As things wrap up this semester, I suppose we’re all doing a lot of reflection and thinking especially hard about what studying abroad has meant to us and what it will mean going forward. I certainly am. When I go home in about a week, it won’t only be the end of a semester in Spain. It will be the end of a year of travelling, studying, fun and most of all learning. I’ve learned so much about the world and about myself—as horribly cheesy as that sounds—and I have no idea what that will do to my life back home. I hardly remember what life back home feels like, but I am so ready to rediscover it all with this year under my belt.
Before leaving, I often received a recurring set of compliments about my decision to study abroad for an entire year. Most common among these were ‘Wow, we’re so proud of you!’ and also ‘You’re going to do such impressive things.’ Frankly, the first remark was undeserved and certainly misplaced. Studying abroad is a very special opportunity and I’ve counted my blessings every day that it was a viable option for me. There are people close to me for whom it has not been, so I know how lucky I am. But it is not an achievement in the least. I simply took advantage of an opportunity that was right in front of me. Furthermore, while the experience has changed me in a thousand and one ways (and probably more that are as-yet-unknown), it has been the most selfish experience of my life. I think being selfish is a very necessary way to know oneself, so I don’t regret that, but everything about almost every day has been for me. Every choice and every experience. I hope that I can do great things with what I’ve taken from this, but this time has been for growing internally and I hope that none of my support system is satisfied with my stopping there.
I make these points to hopefully show how important I think studying abroad is and to show that, at the same time, I think glorifying it in certain ways is dangerous. One does not ‘know the world’ after this experience, but one certainly knows it more than they did before leaving. To say that this year has been one of the most important of my life is absolutely fair. To be proud of me for taking advantage of an opportunity that I would have been dumb not to take makes the experience more lofty than it ought to be. I am so proud of myself for living such an extended period of time out of my comfort zone, but I am going to try to convince my loved ones and acquaintances at home that there is much, much more for me to accomplish and that beginning to discover the world is, well, just the beginning.
I am so excited for the next step, whatever that is. I am also so excited to be back in my comfort zone while attempting to fit my new worldview into it—that in itself will be an adventure. Knowing and understanding that new worldview has been tough, and the adventure is going to continue being tough, but it’s been made a much more conscious experience because I’ve documented it in writing through this blog… something for which I think my thankfulness will only grow as I revisit it with passing time. Thanks for reading along with me and offering up your comments over the past few months.
The Spanish never say anything for goodbye other than ‘Hasta luego’ (‘See you later’), even when they don’t know the next time they’ll see someone, and I feel like the same sentiment applies here. Where life will take me I have no idea at the moment, but for now I’ll end with an hasta luego to this blog, the people both virtual and physical that I’ve met on this journey, and Spain itself. It’s been a blast, but I am so ready for a New York City Christmas…
Madrid is a tough nut to crack. I’m not sure how clear it’s been over the course of this semester’s blog posts, but Madrid is not my favorite place in the world. A friend recently described this place as somewhere that she enjoys ‘point A’ and/or ‘point B’, but rarely the journey between them. I feel the same. New York and London explode with inspiration, Madrid must be cracked. But it can be done, with a little motivation and (I hope) these six tips.
1. Get the language essentials down early: Regardless of your Spanish ability, you can survive in Madrid fairly easily. Never fear. But there are things that you’re going to have to deal with pretty quickly and I have it straight from my less experienced friends that menus are the most important. Do some research online, talk to friends who speak Spanish, whatever you want… but know different kinds of meat, know vegetables, and know what some typical Spanish dishes are. It’s an easy enough thing to do, and hey, if you want you can make your ‘research’ delicious by going out for Spanish food in the U.S.
2. Buy an Abono Joven: More than anything, you’ve got to get out of the house if you’re going to discover all there is to love about Madrid. The Abono Joven, a monthly metro/train/bus pass, costs only €20 for under-26s so there’s really no excuse for ‘not being able’ to explore the city. The thing is, there’s conflicting information about how to get your metro pass and many people have never gotten one because of the perceived difficulty in getting it. It will take waking up early. You have to go to one of the less busy station offices, Avenida de América or Nuevos Ministerios, as soon as they open (at about 7.30am) with your passport in order to apply. They should give you the pass then and there. It’s worth it, I promise.
3. Think carefully about where you live: Please, for the love of all that is good in this world, make the right choice about your living situation. Given the chance, I would absolutely choose differently. I happen to think that if your main motivation for living in a homestay is language acquisition, you’d be better off choosing an apartment, as you can’t guarantee how much time it will feel natural to spend with your host family. If you want someone to cook for you, a homestay might be right. In any event, plenty of people enjoy both options, and if you want to hear about a good homestay experience, ask my friend Varshini. Seriously, she’d love to tell you about her experience.
4. Get away from the familiar: When we arrived in Madrid, the majority of my new friends wanted to hang out in Sol, the touristic center of the city. Then, they expanded a bit to the cool, hipster and very ‘New York’ neighborhoods of Malasaña and Chueca, which are both great. But they also feel like home. I only realized that I could expand my sights even further—to La Latina, Lavapíes and Chamberí—a couple weeks ago, and these neighborhoods have really started to make me see that Madrid does indeed have some character. These areas with more locals than foreigners are farther from the geographical center of the city, but worth it. There’s nothing wrong with the hip familiarity of Malasaña, to be clear. But get out of your comfort zone and you’ll enjoy Madrid much more.
5. Don’t load up on academic responsibility: This piece of advice could really go for any study abroad experience, but I think it’s worth mentioning. The general consensus about the course load in Madrid is that it’s actually quite easy, but still, taking 18 credits might feel fulfilling on paper… but is it really going to allow you time to take advantage of the city? Likely not. If it’s at all possible, take 12 or 14 credits. Give yourself whole days free, which will end up being perfect for day trips or, sometimes, working on midterm essays (as sucky as that sounds). Trust me, you’ll thank yourself for it later. This time is as much about self-discovery and having fun as it is about academic achievement.
