The Beginning of My Biggest Adventure Yet…
From 2011-2012 I had the opportunity to live and work abroad in Madrid, Spain as a visiting teacher, teaching English in a bilingual institute. I remember being so excited and nervous when I got the acceptance phone call. Over the year, I can honestly say I fell in love with Spain and the Spanish people. The people are really the best thing about Espana. I lived and taught in a little town called Móstoles, which is still in the Comunidad de Madrid. If you are a soccer or futbol fan, you may know it as the hometown of Iker Casillas, the captain and goalie of Real Madrid. You know, in the year I was there, I never did get to a game. Planning on changing that this March 2016 when I go back. While in Madrid, I got to know the city real well, and travel outside to some of surrounding cities and communities. I also learned a lot about the country itself.
First, let me dispel some images of Spain for you.
- I learned Spanish in high school. I can make it in Spain! Eh. In reality, your high school Spanish will only get you so far. I remember thinking this very thing as I got on the plane to Madrid, and being sadly mistaken the next morning as we tried to get to the hotel with all of my bags. Although I did manage to successfully negotiate one cab driver to get all of my bags into one cab, which I was proud of. If you stay in the touristy areas, and touristy shops, you’re bound to find someone who can at least partially communicate with you in English, particularly in Madrid. Hotels are almost always a given. I found that in Barcelona this was not as much the case as they already speak another main language besides Spanish, which is Catalan. If you plan to travel to Spain, the point is, when in Rome. Brush up on your Spanish, beyond “¿Dónde está el baño (actually they are also referred to as aseos there)?” and you will have a much better experience. Show them you appreciate their culture and they will be very helpful and obliging hosts. Spain actually has 4 official languages (Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galizian/Galician) and even more dialects. If you plan to live and work there, there is just no getting around it. You have to perfect the language. Setting up a bank account was quite a chore. I signed up for an intensive language course within my first few weeks of being there and constantly communicated with my co-workers in Spanish. I won’t say that it is perfect but it definitely does the job, and I can truly say I am bilingual now, and better for it.
- Spain is old world. Will I have my modern conveniences? There is some truth to this. Living in Spain was different for me because you expected to find the same supermarkets and even do laundry the same way. Most people in Spain don’t own clothes dryers so you hang you clothes to dry, which was a new experience for me. It was also quite different drinking parmalat milk because the fresh milk was not pasteurized so did not keep very long once opened, or the eggs that were so fresh they say out of the refrigerator and actually had feathers in the carton. The fresh fruit and veggie shops are to die for. I found living in Spain to be healthier in a way because I walked everywhere. While Spain is a very old country, and has an amazing amount of history going back centuries, I also find it to be very modern as well. The major metro systems have apps for smartphones, the US Embassy is online, wifi everywhere. You definitely won’t miss out, traveling to Spain.
- Spain is a very formal and religious country. Not at all! Spaniards are actually incredibly informal. They typically do not use the formal ustedes in their everyday communication. They greet you with a two-cheek kiss almost always. If you’re invited to dinner at a Spaniards house, they are very warm and you leave there thinking you just had a Thanksgiving meal after all the wine, cheese, meats, and other fantastic foods you just had. This is of course my experience. Religious? Granted, there are quite a number of churches in Spain and it continues to be a Catholic country, especially where the older generations are concerned, but the younger generations are less traditional and less religious these days.
- Siestas and Holidays! The Struggle Is Real. This is absolutely the thing I both love and hate about Spain. Having never been accustomed to a siesta period during the day, this was a real change. Teaching here in America I was accustomed to providing student’s lunch and continuing the day in class afterwards. In Spain, students went home by about 2pm and that was it…they ate lunch at home. Try going out to buy something in between 2-6 and you would be hard pressed to find a place opened, unless it was a larger department store or something like that. Especially during the summer months, when temperatures are so hot, you will find most people head in doors to escape the heat for a few hours before heading out late tapas 8-10pm. Holidays? Aside from the obligatory month on August when no one really stays around, and everyone is on their summer holidays, every time you turn around there seems to be some great festival or national holiday taking place. Semana Santa (Easter) is a full 10 days of festivities that you truly have to experience to believe.
- Public transportation is the best! For sure! I absolutely love the metro system in Madrid and the train system in general in Spain. You can get just about anywhere you want in Spain without driving. I felt a bit safer on the metro in Madrid than I did on the metro in Barcelona. I love Barcelona, and all of the Gaudi architecture, but being a major cruise port, you have more tourists and crime. Getting around on the metros is easy with apps on your smartphone that you can plan out a route and find out how long it will take you to get to your destination. I never missed my car there.
