As most who know me personally are well aware, I have been studying abroad in Madrid for this past - and, also my last - semester. For those who are my friends on Facebook, you have most definitely seen at least a picture or two of my adventures both in and outside of Madrid. However, many of my days were rather simple. Those pictures and those umpteen statuses I’ve posted only describe the very unique aspect of studying abroad and having the blessed opportunity to use that host city as a spring board for weekend travel plans. For better or worse, my Monday - Thursday could be likened to a typical semester; days that passed uneventfully, yet, you can still find an almost invisible beauty that lies behind the daily rituals of simply being in a foreign city.
I’ve been working through three personal journals since my arrival here in Madrid and while I tend to write solely for myself (and those close to me that I choose to share with), I DID purposefully write a few entries that I knew I would publish publicly. The one below is such; it is, by far, the longest of those I wrote for public display, but I think it is also one of the best, considering its subject. I wanted to detail a “normal” day that I have here; without the glamour of wine and paella and lacking the existence of an airplane or high-speed train, awaiting to take me to famous cities. More or less, this is an honest account of my typical weekday - schoolwork and public transportation rich! - so as to report a more realistic view outside of the realm of pictures that make it appear as if I am gallivanting about Europe without a care.
Take note: I wrote this on the date below, so obviously some important things have ended or have been resolved (such as finishing school and finding a job). I wanted to make sure I put this up before I actually leave Madrid in just 5 short days!
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
It’s so easy to walk around and not notice your surroundings. People do it every day, despite being surrounded by beautiful landscapes and – hopefully – having two functioning eyes. Well, really, you only need one. Up until now, I realized that I’ve never taken the time to document the routine that I seem to have fallen into. While it’s true that half my mind still remains in Los Angeles (how can it not? There is an expiration date on my stay here), I’m not giving enough credit to the fact that I am living in Madrid. That I am conversing for the most part, half of my day, each day, in another language. That I am taking classes all week and spending roughly 2 hours each day through 3 modes of transportation. All of these things, you forget to pay attention to because they seem to have become your life, more or less. Out of habit, we only focus our attention on new wonders that provide foreign stimulation and avert our eye(s) in their direction. I haven’t slowed down enough to take my new – albeit, temporary – routine into full consideration and to appreciate it.
Each day, I begrudgingly pull myself from the sheets of my bed (that part doesn’t change, regardless of what country I’m living in) and look at the day ahead of me, groggy and frustrated. Just 15 more minutes of sleep? 10 minutes? 5…? No; my mind fights for the day, while my body is nostalgic for the night. Dragging myself to the bathroom to freshen up for the day, a conversation trails behind me between my host mom and I:
“Buenos días, Andrés”
“Has dormido bien?”
“Muy bien, y tú? Cómo has dormido?” she follows up…
“Bien, también. Voy a ducharme ahora,” I tell her, attempting to finalize the conversation.
“Bueno,” she quickly responds.
More or less, this has become our morning ritual. I make sure to check that she hasn’t said anything more – so as to not be rude – by waiting for a couple seconds before shutting the door. My phone clicks on with the push of a button, I search Youtube for a song to accompany my shower, and prepare my singing voice for the house to welcome my morning presence, yet again. Shy to start off, but really getting into it halfway through, I’m sure Paloma is smiling or laughing as I try my best Beyonce or Amy Winehouse. Jumping out of the shower, I yank my towel from its resting spot on the radiator (warm, more than lukewarm; it’s one of the simplest differences that I need to integrate back home), quickly wrap it around my waist with ease, and start performing my hygiene rituals before the mirror. Just when I think I’ve got it right, I push a crop of hair into its natural place and I’m ready to head out. If my life were a movie, I might linger in the mirror for a little pep talk, firing myself up for the day; perhaps something in Spanish may be befitting; something to the effect of, “Oye, guapo. Eres El hombrey tienes el poder. Vete y aproveche el día!” However, there’s no time nor any need for that; after all, it’s a simple school day; possibly useful, but only on test days. Walking into the kitchen after changing quickly from my towel attire, I’m greeted once again by Paloma and a wonderful spread on the kitchen table, usually consisting of coffee, bread, marmalade, milk, sugar, and fruit. Some days, an omelet or small “bocadillo” makes its way to the table. Greeting one another with a warm smile, I take my place at the table to make small talk and fill my belly before heading off to class, usually in a hurry. With breakfast finished, I grab my keys, put on my jacket, announce, “Qué tengas un buen día!” to Paloma, followed by a couple “besitos”, and I’m bolting out the front door, checking my phone and hoping I can make it on time for the appropriate transfers through public transportation.
