Published: Saturday, December 7, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 18:12
I should start with a disclaimer: My trip to Spain has been my first real trip outside the United States, and, for that matter, off of the Eastern Seaboard. Despite an orientation session, my expectations and preparation for study abroad were nonexistent. The weeks leading up to my departure were full of questions from interested family and friends: “But do you speak Spanish?” “Are you going to like the food?” “I’m guessing I’m not going to get my DVDs of “The Wire” back until January then?” I brushed them all off, thinking that everything was going to work out and that I just needed to go into the whole experience with an open mind.
Fast forward to Aug. 26, 2013, at 9:30 a.m. I am standing in the Madrid-Barajas Airport arguing through my jet lag with the desk worker about why my bag ended up in Miami and not Madrid in a weird mix of Spanish, English and vigorous hand motions. In this moment of crisis, my six years of high school Spanish went out the door, with the exception of “esto es una broma” (“this is a joke”) and “ahora, no tengo ropa” (“now, I don’t have clothes”). Spain had welcomed me with anything but open arms.
I love Spain: the people, culture, weather, everything. As an American though, it’s not the easiest place to become adjusted to. In Madrid, life is approached differently. If you pass a friend in the street, even if you’re rushing somewhere, you stop and have a brief conversation with him or her, just to show you can give him or her the time of day. The famous Spanish siesta is less of a giant, country-wide nap and more of a chance to savor a long lunch followed by a few hours away from the hustle and bustle of life while enjoying the company of others. Food is never eaten on the go, and I’ve been stared at rushing down the street with a snack. The general theme of not unduly stressing oneself and taking time to breathe and laugh was exactly what I was confronted with when I came through baggage claim my first day. I had to abandon my type-A personality and East Coast sensibility which compelled me to rush directly onto the next task. In hindsight, I couldn’t be happier that I did so. Even though it may just be the fact that in my program, classes are pass-fail — and the Spanish cutoff for passing is getting 50 percent percent correct – I haven’t felt as tightly wound as I do in the States. Between schoolwork, travelling and errands, I still accomplish a lot, but I don’t feel that creeping sense that I should be sprinting to the next thing on my list.
If you only read the financial news about Spain, you probably think the sky has already fallen. The reality of the country in the European Union’s worst unemployment crisis is far more nuanced. The sense I’ve gotten over my time is that, at the risk of generalizing, the Spanish people are distinctly proud. Reported unemployment of 26.6 percent does not translate into widespread panic or exploitation. There is, however, a palpable caution to the once-carefree country. Madrid’s Christmas lights will turn on much later to cut costs. Every day on the way to school, I am handed a flyer by the man at the entrance to the Metro informing me that his organization is willing to buy my gold. Despite this, the Spaniards have not lost their spark. Going out on a weekend involves staying out until 7 a.m. so you can take the Metro home. During September, Madrid was in contention to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. My friends and I went to a watch-party at the Puerta de Alcala near the center of the city, along with 400,000 other people. After hours of dancing, singing and partying in the square, it was announced that Madrid had been eliminated. Instead of turning into an angry or dejected mob, the crowd fired off a quick “hijo de puta” chant at the Olympic Committee, clapped when the announcer promised to do it all again for 2024 and went home for dinner and drinks. I realized that this was a perfectly Spanish way to respond. Later that night at a local friend’s apartment, I asked if he was upset Madrid didn’t make it, and he responded, lying on the couch, “I didn’t even go, Pirates of the Caribbean was finally on with Spanish subtitles.”
Now, less than a month from returning home, I’m left with a weird desire to be in two places at once: home with family and friends in the United States and the ensuing sense of normalcy, and in Madrid, my new home and my platform to explore the rest of the world. Daily, I find myself saying that I couldn’t be happier living in Madrid, and that if there were ever a place I’d leave the United States for, this would probably be it. Even though I was already technically an adult, in at least one way, I’ve grown up on this trip. I’ve realized that it is impossible to have everything I want in one moment or place, so I need to take what I can, when I can. What comes to mind is a particularly applicable lyric by Taylor Swift, my personal favorite source of Americana while I’ve been abroad. Faced with questions about upcoming classes, housing, and post-grad life, it’s nice to remember, “This is the golden age of something good and right and real.”