It’s been two months since we left Madrid but only now did I find enough time to think it through and some appropriate words to describe our squatting experience.
But let me start from the beginning. Do you know what CouchSurfing.org is? (if you don’t – read on, if you do – jump straight to the story). For those who are not familiar with the name, I will briefly explain that it’s a website/community based on more or less the same principals as hitch-hiking. When you travel, by using a form on this website, you can get in touch with people living in the city you’re visiting and ask for free accommodation for as long you both agree to and accepting whatever conditions you and your host are happy with. I said it’s like hitch-hiking not only because both ways of travelling are free but mostly because in both cases you base your experience on unconditional human kindness and mutual trust. Besides, both CouchSurfing and hitch-hiking allow you to get to know your destination more thoroughly. You are not just hostel- or train-hopping, being a tourist fenced-off the surrounding world in a comfort bubble but you are there with the locals, spending time with them, cooking together, listening to the same music and doing the same stuff. It’s a much richer experience than just staying in a hostel at night and sightseeing during the day. If you haven’t tried it yet, you definitely should! It’s fun, it’s not as dangerous as it sounds and it works in many parts of the world!
Anyway, we’ve been using CouchSurfing for three years and we’ve stayed with a fair selection of people, representing different nationalities, professions and lifestyles. Some of them are still our close friends. Among the people we stayed with were students, professionals, families with kids, university professors and in Madrid squatters…
When we first got in touch with them we didn’t, obviously, know they were squatters. On CouchSurfing you can see your potential host’s profile with whatever information they wish to put on, so it’s always a kind of a lottery. But we even prefer it to be that way. It’s so much more fun to be hosted by a complete stranger you hardly know anything about and be treated like their brother or a close friend. That happened to us many a time and that’s the principal reason we love CouchSurfing so much, so the lack of information about our potential host has never been much of a deterrent.
When we got to Madrid, after the whole day of hitch-hiking in scorching Spanish sun on Castilian plains we were knackered. We texted Fran and Niko, our hosts, who agreed to pick us up. We got to the Guzman el Bueno metro station and waited patiently. After about 15 mins two young guys came out from round the corner and started slowly approaching us. We knew it was them. Fran had a short curly black mohican on top of his head, covered at the time with a black round Boy George-type of hat. He was bare-chested, just wearing black calf-length tight jeans with intentional white paint stains all over. He was wearing glasses and his nose was pierced in the middle with a tiny padlock hanging down.
Niko was slightly shorter and darker than Fran with long black dreadlocks. He was wearing a black t-shirt whose sleeves had been torn off and drop crotch baggy cloth trousers which were covered on top with a skirt. Our attention didn’t escape a long pink tail hanging down the back of his trouser-skirt. He came barefoot.
On the way to their house we learnt that they owned 14 cats and a muscular white dog, and lived together in a big house. Mama didn’t raise no fools, we already knew it must have been a squat.
The house was a two storey building with a garden and a garage, which served as a storage room for all kinds of objects in different stages of degradation. There were bicycle parts, clothes, cutlery, toys, electronics, household utensils and other objects of unknown origin. The place was a mess but who are we to judge. We went in and the guys showed us round. As you go in, on the right hand side, there was a living room or actually there were two rooms converted into one by a hole knocked through the wall. There were two sofas, an armchair, a small square table with bottles and other objects piling on top. There were computers which, as the guys told us, were put together with parts they found thrown away in rubbish bins. So as long as there were computers, there was music and Internet (hacked from the neighbour), a veneer of normality. The whole room was stuffy and dark as the windows weren’t in use much. On the floor there was a thick carpet of dust and animal hair. No wonder if you live with so many little friends.
It seemed that the animals were taken care off. The cats had their beds on some rags underneath an upside-down shopping trolley converted into a cage. They had bowls with dry food and water and generally seemed happy. To tell the truth, it was more of their house than it was Fran’s and Niko’s. The cats owned the place and let you know so. They were everywhere. Walking on furniture in the living room, sitting on the stove and in pots in the kitchen, even drinking from the toilet tank in the bathroom. But the dozen of them were only kittens, so it was possible to convince yourself that they were adorable in a way.
Before we proceeded into the kitchen, we had a quick peek in the bathroom. It was a small damp room with a dilapidated toilet, a corner shower (I swear I saw some cat droppings inside the bottom part on the first day) with half of a curtain hanging down and a small square sink. Likewise the living room, the whole bathroom was covered with dirt, animal hair and weird clothes and objects. But they had running water so things were looking a bit brighter.
