. An adorably shaggy dog bounded out of one of the house’s many rooms and raised a paw to my bent knee. I was a goner.

The landlady, a German woman who had been living in Andalucía for over twenty years and Córdoba for more than ten, seemed lovely. After a cursory glance of the room, a white-stuccoed chamber in a corner of the third floor, I was ready to sign whatever she wanted. I told her I was a writer, leaving out the “aspiring and barely-paid” caveat. She told me the desk built into a nook under the window, which looked out onto a bright blue sky and terracotta rooftop, reminded her of a Van Gogh painting. She told me she hosted cultural events at the house at least once a month. She told me she loved having artists around. Like I said, I was a goner.

Mi Casa Es Su Casa?

I called my mom and asked her if I was out of my mind for signing a six-month lease on a room in the south of Spain. Bless her, she asked a few practical questions to make sure I wasn’t going to end up crushed under tenth-century roof beams or mired in a Spanish lawsuit, and then told me to go for it. And go for it, I did.

There were a few problems with my living situation that arose during my first two weeks there. First of all, the outdoor kitchen off the patio seemed a lot more romantic when it was warm outside. I had pictured cooking candlelit dinners there with friends on balmy spring evenings. The famous Spanish sun was nowhere to be seen when I moved in, though, and it rained for nearly a month straight. No more bright blue sky. My morning routine consisted of waking up to raindrops on my windowpane yet again, pulling my boots and coat on over my pajamas, and sprinting across the two patios to get to the campstove and make coffee, swearing under my breath in both English and Spanish.

There was also the matter of the Internet, which supposedly worked everywhere but only reached my desk about forty percent of the time. As someone trying to make a living freelance writing thousands of miles away from her friends and family, faulty Internet was a problem for a number of reasons. I ended up going to my favorite café every day to write. This was good because I made that café my cozy second home, but not good because I was shelling out euros I didn’t have on copious amounts of coffee.

The real problem with my dream casa, however, was the landlady herself. If there is one lesson I learned from the experience, it is this: never, ever, under any circumstances, live with your landlord. Many of you are probably rolling your eyes at the obviousness of this, but I trust people too much and thought I’d be discussing art and politics with this kind German lady over glasses of Rioja, okay?! I’m an optimist.

Obviously, this was not the case. The first uncomfortable moment arrived on move-in day, when she told me that I was to alert her to any, ahem, overnight guests I brought to the house. On the one hand, I kinda get it, because she was older and could have had a heart attack if she ran into a stranger in her patio at midnight. On the other hand, the very last thing I wanted to do was whip out my phone and WhatsApp my landlady when I was about to get it on.

To make matters worse, I was going through what I like to call my “sexual renaissance” during my first couple of months in Spain, and I brought a guy home on my first night. I debated taking my chances and not telling her, but I wanted to make a good impression. So, against my better judgement, I texted her. I don’t remember what I said. “Hey girl, bout to get some, just FYI”? It was probably something along the lines of “Hi, so sorry to text late, but you asked me to text you if I had a friend over, and my friend X was out late with me and is going to crash here, so sorry, nothing to see here!” Eventually, I stopped texting her when someone came over, and endured her raised eyebrows when I made breakfast for two in the morning to take back upstairs. It’s not my fault you chose a sexually liberated artiste to live in your house, lady. Or so I’d tell myself.

Hasta La Vista, Baby

I really ran into problems when I started having actual friends (not “friends”) over to hang out. I’d been told that I could use common areas as long as I was respectful, and most of my friends in Córdoba were musicians. They’d swing by to jam for a while and enjoy the killer acoustics in the living room. Or my dear friend Sara and I would cook with the French PhD student who was living at the house with us, and we’d share lunch on the sunny terrazza. My light social calendar was met with gentle upbraiding at first when we were too loud. Then the hours during which I could have people over were restricted. Then we had to ask permission to invite anyone over at all. Then poor Sara, who was doing a work-exchange at the house, wasn’t even allowed to hang out on the patio next to her room. I couldn’t even make dinner without fearing the wrath of la bruja (the witch), as we called her.

My dream house in the south of Spain had quickly become a renter’s nightmare. One time we endured a forced potluck goodbye lunch for one of the other residents, and the landlady contributed a soup that was basically vegetable stock and drank all our wine. I found a bug in my bowl. Sara was supposed to be maintaining the rooms used by Airbnb guests, but the landlady had her clean her own private rooms in the house, where Sara found our French friend’s missing bottle of anise squirreled away. We chipped away at the ice that had completely covered the inside of our freezer only to get yelled at for throwing away moldy frozen bread that looked like it was old enough to remember the new millennium. A friend who came over to write with me was accused of stealing Internet for logging on to the shared, password-free wifi that I was paying for.

I would later find out that precious few people in Córdoba had not heard of or directly experienced this woman’s shenanigans at some point or another. She was particularly infamous among flamenco guitarists, of which there were many in the city due to the conservatory there. Apparently, they weren’t allowed to practice at home while they were living there. At all. And this woman claimed to love artists!

Five of us, current and former residents, shared tapas in the nearby plaza and plotted how to take her down. This woman was renting rooms to unsuspecting people, international students and poor saps like me in particular, who were new to the city and didn’t yet know her infamy. She must be stopped! We righteously downed our wine and drafted scathing Yelp reviews of her Airbnb profile out loud. I suggested we organize and form a collective. It all came to nothing in the end, but damn, did it feel good to break my lease. I lost my security deposit, but it was the best use of two hundred euro I’d ever made.

And that, my friends, is the story of how I ended up living in a hostel.

Stay tuned for Part 2…