Expat Facts: How a more expensive apartment saved my mental health

Hola! As part of my return to blogging regularly, I’ve decided to create the Expat Facts series, which will showcase different aspects of life abroad: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the case of today’s post, I’m getting honest about an ugly situation that luckily turned out for the better. I’ll also be modifying some previous posts in order to add them to the series.

I met Gretchen* on a sticky summer day just as June was about to melt into July. Temperatures throughout the city were reading 44 degrees (or about 111 Fahrenheit for the other Americans in the room), so one of the most appealing factors of the apartment listing was its promise of air conditioning. Gretchen and the landlord, Ms. Norbury, showed me around. Besides the aforementioned air conditioning, it had also been recently renovated and boasted stellar views, like this one from what would soon be my bedroom window:

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 12.41.15 PM

I couldn’t believe my luck. I was getting a decently priced apartment (150 euros per month, not including bills) in a great location in the Spanish city of my dreams. What could go wrong?

A lot, actually.

After I had gotten in touch with Gretchen and Ms. Norbury to tell them that I was interested in the apartment, we agreed on a time for me to meet with them and sign the contract. I was still subletting another place with a contract that expired at the end of June, and would spend the month of July working at a summer camp in northern Spain. We agreed that I could move in, pay my first month of rent and the deposit, and sign the contract the day I got back to Córdoba after my summer job ended.

So at 11 p.m. on July 30, after a 14-hour journey on a bus, then a train, then another bus all from one side of Spain to the other, I schlepped my luggage past the fountains that dot the Vial walkway, en route to my new home.

The first month, aside from not having internet, was fantastic. My boyfriend came over every night after work and often spent the night since we had the whole place to ourselves. I hosted my mom and my brother in the extra bedrooms when they visited from the US so they didn’t have to shell out for a hotel. It was the perfect home base to explore my new hometown.

Then, on the first day of September, all four of us roommates met with Ms. Norbury again to sign the full contract (I had signed a one-month contract for just my room for the time I lived there alone). I was already home, so it was just a matter of taking the elevator downstairs at our designated meeting time. Gretchen and Karen were already there. Shortly after, Ms. Norbury and her husband showed up. There was only one person left to wait for.

So we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, Regina’s car swerved into a parking space just in front of the building, music blaring. She got out of the car accompanied by a fluffy Pomeranian and a chain-smoking girl in glasses.

All accounted for at last, we headed upstairs to sign the apartment. Gretchen and Karen had each brought some of their things but left shortly thereafter, having planned to move in permanently a few weeks later.

But Regina stayed. And so did the dog. And so did the chain-smoking friend. For about two weeks. Coming and going as she pleased with Regina’s set of keys while Regina was at work. I stupidly said nothing because I didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot with my new roommate.

The first red flag was the fact that neither pets nor smoking were allowed in the apartment. I’m not a goody-two-shoes stickler for the rules, but I do have a history of sinus problems. A minor surgical procedure senior year of college helped, but I still have a slight allergy to tobacco. I can handle it when I’m outside or in a well-ventilated place, but when I got home from the gym one sweltering early September day barely able to breathe because all the windows had been shut (and the air conditioning turned off) so Regina’s friend could essentially hot-box our living room, I had to ask her politely to stop smoking inside and explained my situation. After that, she at least had the courtesy to stop smoking whenever I was around, but I still came home to the lingering stench of tobacco quite a few times after that.

And then there was the dog. As a lifelong cat-haver, I love pets. I didn’t mind at all that we had an against-the-rules dog living in our apartment. What I did mind was the fact that Regina didn’t clean up after him, and didn’t take him outside enough. Seeing a puddle of pee on our living room floor one time is forgivable. Accidents happen, and it’s not the poor dog’s fault. Multiple times a week? Gross.

It got worse when Gretchen and Karen moved in (during which time the friend left at some point). The three of them all knew each other from high school, so I admittedly felt a bit excluded at first as they gabbed about people they knew and things that had happened since the last time they’d seen each other – conversations I could contribute nada to. I thought I’d just let them get it out of their systems and sooner or later they’d try to make their new guiri roommate feel welcome.

The four of us had maybe one pleasant conversation before the toxic environment set in. I suddenly found myself being constantly accused of doing things I hadn’t done, and screamed at for not doing other things – for one, being shouted at for “not cleaning the bathroom” when it was my turn. I had cleaned the entire bathroom but had forgotten to wipe off that random part of the toilet in between the back of the seat and the water tank, which Regina wasted no time in noticing and berating me for. I’ll never forget how humiliated I felt standing there in the bathroom and struggling to defend myself in my second language while she screamed at me and basically demanded I re-scrub the entire toilet.

Gretchen and Karen were civil to me on an individual basis, but things with Regina just kept getting worse. Having initially just chalked up the tension between her and me to a “personality clash,” I soon realized that she was, simply put, a mean girl, and when she was with one or both of the others, she would get them in on her act. I constantly felt so tense and angry being home at the same time as any of them. Even when I was home alone, I never knew when they’d get back and start belittling me – and there was the constant risk of them being able to do so via text message, too. The Great Toilet Screaming Incident of 2016 actually started with a passive-aggressive WhatsApp Regina sent me, “just reminding” me that it was my turn to clean the bathroom. What killed me was the fact that she sent it not five minutes after she had walked out the door, and had seen me in the apartment before she left. Why she couldn’t say it to my face, I’ll never know.

Despite the postcard-perfect view outside my bedroom window, I felt like I was about to lose my mind. As things went from bad to worse, I started casually browsing milanuncios (Spain’s answer to Craig’slist) and property-listing site Idealista just to get an idea of what else was out there. I eventually found something that looked promising on the Córdoba auxiliares de conversación Facebook page. I contacted the girl who had posted the ad and we agreed on a time for me to come check it out.

Walking into the new apartment made me realize that I’d been seeing the other through rose-colored glasses. The kitchen was big enough for multiple people to move around in, unlike at my old place where the Plastics were constantly getting in the way. The living room was decorated with modern, cozy furniture – not the clunky stuff that filled my old piso and which probably dated back to before Spain joined the EU in the 1980s. It was clean, centrally located, and occupied by “quiet but nice” (exactly what I needed) roommates. The only catch was that it was about 40 euros more per month than my old place. Not terrible, but I don’t exactly have the highest paying job. I told the girl I would sleep on it and get back to her the next day, but as I was leaving the building after my visit I had the feeling that this was where I needed to be.

And it’s exactly where I ended up.

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Last look outside my old bedroom window, taken before I carried my last load of boxes downstairs while moving out.

After an unsurprisingly messy telling-the-Plastics-I-was-moving-out process, I went back to the US for Christmas and moved into my new apartment when I got back to Spain in early January. I’ve been here for a little less than a month, and it feels like I’m a totally different person than I was at the other place. I’m no longer constantly stressed and on edge, I get along with my roommates, and I feel much happier overall. Making the move has been one of the best decisions I’ve made since coming to Spain. So far, it’s an extra €40 per month well spent.

*Names have obviously been changed. I have no connection to Mean Girls.

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