Tales from abroad: going to Madrid, Spain

Credit: Amelia Britton/Assistant Copy Manager Credit: Amelia Britton/Assistant Copy Manager Credit: Amelia Britton/Assistant Copy Manager Credit: Amelia Britton/Assistant Copy Manager Credit: Amelia Britton/Assistant Copy Manager Credit: Amelia Britton/Assistant Copy Manager

I’ve been in Spain nearly a month now, and it still doesn’t feel like I’m staying. The orientation period is over, and I hope having a routine will make me feel less like a visitor.

This semester abroad marks part three of my year away from Carnegie Mellon’s Pittsburgh campus, during which I’ve lived in a new city every four months. I left Pittsburgh in May 2015, went home to Ohio to pack and recharge, and headed to southern Virginia for a surreal internship experience with NASA. I lived with other interns in a crooked little beach house — our kitchen floor was so slanted that if you dropped something, it rolled to the corner. It felt like a dream. I met wonderfully nerdy people who were excited to talk about their wonderfully nerdy work. In August, I went home again to unpack and repack before heading for Washington, D.C. I’m glad I did the Washington Semester Program, but it was difficult. I worked as an intern three days a week and took four classes, so I always felt like I was doing one-too-many things. The city was smart, put-together, and fast-paced. It was exhausting. At winter break, I was glad for the chance to hibernate before my next journey: Madrid.

I studied Spanish in high school with a Madrileñan teacher. I picked up his accent — the distinct “th” for soft “c” and “z” sounds — and I decided to study abroad in the one place I could actually use it. Of course, Madrid also has the allure of being a European capital, and the history and culture here are astounding. Unfortunately, I still sound more like an American than a Spaniard.

Speaking Spanish here is a very humbling experience. I have passable classroom Spanish, and I am able to understand others more easily than I can produce the words myself. My host family is patient and helpful, but communicating with locals is often an exercise in embarrassing myself. I can get around the city and find the things I want, but I sometimes misunderstand small interactions. I’ve also misread situations for using the formal “usted” and informal “tú” (a young police officer corrected me — I had used “usted” because he was in a position of authority, but he was a little offended to be considered old).
While I can feel my Spanish getting better, I also feel reduced to less complex emotions or ideas. I can’t express nuance very well, so I worry that I seem boring. I know I don’t come across as intelligent — being smart is different than being good at Spanish. I’m frustrated by my own inability to share stories or give details. It’s strange to see what’s left of my personality when communication becomes so limited.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Madrid or Spanish culture, but I’ll share some observations:

I’m still getting used to the daily schedule here. Spaniards make a late lunch their main meal of the day (usually around 2 p.m.). The meals are much more spread out — a tiny breakfast (toast and coffee) at 8 a.m. and a small-ish dinner at 9 p.m. — so I spend a lot of time feeling hungry even though I’m not really eating less. The food is delicious; lots of potatoes, ham, and seafood. I haven’t had a bad meal.

The Euro has some peculiarities; each bill is a different size (actually very important for people who are blind — U.S. currency is among a few in the world in which every bill is identical). One and two Euros are represented by coins, so I find that the change rattling around in the bottom of my purse is suddenly useful and valuable. A change purse is becoming a necessity.

While some buildings here are much older than the United States, it’s not uncommon to see old farmhouses or sheds in the countryside that are falling to ruins. In both the country and the city, graffiti is ubiquitous. Instead of removing the graffiti, Spanish authorities seem to let it be. There’s an understanding that more would only take its place.

A few buildings seem deceptively old. For instance, I thought it was interesting to see an old-looking archway beside a very modern, metallic observation tower. I later learned that the archway was built to commemorate a Civil War victory for Franco’s troops, and is only 50 or so years older than its fellow. I felt a little cheated.

As a whole, Spain seems more relaxed than the U.S. It’s certainly more relaxed than a place like D.C. I’m also looking forward to exploring more of Europe; Spain is the only place I’ve been overseas. Traveling within Spain has been amazing already — the Roman aqueducts of Segovia and the incredible walled city of Ávila make me conscious of just how young the United States is. As a capital city, Madrid is modern and busy, and yet the evidence of its Roman-to-Muslim-to-Catholic imperial history is all around.

My time here is passing quickly. I want to balance travel with getting to know Madrid. Of all the new places I’ve lived in the last year, this is the most drastic change. I’ll be ready for something familiar next fall, but I’m trying to make the most of the next few months.