Friday 6 May 2016

Glad To Be Madrid Of It

I've done some things and gone some places that I, unsurprisingly, haven't yet managed to write about in a timely fashion. I've been to Budapest and the Canary Islands since I lasted posted and now but I'll come to those soon. Right now I want to talk about Madrid since I'm leaving in five days.

I've been avoiding writing about Madrid for a while now. Madrid is hard - I have no idea what to say. I've been here for four months now and that makes it both easier and harder to put this city into words. The other places I've seen, the things I've written, that's all been as a tourist. As a tourist you only get a certain, limited perspective on a place. You might see the city centre, some of the 'must see sites', maybe you even wander off the beaten path and find a truly local restaurant or party or watering hole but it's not the same as really getting to live in a place and understanding what it's like on a more intimate level. For all my shtick about being "a traveller not a tourist", at the end of the day, that distinction is a state of mind. The fact is that I've always been a tourist, whatever I like to call myself. Until now.

I'm certainly not calling myself a local here. You can live your entire life in a large city like Madrid and not see everything. There's just too much; too many people, too many things, too many people doing too many things, never enough time. However, there is definitely a steep learning curve when you move to a new city and stay put for a while and this curve has some surprising milestones you might not have expected, that come quicker and easier than you could have predicted.

Visiting a city for a weekend is measured in a checklist; it's looking at tripadvisor before you arrive, seeing what there is to do in this new place and doing it. You measure your success in that new city by the attractions you've seen, the bars you've been to, the museums you've visited, the exciting activities you've done and the ability to say 'yeah, I've been to wherever, here's the Instagram post to prove it' when you leave two days later.

When you live in a place for an extended period of time, the measurements change. I'll be leaving Madrid in 5 days and there are still so many things my friends and I haven't done - things that if we were only here for a few days, we would have easily knocked over. It's because these things matter less (although laziness and poor time management are definitely factors) compared to the new ways we've got to measure our success here. Instead of visiting the local famous castle, it's successfully navigating between two places you've never been without using a map and/or a Google map. Instead of going out to the best bars every night, it's taking a visiting friend to the best calamari sandwich shop in Madrid (although also the best bars after). Instead of visiting a famous museum, it's giving a visiting Colombian couple directions to the Prado museum in my terrible, broken Spanish. Instead of going out and doing things constantly, it's the moments when you can just unwind, catch your breath, find some friends and relish the enjoyment of successfully doing nothing. Instead of having photos to prove you went somewhere, it's sitting in busy Plaza de San Ildefonso in Malasaña with a beer and a tapas, watching the people coming and going and writing this blog post. This is the difference between visiting a place and living in a place.

It's also what makes it so hard to write about where you live. What do I write? Sure, I've done most of the touristy things here too but, where that might be enough to talk about for a weekend trip away, it seems hollow and superficial for a place I've lived for four months. The milestones, the ones that actually have any real meaning, are the ordinary moments. They're the moments I don't even realise are happening around me and, even if I did write them down, would seem utterly insignificant to anyone else.