A 5 minute walk is all that gets me from the house to the entrance of my metro stop – República Argentina – and, once again, I’m checking my phone as I lower myself down the stairs, almost two at a time, hoping to catch the imminent train. Just before reaching the ticket machine, I fumble around in my front pocket, collect my “abono”, and slide the ticket gracefully and efficiently through the machine; the action has become so automatic that there’s no longer a second of hesitation in between gestures. Like the other day-travelers, I easily segue into the herd and join the crowded transport, making my presence as remote as possible. However, unlike most of the crowd, I am sans electronic devices and instead, tune my ears to the jostling and screeching of the metro, accompanied by various conversations of which I’m able to note bits and pieces (a lack of total understanding is stunted by my inability to hear everything crystal clear, coupled by my inexperience with the language). Yet, each day, their sporadic conversations become less foreign to my trained ears and that’s when I can comfortably elect to tune out one conversation about where a couple will be dining for dinner tonight and what sounds appetizing, in favor of one slightly more interesting. Just a short 5 minutes until my trains´ doors slide open and the race to make it to the sole escalator begins… a mad dash ensues.
Inevitably, people are bumped and the overall mood of the crowd: annoyed. Swinging my laptop bag in front of me to create a more narrow, linear, path, I do my best to bolt ahead of the older “walkers” – the name I’ve given them stemming from The Walking Dead; not for their likeness to pestilence and death, but rather for their slow, jerky movements – and find a comfortable middle amongst the determined females and the men eyeing those determined females just barely ahead of them. Such is the typical Spanish male, you’ll come to find if you ever live here. Yet, of course, in true Spanish fashion, I complete the chain by noting how the jeans are fitting on the men near or beside me. Nothing is harder than fighting the body’s natural gaze when social barriers deter you and warn you to avert your eyes. Halfway through our transportation marathon, my ears perk up and I’m immediately calmed by the ethereal and distinct sounds of the classical violin. As I turn the corner to head towards the Renfe (short-distance trains) area, there lies the source of the heavenly music: a tall, lanky, middle-aged man with wild curls and a grey sweater vest, who is always there. After making this transfer so many times now, his music has become just as recognizable as his face and I could pick him out of a crowd based on either characteristic, with ease. Often, I slow down my walk in order to give him a more befitting audience, if only for a couple seconds. I try to walk that line between keeping him locked in my sights and straining my ears, listening to every last note as I float away towards my desired destination.
Coming up ahead – once again – is yet another two gates of security blocking me from the train area: the first slides open like clockwork as it detects my imminent presence, while the second requires another scan of my ticket; a sacrifice to the train gods. Climbing another escalator gets me to my second leg of public transportation and, more often than not, I board the train promptly and hope to snag a window seat every time. On the metro, I’m un-phased by the choice of seats; there’s not much to see when you’re tunneling underground like a mole. However on the train, I’m disappointed when a window seat hasn’t freed up by the time of my arrival. Without it, I’m cut off from my connection to the outside world through the travel process and you don’t realize how much that view of Madrid and the vast expanse of valleys mixed with industrial depots can be until you’re stuck, couched in between hostile travelers, window-less. Despite my affinity to journal on the metro – I prefer solace, as it is the time I’ve carved out to write – I do like the occasional look out the window whenever I elect to do so. A short half an hour – what feels like an hour, really, if I’m not journaling – is what gets me to the Las Margaritas station and my final journey to school.
