Tapas, siesta, noche – these words come to mind when one first thinks of Madrid. The city of quality food and good weather, palm trees and parties, fashion and ZARA-outlets. Clichés of people who are easygoing, social and always late. But what is the Spanish capital really like?
I didn’t know much more either as I first landed at Barajas airport at the end of September. Anxiously holding the notes from the Spanish crash course I’d done the previous weeks, I kept repeating the basic sentences in my head. I was trying to get ready to use my minimal Spanish knowledge to communicate my way through the city.
This is an act that I had to get used to very quickly, as the answer to my eager „Habla inglés?” („Do you speak English?”) has been more often than not a polite shake of head and a „no, lo siento”. First lesson learned: Spaniards could not, can not, will not speak English. There are exceptions, but only to prove the rule. I even heard a theory from a fellow student, stating that the Spanish take it as an offense if you try to talk to them in a foreign language in their own country. According to my Intercultural Management professor, they are simply shy when it comes to speaking English, and so it’s nothing personal. This is, however, only a crumb of comfort for us, foreign students, who try to get by, arranging our accomodation, ordering our metro tickets, buying our new SIM-cards – and forced to do all this in a language we don’t or just barely speak.
I had to learn this the hard way, as the airline I flew with lost my checked luggage. After two days of desperate half-English, half-Spanish phone calls and in-person visits I managed to retrieve it – and this very instant and very intensive training did wonders to my Spanish. I can only recommend the method to anybody trying to learn a language; the desperation caused by being alone without your personal belongings in a new place truly does get the best out of you. The same goes for having native roommates, by the way. You might have doubts about your language skills and too shy to even mumble a few words, but when you have to tell your Spanish roommate that there’s a huge cucaracha in the bathroom, you suddenly become as eloquent as Cervantes. Trust me, I speak from experience.
Also, what the Spanish might lack in their English skills, they make up for perfectly in their social skills. They do their best to make you feel comfortable speaking Spanish, trying to find the meaning even behind the least coherent sentences. As a result, regardless of the language barrier, it is very difficult not to make Spanish friends – they are extremely social people, always ready to go out for a drink, which in the Madrid region would usually be beer, sangria, or my personal favorite, tinto de verano, that’s taste reminds me a lot of mulled wine, only that it’s served with ice. Drinks are accompanied by tapas, small portions of finger food, such as jamón (ham), tortillas (Spanish omelette, often prepared with potatoes) or chorizo (a kind of sausage). Even if you only orders drinks, you automatically receive a small plate of such delicacies, cleverly promoting the bar’s food offers, and making you thirsty, thus making you order more drinks. Germans used to the „Maß”-beer sizing might be suprised to see that in many places in Madrid, beer is served in comparatively tiny, 0.2 liter bottles. Often, bars would offer four-five of these small servings placed into a bucket of ice, ensuring that the customer drinks a liter’s worth of beer, but also that it’s kept ice cold at all times. This is a handy trick, especially during schorching summer nights…
… and thus we’ve arrived to the next topic that simply has to be mentioned, especially having moved here from Germany: the weather. I am not going to lie, Madrid’s climate is very easy to get used to, especially during the winter semester. This year, summer-like hot weather lasted until the very end of September, and even in October the daily temperature often reaches 25 Celsius. But the real giveaway is the sun. Madrid’s sunshine hours top 2,750 in a year – as a comparison, the same data for Berlin is merely 1,625 hours a year. It makes an enormous difference as it significantly adds to the overall well-being – it’s simply much more difficult to feel demotivated or depressed with bright blue skies. Spaniards make use of this, as there are countless outdoors activities and places in Madrid, starting with one of the city’s biggest parks, Parque del Retiro (originally established by the Spanish Habsburgs, and for this reason it is suprisingly similar to the Schönbrunn park in Vienna). Soon enough, walking around in Madrid became one of my favorite recreational activities. It is one of the cities in which it is fun to just get lost in, observe the people, stop by a museum (most of which are free of charge for students), then reward oneself with a helado and continue admiring the diverse architecture. What makes Madrid’s landscape especially fun is the fact that it was built on multiple small hills, and so the occasional ups and downs give the streets a certain feel – not to mention the amazing views you get from some of the hillsides! To me, the most impressive view is the one from Parque del Oeste.. or maybe the one just south of the Palacio Real (the Royal Palace)? It’s a tough decision – it’s best to check out both, preferably at sunset, with a drink in the hand, accompanied by some friends.
As a very international city with a thriving arts scene and nightlife, Madrid is a magnet for students and young professionals – the city is full of young people from all over the world, making it a perfect location to spend a semester abroad at. It is home to many universities, both private and state-owned. Through the MHMK student exchange programme, we are enrolled at the UFV, the Universidad Francisco de Vitoria, a private university just west of Madrid. As expected of a private university, it has excellent facilities spread out on a large campus with different sports fields. The university has a student body of 4,000 people studying in very diverse fields, from Medicine through Filmography to Economics. Over 15% of the students are international, like us, thus allowing us to get to know people from various countries – the university encouraged this by organizing an Orientation Day for all foreign students, inviting us for a delicious paella lunch.
To sum up, Madrid offers you everything you need for a perfect semester abroad – and more. Genuinely nice and social people, beautiful architecture, breathtaking museums, a busy nightlife – you name it. Spending a few months here is also a great opportunity to learn more about the Spanish language, culture and mentality. Being right in the middle of the country, it is very easy to travel at the weekend and visit other parts and cities of Spain, such as Barcelona, Córdoba or Málaga. I would personally encourage anybody to apply for Madrid!