17 Things I’ve Learned My First Month in Spain

Today makes one full month that I’ve been here in Spain! Woot woot! I can not believe that a month has already passed and that I am now sitting here in my own piso in Madrid typing all this out on my laptop. One month ago I was freaking out and stressed, crying, packing, and stuffing my face with as much comfort food as possible in anticipation of my hop across the pond and now here I am, cool as a cucumber, for the most part anyways. A lot can happen in a month no matter where you are in the world but when those 30 days include a transcontinental move and new job…well, it seems a little heavier. I feel like I’ve learned a lot and there’s still a lot of room left for mental growth and cultural learning but since today makes a milestone, and I love lists, here’s the top **&& things I’ve learned in my first month in Spain.

1) Maps are your best friend and you can never have too many!

I had a little Lonely Planet Madrid book when I arrived here and tore out the map in the back to use. My placement program also handed out maps in our orientation packets of the center of Madrid and it was a free map sponsored by…McDonald’s! Lemme tell ya, that little sucker is THE BEST map I have in my entire collection. I found a large fold out map in our apartment, the Lonely Planet Spain book has one for Madrid, Google Maps, etc. Out of all of those, the McDonald’s one is the absolute best. In addition to those, the Cercanias Renfe and the Metro system each have their own freebie handout maps and what’s more, APPS!!! Get those apps ASAP because they will be your best friends.

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2) Siesta time is real-it is not a myth.

Siesta is usually from 3-7 each day but it will vary depending on where you’re going and what part of the city, etc. There’s way too many variables to even begin to figure them out. The closer you are to Sol, the less likely you are to find businesses closed during siesta, as in clothing stores, restaurants, bars, etc. The banks will always close at 2:30 and if you’re lucky, reopen at 4:30. It can be aggravating to come home from work at 3 pm only to find that I can’t do ANY multi-tasking shopping on the way home like stopping to get groceries, light bulbs, toothpaste or anything else you might need. So you’re kind of stuck waiting until things reopen between 5-7 unless you go to a Chino store which is open 12pm-12am every day. 

 

3) Night life doesn’t end until dawn the next day…

If you’re gonna go out on the weekend, you better not eat dinner until no earlier than 10 am. Likewise, if you show up to the club or discoteca before 1 am, everyone will know that you’re a foreigner and think you’re crazy for being such an early bird. People in Madrid LOVE to go out all night and have fun with their friends but the party doesn’t end until at least 6:00 a.m. when all the clubs CLOSE. Back in the States, last call is usually 1:30 am and the bars close at 2 so that’s the latest I ever stayed out and even that was super difficult. My second weekend here, my friends and I decided to go all out and “kill the night”. We succeeded in that we finished eating our post-dancing-all-night chocolate con churros around 6 am and lo and behold, the Metro had reopened (it’s only closed 1:30-6:00 am each day) and we were able to hop on and go home and CRASH. 

Hemingway once said, ” no one in Madrid goes home until they have killed the night.”

4) Sangria really isn’t all that popular…Tinto de Verano is king.

Before coming to Spain, the most famous drink I knew about was sangria. Duh. Everyone knows that and most come here with the assumption that it’s everywhere. Alas, there is another beverage far more popular and prevalent in every bar; tinto de verano. It’s a combination of red wine and lemon Fanta (or any lemon soft drink) and ya know what? It’s pretty dang good. Mojitos are also really popular. 

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Look at that mint!

5) Water is a cure-all for any ailment.

You have a fever? Put cold water on your face. You scraped your knee? Go wash it with water. Oh, your head hurts? Go in the bathroom and put cold water on the back of your neck.

6) I have to cook with gas now and not blow up the kitchen.

I’ve only ever used electric at home and now must use gas to cook. Open to valve, turn on the burner, light a match, flinch, toss match and cook. Now that I’m getting the hang of it, I really like it because it cooks a LOT faster than just electricity and I can have my omelette in the mornings in like, 37 seconds. So when I’m groggily, grumbly, hungrily standing in the kitchen in the early hours before the sun has risen, it’s nice to shove food in my mouth pretty quickly.