Disembarking from the train with the masses, I search and scan the crowd looking for familiar faces that I might have missed beforehand. From there, I follow the path of the determined; from afar, I can only imagine we look as if we’re a pack of programmed robots, unable to veer from our specified route. The second we hit the gates of the campus, Carlos III University, we break from our technologically-crafted paths and funnel into buildings whose first floor starts as “0” (a system that still confuses me). The buildings are alive and teeming with seemingly-rapid Spanish conversations – rapid, for someone just studying the language that is – and quick greetings/salutations as friends pass by one another. If it’s a Monday or Wednesday, you can guarantee I’m “on-time” and chatting with friends as we wait patiently for the instructor’s arrival; on-time is relative, considering the teacher is always late and I’m at least there before she arrives. Meanwhile, Tuesday and Thursday would indicate that I’m trying to inconspicuously sleek into my Spanish language class, upwards to 15 minutes late. Yes, it’s become a habitual process that I’m clearly well aware of and have no ambition to change. As I’ve said, if they allow and excuse my unfortunate tardiness, odds are I’ll be using the extra 15 minutes to rest the sleep-deprived body that my night owl mentality has harnessed.
With lunch time - or our “descanso”, I should say - following shortly there after, I’ve worked up quite an appetite – despite my breakfast just hours ago – and will indulge in the school cafeteria food or treat myself to a café around campus. One of my favorites, appropriately named, being “Campus.” More than likely, I’m joined by a friend or two with whom I’ve just had class and we’re chatting about the woes of homesickness, something interesting we just learned, Spanish culture, differences between Spanish and American culture, or travel plans. In my study abroad experience, you will be mentioning at least one of your travel plans daily; it remains a consistent “hot topic.” As we dine together, I’ve become immune to watching groups of Spanish students drinking alcohol on the grassy knoll within the middle of campus, or preferring to grab a beer at the school cafeteria. You begin to realize that this is, for better or worse, a standard for many cultures that lie outside of the U.S. Once we’ve properly expanded our waist lines, my friend, Angelica, or better, “Jelly”, will usually accompany me to the computer lab in Edificio 17 where we step into “Travel Agent”, “Hard-Working Student”, or “Young Professional” mode, and where we hope to accomplish the days’ or weeks’ tasks with our limited time. On the days where I don’t dine with her for lunch, we’ll still end up bumping into one another there… truth be told, it’s become our sanctuary within the school grounds, and as for me, the only link I have to progressive technology. After my laptop was stolen, and with very spotty WiFi at home, it’s become a bit of a dead zone on the weeknights and weekends, thanks to my host brother, Alvaro’s, hardcore online gaming habits. His pick of the poison: League of Legends. I suppose that instantaneous, click of a button and immediate web page upload I took for granted. And multi-threading… never again will I lack appropriate appreciation for you.
By the end of a couple hours, our time is up and our next class for the day is getting ready to reconvene. We sign out, grab our belongings, double-check that everything is there – it’s not a joke, this country has given me trust issues – and bounce off to our next session. Depending on the day of the week, I’m ether sitting in Periodismo with a few members of my program, watching another TedTalk or television series and then commenting on it, or I’ve been hoisted into Medioambiente and am fighting off the urge to doze off. There’s just something about discussing the weather and rocks that seems to negate any attention span I thought I once had for these types of classes. To confess a little secret, I only took the class so I could take advantage of the field excursions they provide. What a better way to explore Madrid than to have your professor show you around and explain the historical context of your host city? However, I’m still debating if that was the best idea; the class has the same effects as a sleeping pill, maybe slightly more potent. By about, what-would-be- American dinner time, 7:00pm or so, I’m exiting the door to my class and climbing the stairs to head to the computer lab for round two. Considering my stone-age technology back with my home-stay, it’s much more efficient to finish my work at school before heading back. Doubled with the fact that my “señora” (what we refer to as our home-stay moms here) has planned activities with friends at night and dinner isn’t ready until 10:00pm, well, I’m really not missing anything. Lately, my computer use has been spent job hunting and emailing old and potentially new bosses, on top of finishing all my school work; the latter being a major time consumption, considering the work is in a foreign language. It’s been stressful trying to split myself between two modes: one, a study abroad student filled with excitement and tenacity to be here; the other, a soon-to-be graduate and young professional who desperately needs a post-college job. In any case, I stay until the computer lab closes on most days, and I’m sure the lab supervisor has grown mighty tired of my consistent presence until closing time.