6. Stay in Spain: Another tip that goes for any kind of studying abroad. Absolutely take advantage of the ease of international travel while you’re here, because it’s an amazing opportunity. But also, reserve some weekends for other parts of Spain because it’s an amazingly beautiful and varied country and you don’t want to miss the chance to really get to know one country well. It feels good and you’ll appreciate it farther down the line.
Overall, Madrid is a place you will either love or hate. Talking with my friends here at NYU Madrid as I write this, many of them are expressing staunch disagreement with my feelings about this city. And the things they love about it are all quite valid. It’s simply not for me, but maybe it will be for you. Finding out is part of the adventure! Have fun!
When I left San Francisco on a flight to London exactly ten months ago—to the day—I thought I knew what to expect. I thought I was ready to shed my Americanness and become the European I had always wanted to be. I thought I would dread returning to the United States for the year and a half it’s going to take to finish my degree, much less the lifetime I have left to spend there. Sometimes, nearly a year later, I still feel these things. But sometimes I get excited to return, and I think about how traveling for such a long time has given me a newfound appreciation for the familiarity of home.
The interesting thing is that for the first seven months or so, I didn’t slow down or look back once. Living in London was a dream come true and it surpassed New York as my favorite city on Earth. I didn’t want to leave. Then I spent the summer traveling which, although exhausting, was exciting and, though solitary, freeing. It was only after coming to Madrid in September that my own ideas about myself and my desires were challenged.
If I had to pinpoint one moment where I realized it was time to go home, it was probably the day I realized that breakfast in Spain is the same anywhere you go. I remember vividly the moment of frustration as I attempted to go out to breakfast one morning. At home each morning, breakfast a piece of toast with olive oil. Not butter. Olive oil. Most people don’t even keep butter in the house because it’s only purchased specially for baking. No jam, no eggs, no meat for sure. And NYU’s homestay rules prohibit using the kitchen to prepare your own food. Fed up after about three weeks here (yes, we’re still talking about September) I got up early one Saturday to search for breakfast. Turns out, every restaurant that’s open early enough for breakfast has about three breakfast options: a croissant, a cinnamon role or… you guessed it. Toast with olive oil. Literally, the only food you are able to eat before 2.00pm in this country is carbs. And after three weeks, that simply did not work for me.
Now, until this critical moment, I was quite proud of my adaptability. I’d been to over a dozen countries already this year at that point and I had never really been frustrated by unfamiliarity. But time began to take its tole, and as I realized that I was locked into opposite-of-nourishing and frankly tasteless breakfasts for another three months, I was concerned. And I really did start to question who I am as a traveler, and more so, a potential expat.
I’m still quite adaptable, I think. I still dream of working and living abroad for a chunk of my life. But I think what I’m taking from this experience living in Spain (which has a culture that is similar enough to ours while still being quite distinct) is that although study abroad affords a chance to immerse yourself in a new culture, immersion can be overrated. On one hand, I think it’s important to experience to some degree at some point, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that—try as I might—I will likely never feel Spanish. I know I’ll never enjoy their breakfasts and I know I’ll never have their political and cultural biases. And being an outsider is okay. It can be uncomfortable at times, but it’s often more comfortable to allow yourself to be different from your surroundings than forcing yourself to fit into every norm of a different culture. All I can say is, if I ever live in Spain again, I’ll be renting my own apartment and making pancakes every Saturday morning.
Travelling has almost always gone smoothly for me. More than smoothly, in fact. I’ve been away from home for nearly 11 months now, and rarely has anything not gone as planned, or even as scheduled. That being said… everyone has some travel horror story and I certainly have mine. I won’t lie, this one time was stressful and really upsetting at the time, but in retrospect it actually taught me a lot about keeping an even temperament on the road and has definitely helped in the long run to make the rest of my travel more relaxing and because of that, much more fun.
A few months ago, my best friend and I were going to Amsterdam for a long weekend and flying Ryanair, as you do. The thing is, though, Ryanair does not fly to Amsterdam proper—that would just be too simple—so we had to fly to a small city about two hours from Amsterdam by train called Eindhoven. Alright, easy enough. And in fact, I’d done it once before, so I couldn’t imagine anything not going smoothly. The flight cost about €40 return and we decided to go for it. Only catch? Monday night we needed to be back at school for a lecture at 7.00pm. That’s fine, we thought! We’ll certainly make it.
Arriving on Friday morning, everything went as smoothly as I remembered getting into Amsterdam. We had a wonderful weekend full of canals and pancakes and on our final morning, Monday, we woke up and decided it was only right to treat ourselves to another banana-bacon-chili pancake because, well… duh. Our flight didn’t leave Eindhoven until 3.10pm and there was a train leaving for Eindhoven at 11.30am. We enjoyed our breakfast, which included a memorably wonderful conversation, and were walking on air on our way to the train station. It had been a great weekend.
Now a quick minute-by-minute rundown for you, so you can see how things went very wrong, very fast:
11.05: We buy train tickets to Eindhoven at the station. We begin looking for our train.
11.10: Still haven’t found the train, so we approach the information desk. The man says “Oh… Eindhoven. Well, you see, the 11.30 train was just cancelled a moment ago. There are no more to Eindhoven today. Get on that train there, leaving in one minute, and change in Rotterdam to the train to Eindhoven. Have a good day!” We run to the train and get on as the doors are closing.
11.30: Now solidly on the train (which by some stroke of luck has wifi), we discover that there is literally no possible combination of trains that can get us to Eindhoven before 2.07. Eindhoven Airport is a 15 minute drive from the station.
