February 22, 2024 | Rome, Italy

A Madrid state of mind

By |2019-09-29T21:51:25+02:00September 29th, 2019|"American Girl"|
Madrid's Plaza del Sol: Occasionally, where you stay can change your life.

ate this summer I visited Madrid, staying in a small boutique hotel in the historic city center. Though tiny, the hotel was well appointed and designed in a simple and functional way. Spaces that might otherwise have been cramped felt uncannily comfortable, if not otherworldly, and I couldn’t place just why.

The hotel had no big windows overlooking a grand square or even plush furnishings. What it did have, like words from a fairy tale, was “just enough and nothing more.” It felt to me like a sanctuary and I relished crawling into bed each night.

The Madrid experience had such a deep effect that I decided to emulate the mood at home. But what could having “just enough” mean when applied to my New York City apartment? The wants and needs of a lodger on a vacation don’t have much in common with household expectations.

Still, I remained determined to recreate a sense of my Madrid settings, or at least try.

When I got home, I immediately checked how I felt walking into the apartment. It was definitely home, but it didn’t feel like a sanctuary. The question was why? First off, I needed to simplify, that much was clear. So I opened every cupboard and closet and asked myself a simple question: What would I own if I kept just enough?

Gazing at my clothes and books, my knickknacks and music CD’s, I sensed that my belongings defined me. These many little things made me who I was. Put another way, who was I without them?

If I settled for just enough, which would mean trimming down, would I feel empty inside and miss parts of myself?

What my hotel room had, like words from a fairy tale, was “just enough and nothing more.” It felt to me like a sanctuary.

Rationally, I knew little of this made much sense, but sense and sentimentality are not the same. Vase and unread book aside, could it really be that I was just an entity?

Some items I came across reflected deep personal history, such as the books of poetry from my first New York City writing class. Other bits recalled old aspirations — the unused vases I’d intended for the fresh cut flowers I’d get daily.

Then again, my Madrid hotel room had contained none of this. There had been no personal history and no sentimental possessions, just me, some luggage, and a well-designed room. Yet I’d felt no loss of identity.

Maybe, I thought to myself, the time had come to reevaluate my relationship with my possessions.

In my Brooklyn neighborhood, on the sidewalk near my building, is a “give-and-take” table, protected from the rain and adorned with Tibetan prayer decorations. It’s a place where you can leave stray belongings you wish to give away. Anyone walking by can take anything they see. No money changes hands.

It was an invitation to gather a few of my things and drop them off. Into my “drop bag” went a ceramic vase, a dish from my sister, and a candlestick holder from a friend. In went unused perfume and empty photo frames. The bag was soon overflowing — after I’d gotten started, it hadn’t been that hard. I was ready to let go.

I walked down the block and emptied the contents of my bag on the table. I laid each item out carefully and bid each one farewell. I took a deep breath and slowly walked away. I felt lighter and free.

As I looked back, I saw a group of women examining what I’d left behind. They smiled and slipped many of the items into their own bags. I was overjoyed to know my things were finding a home.

A little later, I wondered about my sentimental feelings that had made all I’d done that much harder, but also feelings that had vanished the instant I laid the items on the table. The book that had meant something became just an old book, same with the vase and dish.

It turns out I wasn’t as tied to my possessions as I’d thought.

My little boutique hotel in Madrid had inspired me. Now, thanks to its comforting and reassuring simplicity, I had just enough.

About the Author:

Madeline Klosterman wrote the "American Girl" column from 2008 through 2019.