Did you know that before I came to you, I was a strong, independent woman? I was a know-it-all and a rambunctious go-getter. I was the head of my family, extremely involved at school, and a crucial employee at my law firm. I remember August 28th, 2014 like it was yesterday. Immediately upon completing the most painful 8 hours of my life, I got lost in Adolfo Barajas trying to find my NYU Madrid group. The airport staff struggled to understand my spanish and I was too tired to try any harder so after a series of hand signals and furrowed eyebrows, I finally just called Caridad, the student life coordinator. I was excited, but caught off-guard.
You were surreal. The food melted in my mouth and everything tasted like the hands of God had cooked them. The markets resembled a forest of fruits I had never seen at prices unimaginably cheap. I fed myself for a whole week for less than $30 USD worth of groceries. The cobblestone brought me back centuries to an Andalusian Madrid and I felt I could still see the 14th century mosque although today, it stands as a converted cathedral. History was alive and I was walking through a plethora of memories—the muslims, the French, the Republican rebels, the 11th of May attacks—like flipping through pages in the history book my entire student life was dedicated to.
You were a threshold for adventure. You were the gateway to every city and country I visited, conveniently located next to a well-known international airport. Segovia opened up its castle gates to me and showed me how the Romans treated Spain. The Alhambra awaited me in Granada and I crumbled into pieces, crying, when I laid my eyes upon its gardens. The Great Mosque of Cordoba teleported me to a historically reminiscent fictional world where Northern Africa met Islam met Christianity met Ancient Rome in Spain. El Cid came to life in Burgos and the fisherman with a language unlike anything in the world in País Vasco. I brought a piece of Spain with me to Marrakech, Paris, Berlin, Belgium, Florence, Amsterdam, London, Mallorca, the Canary Islands, Budapest, Rome, Barcelona, Valencia, Lisbon, and even to Korea. Best of all, I crossed that threshold alone and learned a lot about myself during solo adventures.
You were home. I found a family in Madrid as a consequence of some unforgettable new friendships. The two friends from NYU GLS I trust to be there for me (and I for them) from now until forever, and Madrid will be the glue between the three of us. I come home every day to Emily (English), Laura (Italian), Fatima (Jordanian), Vanesa and Iris (both Spanish) who care for me when I’m sick, cook for the entire house, and prevent any of us from having a lonely, uneventful weekend indoors. We even have a house pet, Cinca, our bunny. Whereas I would feel lost and vulnerable in other foreign cities, I felt like I owned the place in Madrid. This was where I was protected and powerful.
You are a reflection. You’ve shown me so much about the world and myself in relation to the world. You showed me through the many (sometimes rowdy) protests how citizens react in times of desperation. You showed me through work how far behind the modern world is from protecting its citizens from social exclusion and providing adequate means of living. Everyday, you show me how much more there is left to do. I realize who I am and see who I want to be. You are a reflection of New York City, of Chicago, of my hometown Carol Stream, and even of Seoul. You are Europe, in a nutshell, and an indication I have yet to decipher.
You are human—more than just a city. I feel your anger when I hear the protesters from more than 8 subway stops away, demanding justice from the banks for the loss of billions of euros to a risky investment. I feel the injustice walking through your old neighborhoods, now nothing but shutdown shops and empty apartments while people sleep on the cold concrete outside. I felt your sadness when the tragedy of the German Airbus A320 struck Barcelona. You stood in solidarity with the nation and every flag in the city flew half mast. I feel life every weekend when the streets fill with drunk citizens, dapper youngsters headed to the clubs, and senior citizens mixing in with the crowd, enjoying the people watching. I feel your excitement when the entire city breaks out in celebration on Puente. You link people to their lives—that’s something I found nowhere else in the world.
Did you know that I’m a better person now than I was before? I’m much more vulnerable and I feel (perceive, shall I say?) much more than before. I’m more humble and more capable of overcoming challenges. I grew up and I’m more afraid of the world. I’m more confident in myself to face that world. I await May 31st anxiously and unprepared. I don’t know how to leave you behind or how to pay my gratitude and find closure yet. It’s been a tumultuous 9 months and I would not change a single second of any day. I’m not ready to say my farewells but as I reflect backwards on everything that you were to me, just know that I am forever grateful and incapable of replicating such an experience. It will never be a goodbye, although it’s also probably not a “see you later”. I’ll be bringing you home with me, myself as a transformed madrileña, and I hope you’re proud. I love you, always.