12.45: Finally on the train from Rotterdam to Eindhoven, I start freaking out. We are not going to make our flight. There’s no way. I start to obsessively talk about to maybe get to the airport faster. Ridiculous, stress-induced options include calling the airline and begging them to wait. Olivia, my friend, is visibly over my emotions.
2.11: We specifically choose a taxi that has the little Mastercard/Visa sticker in the window, knowing we have hardly any cash. We might make this, I’m feeling good.
2.33: We arrive at the airport. Cab fee: €22. We have €10 and £5 between us. Driver insists that one of us runs into the terminal to try to get cash even though, in his words, “sometimes the ATM just doesn’t work.” It doesn’t. I come sprinting back out, basically hyperventilating.
2.37: We beg him to take our card. He makes a deal, taking €10 and £5 in addition to charging €10 to my card. We hate this man.
2.40: We beg random Ryanair employee (who certainly does not have authorization) to sign our boarding passes. She also calls the gate for us. I have a bit of hope.
2.47: We beg the 100+ people in the security line to let us cut to the front, announcing our situation loudly. They graciously do.
2.53: Man in front of me is caught with a pocket knife. We wait.
2.55: We finally get through security. Time to run. Olivia drops her scarf. Oops. Bye, scarf.
2.56: We arrive at the gate: “Sorry, they waited for you as long as they could but they closed the doors one minute ago.” I think I might cry.
3.00: We retrieve Olivia’s sacrificed scarf, walking back though the terminal dejectedly. We book another flight home out of Rotterdam airport. Yes, that is all the way back across the country. And we get right back on a train…
7.30: We’re on a plane home. We’ve missed our lecture. Oh, well.
Until this day, I had never missed a flight in my life. I didn’t understand how one could miss a flight. And I was angry and upset at the world when the situation (as I hope you can see) was completely out of our control. It was a day of ups and downs, hopefulness followed by crippling stress, and yes, we lost €110 each on new plane tickets. It was upsetting, but we got home. It was frustrating, but I laugh now at how comical traversing the entirety of the Netherlands in one day really was. And I learned to go with the flow. I learned that missing a flight is not the end of the world, and it’s more fun to enjoy the disaster than to let it get you down.
When it came to choosing my living situation in Madrid, months before actually arriving, I gave no thought to my choice. I’m going to Spain to work on my Spanish, I thought, so obviously I’m going to choose a homestay. The possibility of living in an apartment never even crossed my mind. I also made the assumption that the majority of the people in the program would have the same reasoning. Great, even more reason to do it. To be perfectly honest though, I wish I’d have given things a bit more thought.
I have to be upfront and say that, in many ways, living in a homestay is a dream come true. In addition to (usually) delicious home cooked meals every single night, all my laundry and cleaning are done for me, and I get the occasional pleasant surprise of dessert for breakfast after someone’s birthday or even an invitation to a family Saturday lunch-feast… can you tell how my focus is literally on food 80% of the time? Aside from this though, one of the biggest benefits of a homestay is the great insight about how to see as much of this country and city as possible in the best way. ‘Don’t bother going to Murcia’, they told me. ‘It’s not worth it’. But on the other hand, ‘When you go to the Basque Country, you must see the Painted Oma Forest’. It’s like a personalized travel guide, complete with personal photos for proof.
What did I not expect about the realities of living in another family’s home? For one, the complete and utter lack of privacy. The walls of Spanish apartments are known for being paper thin, which is absolutely the root of my problem, not to mention the fact that my door doesn’t close and the window of my room looks onto the common balcony, meant for the use of the entire family. It’s not like I need a whole lot of privacy, and it’s not like my host family understands English, but it still feels weird to talk on the phone when I know they can hear every word. On top of this, my bedroom door has a semi-opaque window in it and let me tell you that—like clockwork—every morning at 5:30am my host father goes into the kitchen (right next to my room) while he’s getting ready for work and the bright, white fluorescent light pulls me violently out of sleep.
Isolation is also a very real issue. Because I had assumed that most of the program would be doing this, I also assumed my homestay would have other students as well. I had no indication that things would be otherwise. However, due to my already high level of Spanish, I was placed alone. To be clear, there are other homestays where students either share a room or where there are various bedrooms rented to students, but mine is not one of them. Though now I have plenty of friends, at the beginning the solitude of being alone with a family I didn’t know certainly made my transition to Spanish life harder.
The aim of this post is absolutely not to complain about my situation, which is mostly great, nor is it to discourage future study abroad students from this option. In fact, it’s a great one and perfect for those who already know Spanish but just need to practice. And I think I can now stick ‘EXTREMELY ADAPTABLE’ prominently on my resume. But given the choice again, I probably would choose an apartment. Most other people in my program have. Basically, at this point it feels like I’ve moved back in with my parents (sorry, Mom and Dad) and that’s just something that frustrates me to no end after nearly a year of living abroad all by my lonesome. Alas, only a month to go before I’m back in New York living in my very own apartment!
As I’ve said plenty of times before on this blog, Spain is a country built on contradiction. Almost nothing is what you would expect—sometimes charmingly so, and sometimes in the most frustrating of ways. And sometimes the unexpected is simply important to observe. Eye-opening even. I displace the air as I walk, a blunt yet thoughtful book of poetry by Marjorie Kanter about traveling and living in Spain, Morocco and the U.S. over several decades, makes some of these valuable observations with a sensitivity and humor that allow her readers having similar experiences (i.e. me!) to appreciate this country in a new way.
The brevity of Kanter’s writing forces her observations to be of no more than fleeting snippets from life. Most poems are only several lines long, taking up maybe half of a page. In this way, she doesn’t make the reader think too her about the implications that any one poem might have in defining ‘Spanish-ness’, which is good because no singular poem could.
Holding Her Up
This woman calls me on the phone.
She talks and talks and talks and talks.
Then all of a sudden I say two words, maybe three.
