For our half-term trip to Barcelona, departing on Valentine’s Day, we have booked a low-budget hotel via the internet. I am slightly anxious when my husband tells me we must share a bathroom with other guests, and that on arrival, we are to call a mobile number when we are 10 minutes away to summon an unnamed person who will meet us there. Obediently, but with some trepidation, we put a Euro in a phone box outside the Passeig de Gracia Metro station and make contact. The stranger tells us to wait in the doorway and he will be there in 20. So mysterious does he seem, we would not have been surprised had he asked us to wear a red carnation and carry a copy of yesterday’s Times.
The red carnation would actually not have been a problem, as the doorway in which we must loiter is next to a florists, just closing as we arrive. Trying to avoid the chilly drizzle that has been falling since our plane touched down, we watch the shopkeeper clear the pavement of unsold Valentine’s tributes. Some intriguingly heart-shaped cacti immediately transfix my small daughter and bemuse me. What kind of message would it send to your beloved to give her a plant that lives in the most inhospitable conditions, withstanding freezing nights and scorching days that would cause most other plants to shrivel and die? I suppose it could be taken to indicate inextinguishable love, but I, for one, would rather have a nice bunch of roses any day.
The hotel turns out to be an ancient, vast second-floor apartment with six rooms leading off a common hallway. At the far end is a lobby from which hang two bathrooms, a dining room, a lounge, a sitting room backing onto vast windows, a kitchen and a large terrace. The layout, allowing the residents to spy legitimately on their neighbours’ comings and goings, reminds me very much of the room rented by Sally Bowles in Cabaret (my favourite film of all time, so the association for me is a good one). Instead of being filled with dark and heavy Germanic furniture, it is equipped entirely from Ikea.
The plumbing is equally low budget and the toilets require careful handling. A certain rite of passage is experienced by all new residents, who discover that in order to flush, you must turn on the tap beside the cistern to replenish its water tank. Otherwise, the cistern remains empty and no amount of energetic button-pressing will make it work. By day two of our stay, there is an unspoken agreement by all tenants to leave the cover off the cisterns so that the empty tank acts as a reminder of the required routine. However, we are so tired from our journey and so pleased to be in Barcelona that our spirits remain high. We settle down for a good night’s sleep.
The subsequent cold morning delivers a new revelation about the flat, when we work out, simultaneously with the Dutch family in the six-bed room next door, that when we turn on the oil-filled radiator, the bedside lights go out. We put on another layer of clothing and leave it to the inevitably multilingual Dutch father to harangue the landlord on his mobile. That evening, when we return after a rainy day’s sightseeing, the Dutch family are valiantly playing cards around the dining room table under which they have placed their room’s oil-filled radiator. They’ve spread a blanket over the table to trap the heat around their legs. A resourceful nation, the Dutch, but they do not look very happy.
Later in the evening, a loose pipe disconnects itself from the toilet as I assist my small daughter, sending a fountain of water across the room and drenching the flat’s entire stock of toilet rolls. I’m tempted to call in the Dutch contingent to fix the leak like the little boy who put his finger in the dyke to save his country, but I think they are not in the right frame of mind to be teased. Next morning they cheer up considerably with the arrival of an electrician and a large pile of blankets. Even better, the sun begins to shine.