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!
After my scariest experience abroad (being sick), I was bedridden for 2 weeks and although my hometown friends visited me in Madrid, we couldn’t go anywhere and stayed in Madrid. My first deep breath of fresh air after I was all better was taken in Lisbon, my first vacation after recovering. Lisbon, in my opinion, is an incredibly underrated city. Portugal in general is incredibly popular and people come to Lisbon pretty commonly—but they leave for the beaches, for Sintra, for Porto. I had plans to do the same but after my first 24 hours alone in Lisbon, I decided to stay in Lisbon instead. It was here that I experienced my first blissful moment.
Lisbon was the first travel experience where everything went absolutely perfect. The weather had been predicted to rain the entire 4 days I would be there—it rained only the first day and even then, the rain was light, refreshing, and beautiful (I saw rainbows). I only managed to find a hostel for the first 2 days of my vacation because I planned on traveling to other cities, but when I asked for an additional 2 days, my hostel was more than accommodating and incredibly affordable. Lisbon was breathtakingly beautiful—incredibly hilly, but beautiful. I scavenged out different gardens with a mirador, a “skyline” view, of the city at different angles. I found different ruins from the massive earthquake of 1755. I chased peacocks at the King’s Castle and ate only egg pastries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner my first day because if you think pastel de natas are delicious, you have obviously never tried pastéis de natas from Pastéis de Belém (truly life-changing). The sun was hot but the river breeze was cooling. The rice and cod in Lisbon is to die for. All-in-all, an unrepeatable, amazing, wonderful vacation.
The moment of bliss, however, came at the end of my first day traveling alone in Lisbon in my hostel. After a long, 14-hour walk exploring the city, I came home exhausted. My hostel was incredible—it felt like a real home. The employees knew all of the residents by name and always struck a friendly conversation. They were also Lisbon experts, so when I opened my map and showed them everywhere I’d been, they helped me pin new places to go for my next day’s adventure. After undressing, I headed to the kitchen for some free homemade soup and bread. I needed some sustenance and the unlimited sangria didn’t sound too shabby. Upon entering the warm kitchen filled with the smell of delicious cabbage soup, I was showered by hellos. All the residents sat around the big dining room table and drank and laughed the night away. Shyly, I took a seat and introduced myself, trying to quietly drink my soup and simultaneously be invisible. Impossible. Bruno poured me a glass of porto wine (in the tiniest cup) and asked me to share a bit about myself. Before I knew it, I had 6 new Facebook friends, tons of selfies, and plans for the next day. We talked about where we come from. We talked fútbol and basketball. We shared our best and worst travel moments. After several glasses of wine and sangria later, we talked about relationships, our homes, and our goals. It was this moment, when we shared our secrets and became friends, that I felt a pure bliss I had never felt before.
I never imagined sitting around a dining room table in a hostel in Lisbon with my hostel employees and residents talking about the favelas in Brazil and being Jewish in Paris. I never dreamed that I would feel more at home in a city I spent 4 days in than a city I lived 9 months in. I never knew how genuine people can be and moments can feel until Bruno forced me to open up and be friendly. Honestly, Lisbon alone could have made it to the top of my Top European Cities list but coming home to family night at the hostel made Lisbon untouchable on my list. People really do enhance a trip and after having been so isolated and sick, Lisbon was a nice, fresh start to the last half of my spring semester abroad. Without a doubt, the happiest, most blissful I had ever felt.
The following information is quite vivid and perhaps too much information. Readers’ discretion is advised.
Perhaps it’s our being 20-something-years-old. Perhaps it’s just our self-confidence. I’m not quite sure what it is but for some reason, especially when we travel, we pretend we are invincible. Nothing hurts. We’re not tired. There’s no way we’re going to get lost, robbed, or kidnapped, And we won’t get sick. Of course, nothing goes exactly according to plan but we’re determined to not let anything ruin our travels. On March 16th, 2015, I was rushed to the hospital for fainting in the kitchen and having a very weak heartbeat. My vitals were incredibly low that day because for 3 days, I had not been eating nor drinking. I thought I had a terrible case of the flu or maybe food poisoning. I was terribly horribly wrong.