Next to the bathroom, there was the kitchen. If it wasn’t for the cats walking everywhere, the dirt and the hair, and the smell of waste, the dilapidated furniture and the mess, it might have resembled quite a normal kitchen. There was a stove and a working fridge, there were pots and plates, and there was food.
As Fran and Niko explained to us, they “recycled” food, which in their lingo meant they collected it from rubbish bins. From waste rooms connected to supermarkets where outdated food was dropped, as well us from regular city bins. In essence, from anywhere they could find it. As they didn’t have a job or any regular source of income, that was their only option.
Fran has been living in the house for about three years and he was its longest tenant but of course, there were many others. He was from Cadiz and he was a juggler, he was a punk and as he described himself, an anarchistic, anti-vegan slob. As he told us, he had a bad relationship with his drunk of a father and they haven’t been speaking to each other for many years. He also told us he didn’t have much education but used to work as an electrician for a railway company, having learnt the skill on a course, which he finished only 2 months of. He could drive, taught by his father when both of them were drunk. “Son, one day you will have to drive drunk”, he told him, “so you’re better off learning to drive like this.” Fran didn’t have a car but dreamt of owning a hippie van.
On the other hand, Niko who was an Argentinian, seemed to have been brought up in a relatively “good” home. He was still in touch with his mum, who he visited every so often as she had also moved to Spain. He didn’t have much education either but the way he spoke and wrote made me think there must have been some sort of upbringing in his family, in contrary to Fran’s.
They were nice enough guys and they wanted us to feel at home. It was their first CouchSurfing experience. They hadn’t hosted anyone before and they hadn’t surfed either, so they didn’t really know what to expect and what to offer, but they were hospitable and wanted to share with others what they had. And they had much to offer as in Madrid, where accommodation was very expensive, their big empty house was something.
We went upstairs as they wanted to show us our place to sleep. It was a small stuffy room with a double bed, a cluttered desk and a big window. Fran said the red bed sheet was clean but after he was gone I had to give it a shake off all the dust and animal hair. But that wasn’t the worst. Under the desk we spotted brown marks and in general the whole room smelled of shit. We couldn’t believe the room had been used as the animals’ toilet but when I asked Fran to show me where the mop was, he admitted that before we arrived the room had looked much worse (I didn’t want to ask for details!) and it had taken them a while to clean it up. Jon and I spend a good two hours on mopping the floor, scratching the shit marks with a trowel we found, ventilating the room, bleaching the floor and repeating the whole procedure over. After that was done we could finally go out, as getting drunk seemed to be the best thing to do in order to forget about the house we would have to go back to.
When we went out with Niko and Fran, they told us they would have to earn some money for the night by juggling on a street corner. We had to split in order to let them do their job in piece as having two foreign tourists clung to them at all times wouldn’t do their performance much of a favour. We went to a nearby bar waiting for their call and we were surprised to answer the phone only half an hour later. They earned two Euros (!) and they were done for the day. That was enough to keep them going for another night out.
On the way to the centre, occasionally they would take off their hats and ask passers-by for change and it wouldn’t bother them that we were walking together. They had managed to organise a bottle of gin and some lemonade in advance, so there was no need to buy alcohol. All they had to do was to get some plastic cups and some ice, to make the experience more pleasant. After getting the stuff from a Burger King we were ready to get pissed.
Throughout the night we sat on different city squares, meeting other people and getting progressively more and more drunk. At some point Niko disappeared and we wouldn’t meet him until the last day of our stay. When we reached the limit of the amount of alcohol we could intake, we decided to stumble home. At this state of mind even the smell of shit wasn’t much of a disadvantage.
We woke up the next morning, hungover and sweaty in the room that still smelt of shit. We had a quick shower, gave the room another mopping and bleaching session and went out to do what all tourists do in Madrid. We walked the streets starting at Plaza de la Puerta del Sol and onwards as Lonely Planet suggested in their book. At the end of the day, with the sense of achievement, we were ready to go back to the squat and get pissed in order to forget, again.