She nervously says, “I’ve got to go.”
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, and this poem validates you. Maybe you haven’t, and you’re free to move on. But that occasional validation is key because it says to us: ‘Yes. This weird occurrence just might be a facet of the ever-elusive ‘Spanish-ness’. Run with it and see for yourself!’ One example of the many times Kanter gave me this experience while reading her work is the piece ‘Holding Her Up’. After reading it, I thought of the many times I’ve had a similar experience, and I decided that yes, Spaniards certainly do like to hear themselves talk. And then I moved on, not making many further judgments, an approach that I think jives with Kanter’s own.
Peppered sparingly (and skillfully) throughout Kanter’s work are pieces which acknowledge and validate what might be the truer pieces of the stereotypes held by us anglosajones—a term used by the Spanish to refer to all English-speakers. In many ways, Kanter seems to be saying, Spain is actually just as delightful in its oddities as we’ve been led to believe. In ‘Napkin’, the subject asks repeatedly throughout his meal for a napkin that never arrives. In ‘Closed for biz’, the final piece of the compilation, an open shop refuses to sell an item because siesta time is approaching. Kanter throws these musings in just as we begin to reorient our ideas of what Spain might be, though she never appears to be too exasperated by the stereotype’s trueness… instead she’s simply amused.
I (over)heard her mother say,
“I won’t love you anymore
if you (keep) doing that!”
Being an American expat in Spain, Kanter makes some incredibly interesting observations which compare the two cultures and which speak to the unique culture of actually being an expat. One of the most poignant couplings of poems in Kanter’s work is ‘The Lesson’, written in Boston, and ‘Coffee break’, written in Madrid. Children playing is a subject with just enough insignificance for the connection between Kanter’s Boston and Madrid experiences to be easily missed, but much can be said if the reader does catch it. And it’s not just the obviously differing attitudes of the poems’ authority figures that contrast here. It’s the less narrative, more broken style with which Kanter writes in America compared to the lyrical description of ‘Coffee break’. It’s the closure that we get from the second poem with the child’s response instead of the abrupt and upsetting ending of ‘The Lesson’.
A child is playing.
She’s holding a bucket and shovel,
and a little red plastic cup
in her hands.
She’s busy filling the cup with sand.
I hear her grandmother say to another woman,
“Me está poniendo morada de café,”
and then she turns to the child (halfway)
and says, “I don’t want more coffee.”
(Not looking up)
the child says, “(Claro) no more for you,
porque ya no te quiero preparar más.”
The physical structure of Kanter’s poems and indeed the compilation as a whole tell perhaps the most about her experiences at home and abroad. Kanter’s poetry from Boston feels more American just by its rhythm. And I have to say I prefer the style of her poems from Spain more. And I think she must as well. In fact, the section about Boston is titled ‘The Expat’, while the one about Madrid is called ‘The Resident’. Neither term connotes nativeness, but the latter certainly implies more a more comfortable experience. In fact, it would seem there’s nothing she can do about this really, except to write and observe, and to enjoy going back and forth across cultures, which I think is a feeling I’m coming to identify with pretty well myself.
You already know about my love for the most wonderful of Spanish traditions, the menú del día, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Less than €10 and you get more food than you can finish plus a glass of wine and a coffee to top things off. I partake almost daily, and my favorite place to indulge is Solo de Uva (also making it’s second appearance on my blog this week)… it’s just near campus, has the most home-y atmosphere, and cannot be beat.
The trick to eating in Madrid is scouting out restaurants with a discerning eye. There’s a sharp distinction between your average taberna, serving all of Spain’s typical food, and something a little more special. The details are obvious if you know what to look for: more run-of-the-mill places have metal card tables on the outdoor seating terrace, Solo de Uva opted for wooden tables reminiscent of a picnic. Your average restaurant in this country serves water in glasses that are smudged and dusty, Solo de Uva (because it’s ‘Just Grapes’) is much more about the sparkling wine glass. The fun thing is that the good is always mixed in with the mediocre. There’s no spot where every restaurant is solid. So the only way to make your tongue and stomach happy at once is to go on an adventure.
The day I found Solo de Uva, I knew it was going to be my lunch spot. It just feels warm and cozy. From the checkered tablecloths to the racks of hanging pans, the dining room is like a rustic kitchen. And the food. Wow. They have this hamburger on the menu, which I’ve seen from the table next to me on multiple occasions, but which I’ve never tried because you see… the thing is… they have these specials. Every day. And every day I end up going with that. And being so satisfied. (My theory is always go with the special—the chef is excited about it, and he’s going to put his all into it—it’s never failed me yet). And for dessert, the chocolate fondant with candied orange. That with a nice café con leche always sets me up for a good second half of the day.
Obviously, I like this place. I love it. But what makes it the kind of place that I can hang out for hours, having glass after glass of wine, is the amazing staff. The regular lunch waiter knows me and my preferred wine selection now. He’s always excited to see us, los americanos, and though he knows basically no English he insists on a few very amusingly placed ‘Here you go’s and ‘Anything else?’s. He asks about my life and I ask about his. Every time I leave, it’s to the sound of a hopeful ‘See you soon?’
It’s hard to say what about Solo de Uva makes me most happy. I want to say it’s the food, which I’ve literally had dreams about, but that’s not why I keep going back. I keep going back because the ‘relationship’ I’ve built with the waiter (which, to be honest, he probably has with plenty of his customers) makes me feel like in some way, I’ve really become a local of Madrid. Someone recognizes my face, and that’s cool. Now, I just need to learn his name and we’ll basically be best friends!
I think we’re all fairly well acquainted with the stereotype that European men typically dress better than their American counterparts. From clothes that actually fit properly to more effort than just a t-shirt and jeans (unless the look is intentional), the men of this continent have their style figured out. I’ve been making this observation to different degrees as I’ve made my way around Europe for the past nine months, but Madrid in particular is home to quite the curious trend in men’s footwear, which is worth a little bit of exploration.
