On a Fulbright scholarship to Spain, Maya Kroth ’01 encounters magic and misrepresentation.
By Maya Kroth ’01
07 Dec 2016
Jorge G. was the last person I expected to hear from in September of 2013, months after he disappeared with my thousand euros and stopped returning my calls and texts. But there it was in my inbox:
“Hi Maya, I’d like to connect with you on LinkedIn.”
Nearly three years later, the message is still there, and every time I see it—several times each week—I’m reminded of the whole unpleasant episode in Barcelona. Until now, I didn’t quite understand what compelled me to keep that email all these years.
I’d met Jorge nine months earlier, through an ad on Segunda Mano, the Spanish version of Craigslist. It was a few weeks before Christmas and I had just arrived in Barcelona for a six-month fellowship, eager to find an apartment that I could afford on my meager stipend. The place he described in his ad seemed perfect: it was furnished, centrally located in a charming neighborhood, and the price was right: 500€ a month, with all expenses included.
We arranged to meet, and I was immediately in love. A tiny ático tacked onto the roof of a 100-year old building in the bohemian Born district, where Pablo Picasso once had a studio, it was exactly the kind of apartment I’d dreamed of finding. I didn’t care that it was an 8th floor walkup or that the whole place was slanted such that when I dropped a pen on the kitchen floor it speedily rolled downhill, coming to rest in the northeast corner of the living room. It had its own rooftop garden terrace, and through the gingerbread-house windows, I would be able to see the spires of the Sagrada Familia from my bed every morning.
Jorge and I clicked from the start. He was about my age, early 30s, a graphic designer from Venezuela. Judging by the way he’d furnished the place—an eclectic blend of thrift-store finds, colorful artwork and mod basics from Ikea—it was apparent that we read the same budget-design magazines. He said that he wanted to sublet the apartment while he and his husband did some traveling, and that his landlord, a Frenchman named Remy, had given his blessing.
A SUBLET WITH A VIEW
I moved in the day after New Years, and during that first week Jorge and I exchanged dozens of messages on WhatsApp as I settled into my temporary new home. “What is the wi-fi code?” “How do I check the mail?” “Do you know a good hairstylist around here?” His replies were always friendly and emoji-filled, and sometimes accompanied by goofy pictures of himself. I woke up ecstatic most days, thrilled to be in the new digs. I would look for excuses to work from home or invite friends over for meals instead of going out—anything to spend as much time as possible in my little aerie. Eight stories up, it was bright and peaceful and I had the floor all to myself. In the mornings I would set the percolator boiling on my minuscule, lopsided electrical stove, then maneuver around the water heater mounted precariously on the kitchen wall and take my coffee across the landing to the sun-dappled terrace. The view from there extended for miles across the rooftops of the Born and Barceloneta neighborhoods, which eventually gave way to the sapphire Mediterranean. On the terrace, draped in fuchsia garlands of bougainvillea, I would read in silence, interrupted only by the chiming of the church bells from Santa Maria del Mar, a medieval basilica three blocks away. Once, I lingered in bed after a late siesta and watched the afternoon fade into twilight through my bedroom window. Framed by the square windowpane, the rooftop chimneys set against the violet sky looked nearly identical to one of the blue-period cityscapes that hung in the Museu Picasso a few blocks distant.
My apartment became a favorite meeting place for my nascent group of Barcelona friends. One weekend, after discovering a Russian market in the Raval, I stocked up on caviar and blini and hosted an alfresco Slavic brunch. Countless magical nights were spent talking and drinking Rioja under the terrace’s twinkly lights until the sky began to lighten before dawn.
Soon, however, life in the attic apartment grew less enchanting. Shortly after I moved in, the internet stopped working. On the landline phone, I discovered a message from the cable company, explaining that the bill hadn’t been paid. In a flurry of texts, Jorge claimed it was all a misunderstanding.
“I didn’t want to say anything to you about it, but I’ve been in the hospital,” he typed. He said that he suffered from early-onset Parkinson’s disease, though he showed no obvious symptoms. I offered my condolences, and we agreed that I would pay the bill myself from now on.
In early March, there was a knock on the door. Well, less of a knock, more of a pounding.
“Allloooooo?” a male voice yelled. I opened the door and saw a tall, exasperated looking man on the landing, gasping for air after climbing the 100-odd stairs leading up to my flat.
“Ooooo are you?!” the man asked, eyes wide. “Ooooere is Jorge?!”
I could tell from his accent that this was Remy, and from his demeanor that Jorge had not, in fact, gotten his permission to sublet the apartment. Jorge had apparently been pocketing the rent money I had been depositing into his bank account each month instead of passing it along to his landlord, who had now arrived on my doorstep to collect.
To prove I was legit, I showed Remy the agreement I had so gleefully signed with Jorge just three months before, but it only infuriated him more. He took a pen to the paper and scrawled “CONTRATO ILEGAL!!!” on it in all caps, clucking his tongue and muttering “Ololololololo.” I figured this must be French for … something angry.
We spent the next several hours sitting on the terrace, trying and failing to reach Jorge for an explanation. Finally we decided to draft a new rental contract between the two of us, to ensure Remy would get his rent checks and I would keep a roof over my head.
