A kiss on the left cheek, a kiss on the right cheek—that’s how people greet each other in Spain. Not just old people; everyone. So when I showed up at the door of my new host family’s apartment as a complete stranger with a big suitcase and funny pink hat, the first thing we did was kiss.
But that was two months ago. Now, we greet each other with a casual, “¡Hola!” or “¿Qué tal?” It’s a strange reversal of acquaintanceship, I think.
Then again, everything was new to me on the day I arrived in Spain. After two weeks of insulated orientation in the country’s southern region, I was thrust into a buzzing metropolis as well as the home of complete strangers who were probably worrying just as much as I was about what type of person they would be living with for the next 5 months.
In a sense, both my host family and I already knew we’d be okay with each other—one of my closest friends at Vassar spent the past fall in Madrid living with the same family. So this semester, we basically swapped lives; she returned to Vassar while I took up residence with her host family of three (plus four cats) in Madrid. Yet despite our many Skype sessions, I did not know what to expect.
And Madrid is not like what I expected.
In my “medioambiente y sociedad en España” (Environment and Society in Spain) class, we discussed the “romanticized” image of Spain, to which I had previously fallen victim. My image was of serpentine cobblestone streets winding though old Mediterranean-style houses with terracotta roofs—think Vicky Christina Barcelona with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz motorcycling around. Think bull-fighting and flamenco dancing. Sure, these things do exist, but they are far from daily reality, especially in Madrid.
As an architecture nerd, the most interesting thing to me is the vast differences in the style of Madrid’s various buildings. In my head, I had pictured a homogenous Mediterranean city; again, the image of cobblestone streets came to mind. But most of the buildings are fairly new; the streets are often wide and straight. Madrid’s layout is no New York City grid, but its streets are much less congested and spacious. Old historical sits right next to sleek modern.
The culture and food is much more international than I expected. Unlike other European cities, Madrid has quite a variety of ethnic options—all of them very good, from what I’ve tried. For dinner, we eat everything from roasted chicken to fried fish to tortilla Española—the classic dish of Spain.
Right now, I sit in the kitchen with my host brother who attempts to make sushi while one of my host cats eyes me evilly from under the table. The two months since I left the States have flown by. For anyone contemplating going abroad, don’t let the amount of time scare you—it is in reality too short.
To conclude, I’ve been documenting my adventures here in Spain more closely on my personal blog, if you care to look.