Niko still hasn’t showed up but Fran reassured us that occasionally he disappears for a few days. By the time we cooked some food, it was already 10pm. We decided to hit the streets again. We wanted to get to the centre by metro but when we got to the station, we learnt that the entrance we usually used had already been shut. Then Fran produced a broom stick he’s been carrying all the way from home, poked it through the bars and pressed a button inside which opened the gate. We were in! We jumped the turnstiles and continued on downstairs. Easy peasy! At the bottom of the steps, though, we were greeted by a couple of stern security guards who didn’t believe our story of an open gate and accompanied us all the way upstairs. Now the metro gate was closed, so we couldn’t escape and they called for backup through their walkie-talkie devices. Jon and I were feeling a bit apprehensive and expecting a heavy fine but Fran with a natural carelessness pressed the same button again. The gate opened and we walked out. The guards didn’t even move. We were free!
We walked to another metro gate which was also shut. Shaken by the recent bad experience, Jon and I protested a bit, especially that we didn’t have our broomstick any more. Fran wasn’t moved in the slightest by the whole experience and decided to tackle the gate again. There was no button this time but he put his ear close to it, gave it a knock, stepped back, gave it a kick in the right place and the thing opened. Never in my life have I seen a person more streetwise! He knew exactly how everything in the city worked and could obtain free stuff everywhere.
We got to the centre and repeated the experience from the previous night. Got pissed, chatted bollocks to some randomers and finally returned home, hoping the shit situation had solved itself.
When we got back, while sitting in the front room and playing with the cats, I noticed that one of them didn’t look like it should. It was much smaller, its head was slightly twisted backwards and it’s been lying without moving much since we had first arrived a couple of days earlier. I didn’t like the look of this cat since the very beginning, but as I gave it a closer inspection, I was alarmed to notice it wasn’t even breathing much. Fran picked it up and the poor little thing didn’t even stir. It was in agony. Dead within the next 15 minutes. It was obviously the runt and such things happen. Not all animals from the litter always survive but in my opinion the negligence on Fran’s and Niko’s side also played a big role. If I’d noticed something was wrong with this kitten first day after arrival, why haven’t they? Maybe it could have been saved, had they been to the vet. But they were squatters and of course they would never have done that. They lived beyond the system and didn’t expect or want any help from it.
Later on Jon and I resolved that it would be our last night in this house. We felt emotionally drained and didn’t want to be a part of it any more. Never before did we spend so much time with people from the margin of society. Let’s be honest, they were bums, perroflautas (which is Spanish for homeless buskers, usually owning a dog or a different animal and living the life of our hosts). They knew as much as we did, that we were from two different worlds. Worlds that would never have met, had it not been for CouchSurfing. We approached them in good spirits, wanted to experience the way they lived and did things, wanted to learn the way they saw the world. We were curious and they probably were too. To them we were educated guiris (foreigners), who spoke enough Spanish to make this acquaintance even possible and who were open-minded enough to make it happen.
However cliché it might sound, never before did we value our education and upbringing so much! They were streetwise, lived 100% free existence, were resourceful enough if they had managed to organise a house, with electricity, running water, gas and internet, but we would have never swapped what we have for what they did. We realised how lucky we’d been to be born in families we had been born in, to have finished universities, learnt languages and know how to achieve things not by opposing the system.
We went sightseeing the next morning and hoped to move out as soon as we come back. We were back in the early evening and saw Niko in the front room, for the first time since his disappearance the first night. He was off his mind, his eyes were like saucers, his face was changing colours from red to white and red again, and he was mumbling. He said he hadn’t slept since we last saw him and as we were walking upstairs to collect our stuff, he said that his friend was dead. We went back to ask him for more details but didn’t get any, he wasn’t able to make sense. We rushed upstairs and started packing. Niko also came upstairs and entered a room which had been closed all this time. Jon had a quick peek inside and spotted a large pile of shit (human or animal, didn’t know) right next to where Niko had laid down. We wanted to be out of here! We run downstairs with our rucksacks and met Fran. He was alive, so it wasn’t him Niko had been talking about. We explained our point, thanked for his hospitality and out we went into the brightness of the day, leaving the stuffy and murky house behind us.
We felt reborn. We were back in normality. In the world we understood. In the world which doesn’t smell of shit, where you don’t have to eat from rubbish bits to survive, where you don’t have to steal and get drunk to oblivion, where death isn’t close at hand.
We had a number of an English teacher who had given us a lift between León and Segovia and thought we might give him a call. He agreed to host us for two nights and we had a fabulous time. In a normal, respectable, clean house that we were able to appreciate now so much more…
written by: Ania