That all having been said, I've done a lot of stuff since I've been here. A lot of stuff. Maybe I'm just in a deeply philosophical mood after writing everything above but I think this post might be a lot shorter than I thought it was going to be when I started writing. I was going to detail and provide photo documentation for every single thing I remember doing in the last four months that might be interesting to anyone reading but now I'm rethinking that. Really, who cares that I rode my bike in the park last Monday? Is anyone going to be amazed that I visited the royal palace with Chuck last month? Will it rock anyone's world to know that I went to Segovia and Toledo as day trips on the weekend? Actually, Segovia and Toledo were pretty cool. I'll put up some photos of them. Actually, I'll put up lots of photos but I feel like I've been here too long and done too much stuff, significant and objectively insignificant, to write my planned epic 3-blog post trilogy, year 2-level recount about what I did every day with my time in Madrid. I will talk about some stuff though, as a sort of cop out, I guess.
I'll lead with what I've learned here about myself. Travel is always a great source of personal growth, as I've written about here before. In the past, my takeaway message is that I'm a strong independent guy that, when placed overseas on my own for an extended period of time, is more than capable of just doing my own thing, looking after myself and having a ball on my own. I've done Europe solo before and I realise now that that was my expectation going into this trip as well. I knew I'd probably make friends here eventually but it never really crossed my mind that this trip would end up being any sort of team building activity. I got really lucky - I made 10 really good friends in 2005 and I've stayed in pretty much the same circle ever since. Sure, I've made friends, enemies, frenemies, Facebook friends, acquaintances, peers, girlfriends, friendly-looking-strangers-at-uni-I-see-everyday-but-don't-actually-know-their-names and work colleagues since, but at its core, I've not really had to make actual, honest to goodness, legitimate friends in longer than is probably socially acceptable. So what has struck me more than anything on this trip (like I wrote about when I went to India but on a larger scale) is that the people I've surrounded myself with thus far have totally made my time in Madrid the experience that it's been. Sure, my circle might not be as ethnically broad as I was hoping/expecting since I can't escape the plague of bloody Australians here, but my time here would have been infinitely different, infinitely worse and infinitely less full of hangovers had I kept to myself in the way that, looking back on it now, I was probably subconsciously planning to do. This has gotten far too soppy and emotional so I'm going to dial it back but this has just been an opportunity to say thank you to the wonderful people I've met here for making my time in Madrid everything that it has been. Por supuesto, you know?
Toledo. The photo doesn't really show it but im actually sitting somewhere pretty ridiculous.
Puerta del Sol
Next thing, my living conditions. I've been giving a lot of thought as to whether I'm glad I did a home stay while I was here. I think I'm glad that I did. Whilst everyone else was renting flats with 10 other people, living independently in the heart of the city in the proper broke, Bohemian, Erasmus student style, I was living with a grandmother and a Texan outside the city center. At first I was extremely jealous; I thought I'd totally messed up. These guys were all living their dreams in the bustling, thriving center and I had to catch two metros just to get into town. As time went on, I started to realise that maybe it wasn't such a bad deal. I crunched the numbers and realised I was coming out ahead once everything was taken into account but it was more than that. I got to live vicariously through these guys in their massive shared apartments and I came to feel like also had a second home in Puerta del Sol. Their friends became my friends, their apartment parties became my apartment parties, their apartment became my apartment to an extent. The thing is, I also got a whole lot of things they didn't. Carmen, my host mum, is an absolute dear. Whilst I'm sure most of the things I found different or mildly annoying living in her house came down to our age difference more than our cultural difference, she gladly and proudly stepped into the role of my de facto mother whilst I lived there and that was the difference. My friends in their share house in the city got friends. I got friends and family.

Oh god, I'm going to barf with how disgustingly disgusting that was. I'm not sure what's wrong with me and why I'm being so soppy. At the end of the day, Carmen accepted me an as her de facto son for four months, I met her family, we had family dinners every night and she seemed to have a real desire to make sure I enjoyed my time in Spain as much as possible. Also, living with a genuine Española really helped my Spanish, so that was another plus.
My home for the past four months