But there was still the matter of my thousand-euro security deposit, which I’d paid Jorge unthinkingly upon moving in. Now I had absolutely no idea where to find him: he’d left no forwarding address, and he refused to answer texts or calls. The only leverage I had to get the money back were the few valuables he’d left in the apartment: an inexpensive painting, a broken futon, and a nice set of vintage glass dishes. It wasn’t worth anywhere near 1,000 euros, but I knew the dishes had sentimental value for him, having been a wedding gift. Worse, he still had keys to the apartment. I started to get scared.
I texted Jorge that our contract was terminated and that he must return my deposit ASAP.
“Today I got the worst news of my life,” he responded. “I just got back from the doctor and he told me that I have HIV.”
He promised to come over the next day to resolve the issue, but he never showed. Two days later I got a threatening message:
“Tomorrow at 2 p.m. I’m going back to MY apartment,” it read. “I want you to move all your things out and return my keys, ok? The contract is canceled just as you asked.”
My pulse quickened with anxiety at the thought of him appearing at my door, enraged and possibly violent. I’d already changed the locks, but it didn’t matter because he didn’t show up anyway.
Over the next several weeks, the tone of our texts oscillated between friendly and adversarial as I tried to balance compassion for his string of bad luck (in addition to the illnesses, he also claimed his father had died) with fury over the increasingly desperate feeling that I would never see that money again. One day he would promise to return my deposit, the next he would spew threats and vulgarities, calling off the deal and accusing me of holding his furniture hostage. And though I was loath to admit it, inside I began to doubt whether any of his story was true: the Parkinson’s, the HIV, his father’s death. What kind of a person would lie about such things? But if it was true, what kind of a person was I for doubting him?
Eventually Jorge stopped responding altogether and virtually disappeared. Holding out hope that we might still one day be able to make a deal, I moved out of the apartment at the end of the six months, taking the dish set with me to store at a friend’s place, where I would stay for my last two weeks in Barcelona. I turned the keys in to Remy and said a final goodbye to my sweet little apartment in the sky, its dreamy legacy now forever tainted. A new couple moved in the next day.
A FIN DE CUENTAS
In July, just before I left Spain for good, I was walking down Portal de l’Angel, a glitzy shopping street lined with department stores and upscale boutiques, when I spotted a familiar figure exiting H&M. It was Jorge, sharply dressed, looking well and carrying shopping bags. It was the first time I’d seen him in months, but he hadn’t seen me. I followed him surreptitiously for several blocks, my heart pounding, not knowing what I would say or do when I caught up to him. But then, suddenly, he was gone, lost in the crowds of the Barri Gotic. I never saw him again.
For a long time afterward, I was livid—not just about the money, but about being made a fool by someone I thought I might call a friend. I even filed a police report, but the authorities dismissed the case as a contract dispute rather than theft. Pursuing it further would’ve cost many thousands more euros than the one I had already lost. I was left to accept that there was nothing more to be done. The Jorge affair was over.
Then, months later, came the LinkedIn invitation, as if the universe was sending me an ironic, morbidly hilarious missive whose meaning wasn’t immediately clear. (Except, of course, as proof of just how off-the-mark the LinkedIn spam machine can be: was there anyone in Jorge’s address book less likely than me to endorse this man’s character?) Of all the professional networking sites in all the world, he had to clumsily mouse-click into mine.
The other day I opened the email again, and for the first time I clicked “View Profile.” There was Jorge’s face, close up, just as I remembered it: the boyish chipmunk teeth and the slightly sleepy left eye, set against the abstract blue of the Mediterranean in the background. He’d graduated from a university in Venezuela with a degree in graphic design and PR, then worked in museums and design studios in Spain for a few years. “Currently: Unemployed,” the profile read. “January 2013 – Present (3 years 3 months).”
I may never know if Jorge was a con artist whose lies will one day bring the world’s worst karma down upon him or merely a well-meaning guy whose path crossed mine just as he fell upon extraordinarily hard times at the height of Spain’s economic crisis. A fin de cuentas, in the final accounting, I lost my thousand euros, but he lost one of the most magical apartments in all of Barcelona, and perhaps a great deal more. The invitation from LinkedIn was, I now believe, a kind of cosmic invitation for me to remember Jorge not with malice and rancor, but with charity and grace. That apartment defined my Barcelona experience: the late nights sipping wine on the terrace, the peaceful mornings waking up to views that seemed cut from a Picasso canvas and pasted into my impossibly idyllic reality. None of it would’ve happened as it did if it weren’t for Jorge.
The vintage dish set remains in storage at a friend’s apartment in Barcelona, though several people have advised me to sell it. It’d fetch a tidy sum on eBay, they reason, and I could recoup some of my losses. But I can’t find the motivation. The dishes are my last vestige of hope that a real human connection existed between me and Jorge, underneath the deception. I want to believe that one day, I’ll be able to give them back.
Maya Kroth ’01 is working on a book about the history of the siesta, based on her Fulbright research in Barcelona. She is a freelance writer and napping evangelist.