Starved and low on energy, I drag myself back the way I came and head towards the Renfe station for the return trip. The walks back at night, as of late, have been some of the prettiest moments I’ve had in Madrid. I head in the direction of the station just as the sun is close to setting and seeing the sky light up in various shades of pink, red, orange, and yellow is always so beautiful to gaze upon. When I finally do make it to the train and settle in amongst those coming home from a long day and my peers mixing with others and reminiscing about the day’s events, I realize how tired I really am. On most days, I have a headache by about this time from the amount of Spanish being spoken and thus, how exhausted my brain feels from the constant conjugating and syntax exercises. If I’m lucky, I’ve managed to make it this far unscathed, but I know the proceeding conversations with Paloma will give my incoming headache the nudge that it needs. Leave the Renfe, board the metro. Leave the metro, and I’m back on my feet for the return journey home. By now, it’s becoming much darker and lights are slowly flickering on, one by one, around the city; strong glows from incandescent lights even out the dull, muted patches of fluorescents. And still, I’m seeing women push their strollers around despite the clock’s big hand creeping close to the 12 and the smaller, trailing closely behind on the 11.
Upon approaching my neighborhood, I ready the house keys in my right hand, preparing for another smooth transition into the apartment building of my home-stay. Each time I round the corner of my street, Gabriel Lobo, I think of the potential ability of my house keys to transform into a weapon, should anything out of the ordinary catch me by surprise as I switch directions toward the apartments. Approaching closer and closer, I can see the soft hue in the fourth floor window, third from the right, indicating that Paloma is there and watching the late night news or reading another Mary Higgins Clark novel. Either way, I know she’s there and eagerly awaiting my presence so she can have a lengthy chat; something her son rarely provides her despite his occupancy two rooms away from hers. Unfortunately, video games have imprisoned him and his attention for any conversation about America and cultural differences or his mother’s excitement of the day - and what it has brought her – falls at the wayside. It’s quite sad, but also reminds me of my 2 year binge and if anything could have been different had I not been so hooked up to the computer like an IV drip. Needless to say, I’m thankful it ended early on, for I probably wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what I have, nor would I be here in Spain, studying.
Each time I bolt through the front door, I announce my presence with a boisterous, “Hola!” In Spanish homes, I’ve learned it’s considered rude to not speak up when one is leaving or entering the household. Not a fan, personally, but no matter: after all, I am a guest. Quickly, my “Hola!” is echoed by Paloma and before I know it, we’re chatting with yet with another feast in front of us, exchanging laughs and smiles, like two gals who haven’t seen one another in years. Two very important (crucial!) things to note: Paloma is a fantastic cook and she always has something interesting to say; she really is a lovely woman and most of the time, I’m wishing I had more of a vocabulary in Spanish so as to delve a bit deeper with her. We’ve been fortunate, or more appropriately, I’ve been fortunate to know enough to approach and dive into these deeper discussions, but I can’t express myself in nearly the same manner as I would be able to in English (obviously). The level of frustration is ridiculously high, but I’ve learned well enough by now that I’m forced to accept that my intelligence is stifled here and I have the presence of an 8-year-old Spanish boy.
While we dine in the “salón” (considered a second living room by American standards), we usually end up spending two or three hours in order to finish our meals; the conversation has overtaken us and we go through extended intervals where neither of us has lifted our forks to take another bite. Being a slow-eater as it is already, you can imagine I’m usually up until late hours of the morning trying to finish my homework because of this nighttime routine. Yawning periodically, - of course, not because of boredom – I conveniently find a comfortable lull in the conversation so as to politely excuse myself to head to my “habitación.” “Muchas gracias para la cena,” I announce, quickly followed by, “me voy a dormir. Es que tengo mucho sueño.” Luckily, we’re on the same page and she’s ready to head off to her own room for some shut-eye as well. She reciprocates my thanks and ending statements with, “Claro, de nada” and “qué descanses,” or any other similar variation she can find. “Igualmente, buenas noches,” I tell her, plant a small kiss on each cheek, and push the door firmly shut after stepping into my room. Rapidly, like a fiend, I work to finish any remaining homework I have and wrestle with myself on some assignments, debating whether to do them now or if it’s possible for me to push it off until a break at school tomorrow. When I’ve eventually reached a comfortable place with my work, I slip eagerly into my bed, load up a movie over Youtube on my phone (for it’s all I have), and rest my head, watching the small screen for as long as my weary eyes can permit.