A Guide to Madrid

In The Art of Travel Spring 2015, Madrid, Tips by Susan Lee

I may not be an expert on Spain but I’ve built a library of knowledge on how to survive in Madrid for 9 months. It has been a wonderful experience abroad and it would be a crime for me to not pass on the wisdom I collected. With that being said, I present to you a guide on surviving in Madrid.

1. If you don’t got the “th”, you don’t got it.
I am guilty of this. If you received spanish language education in the United States, most likely, you speak with a Latin American accent. This means you pronounce all of your c’s and z’s normally. Upon entering Spain, immediately you are confronted with a much more breath-y spanish, one where most words ending in -s or consisting c’s and z’s are either dropped or pronounced as if they were a “th” sound. Do not attempt to acquire the spanish lisp. It’s embarrassing for you and difficult for the spaniard to hear it. There’s a trick to which c’s and z’s are pronounced like “th” (only start “th” sounds on c’s and z’s on the second syllable!) and which s’s get dropped (only drop the last s of a word if the following word starts with a consonant—even then, use sparingly!). To think about which letters to lisp in the midst of formulating a spanish sentence is hard enough. Just speak the way you learned and I promise, communicating will be much easier.

2. Reset the body and mental clock
A common saying here is: while others live to work, the Spaniards work to live. That means that the time schedule throughout the day in Spain is unlike any other schedule in the world and it requires an adjusting of the body and the mind. Slowly but surely, you’ll learn. The day really doesn’t start until about 9 or 10 am—and that’s early! Breakfast is minimal, perhaps a coffee and a pastry. Lunch doesn’t begin until noonish to 2 pm. 2-5 pm is typically “siesta” time. No, the entire nation does not pull out their blankies and nap, but they do take their siestas seriously. Most Mom-and-Pop stores, ferreterías, businesses and restaurants will close around this time (banks just close entirely at siesta and don’t reopen), so be prepared to adjust to having a service-void for 3 hours. Nightlife is intense. Dinner doesn’t begin until 9 pm and the drinking commences from 9 pm until about 6 am. Don’t stand in line at the club until at least 1 am and don’t expect to get home before 6:30 am because the subways close at 1:30 am and don’t reopen until 6 am. The weekends start on Thursdays here, by the way. Sleep? Sleep is for the weak.

3. Lo siento, gracias. Lo siento, gracias. Lo siento, gracias.
The Madrileños get a kick out of how much Americans say “lo siento” and “gracias”. Here, you don’t say I’m sorry unless you really committed a bad deed. You also don’t say thank you at the end of every act of service as we do back in the States. So the phrase, “I’m sorry, thank you” that we use so frequently translated here incorrectly as “lo siento, gracias” is over the top to the Spaniard you are communicating with. A better phrase to use when you slightly inconvenience someone is “Ooy! Perdón” and if someone does an act of kindness for you (if it doesn’t necessitate a gracias), respond with “muy amable” and it will be sufficient.

4. Beware the los Niños Gitanos!
Now, don’t get me wrong, the word “gitanos” does not have the same connotation as “gypsy” (which is a slur and not appropriate) and I am aware that homelessness and poverty is a real issue—but beware. There is a band of children in the bigger plazas or streets who enter restaurants, cover the table with a menu from another restaurant or store asking for a moneda or anything to help, and then a split second later, you realize your phone or wallet is missing. The moral of the story? Never leave your phones or wallets out on tables. Always be aware of your surroundings and account for all of your belongings. I think more than pickpocketing, this is how most students and tourists get robbed.

5. Be a tourist
Finally, the last piece of advice I have is this: be a tourist. In study abroad, we are so quick to find a niche and assimilate that we forget that we are allowed to be embarrassing tourists because, well, when will you ever be able to pull out your selfie stick and take a selfie with Carlos V in the middle of Plaza de Sol ever again? Don’t worry about being self conscious, trust me, the madrileños understand. Enjoy your time, indulge in gluttonous amounts of authentic cuisine, and see everything your heart desires without a second thought. Your post-grad self will thank you for this in the future.

These were my guidelines for my day to day life as I walk through the streets of Madrid attending classes, visiting touristy spots, and going to work. With this, anyone can live in Madrid and sustain life enough to pick up their own observances and offer their own advice. Good luck, and most importantly, have fun!

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  • Once a Tourist, Always a Tourist: Madrid: Susan Lee