Since March 13th, I started to feel sick. I remember going to the gym that morning, only getting a mild warm-up in before feeling incredibly nauseous and feverish. I dragged myself home, feebly took a shower while my head spun, and crawled into bed by 8 pm. By 2 am, I was up, rushing myself to the bathroom to vomit all night until 6 am. I finally fell asleep. March 14th, the ridiculously high fever set in. I squirmed around in bed all day with a fever of 104-106 at any given time. At times, I would just dry-heave because although I was still incredibly nauseous, I had nothing left inside to throw back up. My room had to be dark because the light caused sharp, painful migraines. I couldn’t see straight. My head still spun, my stomach kept stabbing me, I couldn’t eat and I felt like I could smell my water. It went down like acid and only came up as bile so I stopped drinking water as well. My roommates went into nurse-mode and kept trying to feed me fever reducers, pain relievers, and fruit juices. Eventually, they all gave up. I was deathly ill by March 15th that I slept through the entire day—all 28 hours until I awoke on the 16th and fainted in my kitchen.
I don’t remember fainting. I just remember the ungodly pain in my stomach. I woke up so parched that I inched my way to the kitchen for some water, blinked (heavily), and I felt all the blood in my face rush down to my lips. I felt cold for a slight moment and shivered. Suddenly, I opened my eyes and Laura stood above me while Emily was calling 112. Thus began my 10-hour session of lab tests, poking, and prodding at the hospital. When I arrived, my vitals were so low that I immediately was put on an IV. Dehydrated, nauseous, and in so much pain, I had to get a second IV with codeine before I could begin receiving any medical care. So many nurses paced around me, took so many bodily samples, and rearranged my body so many times that I just gave up and sat silently for a while until they agreed to give me a moment. I was too tired to think (let alone speak) in Spanish. I had no one in the emergency room with me—I have no family in Spain that could legally be in there with me, my roommates could not ride the ambulance with me, and my NYU friends had no idea what had happened.
“¿Estás aquí sola?” they would ask, every time. When emotions reregistered in my mind, I responded every time with big, brown, sad eyes and a quivering, “sí” before I broke out into sobs in my little blue bed. Honestly, I’ve never felt so vulnerable before in my life. I’ve never felt so lonely and so helpless. I can’t explain how much pain I was in to my care providers. I had to hold a strange nurse’s hand tight as I felt my entire intestines light up like fire during one of the x-rays. I’ve never been so uncomfortable and frustrated. I’ve never been so defeated. After 2 days in-care, I was finally discharged and brought back home to be put on bed rest for a week. That week went by in a blur. The results? An intestinal “bug” that had inflamed the base of my stomach, my intestines, and part of my gallbladder. Where I caught this virus, nobody knows. For a second there, I seriously thought I was going to die. Finally, I understand. Traveling is hard. There are as many invisible dangers as there are visible ones and being completely stunted while abroad was the worst experience of my life. My personal life took a hit. My finances took a hit (I had to cancel all of my trips for the next 2 weeks). My physical state took a hit and my academics took a hit. For the entire duration of this illness, everything felt wrong and went wrong. At the end of the day, I’m glad I’m okay and making a slow recovery. I’m glad I had whatever support NYUMadrid and all of my teachers and friends could provide me. I’m glad I learned an extremely valuable lesson on how lucky and thankful I should be for my health and my friends and family that can/will rush to my side in my time of need. That being said, I would never do this again. Crying as a grown 20-year-old in a hospital every time I saw a needle was, and this is a fact, mortifying.
Since a very young age, we were taught to “get along” and thus, we developed adaptation and assimilation skills by learning to get along with both the people and environment around us. We find little niches and similarities to help us recognize where home is, who our friends are, and what “safe” feels like. Before we know it, we have a solid foundation to stand on, allowing us to comfortably venture out into the unknown. Traveling doesn’t provide enough time to ever really get along with anyone nor does it really provide enough time to find a niche, let alone get a foothold in a new environment. Every day when traveling is a challenge to get along with the new sights, new customs, and new dangers but, especially, new people.