Madrid itself is a great city, even if the people who live here are a bit strange. I'd been to Madrid before in 2013 and even ended up spending more time here than most places but if I'm being honest, it wasn't until recently at this city has really grown on me. It's not that I didn't like it per se but the first time I came to Madrid, it was way too hot. When I arrived in January, it was cold and gray and rainy. As the time has gone on, however, and as the weather has improved and going outside is increasingly pleasant, I have to say the city has definitely grown on me. I like the huge number of enormous parks around the city, the nightlife that never stops, the cool barrios like Malasaña and La Latina, the perpetually busy hive of activity that is Puerta del Sol. This is a genuinely cool city and I'm really sad to be leaving it. That all brings me to an enormous contradiction. My mum and stepdad are coming to Spain in June and they asked me to plan them an itinerary through Spain and Portugal. Because time was limited, I had to cut one place from the itinerary and, without really thinking, I decided that place should be Madrid. To be fair, that was a decision made during my 'Madrid is cold and rainy' phase but it's a decision I stand by now for one simple reason; everything I talked about in the first few paragraphs. Madrid is a genuinely cool place that gets overlooked in Spain only because so many other cities has so much more to offer on face value. Barcelona, Granada, Malaga, Seville, Ronda. Those are distinctly Spanish cities. You go there and you FEEL like you're in Spain. You go to those cities and you have a list of things from tripadvisor that you absolutely HAVE to do while you're there and when go to the Alhambra in Granada, you feel like you've done Granada. When you go to Plaza de España in Seville, you feel like you've done Seville. When you see the bridge in Ronda, you feel like you've seen Ronda. That's what being a tourist is, it's small, consumable bites. I lived in Madrid for months before I really came to appreciate how cool it is. Barcelona is a cool, Spanish city on face value alone. I don't want that to detract from Madrid. Madrid is a cool place but it doesn't feel distinctly Spanish. For the capital of Spain - full of Spanish people speaking Spanish, eating Spanish food and doing Spanish things - Madrid has a genuinely international feel to it. If all the signs and the language of the locals were switched to German, I could be in Germany. Switch it to French, I could be in France somewhere. That's not a criticism; an international feel is something virtually no other Spanish city has in my experience but if you only have a few days to spend in a place, an international feel isn't really the atmosphere you want to experience. You want to remember the city you just visited for what it is on face value. I'm sure other people might disagree with my take on Madrid. Again, I'm not being disparaging, it's just my impression of a lively, interesting, sometimes surprising city.
Spain when I arrived
Spain when I'm leaving

Finally, there's the Madrileños themselves. My friends and I have spoken at length about the subtle peculiarities of Spanish people, particularly those in Madrid. Although obviously all Spanish people can't be tarred with the same brush, there are a few generalities I can make about the Madrid locals. The biggest one that surprised me was I expected everyone to be relaxed, passionate and easy going. In other parts of Spain, particularly the South, I feel that's true. I think everyone is just that little bit more relaxed (which happens when you take a nap every afternoon, I guess) but in Madrid, I've found the people to be generally quit serious. It's not to say they're not warm and friendly and don't ever laugh because obviously that's not true. I've met so many friendly locals, everyone is lovely. But having said that, I felt ,Yosef feel more at ease when I went to Budapest last week. In part simply because the locals around me seemed visibly more relaxed. I think the best way to describe it is that there's very much a mentality that there is a single right way to do most things. More than any other place I've been (at least in Europe), people seem to conform to 'normality' and to social pressures. It's really hard to give specific examples but I'll try. For example; if you eat outside on the street or drink directly from a bottle or can, you can expect to receive dirty looks from everyone. If you dress in too much colour or too outlandishly, you will stand out a mile away (the Madrid style seems to be grayish, monochrome colors in what has been described as "aggressively normal"-style). Even something as simple as not wearing a jacket on the (perpetually overheated) metro when everyone else is, is enough to earn a few disapproving glances. Maybe it's a throwback to Spain's 40 year dictatorship, when the main policy was forced unity and cultural oneness or maybe it's just a cultural thing. Obviously every culture has different practices and customs and that's cool and normal but it does certainly feel like in Madrid there is always a single, specific, correct way to do things.

Oh, I've also been going to uni here. Honestly, I really don't have anything to report on that front. I've had some good classes, I've had some rubbish classes. The uni is ok but certainly not amazing. Even though I'm officially here on a student exchange to study, it's really been the least important part of my time here.

So that's it. It might seem short and sickeningly sweet for a four month stay but I also feel like it says enough. Madrid has become like a home for me now. I'm not ready to leave it yet but, at the same time, I also feel it's time.


  1. Great summary Alex. Visiting v's living somewhere is often very different and gives you another perspective of a place. Enjoy the last few days.

  2. Great summary Alex. Visiting v's living somewhere is often very different and gives you another perspective of a place. Enjoy the last few days.

  3. nice one alex