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Italian coffee maker-I can do it all by myself!

7) A tapas crawl is a fantastic way to try different foods and socialize.

La Latina is well known for the best barrio in Madrid for tapas according to every guidebook or blog or web-site I’ve read. It’s not just fluff because there is certainly a bevy of delicious options. The first time I went to La Latina, my roommate and I hung around the Metro stop above ground waiting for some of our friends to join us and this turned out to be a slick move. Promoters for bars would come up to us, tell us the specials that night and hand over a little card or flyer listing the specials and name and address of the restaurant. We’d already been given 4 cards by the time our friends all arrived and had at least an idea of what prices to expect and common specials. 

Calle Cava Baja-the best street in La Latina for tapas on a Friday night.

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This place was the bombdotcom!

8) There are 2 guaranteed responses when I tell a Spaniard I’m from Alabama…

The first is “Oh! Forrest Gump! I know this movie.”

The second…they begin singing Sweet Home Alabama to me…

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9) Riding the Metro is like a game of chess and every player knows their move.

I’m new to world of public transportation and have never had to use it before for a daily commute. The Metro system here in Madrid is AWESOME and considered one of the best in the world. It’s typically clean, the trains run regularly, there’s signs everywhere, tons of stops, and it’s affordable. There’s certain intricacies that I’ve noticed though when it comes to riding the train. It’s fairly common, as it should be, to give up your seat to someone who is elderly or pregnant or carrying a child. I’ve also noticed that if someone is sitting down, they will stand up and move to be in front of the door when they next stop is theirs. Someone standing will then sit and repeat the same movement when it’s their turn to exit. This is typically only true when all the seats are taken in a cab. 

Sprinting to catch the train is also the most widely played sport in Madrid. SOURCE: me. I myself have had to sprint up and down the escalators to catch a train before it leaves and getting stuck waiting anywhere from 2-22 minutes to get the next one. 

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10) The city has its own collection of smells wafting about everywhere.

I think this can be said of any major city and this is just my own observation but…European deodorant SUCKS. That or some people don’t care. The Metro is usually fragrant with the scent of stale urine, maybe this is because there are no visible public restrooms. Some people will walk by and you just get hit with a big whiff of B.O. I’m not saying all Americans smell like roses, just that I’ve noticed body odor here a lot more. Fortunately, to balance this out, there’s little bakeries and restaurants everywhere with delicious and mouth watering smells swirling out of the windows tantalizing you to stop and chow. 

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11) Coffee is a HUGE deal even though the cups are SMALL.

My school has coffee break every day from 11:00-11:15 and little cafes are scattered throughout the city. Everyone drinks coffee and it’s common to see the cafes packed with little clusters of people talking or studying together. Espresso is super popular and you’ll see varieties of it everywhere like “espresso corto”, “espresso con leche”, “espresso con nata”, and a dozen different ways. I’m used to drinking a big ol’ mug of hot coffee or a cool, tall glass of iced coffee in the kitchen at my old job but the cups here are pretty much fat shot glasses. It’s reasonable though because espresso is WAY stronger than the coffee normally drank at home. 

12) Most people’s frame of reference for the changes in Spain relate back to Franco.

This is will probably be the most difficult point to explain in this post but I’ll give it a shot. He died in November 1975 thus ending his dictatorship of Spain. In my SP 351 class, Spanish Civilization, we had to learn about Francisco Franco, his involvement with Hitler and Mussolini and his tight fist around the Spanish people. We learned it, read it, answered questions on the test but it just wasn’t anything that felt real or familiar as history lessons can often be. 

After arriving in Spain, I find that his control of power is still something heavy on the minds of many people, especially those who are old enough to remember living under his thumb. My landlords have talked to my roommate a little bit about the changes in Spain over the past few decades and how the country itself has progressively become more and more free or carried an air of liberation. Everyone I have spoken to is glad that he’s gone, and to no longer have to live under such possessive control. 