Strangers add to the quality of traveling. In the stories of my travels, I will never exclude the couple I met by miraculous chance that helped me back to my hostel (that they were coincidentally staying at as well) in the middle of the night when I was hopelessly lost in Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakech. I will never forget meeting Jenna, who was traveling alone for the first time, scared, in Lisbon. She, too, was from Chicago, Illinois and studying abroad in Madrid, so we quickly became great friends and made some incredible memories together. I will always remember Stephan from Paris who lent me his apartment via airbnb but had to stay with me in the apartment. To compensate for the inconvenience, he took my friend and I (illegally) into the catacombs underneath the city. Strangers are the gems of a foreign city and more often than not, extremely receptive of tourists.
To be the stranger, however, is a different story. When I travel in different countries, I realize that I am but a fleeting part of that city’s day. Tomorrow, I will no longer be in the same place with these same people. As a result, it doesn’t bother me if I’m rejected because, after all, I am no one but an outsider. Madrid, however, is no strange place to me. Perhaps in the beginning, but definitely not now. The Madrileños are no strangers to me. Of course, I couldn’t never be hispanic and Spain could never be home—but Spain and the Spanish were no strangers to me. I’ve learned to get along with Madrid, the madrileños, and the madrilistas (for those of you that don’t know, these are die-hard Real Madrid superfans). Unfortunately, no amount of Spanish lisping, Real Madrid jerseys, or bocadillos de jamón ibérico can change the fact that I am a stranger to them.
Having been here for 9 months with 3 years of Spanish medieval history, Spanish literature, and European studies tucked under my arms, I eventually felt the need to get some footing here during my academic year abroad. 9 months without the feeling of belonging started to feel like a never-ending vacation. Despite how wonderful that sounds, my never-ending vacation quickly turned into a perpetual, exhausting hell. Work became very difficult because no client would take me seriously, despite how well I knew the office processes and Spanish law. Clients would say, “tranquilate tú” and brush past me. People constantly (albeit sometimes unknowingly) spit racial slurs at me. I was greeted with ni-haos and ching-chongs. They referred to me as “la chica china”. Essentially, I am awaiting my Chinese passport (an on-going joke between me and the rest of NYUMadrid). I would speak to a spaniard in latin-american-sounding-yet-grammatically-perfect spanish and be responded to in English, sometimes in Chinese.
Othering helps you identify yourself by distinguishing the differences between you and them. Othering happens naturally, some say inherently, and defines the relationship you will have with the people you meet in your life, constantly. Perhaps the reason I feel so uncomfortable here in Madrid (sometimes) is because Othering only feels safe when two parties agree on the distinctions: you are you and I am me. During my experience, no matter where I go, strangers and I agree on what makes the stranger a stranger to me. They are spanish. They are dutch. They are moroccan. Unfortunately, they don’t make the same distinctions I make for myself. I am American. They think I am Asian. I am Korean. They think I’m Chinese. I think I’m good enough, know enough, to be here. They don’t. Of course, it’s not all bad and perhaps I’m exaggerating my isolating feelings. In fact, for the most part my academic year is amazing filled with wonderful strangers who I’ve met and adored. But as much as my experiences with strangers speak to the joys of traveling, my experiences as a stranger speak to the difficulty of “getting along” while traveling. Although they’re two sides of the same coin, they feel completely different.
Anywhere in the world, there is some sort of an initiation into the city or nation. When traveling, the initiation may take place in the form of “Top Ten Things To Do In ___” lists, but when living in a new nation, the process of initiation is much more time consuming and confronting. The most important forms of initiation were found mentioned in the Traveler’s Tale of Spain edited by Lucy McCauley. Many travelers (and some natives) recognized and acknowledged what it took to be in Spain with short anecdotes. To know Spain is to understand its food culture, its nightlife, its visitors.
The first essay, Watching the Rain in Galicia by Gabriel García Márquez, spoke to the most important, and delicious, way to know Spain: food. Peculiarly, different regions of Spain have completely different food cultures from the types of foods eaten to the manner in which one eats. The most international foods will be found in Madrid. Segovia is the region for beans (judios). In Asturias, chorrizo and cider. In Cordoba, fried angel fish and special meatballs. Author Gabriel García Márquez remembers, “No one who enjoys eating can think of Galicia without first thinking of the pleasures of its cuisine. ‘Homesickness starts with food,’ said Che Guevara, pining perhaps for the vast roasts of his native Argentina while they, men alone in the night in Sierra Maestra, spoke of war,” (7). I think the key to understanding Spain is through food and what that food represents. Many madrileños aren’t native madrileños and they’ll make that distinction to everybody—“Yo soy de mi pueblo”—because their pueblos will always have the best jamón, angel fish, beans, etc.. Cuisine is where the home is.
