They said it would be difficult.
They weren’t lying.
It can’t be overstated, moving to a new country is a Herculean task, like scaling a brick wall with your bare hands.
Since my arrival in Madrid, just over a month ago, I have faced a slew of speed bumps and a not inconsiderable number of road blocks. My limited (read: pathetic) Spanish ability has been my greatest impediment, for sure, but hardly the only one. Some challenges are simply a matter of learning cultural differences and adapting; others, though, are intrinsically more complex.
Emily arrived almost two weeks ago, and less than 48 hours after deplaning, we were onto the apartment flat search. We had a hard deadline: Our AirBnB was only booked until October 1st. If we didn’t have a place by then, we’d be scrambling to book short-term housing (another AirBnB or a hostel), an expensive proposition that would only exacerbate the financial obstacle inherent to finding a new home.
Madrid in September is much like Boston in September, in that the city is awash in new arrivals, both students and teachers. Lots of rooms open up and there’s a mad dash to lock down a place to live before someone else takes it. In that way, Madrid is also similar to Brooklyn. So, take the two most difficult moves of my 10 Cities endeavor and combine them into one, and that’s basically this last week.
There were a number of housing options to consider. The first, which is the most common for expats, was for Emily and I to book our own separate rooms. There are various websites and apps for flat searches, with the most often recommended (at least by our fellow expats) being Idealista. Others include Fotocasa and the Badi app, that one specifically designed for finding individual rooms. (Craigslist, my go-to in the States, is all but useless here.)
The benefit of renting a room is that you generally don’t need to sign a lease or pay an agency fee. Of course, there are plenty of risks inherent in not being on a lease, and as someone who has moved into another person’s abode on numerous occasions, I know firsthand how often those arrangements tend to turn into “This is my home, you’re just renting a room here” situations.
Emily and I had come here with the intention of rooming together as we had in Boston; unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find someone renting multiple rooms within the same flat. It happens, but they tend to be dorm-like situations where they specify only men or only women.
With room rentals out, we agreed that our best bet was finding a flat of our own. In the weeks before Emily’s arrival, I’d done a fair amount of research on what two-bedroom flats were available. For anything that didn’t look like a serial killer’s lair, we were going to have to lay down a hefty pile of euros.
Fortunately, in my time here in Madrid, I had met many expats who were similarly on the search for a place to live. It was true, a two-bedroom flat was going to be costly, but if we added a third roommate we could mitigate some of the upfront costs while also decreasing the number of buried bodies we’d have to sleep on.
I spoke to two new friends who were interested in being our third roommate if we found the right place. The first was the one of the first people I met in Madrid, Calla, originally from Kentucky, currently in Madrid to teach English (unless stated otherwise, you can pretty much assume every American I’ll mention is here to teach English). She was staying in a flat with a mixed group of semi-locals and had been on her own unfruitful housing search since before my arrival. Her search had nearly netted her a place to live on a few occasions, but each time one factor or another had undercut the candidate home and she had passed.
The second potential roommate was another new arrival who I had met through Calla, Megan from New Jersey. Her situation was similar to Calla’s in that she had a semi-definite place to live, and could extend her stay if she needed to. She also had other potential arrangements, but I kept her in mind just in case. In a new country, it never hurts to keep one’s options open.
Thus, waking up on Saturday morning, eight days before we had to be out of our AirBnB, Emily and I expanded our search to three-bedrooms. There were dozens of options on Idealista. To each one with promise, I would send a Google-translated email and then Emily would call. Though not fluent, Emily’s Spanish is head-and-shoulders better than mine, so the responsibility for direct communication fell entirely on her.
By Sunday afternoon, we had contacted over two dozen different flats. Unfortunately, Madrid is a city that takes its weekends seriously, so few of them were returning calls. At the end of searching on Sunday night, we had only one viewing lined up, a three-bedroom near Prosperidad with a suspiciously small-looking living room.
The woman on the phone told us the viewing would be at noon, but recommended we show up early because it would essentially be first come, first serve.
“So, we should be there at 11?” Emily asked. The woman laughed. No, not quite that early.
We Americans are perhaps a bit overzealous, especially compared to Spaniards. As I was told by a Spanish man I met a couple weeks earlier, in Madrid, no one is on-time, ever. “Early” means arriving when you said. Arriving American-early (i.e. before the agreed upon meet-up time) is seen as weird, even for a job.
We decided to arrive at 11:50 just to be safe. That Monday morning, before the viewing, we happily received return calls on some of our other messages. We lined up two more viewings for later in the evening. By the day’s end, we’d see a total of five.
We arrived at the Prosperidad flat by 11:45, believing we’d be in the frontrunning, but unfortunately, we weren’t the only Americans on the prowl. A small crowd had already gathered outside the building. By the time the woman arrived to show the flat – at 12:15 – the sidewalk was full of potential renters. As our naïve optimism deflated, Emily and I returned to our phones to continue our search.
We liked it; didn’t love it. The three bedrooms were large (the largest of any we saw in our search), but its “living room” was really just a wide hallway they had stuck a couch in. Still, we agreed, if the place were offered to us, we’d take it.
The next flat on our viewing list was the only one we found that wasn’t being rented out by an agency. An older couple were privately renting out their own place. Emily and I both loved the spot, a well-maintained three-bedroom with an actual living room and a kitchen. We tried our hardest to be charming (well, Emily did; I mostly stood around staring blankly as the conversation switched from Spanish to English and back again).