Having spoken with a few of the teachers at my school, my landlords, a few adult students I’ve tutored, the general idea that I’ve heard (and this is just what I’ve been told personally) is that the current crisis Spain is in is lent to the fact that the democracy is still fledgling, and the country is having to adjust to the government being more than just one man with a major power complex. It’s taking a while to work out the kinks, and figure out how to run things in a more liberal and open government. It’s too soon after his death to really expect the country to be running smoothly when so many people are still changing to this new found freedom. – Once again, this is just what I’ve been told by the Spaniards with whom I’ve spoken. 

13) You should never be alone, ever. 

People go everywhere and do every thing together here and wouldn’t ever imagine doing anything alone. As an independent chica from the States, I’m perfectly fine being alone all day and doing whatever I want to do like going to a museum, a park, lunch, a coffee shop or shopping. This is not the common mindset here and when you see people out and about, they are always with someone else. I like this! I’m working on being more social and going out and meeting new people as much as possible. I’m an extrovert already so this hasn’t been much of a trial at all and it’s nice to see that most people are friendly. 

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Mad Dogs Tavern in Moncloa with the gang.

14) Copious amounts of PDA are totally fine and no one notices it. 

I mean…COPIOUS. While riding the Metro, walking through the park, or eating a bocadillo in a restaurant, it is just nothing to look around and see 2 people making their own unfilmed soft porn. Don’t get me wrong, the clothes stay on, but there’s lot of touching and smooching going on and for someone from the ultra-conservative South in the U.S. it makes me blush and turn 7 shades of red on the daily.

On a side note, I’ve been told that this relates back to the aspect of freedom from under Franco. Without a dictator, the people feel a lot freer to be affectionate. The common greeting in Spain is dos besos, a kiss on each cheek always starting to your left. 

15) Spaniards are world wide champs of the staring contest. 

They stare at everyone…the Metro is just one big staring contest. It’s not covert, secretive staring either, it’s blatant, direct eye contact staring. There’s nothing sinister behind it, you never know why someone is looking at you so closely but they’re just…staring. I’ve been told that a Spaniard may start looking at someone and just go down a rabbit hole of thoughts as in “I like that scarf…it looks mine…where is mine…I could wear it with…” and just not avert their eyes from the person at whom they’re staring and just not realize it. 

16) The wine is dirt cheap and so dang good. 

Seriously…Spain is wine country and for good reason. La Rioja in the northern part of the country is known to be one of the best producers of wine in the country and because of this, wine is really cheap. You can buy a 1L Tetra Pak of vino tinto for 0.89 cents…and it’s not great but not bad. The good wine is €1,50-2,00 which is still pocket change and the quality goes up from the 0.89 cent variety. If you want to get really classy, say when you’re trying to be romantic, spring for the €5,00 wine. Hey-o! That’s the higher end wine and still cheap enough that you aren’t breaking the bank. I used to buy $5 bottles of the cheap-o wine back home when the stuff I liked best wasn’t on sale for $7.50. It’s pretty much cheaper to drink wine than Coca-Cola and I’m totally fine with that. 

17) I still have a lot left to learn. 

I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of becoming a more integrated individual in the community, of understanding the insanity of the Spanish bureaucracy (I don’t think anyone will ever truly understand, not even the people working in it) and how to speak Castellano Spanish. My Spanish has tons of room for improvement and I’m trying to pick up common slang so I can at least be in the know. 

Word to the wise: “coger” is NOT vulgar in Spain. Coming with a background of speaking Mexican Spanish, I was appalled at how much I heard when I first arrived. 

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National Day of Spain in Alcala de Henares

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3 thoughts on “17 Things I’ve Learned My First Month in Spain

  1. laurago12 says:

    Great post! I like reading about one’s adventures in another country 🙂 number 13 is so true! My Spanish housemate doesn’t want me to go on my own or do things on my own and I find it so weird! and obviously the fiesta ahah

    • almcgough says:

      Thanks for stopping by Laura! I’m getting used to number 13 even though I live with another American, the teachers at my school always walk to coffee break together and insist that I go with them every day. Loneliness doesn’t seem too common here. 🙂

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