- Spanish time…what’s that? Ok, so this is no joke! Any Spaniard will tell you that Spain just lives on an alternate time universe. Promptness is not a big deal. Not on time? No pasa nada. Except when it comes to caching trains of course! Spaniards get up later, eat later (eating lunch anytime between 2-4pm, and then eat dinner often after 9pm), and go to bed very late. This can take some getting use to but if you’re traveling there, it’s important to note that you probably won’t get any kind of dinner reservations until at least 8pm, any shows you want to see will probably start late, and…remember to catch that siesta!
- Tipping? As in most of Europe, VAT (tax) is included in many of the posted prices of things, and tipping is simply not done. Waiters/waitresses make a living wage in most of Europe. I always leave a euro or two though, depending on where I am and what kind of service I have been given.
So now you know some basics about Spanish culture…drum roll please…
My Top 10 Things to Do In and Around Madrid
- Grab a map and walk. Get lost in the little neighborhoods like Malasana and see what you find. You can never be afraid to get too lost because there is a metro every couple of blocks in whatever direction you go. The neighborhoods are lined with little cafes and shops that you will never find unless you just walk around or talk to a local. Which brings me to…
- Talk to locals. Spaniards are by far and away the friendliest people I have ever met. Of course, don’t just walk up to a weird looking stranger on the street, but if you see an interesting looking person sitting at the same cafe, strike up a conversation. Talk to the bartender as you take you cafe con leche in the afternoon. They can be very helpful guides.
- Parque Retiro and Botanical Gardens. There is no shortage of things to do and see in the Parque Retiro. Take a boat ride in Estanque (pond), see the Crystal Palace, or the beautiful flowers in the botanical Gardens.
- Plaza Mayor and Sol. Plaza Mayor is a must see, but its also the streets around it that are of interest. In Plaza Sol you will find my favorite sweets shop, La Violetas, where you can get these fantastic violate candies(in addition to chocolates and truffles). Mercado de San Miguel is very close here as well, and it an experience unto itself. Come hungry and grab lunch there! Then walk to near by Choclateria de San Gines for its famous churros and chocolate.
- See the sites atop Plaza Cibeles. This classic, beautiful building was once a post office, but is very central and you can see for miles atop its observatory deck.
- Day trip to El Escorial. Only a 30 minute train ride outside the city of Madrid, I cannot say enough about this charming city! The basilica is breath taking and the history that surrounds the palace is very interesting. Escorial de San Lorenzo has long been a historic royal palace as well as a working monastery. If you take a guided bus tour or drive you can also see the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), where Francisco Franco is buried.
- Palacio Real and Cathedral Almudena. Continuing like the royal nut I am, I highly suggest a tour of the royal palace in central Madrid and the Cathedral Almudena right across the way. The Palace is not used today as a residence, way to expensive, but it is where King Felipe conducts business and where most all official royal functions occur. Most madrilenos (people from Madrid) do not fancy this someone what modern yet gothic look of Almudena but I find it to be a very beautiful church and I attended mass there once or twice during my time in Spain. It’s where King Felipe and Queen Letizia got married, incidentally.
8. Take a Hop On/Hop Off Bus Tour of the City. Whether in Barcelona or Madrid, the Sightseeing Hop On/Hop Off bus is truly the best way to see the city in a short amount of time. It can take you to all the important places and give you a history lesson at the same time.
9. El Pardo. This was used a residence by Francisco Franco, the dictator of Spain during WWII through the 1970s. Just a short car or bus ride outside the city, it may not be the easiest place to access using public transport, but its worth a short. Very interesting take on the Spanish Revolution and that period of time.
10. The Tren de Fresca and Aranjuez. The Strawberry Train or tren de fresca is an antique steam engine that departs from the train museum in Madrid, in May, June, September and October and can take you out to Aranjuez, which is another beautiful, historic palace. They will even give you a little basket of strawberries to eat along the way.
There are of course many more things to do in and around Madrid, but these are just some that make the top list for me. I am going back to Madrid in March 2016 and will be adding/updating this to be sure. If you have any questions for the gnome about visiting Spain, just email me! The key to Spain is, go with a laid back anything can happen attitude and all will be right with the world. Buen viaje! Good travels.