Greetings from Madrid! I’ve been in Spain for three days now and it’s already been a very memorable experience. I’m being dropped into two new things at the same time: European culture and history (it’s my first time here) and the Spanish language and lifestyle.
My first day here was pretty mellow. I got to the hotel earlier than I expected and had a few hours to burn before meeting up with a few other study abroad students who had showed up a day or two early like me. After we met up, the four of us explored Madrid for about five hours. We walked all around el Parque de Buen Retiro, which is comparable in my mind, if a tiny bit smaller, to Central Park. Later in the evening we explored more city streets and found ourself at the Plaza Mayor, which has played host over the years to royal weddings, burnings of heretics at the stake, bullfights, and much more. Before long, the jetlag started to wear in so we had a much earlier than usual dinner – 6 or 7pm – and I headed back to the hotel at 8. I forced myself to stay awake until about 10:30 in an effort to adjust to local time.
The next day was free until the ISA meetup at 6pm (ISA is my study abroad program) so I met up with the early folks again and we walked around Madrid for another six hours or so. We strolled around el Parque del Oeste, saw the Palacio Real (royal palace) and a cathedral built next to it. That afternoon we found a great tapas bar and I later sampled churros con chocolate for the first time.
That night we had an ISA meeting and got to meet everyone else doing the ISA Granada program, including my roommate Matt. We went on a night bus tour of Madrid – the people who had just arrived that day were nodding off through the whole tour – and later that night a couple of us went looking for nightclubs and ended up at some pool hall.
Today we went to Valle de los Caidos (“Valley of the Fallen”) and El Escorial. Valle de los Caidos was constructed by fascist dictator Francisco Franco as a monument, an enormous basilica cut into the mountainside, and a monastery. We happened to go there while Sunday morning mass was going, and we got to watch the monk-led mass. The songs and prayers were most beautiful, and the acoustics of the underground granite basilica were beyond description. For the first five or ten minutes I was just stuck in some kind of hypnotic reverence. Then a few other things started to pass through my mind: how over 30,000 Spanish Civil War combatants’ remains lie in the walls and floors of the monument, how maltreated Republican prisoners were forced to build the huge thing before its ironic dedication to the fallen soldiers of both sides of the conflict, the discomfort from the idea that the mass’ beautiful and selfless expressions of love for the almighty were being done in a place with roots in violence, fascism, and even slavery.
Valle de los Caidos is a curious place today. Now that Franco is dead and democracy has come to Spain, the context in which it was built seems a bit hard to understand. My Fodor’s travel guide describes it as a monument to fascism’s victory over democracy to some, and to religion’s victory over communism to others. Being just a few hours later now, I don’t know exactly what I think about it yet, but it sure was fascinating regardless of my unresolved moral quandary.
El Escorial was cool. Saw the tomb of all the Spanish kings and queens since the 16th century. Apparently they don’t put their bodies in the big rock caskets until they’ve sat in the “Rotting room” for about 25 years, which is currently occupied by three members of King Juan Carlos’ family. Once they’re done rotting, the tomb will be full and they’ll need to build another one to fit Juan Carlos somewhere.
Tonight more people plan on going out, and tomorrow we tour La Reina Sofia (where I’ll see Picasso’s Güernica) and then leave for Toledo.
I have so many first impressions, I don’t really know where to even start. I guess I’ll just dump as much as I can out now so I can compare them to what I think later once I’ve been here for a longer time:
- Adjusting to the 8-hour time difference is bad enough, but on top of that Spaniards have a very different meal schedule: a very light breakfast, a large and long lunch around maybe 2:00 or so, and dinner isn’t until 9 or 10. I haven’t adjusted to this at all, so I’m practically living off of granola bars when I get hungry. I think I’m down to my last one now, I’ll have to go buy more from El Corte Ingles before going to Toledo.
- Madrid is EXPENSIVE! I hate the process of converting my spendings to dollars and realizing how much I’ve spent.
- I’m definitely noticing so much stuff in town that’s really old (where “really old” means like… within the last 600 years or so). The U.S. has almost nothing older than a couple of hundred years, especially in populated areas, so walking around town and seeing old monuments everywhere is a real trip.
- All the men wear spandex pants while jogging. I have yet to see any female joggers. Two strange observations.
- Nighttime fashion for men seems to require a large black jacket. I don’t have one of these. I wonder how ridiculous I must look.
- Madrid is cool, but I wouldn’t want to spend 5 months here. I think I prefer cities that don’t have populations of 3.5 million.
- The metro system here is the best I’ve ever seen – better than the NYC metro or BART/Muni. 1 euro will get you anywhere in town and the trains run every few minutes.
- I’m really glad I had a couple of days to see Madrid before hooking up with the rest of the group. The four of us went around town with no agenda and we had to stick our necks out more. Once we get to Granada it will be great, I think.
- Wi-fi is hard to find, and expensive. I have yet to find a free wi-fi hotspot here. I’m writing blog posts offline and preparing picture uploads to go up later. I’ve also realized how much I rely on my iPhone’s internet connectivity now, it’s become a subconscious reflex to check for missed calls and new e-mail, despite my total lack of connectivity.
- I’m anxious to start meeting and mingling with more Spaniards. Getting on and off of tour buses with other Americans lets me see Spain, but not live it. This will soon be remedied in Granada, I’m sure.
- Editing photos on an 8.9”, 1024×600 screen is a pain that I wouldn’t inflict on my worst enemy.