Stubborn vanity, nagging doubt and a glorious Eurostars Tower

March 2011

By Geri Dreiling

Arriving at the Eurostars Madrid Tower Hotel

In retrospect, I should have known that my visit to Spain would be an adventure. After all, the journey that led me to the Iberian Peninsula started with an Atlantic Ocean-sized leap of faith.

It was my very first visit to Europe and the first time I met the man who had become a dear friend over the course of a long distance work relationship. I had known E, a Madrid native, for a year and a half. Over the course of those many months, he became a trusted business resource. He sprinkled warm, witty observations in his emails that managed to coax my often tightly pursed lips into the upward curve of a smile. When we Skyped, he offered words of encouragement in work – and in life.

I worked hard to set aside money to fulfill one of my lifelong goals of seeing “The Europe,” as Nurse Betty might say. And a trip to Madrid to meet the thoughtful, shy Spanish programmer and talented designer was what I wanted most.

I needed to meet the enigmatic E.

“Worry about nothing,” was his mantra to me as I planned my short vacation. He had offered to greet me at the airport but I refused. I wanted to shower after the overnight flight. I told myself, “You won’t be lost forever in Madrid. But a first impression only happens once.”

And so I carefully planned my trip from the airport to the Eurostars Madrid Tower Hotel. I visited Madrid’s tourist website and learned I could buy a traveler’s metro pass online and pick it up when I arrived at the airport. I also found a map of the metro online. I pinpointed the airport and the hotel, highlighted in yellow the probable route then emailed it to E asking for confirmation. I would have to change trains at one stop.

Easy peasy, right? Well….

After arriving at Madrid-Barajas Airport and getting off the plane, I got into the Non-EU passport holder line. After clearing customs, I used one of my favorite tactics when I don’t know what I’m doing — I followed the people in front of me. It worked. I had successfully found the luggage area.

But after grabbing my suitcase, I hit a snag – and a snag in an unfamiliar country can cause a momentary anxiety spike.

I could not figure out where to pick up my prepaid tourist metro ticket. The counters near my luggage area seemed to be for currency exchanges. I ventured through a set of automatic doors and, once through, realized there was no way back into the secure area. I froze and forced myself to breath. Finally, I worked up the nerve to approach an information booth and asked about the tickets. I had accidentally stumbled onto the place I needed to be.

With my metro pass in hand, I reminded myself, “I can do this,” as I wheeled my luggage toward an escalator that would deliver me to the metro.

Again following the lead of those who looked like they knew what they were doing in front of me, I boarded the metro. I pulled out the highlighted maps I had two-hole punched and fastened to a manila folder with a metal clip. I easily counted the stops, switched trains and emerged from the underground right near my hotel.

I had arrived before check-in time. The clerk gave me a voucher for coffee in the downstairs lounge while they finished preparing my room. “Un café solo, por favor,” I ordered. (A black coffee, please.) Coffee is not an optional part of my life and I like to drink it black. Before leaving St. Louis, I asked E how to order it in Spanish then rehearsed the phrase frequently.

The cups of coffee are smaller than what I’m used to in the U.S. – and stronger. As I finished satisfying my caffeine craving, I was told my room was ready. You need a crash course to learn how the lights and blinds work but the amenities can’t be beat.

E arrived early. My hair was wet and I didn’t have on any makeup. He’d have to wait to see me in person until I was ready, I decided stubbornly.

Whenever I take a trip, doubt is one of my travel companions. Did I choose the right destination? Will the hotel I booked live up to its Internet promises or be crawling with bed bugs? Did I bring enough money? But this time I also had to wonder whether deciding to meet a business associate I’d known for nearly a year-and-a-half only through emails and Skype was a great decision or a terrible mistake.

Doubt stood next to me in the bathroom as I finished getting ready. We breathed deeply together, looked at our shared reflection in the bathroom mirror one last time and then opened the door.

E patiently waited for me and when I appeared, he smiled shyly. His eyes softened warmly. He said sweetly and simply, “Hello, Geri.”

At that moment I knew four days wasn’t going to be enough. Doubt was sent packing back to the States.