In two days, I will have been living in Madrid for an entire month. Not sure if I ever thought I would be able to say that, but as I sit on my kitchen counter watching the sun rise over red tile rooftops and stucco houses and listen to the faint murmur of a new day beginning in the city, I realize this place is slowly becoming my new home.
So what have I been up to this month? And what advice do I have to give to future participants?
For starters, the first month living in a new country will definitely be the most challenging one. Take it in stride and embrace the uncomfortability. I lucked out with a pretty solid group of CIEE friends that have helped me navigate metros (shoutout to myself because I've never lived anywhere with necessary public transportation), residency card waiting lines, tutoring applications, Spanish walk-in clinics with 3 hour wait times, and the dreaded piso (apartment) hunting. This will all seem overwhelming at first and you will most likely run across a few setbacks. For me, getting WiFi was a week and half long process and there's nothing quite as terrifying as being lost in a city that you've lived in for a week because your phone died on the way to the Metro. Citymapper and Moovit are essential to navigating metros and bus routes here, but take it from me, screenshotting pictures of those routes will save your phone battery AND your first phone bill.
But here's the irony and the beauty in my number one advice I could give to any of you so far -- DO get lost. Talk to the Spaniards who have taken the Metro their whole lives (Spanish people are incredibly nice and will point you in the right direction). Take that weekend trip to the coast and swim in the Mediterranean with new friends, take the day hike and chase some waterfalls, go to that sketchy babysitting interview and fumble through your Spanish with the help of Google translate and 10th grade Spanish vocabulary, and land that side job that will allow you to go out and get lost some more.
My best experiences here, so far, have required this of me. To let go, to trust in the journey. If I feel uncomfortable, unlike what most of us have been conditioned to believe all of our lives, it is a good thing.
There is infinite space to grow in the midst of uncertainty.
Grasp it, use it, push yourself.
I can't say that I still don't take shortcuts. If I go up to a Spaniard at the grocery store, and they hint at knowing English, I will usually fall back on what I know best. Sometimes, this may be necessary, but in the long run its not what you came here for.
I'll leave you with a really cool experience I had the other day at my host-mom's house. It was my last night to come over for dinner after moving into my new piso. As I walked in the front door, I was surprised to see that she had company -- a woman and her young daughter. As I ate in my usual silence, I couldn't help but be pulled in by their conversation. The little girl (Milba) was discussing her English classes and I wanted to know more, so I nervously stumbled through my broken Spanish to ask her how they were going. She responded in perfect English, of course, and we continued a conversation in Spanglish for the next few minutes. Before I knew it, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, flipping through Milba's bilingual textbooks and laughing over our mutual hatred of Mathematics. As we bonded, the mother (Karina) started to open up to me as well. Her English was similar to my Spanish -- remedial, but we managed to have a conversation about the difficulties of navigating a new language together.
"No pasa nada" she kept telling me. Its no problem if you struggle, keep trying.
Its hard to explain the strange surge of emotions I got from this simple dinnertime conversation. When I spoke with Milba, I was reminded of myself at 10 years old, excited and eager to learn -- full of potential. Speaking to Karina felt like having a trusted conversation with one of my aunts, warm and encouraging and full of laughter. And my host mom, I don't think I had really earned her good graces until that last night in her home... As I was getting up to leave, she embraced me and gave me the traditional besos on both sides of my cheeks, but it was in the smile of her eyes that I could tell she was really proud of me. She had been pushing me for two weeks to speak Spanish in her home, and I had finally stumbled my way through some words and enjoyed what I can only say was the perfect Spanish night -- sitting in a home surrounded by friends and good food and great conversation.