Spanish culture is at once restrained and casual. People walk around calling ever their superiors tú (the informal Spanish ‘you’) and taking as long as they want to do whatever they want, and at the same time there are certain things that are just. not. done. Try to order a milkshake with your meal at Spanish-owned, American-themed restaurant and you’re bound to get some weird looks… I’ve tried. Try to skip out on dinner two nights in a row and you get some passive aggressive comments… I’ve done it.
And this weird dichotomy is echoed in the shoe department too: on one hand, one of the most popular sneaker brands in the country is El Ganso, which sells what appear to be replicas of what I’m pretty sure my uncle wore to his third grade class in the 70s. On the other, you’ve got plenty of lifeless, personality-less, clunky black dress shoes as well. Stare at the ground during a morning metro commute and the most boring and conservative is starkly juxtaposed with the most carefree and expressive. But what really makes a statement about the coexistence of relaxation and seriousness is the overwhelming popularity of one shoe in particular: the driving loafer. Yes, you read correctly, the driving loafer.
No single article of clothing better embodies the wealth of contradictions that is Spanish—and in particular, madrileño—culture better than the driving loafer. Coming in the widest variety of colors possible, from natural suede to teal, black to blood red, and sometimes involving accent colors, the driving shoe can be whatever its wearer wants it to be. Want to wear it with jeans and a t-shirt? You’ve got a slightly more elevated version of the everyday American. With shorts and a polo shirt? Perfect for Saturday lunch, the biggest of deals here in Spain. And with slacks and a tie? It can even be worked into smart work attire. We’re talking about versatility here, and more than that, about pushing limits.
The driving loafer is always on the edge of what’s appropriate. Perhaps a little too dressy for hanging out with friends and perhaps a little too casual for a business meeting. But the Spaniards make it work. From an outsider’s perspective, they themselves are always a little too formal for going out with friends, always giving a polite double cheek-kiss greeting, and always a little too informal for work, also giving a polite double cheek-kiss greeting. If anything, at least they’re consistent.
So, the million dollar question, could I pull them off? Trust me, guys, I want nothing but to be able to. And I’d be lying if I told you I hadn’t tried any on. But I’m not sure. The Spanish ability to comfortably exist somewhere between casual and formal at all times is so natural for them, and it would certainly be anything but for me. The driving loafer is effortless, and if it’s going to remain cool, it needs to stay effortless. So at least for the time being, I’m going to keep wishing and keep admiring, but maybe I’ll end up back in New York with a pair in my suitcase. Fashion advice welcome below!
Travel is always about discovering. To some extent, everyone who travels anywhere is trying to discover something new—they want a change of scenery or a change of culture or a change of pace. Obviously, however, travel today looks very different from travel fifty years ago and even ten years ago, because our methods and options for discovery change drastically with the ever more portable and accessible nature of technology.
Blogger Shannon Enete has made some interesting observations about the realities of travel in the age of smartphones and apps with her piece 6 Ways the 21st Century has Forever Changed Travel. My favorite facet of travel that she tackles is research. Enete suggests that while travel ‘used to require hours of research’ today the ‘fly by the seat of your pants take on travel… is becoming the norm for more traveler everyday’. To be quite honest, I think that while she’s correct, even her year-old piece is already outdated.
Last week a professor of mine told us an anecdote that was attached to a really interesting observation (he’s a sociologist, so go figure) that supports my view: He’s a madrileño by birth, so he knows Madrid well, and this summer he had a group of German friends coming to visit. He planned to take them to all of his favorite local restaurants, but when they arrived they showed him a picture of a specific dish from a specific restaurant on the other side of the city and said ‘We want to eat this.’ So he obliged, making the observation that technology in 2015 has perhaps pushed us past the point of ‘not needing to research’. It’s no longer the case that we can forego research, and figure things out on the road (as Enete suggests)… today, perhaps, plenty of research is done for us and wrapped up nicely with a bow on top and presented to us via social media.
Often, in the age of Instagram and Facebook we travel not to discover anew, but to recreate experiences we’ve heard that others enjoyed. We mooch happily off of others’ research, because this way we’re almost guaranteed a streamlined, enjoyable experience. My professor’s food example is just one of many. If I only have a few days in a city, you can bet I’m looking at foodie blogs while en route so I know exactly where to go to avoid having disappointing meals—after all, three days in a place means nine meals only, so they all have to count! I have friends who browse Buzzfeed articles titled ’20 Beautiful Landscapes You Must See in Europe’ and make their weekend travel plans based on one highly saturated photo. I’ve done the same. A few weeks ago I went hiking in the mountains surrounding Madrid, and I followed a blogger’s instructions as exactly as a could. The hike didn’t disappoint, that’s for sure.
I could go on, but you get the idea. The paradox here, however, is that while all of these travel methods allow us to see a more authentic, arguably less ‘touristy’ side to a place (instead of hanging out in the main square which will invariably be full of those light up toys you throw in the air and offers for free drinks at nearby bars)—something Enete identifies as a more ‘organic’ way to travel—it’s also very inorganic as well. The app/blog/smartphone experience might allow us to be closer to what a 20-something Spaniard experiences on a day-to-day basis, but it’s not really discovery. Has technology brought us irreversibly past the point of being able to discover on our own or made us completely unable to do the research that would once have been a burden? I certainly hope not.
Spain is a country full of contradictions, variety and opinionated people; its relatively tiny area is well past saturated with all of those things, which can make exploring the country for a visitor—or even a short-term resident—quite the daunting task. How do you get to feel like you ‘know’ Spain, when ‘Spain’ itself is not easy to understand, and even more difficult to define? Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain seems to have at least a possible answer, and it’s less explicit than just the results of the author’s salient and engaging exploration: he lets the country and his discoveries tell him what to investigate next, and this chain-linked curiosity is the best inspiration I’ve found yet for forming my own picture of the country.