The essay Nocturnal Madrid by Marshall Krantz describes almost perfectly the culture shock an outsider experiences adjusting to the clock of Spain. Krantz recalls, “…Madrid is a city most awake at night—all night. It’s not for nothing that Madrileños are called gatos, cats, for their nocturnal prowling habits. Spaniards like to say, politely yet with a whiff of superiority, that Americans live to work but Spaniards work to live. So for this American reared on Puritan values (‘Early to bed, early to rise…’), coming to terms with Madrid’s joie de vivre was not easy…” (183). Leisure in Spain is taken dead-seriously—especially if the weather is nice. If the siesta is not an overwhelming proof of this sentiment, the nightlife definitely is. Los findes (weekends) are sacred times for everyone because life is lived in the streets in Spain. Noise is the theme song, the background music, to every city here. The day starts late (9-10 am tops) and breakfast is light. Lunch is a huge meal, demonstrated by the sudden rise of street signs that declare “Menú Del Día!” in front of every restaurant during siesta time, that usually means a 3-course meal with dessert, drink, and bread included. After sleeping, resting, and working off the lunch, dinner takes place after 9 pm when the day is over so as to spend the rest of the night talking, sharing, laughing, drinking, and playing. The clubs don’t open until 1 am (when the subways close) and no one wants to be first in line (what are you, eager or something?) so the city literally stays awake from 2 am until 6:30 am (when the subways reopen) at least. The nightlife of Spain is a representation of their life values and a ritual that no outsider can easily do without a dramatic change.
Finally, the essay No Day at the Beach by Damien Elwood provided the final most important part of initiation into Spain. Elwood recalls how he “wanted to be the compassionate youth, not the ugly American. So [he] gave [the stranger] the bottle,” (375) just to realize that Elwood had been tricked and his friend pick-pocketed. They say that pick-pocketing happens everywhere but any Spaniard will tell you how much of a sport it is here. Los gitanos (children and women) blatantly reach for bags, steal off tables, and trick tourists. As terrible of a gross generalization this may be, it’s sadly not that much of an exaggeration. The gitanos, however, have nothing to be self-conscious about—it’s us. In order to understand Spain and why these things happen, you have to understand the image Spain has for its tourists. Nobody wants to be the ugly American. We, as travelers, are vulnerable, dependent, and representative of our nation abroad so we would not dare offend the country we visit. Not only do we respect the nation we visit when traveling, we also protect the ideals we have for traveling. We will do anything to believe that the beaches of Barcelona are worlds better than any on North America. We will do everything to repress the anger, exhaustion, and frustration of backpacking through Europe just to have the perfect European backpacking experience we expect to have. It’s perfectly summarized by the mini-essay at the end of Elwood’s essay, “Two for the Road” by Catherine Olofson. She admits, “In retrospect, I think we knew subconsciously we were being taken for a ride—not just literally. But perhaps we were unwilling to surrender our illusions—about the universal honesty of people, the simplicity of travel—so soon. For as long as we could, we remained innocents abroad,” (379).
Soft squeaks of a distant saxophone quell my thoughts as I walk through the gates of Retiro Park. As far as the eye can see, there is green. An old, plump gypsy woman sticks an herb in front of my face as I slowly make my way up the cobblestone stairs to the movie-like two roads lined with flowers and lampposts, split by a small garden leading up to a majestic fountain. “For good luck!” she yells as I politely reject the offer. Couples litter the grass at Retiro. Bodies intertwined, passionately making out, the lovebirds soak up the sun without a care in the world, with no regard for time. If not the couples, families on picnics, students studying, and kids playing soccer take up the rest of the green grass space. So I continue down the lane to the massive pond in the heart of Retiro.
