The trouble started before we left Oakland, California. I bought a OneSimCard for my iPhone and another for Charles’s economy phone, purchased a few years ago, when we were in Holland. Two days before takeoff, we tried them out. Neither phone would ring when we followed the dialing instructions on the Web site.
A call to OneSimCard service lasted over forty-five minutes. She could not understand why our phones wouldn’t ring. But toward the end of the call, she finally elicited a ring on my iPhone and declared the problem fixed.
One major glitch resulted from my conversation with her. The home base of OneSimCard is Estonia. She told me that to dial my husband’s phone, I needed to use the Estonian area code. I asked if this would change when he was in Poland and I was in Madrid. She said, “No. Wherever you are, use the Estonian area code.” I inferred that she meant I was always to dial with that code, not that I was only to dial that code if I called my husband. This led to my phone not working, my sending several inquiries and finally complaints to OneSimCard, and eventually finding out that I needed to dial the country code to get through to restaurants, etc. (OneSimCard insisted I watch their hours of videos, showing how to use their cards, but I had only my iPad and their videos wouldn't play on it. One video on YouTube did play but it wasn't much help.)
The problem of our phones not ringing, in spite of her confidence, was not fixed. When we reached the Madrid-Barajas Airport, I tried calling Charles, who stood ten feet away from me. His phone didn’t ring. He tried calling me. My phone didn’t ring. Okay. We had paid through the nose and were reduced to email and Skype. I hoped there would be no emergencies requiring instant contact. Charles, being more sanguine by nature, was sure there wouldn't be.
Charles went with me to the apartment, on the sixth floor near the city center. The apartment turned out to be gorgeous but very odd. Fully half of the limited square footage was inaccessible except on hands and knees because of the sloped ceiling. But it had a terrace and was on the top floor so that noise was a problem only occasionally.
Next Charles walked me to the school where I was going to take Spanish. He did this because I cannot turn around without losing my orientation. Here’s an example: I was in North Carolina, a teenaged volunteer in the 60’s Civil Rights Movement, driving a VW Bug from Durham to Greensboro. I stopped for gas at the intersection of two wide streets. In those days, an attendant filled your gas tank. After I paid him, I faced an significant problem. I exited the station, made a left, made another left, and then another left, which landed me back at the pump. The attendant looked at me blankly. I tried my sweetest voice: “When I came in here, did you happen to notice which way I was going?”
Luckily for me, he had noticed, or I might still be wandering through North Carolina.
As it was, even though the school was a seven-minute walk from my apartment and Charles had carefully gotten me to note all the landmarks, the first five times I went there, I got lost.
After that, we had lunch at a restaurant highly recommended on the Internet. It was not the first time a highly recommended restaurant turned out to be less than mediocre. Once, in Prague, we visited a place that had more than one hundred “Five Star” reviews on tripadvisor. Probably one of the top ten worst restaurant experiences of my life. My review begins “What restaurant did these people eat at?”
Charles left around six, headed for the airport to take a flight to Poland where he was attending a math conference for two weeks. I started unpacking and pretty quickly realized something terrible. The charger for my iPad, my iPhone, and my Kindle were all in his suitcase.
Panic set in. In mere hours, given the short battery life of most devices, I would have no way to get in touch with him and he’d have no way to reach me. While the loss of contact would be hard to bear on the level of missing each other, it also meant that we’d not be able to communicate when he returned to Madrid. As it was, two weeks later the failure of OneSimCard resulted in him wandering around the city center for an hour, unable to phone me for directions to the apartment, which he'd forgotten. (And by the way, his little inoperative Dutch phone had worked beautifully when we visited Holland and Belgium--for a fraction of the cost.)
No Apple store nearby. No idea what to do. At the school, I inquired as to whether anyone had the necessary chargers. No dice. At the end of the first day, I trudged off to Corte Inglesa, Spain's humongous super-store. There I located chargers for all three items.
Back at the apartment, I installed the voltage converter I’d purchased on Amazon for a small fortune. Sat down to eat a minimalist dinner and read a book. But my nose kept twitching. What was that smell? I got up and searched through the apartment, getting nervous about the possibility of fire because it did smell like something burning and I was up very high with no fire escape.
Couldn’t find the source so sat back down to read. An hour later I jumped from the couch, having been pummeled by a loud CRACK! The converter had exploded. I checked to see if it had damaged the iPad but no, the iPad was fine. My new problem was finding another converter using my less than perfect (ah, what a euphemistic way to get around the word “terrible”) Spanish.
After several mis-communications—and by the way, very few people spoke English in Corte Inglesa and indeed elsewhere in Madrid, something I could hardly hold against them, given they were in their own country and I too was in their own country—I arrived in the correct department. A very kind man spent several minutes trying to understand what I wanted and then explaining to me that the item he could sell me—weighing in at roughly five pounds—would not charge anything that drew too much current, such as a hair dryer or an iron. I smiled and got out some euros. My hair could air dry and I had no intention of ironing anything.
After that, my only problem in Madrid was chronicallly getting lost. I’d take off, happily breathing in the city, only to find myself in some isolated location without any clue how to get back to the apartment. That this might happen to me had worried me in advance, but I thought the OneSimCard data package I purchased would enable me to access my GPS. Not so. I kept getting the message: No data plan.
Only during the final week of our vacation did I discover from OneSimCard (when I complained) that I had ordered a data package, paid for it, and immediately canceled it (without their issuing a refund). Since I ihad no intention of using the OneSimCard or their data plan after I left Spain, I wouldn't have ordered it and knowingly canceled it. Therefore, it must be incredibly easy to mistakenly cancel the data order on their site. And why was canceling but still paying for something an option? When all this became murkily clear, I found the “activate” button on my data plan and for the last few days of our trip enjoyed the benefits of GPS, something that would have saved us so much grief, had it not been canceled. (Needless to add, I will never ever buy their SIM card again. In fact, I urge anyone planning to travel NOT to buy any card here but to get one at the local airport abroad. In spite of the hype, it will be cheaper and, if like me you're not a geek, you can still get a working data plan without the risk of canceling it without realizing you’ve done so.)
But all’s well that ends well. Oddly enough, the idea of being lost concerned me far more before I got to Madrid than when I was actually lost in it.
MORE NEXT WEEK, INCLUDING OUR HARROWING EXPERIENCE GETTING TO OUR APARTMENT IN BARCELONA