Tremlett began his research by simply digging deeper into a concept that puzzled him, the ‘pact of forgetting’ that he says the majority of Spaniards adopted after the horrors and cruelties committed (by both sides) during the Civil War in the 1930s. From there however, he lets his discoveries lead him quite from topic to topic, so that the dictator Francisco Franco’s legacy leads to an analysis of the nation’s tourism industry to Spaniards’ views on sex to the variety of nationalities within Spain (Catalans, Basques and Gallegos) and what their identities mean in the grand scheme of things. ‘Spaniards,’ Tremlett writes in his introduction, ‘make my job simple. They are always ready to talk, to give an opinion… they believe theirs is the most fascinating corner of the world’ (xvi), so it seems that if you just talk to Spaniards, they’ll lead you where you need to go.
Tremlett starts with Franco because, it seems, that’s where his sources always begin. It’s almost impossible to talk about Spain then or Spain now without referencing the four or so decades that he defined. Franco’s influence is everywhere, though his name has been stripped from most everything that once honored him. Tremlett visits the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s burial place, to witness the more visible legacy he has left (both in terms of architecture and still loyal devotees), but he also examines Franco’s final chess moves and the effects they still have today, like the defection of former King Juan Carlos I from Franco protégée to staunch constitutional monarch and the mere existence of the Partido Popular, a political party founded by a former Francoist which is still powerful and whose supporters are still ‘echoing the cry of Franco’s military regime’ and at odds with militant nationalist Basques and Catalans (422-425). Franco is unavoidable, and you must understand his legacy if you’re to understand anything about the Spain you see today.
One of my favorite observations that Tremlett makes in this piece is about an all-too-true contradiction embodied by the Spanish people, that between anarchy and order. Furthermore, Tremlett portrays a Spain in which disorder and corruption are actually considered to be order itself. He details the phenomenon from its smallest scale—his own entrapment in this system—when he decided to use his position at a prominent news source to make the local building inspector do his work faster, to its more national iterations, which include national scandals about murder and adultery. While this could all be considered slanderous to the Spanish people, I think Tremlett tries in this chapter and throughout his book to pain the picture of a ‘real’ Spain. It’s a country in which there is always more beneath the surface, in which people are not afraid to fight for what they want (personally, politically, socially, you name it) and most of all it’s a country defined by its contradictions.
All of that is to say that Spain (and most countries, I’d imagine) cannot be revealed in a short amount of time. It’s a slow burn. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think a semester in one of this country’s two major cities is nearly enough to be ‘well acquainted’ with all the intricacies Tremlett explores… but I can try. Whatever I don’t understand will only be justification for coming back to live again someday.
If living in a homestay means one thing, it’s routine, routine, routine. When you move into a family’s home you’re also moving directly into their lives and their routines, which are likely going to be a bit more consistent than most university students, and which they probably aren’t going to change for your sake. Sometimes this is awesome, and sometimes it’s a nightmare.
For instance: Everyday at 6.00am, kitchen light (right outside my bedroom door, which has a window) turned on while the father gets ready for work. Nightmare. 8.00am, breakfast including coffee and delicious brown sugar toast laid out for me. Awesome. Have to be home for dinner consistently at 9.30pm every night. Nightmare. Get to have free dinner at 9.30pm every night. Awesome. To be honest, that’s the majority of my interactions with my host family—wonderful as they are—so having such a consistent routine at home is not a problem. Plus, bed making, bathroom cleaning and clothes washing are all included in my rent and my host mother is diligent at getting them all done, so really no complaints there.
The rest of my week is pretty much a mess, which is to say that it is packed full and yet simultaneously not routine at all. I have class Mondays and Wednesdays in the morning and in the evening, and I work at an NGO near campus called CEAR (Comisión Español de Ayuda al Refugiado, or Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid) on Monday afternoons and all day Tuesday and Thursday. No two days of the week are quite the same, which is actually a good thing because the particularly unenjoyable days never come two in a row.
Amidst the huge day to day variables, however, Madrid still presents its fair share of quotidian charms (and annoyances, of course). Every day at lunch, I’m able to get a large meal—lunch is the main meal of the day in Spain—for under €12. Without fail this means two dishes, a drink and bread, and typically either coffee or a dessert. Often, after class some friends and I will go for a drink and a tapa, only to be reminded that kitchens are typically closed between 5.00pm and 8.00pm, and we’ll just share a bottle of wine instead. Food culture here is remarkably consistent between restaurants; you’d be hard pressed to find a place that didn’t offer the prix fixe lunch or that didn’t serve sangría and tinto de verano.
Two apparently inescapable facts of living in Madrid are the nightly news and the almost-nightly garbage collection, two of the only elements of Spanish life I just cannot wrap my mind around. Each night during dinner we turn our chairs toward the family’s dining room television (not to be confused with the one a yard away in the living room) and watch as the same presenter in one of two suits (blue or red) tells us first about the ensuing refugee crisis, then about torrential rains in some part of Spain that have inevitably had human casualties, and finally about which important figure has been visiting the U.S. this week. I almost laugh out loud at the redundancy of it all, but what I really find hilarious is that without fail my host family watches with rapt attention every single night.
Then, after retiring to my room to do homework I often lose track of time… but never fear, because every other night garbage collection happens right outside my window within five minutes of midnight. Without. Fail. Why people need their garbage collected so often and why it’s done at such a late hour is completely beyond my understanding. In any case, these two rituals can always be expected to close out my day and while I complain about them tongue-in-cheek, they have definitely served to help me find regularity in my otherwise hectic days in Madrid.