Carp the size of my forearm viciously fight for the crumbles of bread landing in the water, thrown by tourists and visitors of Retiro. In the murky pond, row boats evenly spaced out just bob around. The passengers smoke, drink, laugh hours away. On the other side of the pond, a gigantic structure encased by a semicircle of columns is covered by people eating and sunbathing. They look like pigeons at the foot of a statue. Across from the pond, Spain sits at the terrace of a café. Empty beer mugs, coffee cups, and ice cream bowls remain untouched on tables continuously reoccupied as the waiters lean on the side of the building, avoiding the heat and taking a “quick” smoke break. Children screech with joy as the bubble man blows a bubble the size of a car and bursts, spraying the kids and all the surrounding area in a 2 meter radius. It’s loud, but noise here is like a soundtrack. No one actually hears it, let alone minds it—it’s almost weirder without it. I drag a rusted green chair out and take a seat. I open my book, but I don’t read a word. I just watch.
It’s rare that a cliché is ever demonstrative of its subject. Retiro is that cliché tourist spot, but to be honest, on every bench is an old Spanish couple. On every café table are two spanish men playfully bickering. Perhaps a handful of tourists or exchange students are at Retiro at any given time but when the weather is this nice and it’s siesta time, Retiro is Spanish territory. Leisure is a priority here. It’s good for the longevity and happiness. Public displays of affection is not a bad thing, why wouldn’t you love your love? Express your commitment to your partner. Grab a chair, take a seat, light a cigarette, and order a caña. To do anything else is to not live life. It’s a hard knock life already, what’s an extra 3 hours?
The spirit of Madrid is locked away in Retiro where people of all different walks of life come together to just emphasize life. Retiro emphasizes leisure, play, family, health, and beauty. It’s sacred lands. For a public park, the grass is always clean, the roads are litter free, and the people are respectful of the space. Here, you can see how Madrid is truly an old city. The people are old, the structures are old. But in times of hardship, while the rest of the world may be depressed, the Madrileños aren’t. They’ve got life and they’ll share it with you. They’ll ask me (rather bluntly) what I’m doing here, who I am, where I’m from (no, but really, where am I really from?), and how I ended up here, in Retiro. Retiro, sure, is cliché but it’s true to its core and picture perfect.
If you’re looking for Art, everyone in Madrid will tell you to first, go to the Museo del Prado, then, go to the barrios. Why? Because street art is both vandalism and a commissioned work in Madrid—especially in some of the most gentrified barrios of Madrid. True to the madrileños’ words, I found one of the most impressive museums right at home: el Mercado de Cebada.
My first semester of Madrid, I lived in the cross-section of two heavily gentrified neighborhoods: Lavapiés and Embajadores. The most interesting thing about Lavapiés, however, is that gentrification was both successful and unsuccessful here. The state-led gentrification did raise the real estate value of this barrio and weeded out some of the unwanted tenants. However, the cultural production of Lavapiés remained firm in the hands of the artists native to this barrio, along with the affordability and ambiance of it all. The Mercado de Cebada is the history of Lavapiés and the symbol of the strength of its residents.
As soon as you enter, the rules are laid down. Respect the campo and clean up your shit. Every night at 7:30, there is a political discussion and during times of heightened political interest, there are usually assemblies and protests here. Otherwise, there’s always basketball and movies being played. The entire campo is extremely colorful and covered in layers of graffiti, but each one is extremely symbolic, grotesque sometimes, and relevant. On one wall, all the cars are forced to be in line on a railroad track surrounded by cracking earth. Leading the line are the industrial cars with what looks like a surplus of goods just spilling out. The first to receive the goods is a decent looking car. Last to receive nothing seems to be a junky minivan.
Another simple work is of Democracy the jet bombing the land below. To my left, I see Osama Bin Laden with zombie Teletubbies (terrifying). In front of me is an entire panel of graffiti. A lot of walls are grotesque caricatures of people or places. The Mercado de Cebada kind of mocks the outside world from the inside. The fence enclosing the Mercado has circular windows scattered two per wall. Some have an actual window, which just happens to be washing machine doors, and others are just circular holes cut into the fence. For those holes cut into the fence, the members of the Mercado entice people to look in and see their safe haven. They beckon you to see the art, stick your head far into the hub of Lavapiés. Little do these onlookers know, they are sticking their head into the market, onto the head of a fat sumo wrestler and his alien (and equally fat) girlfriend. If you’re lucky, you may stick your head into the nose of a green elephant who is blowing booger bubbles into the wind. That’s right, you can be an elephant booger.
