The Stanford program was headquartered in the aptly named “American Institute,” which contained the program office and classroom. The half-hour commute made waking up 5 minutes before class and still making it on time impossible. The awkward and sporadic conversations the thirty or so of us experienced on our week long orientation trip thanks to the “Spanish conversation only” mandate quickly disappeared as we got to know each other better on our frequent endeavors to explore Madrid.
A large difference between the United States and Spain is the sense of time and efficiency. In Spain, no event ever starts on time either because the person in charge has not arrived yet or, if he or she has, the first fifteen minutes are spent in small-talk. I must say that this was one aspect of Spain I did not complain about. In addition, the general rule is that lunch is eaten at about 2 pm (breakfast is trivial) and dinner at about 9 pm. How do Spaniards survive these huge amounts of time between meals, you ask? They take a break for a snack and a beer at about noon and then again at about 5 or 6.
Spanish city dwellers live for the most part in high rises and apartment buildings. It is always better in Spain to live within the city as opposed to the suburbs. My roommate and I often commented on the American way of owning your own land in suburbia with a backyard. In my neighborhood and the city center, I had the sense that I really was in an urban jungle. Spaniards are always going out during the day as well as night and they always make sure to look sharp. Those wearing gym shoes and t-shirts were sure to be cast aside and labeled as Americans. Their dress code gives Madrid a vibrant and proper feel. This lifestyle, however, made Retiro—the most awesome park I have ever seen—a welcome relief. Completely shielded from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city, it is adorned by plenty of trees, as well as paths with rows of marble statues.
Other differences include the dearth of chain retailers and eateries, which made finding specific items somewhat of a hassle. When in doubt, there was always “El Corte Ingles,” a cross between Macy’s and Wal-Mart that really does sell everything. The large amount of bars appealed to those who prefer beer and conversation as opposed to hard alcohol and pounding club music.
To characterize the people, I would have to mention the apparent lack of adherence to rules and regulations. Spaniards are very emotional and often do what they want when they want. My roommate and I experienced this tendency right away as we careened through the streets with little regard for lanes or traffic lights after being picked up at the institute by our host-mom. While out at night, people could be heard singing and talking very loudly on the street at all hours.
Some people find these differences so appealing that they end up staying. There is, in fact, a history of American émigrés to Spain, notably including Ernest Hemingway. I met several other Americans who had become endeared with the Spanish way of life and decided to settle there. For them, the idea of a romanticized Spain holds true. As for me, I could not help but begin to miss everything American—from the huge swaths of suburban sprawl to the commercialism of chain stores. Ten weeks was the perfect amount of time for me. Someday, I hope to return to Spain, but only as a tourist.