A few weeks ago I wrote about becoming a ‘walker’ here in Madrid, and it’s something that (surprise, surprise) I’ve actually taken quite seriously since then. I’ve been walking everywhere—and I even went on a hike last week for good measure—but I’m still me, and still being me means walking everywhere as fast as I possibly can. It’s something I just can’t really help; I like having a destination and getting there in a timely fashion. I’ve seen a lot of Madrid this way, passing by as the filler between starting and end points of a journey. Mostly, the city works well like this. A lot of Madrid isn’t the most scenic, so a general blur of buzzing activity and Spanish signage doesn’t look vastly different depending on location.
That is, until you enter hipster paradise. Malasaña is an island of the unexpected in an otherwise predictable capital city. I’ve mentioned the neigborhood before, but as I’ve spent countless hours exploring is tiny, twisting streets I thought it was time it got its own post.
I had heard of Malasaña before ever arriving in Madrid, actually. My best friend spent her summer here and told me it was the place for me, so I wasted no time in checking it out. Malasaña is as close to gentrified as Madrid gets, a fact that was immediately obvious by the myriad boutiques, availability of coffee and establishments that offer menus exclusively in English despite the conspicuous lack of tourists. At the same though, the first thing one notices is that the gentrification is by no means complete, to the neighborhood’s benefit. Every hipster or expat-owned business is matched by at least one butcher shop or dingy tapas place. While my favorite Brooklyn-esque coffee shop (La Bicicleta) or the cafe-by-day, beach bar-by-night (Ojalá) remain open from late morning to the early hours, at 2.00pm you still hear the slamming down of heavy metal rolling doors in front of the older establishments for the afternoon siesta hours.
Walking through Malasaña, day or night, the benefits of the neighborhood’s remaining pre-hipster past are utterly charming. Unlike other cities’ hipster neighborhoods (Le Marais in Paris, Kreuzberg in Berlin) where I’ve heard plenty of English being spoken, it’s still less common in Malasaña. Sure, you’d better know English to interpret the menu, but you should also be able to translate your order into Spanish yourself when the time comes: an annoyance for some, but definitely a charming quirk to me. There’s really no way to walk around Malasaña quickly either—more due to the ambling elderly women who still frequent the neighborhood than to the narrow streets—so while you’re tripping over your own feet to avoid mowing over grandma, you might look up and catch the street sign for Calle Espíritu Santo (the heart of the neighborhood) and remember that no matter the volume of heathen youth that pour in, it’s grandma and the Holy Spirit who are keeping things in order.
By night, you wish this wasn’t the case. In addition to the already mentioned beach bar, where you can walk barefoot through pristine sand in the building’s basement, there’s also Casa Camacho around the corner, which fits only about 20 patrons, serves up a €2 drink called yayo (one part vermouth, one part gin) and is full all night. It’s a dive, certainly, but always, always full. Mostly, Malasaña loses its visual distinctiveness at night, its streets becoming as beer-soaked and as rowdy as any other central Madrid neighborhood, but the feeling is always the same: one where people young and old, Spanish and foreign, hipster and hip enjoy life and each other. It’s a beautiful blend of cultures, and it’s only made Madrid feel more and more like home.
I could sense almost as soon as I arrived that my homestay family was relieved and surprised to discover that I do indeed understand and speak (for the most part) Spanish. I was relieved too: my biggest apprehension about Madrid was that my hosts would insist on speaking English to me and that I wouldn’t get the practice I wanted. In reality, they greeted me with apologies for not speaking my language and must have been confused by how absurd I found that. In any case, Spanish at home has been rewarding since the first family meal and each day I’m a little more comfortable elaborating on my thoughts and am not forming sentences in my head before saying them out loud. All good signs that my Classroom Spanish is becoming Real Spanish, right?
Yeaaaaaaah… but also no. On the whole, being in Madrid has not yet proved nearly as immersive as I hoped it would be. Only one of my two classes is in Spanish because the other, too interesting not to take, is only offered in English this semester. I’ve spent all of my free time so far socializing with other Americans, and it turns out the coolest (read: most gentrified) neighborhood in Madrid happens to be full of cafés that could easily be found in Brooklyn and offer menus only in English. My internship hasn’t started yet, and hopefully once it does I’ll spend more time chatting with Spaniards, but I’m not sure office conversation will give me all of what I’m craving.
I suffer from a lack of colloquialism in every sense of the word. On one hand, Spanish vocabulary throws me for a loop; there are subtle but frustrating differences to the Latin American Spanish that I’ve learned in the past. Today, as I sat at my favorite American-style café wondering where to begin this blog post, the hipster waiter walked over to give me a discreet ‘Aquí no se puede usar su ordenador.’ Even after asking him to repeat himself, I was still staring blankly, which was frustrating and really embarrassing for someone who usually doesn’t have that problem. ‘You can’t use your computer right here,’ he finally translated, pointing to the designated work area on the other side of the room. As soon as he said it, I remembered that Spaniards use the word ordenador instead of the much more convenient cognate computadora and I realized my mistake, but it was too late. I’d already given myself away.
This kind of thing will probably be remedied in the office, but unfortunately, unless you have a really cool Spanish teacher (like some I’ve only heard of) who tells you that you sound dumb for asking for la cuenta instead of the la nota when you’re ready to pay at a café or casual restaurant, there’s often just no way to know when it comes to fast-paced micro-interactions. Those blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments are most notable for their (sometimes key) word omissions and slang words that are not in any dictionary, and it seems like the best way to pick them up is in casual, peer-to-peer conversation which currently I do not have.
So if fairly formal interactions, like with my homestay family, are a great place for practicing fluency and if the workplace will probably hone my vocabulary and if fleeting everyday interactions, like at a café, are where I can try to pass for a native speaker if I’m on my game, what do I do about that usage, which is so frustratingly close and yet so far? I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only one answer: I need Spanish friends.