The Mercado is a proper museum for Lavapiés where the artists who have fought for their right to stay have stayed and forever left their legacy behind. Just like any painting or photo, you can see the anger, confusion, sadness and happiness embedded into each work of art and remember the history of Lavapiés and all this barrio went through to protect what little they had. So respect the market. Follow the rules. Clean up your shit. And show up for the protests.
Studying abroad in Europe has its pros and cons. Europe is a fascinating country that’s experiencing a very tumultuous time of economic crisis, international cooperation, and national identity, which presents a rich foundation for research. It’s also a gateway to be able to travel to every other european country, especially those within the Schengen zone. Its biggest, and arguably only, con, in my opinion, is authenticity. With a study abroad program in a city (sometimes, country) catering to tourism, it becomes difficult to have an authentic experience.
Thus, we come to the issue in Spain. According to MacCannell, “the original tours were religious pilgrimages…The motive behind a pilgrimage is similar to that behind a tour: both are quests for authentic experiences. Pilgrims attempted to visit a place where an event of religious importance actually occurred. Tourists present themselves at places of social, historical, and cultural importance,” (593). Spain, honestly, is an example of every aspect of this. As a country that hosts a religious pilgrimage (Camino de Santiago de Compostela), Spain experiences thousands of tourists walk the walk for religious authenticity—to feel clean, purified, reconnected, humble and vitalized. As a country with multiple destination spots (Barcelona, Madrid, Granada, Ibiza, Canary Islands, etc. etc.), Spain endures millions of foreign exchange students, wedding/honeymoon goers, travelers, tourists, journalists, etc. in its popular cities. Every historical, religious, and beautiful city in Spain is heavily impacted by tourists. Then, at what point does Kapital stop being a symbol of Madrid nightlife and start being a 7-story tourist trap for outrageous exchange students?
I definitely think that’s the “front” of Spain. La Rambla in Barcelona, Kapital in Madrid—these are all theme parks and performances (now) for tourists content with a dabble in “spanish” culture. However, no spanish university student in their right mind would pay 25-30 euros to go clubbing (minimum—excluding the cost of drinks) every weekend. Even the food doesn’t get much more authentic than jamón Ibérico unless you live with a señora who cooks you homemade spanish cuisine for dinner—or better, Christmas Eve. The “front” of Spain is every Spaniard that will take you in with open arms, randomly on the metro might I add, and tell you all about their lives, what they think about the politics related (remotely) to your conversation, and any future premonitions they had while speaking with you. It’s this democratic, fun-loving Spain that is the performance aspect of the country.
The “front,” in agreement with MacCannell, complexly, intricately intertwines with the “back.” At times, the two blend and can be the same and at other times, the “front” can be a “continuum” towards the “back.” To be honest, immigrants lie closest to the end of the spectrum close to the “back” but it must be close to impossible to be authentically of Spain if one is not native. The reason being that Spain has a lot of secrets, of which I was able to unlock a few only because I have had a bit more time to be more than just a tourist or an exchange student (I’m technically a legal “resident”).
My most “back” experience was my trip to el Valle de los Caídos, which I mentioned before. It is the only physically remaining trace of Franco, which Spain did a fantastic job of erasing and burying (literally) after Franco’s death. It’s quite an intimate, terrifying, creepy, and still beautiful monument. The entire mountain-structure is designed to make you feel inferior and tiny compared to the power of Catholicism and Spain—more specifically, Franco. It is built by the blood, sweat, and tears of Republican prisoners who worked to shorten their sentence, which is evidenced by the tributes to mass graves around the monument. Two gigantic, stone knights in armor and angel wings guard the gates with a giant sword in their hands. In the center of it all lies Franco’s tomb. Directly above towards the sky is a ceiling mural depicting a Franco sitting on God’s throne coronated rising to heaven: he is the protector of the religion. A small bundle of carnations sit atop Franco’s tomb, perhaps from a few of the last remaining nationalists in Spain plagued by age and silenced by the new democracy. No Spaniard will talk about this time with you and the talks you do hear about this time differs quite a bit depending on who you talk to. To historically study this event as a student and to come to Spain as a tourist and see the monumental cross from afar is one thing. To have access with Franco-regime survivors (and even supporters) take you into the Valley of the Fallen and relive a small part of that time, even for a brief moment, is an entirely different thing.
