Well, I’m back in a land of eating dinner late and going out even later, of speaking spanish and drinking absurdly cheap wine, of quickly converting a new currency in my head, and doing an elaborate dance on the street to sidestep the remnants of the dogs that once again don’t get picked up after. But this is about where the comparisons between Madrid and Buenos Aires end. They are both quite large cities, but Madrid seems much more manageable, the metro more built up and better kept, and I already feel like I’ve seen more of Madrid than I did of Buenos Aires. Aside from the nicer underground transportation system, Madrid is easier to get around because its streets are walkable in a way that those of Buenos Aires are not. Barring the fact that many Buenos Aires streets have giant, unattended holes in them, it is also difficult to walk because you are never sure what the next neighborhood or few blocks will hold. I know my mom keeps telling me not to get too comfortable, to still be aware of myself and my surroundings (common sense), but Madrid feels about 47 times safer than Buenos Aires (still love you, BA). In a way, this comfortable feeling, like I’ve been living here for years, and could continue to do so, is part of what makes it just feel like life. Yes, I am abroad, and am only here for 4 months, but with a little bit of added travel and a bit more going out, it could feel just like any other semester. Which is why it has taken me so long to write this blog post. I felt that I should be writing about some amazing insights and discoveries about my time in Spain, something truly life-changing (so far, I haven’t met any Spanish royalty to run off into the sunset with), but save the obvious differences between a European, Spanish-speaking city and the one filled with glittering sky scrapers back home, my life here feels fairly ordinary. Ordinary, but in a good way. I am doing exciting things and geting new experiences, but all in the framework of my (somewhat) normal college life. That being said, ordinary comes in many different shades, and there are definitely things worth noting over on this side of the pond:
1. Ham. I don’t think there is anything Spaniards love more. They may dabble in some cow or chicken, but for the most part, they stay true to the pig, serving it up in all different cuts and forms. In Spain, ham has historical significance because it has been around and been eaten forever and it has never had any health scares (I guess Mad Pig Disease was never a thing). There is also a hierarchy among the ham that you can buy in Spain. Jamon Ibérico comes from black Iberian pigs, considered to be the best around. Within this type of pig, there are four varieties based on what they are fed, how they taste, and how expensive they are for the average family to purchase. Next there is Jamon Serrano, which indicates the cut rather than the breed, but is usually from a less exotic, ordinary white pig–the plebeian of the pig world, though the most consumed, used in sandwiches and other everyday piggy foods. And then, there is paleta. This poor substance isn’t even given the word jamón (ham) because it doesn’t come from the back of the leg. It is smaller, fattier and cheaper than its ham counterparts. I think I’ll just leave that on the supermarket shelf. As well as seeing the classic cold cut, wrapped-up, pink meat in the glistening isles of the store, pretty much any store that sells it also has giant pig legs hanging from the wall–on display, or to actually take home with you, I’m never quite sure. Grocery shopping here can become a full activity, as Spain has classic supermarkets as well as specialty stores for your fruit, vegetables or meat, and glorious markets full of pre-prepared foods, grocery items, and fresh-off-the-field (or sea) animals and produce. In these markets, people don’t just go to do their shopping, but might sample some gelato or paella or walk around sipping wine while browsing all the goods on offer.
2. Royalty. Though the members of the royal family are less well-known than Will and Kate (in fact, I have absolutely no idea what they look like), Spain is still a monarchy, with a beautiful palace right in the middle of the city. In a desperate attempt to do something cultural last weekend, my roommates and I hopped on a metro to the old part of the city and lived like royals for a day. On the way to the palace, we stopped at a local restaurant to indulge in their “menú del día” (a three-course meal in an ancient dining room with fluorescent lights and surly service). After a bowl of salty cabbage soup and a plate of unidentified fish in a yellow sauce, which I actually quite enjoyed, I decided to stick with a coffee for dessert. Unaccustomed to huge hot meals in the middle of the day, we waddled down the remaining streets until the palace and its sweeping courtyard came into view. If we didn’t know any better, we would have thought that the outside space was the whole sight, and it wouldn’t have been half bad, either. The sky was crystal clear and a deep blue, we were surrounded by grand archways and the impressive facade of the palace, and from the balcony on the side, we could see how high up we were, peering down at an expanse of other towns, houses, trees and hills, and looking off to the right, we spotted a set of snow-capped mountains. After taking about 1,200 photos of the arch, the doorway, the sky, the ground, the view and each other, we set off inside to get tickets to view the rooms. I quickly glanced at a sign that had a picture of a camera with a red line through it and kept walking, taking the “no photo” warning as more of a suggestion, and not really a rule. Still, we tried to be subtle and take photos when the backs of the guards were turned, but upon entering our third or fourth room, things got serious. A guard spotted me with my iphone raised, aiming at the beautiful chandelier hanging from a long rope. He marched right up to me and demanded that I take out my phone, show him the photo and delete it. Oh crap. I deleted the photo (fortunately, it was blurry) and then he said that I couldn’t even keep it in my pocket, for fear that I might be tempted to whip it out again, and ordered me to put it in my bag. So, fine, no more pictures for me. He then followed us into the next room and requested that we walk through quickly. Really? I’m just looking. He was having none of it and promptly ushered us out of the room. Rude. He then alerted his other security guard friends of the presence of 3 unruly American girls, and in every room we passed through, we felt as though every move we made was being highly scrutinized. We walked through the final rooms glancing over our shoulders every now and then, and then got loudly shhh’d by a group of Spaniards in front of us. It was time for us to leave. Even though the end of our tour left a slightly sour taste in our mouths, aside from the awkward feeling of being totally unwanted, it was a good trip. I could definitely get used to living in those rooms.
3. An obsession with being outside. Undoubtedly, the weather we’ve got going over here is infinitely nicer than what my friends and family are suffering through in New York and New Jersey. But still, 45 degrees and raining usually does not call on me to sit outside under an umbrella meant for the sun, sipping on a beer and nibbling on tapas. And yet, that is exactly what I saw on a cold, rainy night in the center of the city. Which makes me even more excited for the warmer days to come, when we can take full of advantage of restaurants’ terrazas and rooftop bars and join the hordes of Madrileños that take to the streets at night, preferring to share some wine or beer on corners or right in the middle of the road, rather than gathering inside someone’s apartment. Even now, on the warmer February days when the sun is shining, I find myself needing to take off my jacket at midday, the sun strong from the altitude and unimpeded by any tall buildings. And in truth, with a beautiful park around the corner and plenty of plazas to stroll through, why not spend as much time outside as possible?
4. Churros con chocolate. Enough said.
What can I say, Madrid, you’ve been good to me so far.