What’s that you say? That would require me testing (and messing up) my Spanish in social situations? Among peers? Erm… I’ll think about it.
I’m not usually a walker. I really wish I was, because everyone is always talking about how rewarding it is to get lost and wander around even already familiar cities, but I rarely feel I have time for ‘lost’ so I’m more of a metro/bus/tram/something-that-isn’t-walking kind of guy. (To be clear, I totally do have time for ‘lost’ but I’m compulsive and following directions is fun so alas, here I am.) It’s one of those things I’ve resolved to change more than once, but it never happens.
Because I’m me, I spent most of the first week in Madrid using my typical approach: Google Maps transit directions. I’m a Google Maps master and anyone who tells you differently is lying through their teeth, so imagine my excitement when my host family told me that 100 meters from our apartment is Avenida de América—home to metro lines 4, 6, 7 and 9. Then imagine my disappointment when I discovered that walking from my house to the 9 (which happens to go right to NYU) takes about 15 minutes and is the equivalent of Times Square’s Tunnel of Death times three. Still, I got familiar with it because I’m stubborn, I like metros and my monthly pass cost only €35, which is a steal.
By now I’ve figured out how the 4, 6, 7 and 9 link to almost every point of interest in Madrid. The metro map, its rainbow of colors and the Spanish names that I practice under my breath to try out that lisp-y Spanish accent when I’m sure no one can hear me are all comfortable. But this week, I realized that I was bored by Madrid’s underground tunnels (spoiler: there’s not much to look at) and also that since the metro closes at midnight, I was going to need an alternative at least some of the time. I decided to try walking.
I began my on-foot exploration at 1.00am on Sunday morning, because doesn’t everyone? I was feeling more homesick than I want to admit and while my new friends were all going clubbing, I just needed some time to myself. Visualize Holden Caulfield if it’ll help you picture it… except I hate that book, so maybe don’t. In any case, leaving my friends in Sol (the touristic and soul-sucking heart of Madrid), I just started walking. I knew the general direction of home, and I’d vaguely looked at a street map before starting, but otherwise I wasn’t sure what I’d find.
It’s always a magical moment when the puzzle pieces of your mental map begin to slip into place, in this case as Sol and Malasaña and Chueca and Recoletos and Salamanca became comprehensible parts of the same whole instead of islands bordered by fuzzy images of what might lie a ten minute’s walk in any direction. For me that experience usually happens by car (as in San Francisco) or perhaps by bus (New York and London), but walking between the early morning sensory overload of Gran Vía—Madrid’s answer to Broadway, with bright lights, street noise and the most beautifully intricate buildings I’ve ever seen—and the peaceful near-silence in the pedestrianized center of Paseo de Recoletos, even as cars zoom past on either side, was special. It not only helped me put images to metro station names that were all-too-familiar at platform level, but the slow pace of nighttime walking also let me discover the natural ebb and flow of activity and excitement in Madrid.
I don’t know if I’ll continue walking everywhere I go—Avenida de América is still right outside my door—but now I have the luxury of putting together my natural underground comfort with my learned above-ground appreciation. I may not be a walker yet, but the option is there and it’s helped me discover that this city has more to offer than my stubborn public transportation-taking self would have realized if I hadn’t finally decided to give walking a try.
I’ve been on the road living out of a backpack for three months and let me tell you, it is good to finally be home. Arriving in Madrid—a city that I’ve never even visited—felt as comforting as flying into EWR and looking out the left side of the plane at the Manhattan skyline. Dropping my bags on a bed that is mine for months and then sitting down to lunch amidst lovingly barked commands to take more food and to treat the terrace as my own felt like a real homecoming. Obviously, Madrid is still mostly unfamiliar to me and it would take much more than the three and a half months I have here to know this city as I know New York or London or especially my first home, San Francisco. But still, I can’t deny that I was ready for somewhere to call home and this place will do just fine.
To be perfectly honest, I was not particularly excited about coming to Madrid this semester. I didn’t even really ‘anticipate’ it in any way. I certainly wasn’t uninterested, but I also didn’t give the impending experience much thought either. This is my second semester in a row abroad (following a dream-fulfilling four months at NYU London), I have not been back to the U.S. since January and Europe has become, in a word, normal for me. I spent all of July and August moving every three or five days from city to city, country to country. It was not the most conducive time for researching and dreaming about an experience that was much further away than the next week’s adventure, so Madrid simply slipped my mind. By the middle of August, when I could (should?) have begun looking into what my new and finally settled life would be like, I was too homesick to care. In fact, until the night before I arrived in Madrid I was spending much more time thinking about life back in New York than I was thinking about the next three and a half months.
I’m telling you this—at the risk of sounding like a complete prick—because I want to make it clear how I went from vagabond traveller to apparent homebody in such a short time. I was utterly distracted until I showed up at my apartment in Madrid with five bags and no idea how to get inside, and I’m pretty sure the lack of preparation is why I feel so settled now. The normalcy of travel has been disrupted by my arrival here and almost everything is a pleasant surprise: ‘moving-in’ had become an almost foreign concept and having a home-cooked meal is like rediscovering lost treasure. Honestly, I could have called almost anywhere home at this point. As I unpack my bags and allow myself to be in one place with no pressure to squeeze in sights or ‘traditional’ meals in touristy plazas, my upper-middle class madrileño neighborhood—which has truly nothing going on—suddenly feels much more exciting than even the most iconic parts of Paris or Brussels, Hamburg or Dublin, Prague or Vienna, all of which seem to run together in some way anyway.
So that’s me and that’s where I’m coming from. There is still plenty more settling to be done, but I still don’t even know where the Prado is or what I’m doing this weekend… and that’s completely okay, because for once I have plenty of time and for now I just feel like relaxing at home.