You can read all the Rick Steves you want but that still won’t prepare you for studying abroad by any means. One thing I’m sure of is the ease at which I am capable of sticking out—even worse than as the pale, capri-pants and fanny pack wearing, map-in-hand tourists speaking broken English in the middle of Times Square.
The easiest way I can describe Madrid to those who have never been is by saying it is the Spanish equivalent of New York City. Every metro stop I happen to surface from seems like a different place entirely. Old Madrid resembles some small neighborhoods of Florence, Tribunal is Spain’s alternative to Brooklyn, while my neighborhood Moncloa feels like a suburb.
My first mistake was keeping my iPhone on a 12-hour clock. My second mistake was taking my iPhone out of the house at all. In Spain you get pick-pocketed—not mugged. While I haven’t been targeted yet, the thought of going through the day not knowing that all my belongings were skillfully snatched hours before is agonizing. Not to say that I’d rather get mugged…
Attempting to look like a fierce Spanish woman is nearly an impossible feat. Especially since I’m blonde and my roommate is a ginger—extremely exotic in Spain. Alas, I have learned the following lessons. Do not ask for anything ‘to-go’. It does not exist in Spain. The idea is if you have 5 minutes, you sit and enjoy your coffee at a table. Definitely do not bite into any fruit… here they use forks and knives to eat apples, bananas, oranges, and kiwis etc. You also can’t wear t-shirts, sweats, or workout clothes in public… you will be stared at.
Although, if you’re a girl you’ll be stared at regardless of what you’re wearing. In Spain the national sport among men is staring. It’s how they flirt—a full on death rattling intense stare. If you catch a glimpse its so uncomfortable that I’ve learned to just look at the ground. There is the occasional time where the guy is attractive… then its oddly flattering but still deeply weird at the same time. But men will take off their sunglasses while looking you up and down. And if you run into a particularly ballsy fellow he will wag his tongue at you.
Another aspect of Spanish culture I find hard to understand is the fact that you will find couples of all ages, sucking face hard in public. Everywhere at anytime of day. On the metro, waiting for the metro, on a street bench, in cafes, on street corners, in markets and in the parks. Well, in Spain it is common and quite acceptable to live with you parents until you are married—even if that means into your late thirties. So that means couples take to the streets of Madrid.
Despite all this, I have managed to fall in love with this city. How could you not? The park next to my house has Egyptian temple ruins. Where else in the world could that happen? The culture of Spain is fast and slow at the same time- if that seems possible. Swimming is a sea of people in the metro, you don’t want to go against the current. But drowning out the sounds of El Retiro’s vendors, tourists and little Spanish children by taking a nap underneath a tree that mosaics the sun with its leaves nearly makes time halt.