The couple was sweet, but as we left, we each had the impression that we hadn’t matched up to whatever indefinite measure they were using to judge possible tenants. Still, if offered, we’d take the place in a heartbeat (basically, this was how we felt above every place, especially as the day progressed and we grew increasingly pessimistic).
Our third stop of the day was mostly a lark, a fifth-floor, five-bedroom that was being rented at the same price as all the three-bedrooms we’d been looking at. I’d sent a message earlier in the morning, not expecting a response, but while Emily and I stopped for a beer – because that’s what you do here – she got a call asking if we could stop by. We had time to kill before two other viewings, so we said we’d come right over and check it out.
As had been my suspicion, most of the bedrooms were on the smaller side. There was one “master” bedroom with a double bed, massive closet space, and its own private terrace. Otherwise, there were two half-sized rooms with fold-away beds, one closet they were trying to pass off as a bedroom, and a fourth, isolated room off of the kitchen that appeared to be the servant’s quarters. It was an ideal home for a family with small children, so even though it had a large kitchen and one of the biggest living rooms we’d seen, we weren’t sure it could work for us.
One plus in its favor, though, was that we could offer it to both Calla and Megan. We could afford the place with just three of us, but a fourth roommate would make the cost sharing even better and would make the landlord feel more secure with us.
The fourth flat Emily and I saw was immediately our favorite. It was spacious and very modern looking, with average-sized bedrooms and a nice location just a few minutes’ walk from Parque de El Retiro. As Emily haltingly made her way through an all-Spanish conversation with the agent in a suit, though, it started to become clear, even to my clueless ears, that it was going to be an uphill battle to lock down this, or any flat.
Our fifth and final viewing of the day only confirmed those fears. Now 6:30 in the evening, Calla was able to join us. Unfortunately, one of the prerequisites for renting the space was that we have job contracts in Spain, something none of us had or would have for at least a few more weeks. It was clear that almost everywhere we hoped to live would have a similar requirement. Collectively, we had sufficient funds to pay rent and put down extra deposits, if required, but the rental agents were mostly uninterested in seeing our financial statements. No job contract, no flat.
After a full day of viewings and walking the city, the three of us dejectedly went for beers and one-euro sandwiches at 100 Montaditos. I was trying my hardest to focus on what we could accomplish, despite the major hurdles, but it was hard not to see the day as a failure. I concluded that if we hadn’t found a place by Wednesday evening, we’d have to all go separate ways and hopefully find rooms on our own in less than four days.
Our discount sandwiches and beers led to, “Hey, want to grab another drink,” which eventually snowballed into buying bottles of wine and whiskey and drinking until sometime past three in the morning. By the time Emily and I woke the next morning, hungover and weighted down by a pound of cream cheese and crackers we had drunkenly ate before crashing, our housing perspectives were looking even dimmer.
We spent the day in our beds searching for more flats and sending out our collective financial information to each agent who had given us their email address. We thought – hoped (prayed!) – that if we deluged them with our overwhelming proof of financial solvency, one of them might just say, “Okay, fine, take the flat, jeez!”
With no viewings lined up for the day, all we could do was send out messages while the whiskey/cream cheese ball in our guts slowly oozed out of our pores.
To our amazement, in late afternoon we received a somewhat confusing but ultimately wonderful message: We could come by the office and put down a 300€ deposit for the five-bedroom. If we wanted it, it was ours (of course, it wasn’t really that simple, but we were sinking).
I hastily created a group Whatsapp message with Calla and Megan and told them our news: If they both wanted, we could all move in together. They, of course, would need to see the place for themselves to decide.
We arranged for the four of us to view the flat the next morning at 9 am. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time to decide. Emily and I had a viewing for a three-bedroom that evening, but otherwise, we’d been wholly unsuccessful getting any responses the day before and we were rapidly running out of time.
In a turn of events that will surely never be brought up again, Calla overslept and missed the viewing, so it was just Megan joining us. We “facetimed” with Calla while walking the flat (isn’t technology kind of crazy?) so she could “see” the place for herself, but it wasn’t the same.
After the viewing, with the agent needing to return to the office, the four of us met for a drink at a nearby café. We hashed out the pros and cons (con: small bedrooms; pro: not homeless) for over an hour. The decision was toughest for Calla who hadn’t seen the place, but all of us were in a similar position, and taking the place was essentially an all-or-nothing situation (they wouldn’t sign it over to just three of us).
Through some uneasiness, the four of us agreed: We’d take it.
As if it were that easy. Since none of us had job contracts, we had to throw down a giant pile of cash to secure the place; like, a Scrooge McDuck’s money bin amount of money. In hopes of bringing down the cost, we offered a first-born child, but it turns out a) none of us have children and b) apparently child-based payments have fallen out of favor here in Europe. Who knew?
We managed to scrounge together enough money between the four of us that the agency eventually just said, “Yeah, whatever, take the keys, get out of our office, we’re tired of looking at you.” We did it.
No, it’s not a perfect place. There have already been some hiccups (no hot water; insufficient number of building keys), and there will surely be more (which I’ll document at a later date, I’m sure), but the important thing is, we have a place to live. We have a home.
Life in Madrid can begin in earnest.
It’s been an arduous trip so far, and surely will continue to be, but my life on the road has taught me an important lesson: Take your victories where you can.