Even with this experience, I am clearly not Spanish. I can’t consider this intimate experience totally “back” region material, knowing that this is an extremely delicate topic that I still know so little about. I still have some time left before my expiration here in Spain and it’s true, at this point I desperately ache for some authenticity and therefore find myself more and more inclined to reject the oh-so-typical foreign exchange behavior. I hope to bring myself as close to the other end of the spectrum towards the “back” as I can. Personally, authenticity presents a certain cultural obstacle for me. To have authenticity is to have a real anthropological interaction, which is hard to do in an increasingly/already globalized/secularized world. I’m seeking out a genuine encounter with humanity. What does authenticity mean to you?
The ability of an extranjero (foreigner) to feel like a citizen in a new country is hard to do—but being an extranjero in Spain 30 years after the death of Franco and la Transición makes it almost impossible to feel like a citizen, let alone a knowledgeable one at that. Giles Tremlett however in his work, Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and its Silent Past, attempts to accomplish both and exposes a crucial theme: amnesty and amnesia. Not only is the wording of this theme (which is also the title of one of the chapters) telling of the situation in Spain to this day, but it also hints at the problems embedded into Spaniards and their everyday interactions. Giles, in an effort to uncover a darker past of a country he loves, takes readers on a journey through all different parts of Spain, weaving this theme with the idea of history—how differently its own citizens remember its history, how old/young Spain might actually be, and how history is treated or taught in Spain. In the end, he depicts a country plagued by uncompromisable differences that extranjeros love, but will never truly understand.
A little historical background is necessary. After the death of Franco, the future of Spain was a coin toss. The dictator-appointed successor was King Juan Carlos, a close follower of Franco and a devoted Francoist (at least in appearances). In addition, every position of power in the country was occupied by a Francoist. There had been talks about an opposing left-wing, democratic party but there was no way to know. Luckily, Juan Carlos ended up being a democratic king and helped put into effect the first democratic constitution of Spain. In undoing Franco’s history in Spain, the most important objective was to reconcile the differences between the Republicans (favored democratically elected Spanish Republic) and the Nationalists (fascist rebel group led by Franco). This is the center of Giles’ story as he focuses on the uncovering of mass graves, committed on either side, as a means of uncovering a hidden history of Spain. This reconciliation was achieved only through the amnesty, that freed Republican prisoners of war and forgave any “war crimes,” but as Giles’ noticed, amnesty in this sense is equivalent to amnesia. A deputy he interviewed said it the best, “The amnesty is simply a forgetting…an amnesty for everyone, a forgetting by everyone for everything.” (78-9). This eventually came to be el pacto del olvido, the pack of forgetting. “If silence about the past was the price to be paid for the successful self-dissolution of Francoism, the opposition was prepared to sign up to it” (79).
Forgiving and forgetting are two very different concepts rested on a very thin line. Many examples were used in the book, most notable was Granada (the 11M terrorist attack) and el Valle de los Caídos. The history of medieval Spain, Al-Andalus, is itself an example of amnesty and amnesia. In forgetting the atrocities of that time, Spain is forgiving its history—but that’s not to say that it isn’t charged. As Giles points out, with the 11M terrorist attacks, prominent political actors seems to turn the clocks back to the year 711 to prove Granada as an area of particular interest. Regarding el Valle de los Caídos, Giles wrote that “it is an amazing disappearing act, further evidence of the power of forgetting in Spain. For Franco, or, more precisely, Francoism, has been condemned to the ignominy of silent disdain,” (48). Franco knew this monument would be large, visible from any point in Spain, and untouchable by history. No matter how much Spain tries to erase the history of Franco, this humungous, eerie, mountain monument never lets Spain forget who he was nor what he was: the protector of Spain and Catholicism. In conclusion, this book was an eye opening journey for me. This small blog post doesn’t do it enough justice, especially since reading it with a solid background of Spain’s (medieval and contemporary) history makes me itch to write an entire book review comparing and supporting the examples he used. He struck the theme of amnesty and amnesia boldly, however, and proved it throughout his journey, really emphasizing how it’s hard to belong in Spain with the number of differing perspectives and opinions—especially if you’re a foreigner. Spain is a confused state, most definitely due to 36 years of darkness. No number of dug up graves will forgive Francosim. No matter the depth, Spain cannot forget Franco.