Featured image: Looking out at the neighborhood of Salamanca, Madrid

Going into the college process way back in Spring 2015, I knew that wherever I went I would want to study abroad my junior year. Maybe not for the whole year – one only gets to spend four years at college (if everything goes as planned, anyway) – but definitely for one semester. I had a few years of Spanish behind me from high school and middle school, and though I planned on taking some Russian once at college, I figured that I would wind up studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. I came to Madrid once before a few summers ago and spent four or five days in full tourist mode, meandering through museums and struggling to order food at restaurants with my family. I still felt like a tourist by the end of my first week living in Madrid, but since then I have started to feel more like I imagine a student during their JYA should.

One of Madrid’s best jazz scenes at Café Central

I wouldn’t be surprised if the most valuable lessons I learn from this semester come from living with my Spanish host family. Joaquín and Carmen, “Tata” to her friends, have been hosting international students for many years. Their apartment is homely, furnished with dozens of trinkets and art pieces that have no business being in the same room as each other, but somehow come together to create a very comfortable space. I eat breakfast at a table adorned with two stone cherubs, buck-naked and quizzingly staring into each other’s’ eyes. My bedroom desk is draped with an American flag tablecloth which matches the American flag bath mat in front of my shower. And in case I ever get lonely on a hot Madrid night, a hand puppet of Kermit the Frog watches over my headboard. Needless to say, some things have taken some getting used to.

A typical stand at El Rastro, an outdoor market open every Sunday

Dinners are late here, usually around 9 or 9:30, which does leave time to finish up my work before calling it a night, but also makes a light afternoon snack something of a necessity after hours of class. More often than not our dinners start with a bowl of store-bought gazpacho. After three weeks of eating it, you might think I would be tired of it, but for whatever reason I can’t get enough of it. For a main course, my host mom will make some kind of meat with a side of fried potatoes. As I left the United States, I expected to leave french fries behind, at least when eating at home. How wrong I was. The quality of Spanish ingredients, meats, fruits, vegetables – everything, is incredible, but how simply most of them are prepared sometimes leaves much to be desired. For example, the bread and “jamón” here are wonderful, but sandwiches with just one or two pieces of meat between two large slices of bread can get boring pretty quickly. At least in Madrid there are still an abundance of other cuisines available: Japanese, Turkish, Greek, Italian, and several off-the-radar North African restaurants.

My local metro stop, aptly named Avenida de América

But if there’s one aspect about Spanish eating that deserves the praise, it would have to be the “menú del día”. For context, what we call a menu is called “una carta”, something off which you can order whatever courses you want. “Un menú” is more like a prix fixe menu with two or three options for a starter, main course, and dessert. At lunch time, sometime around 1:30 to 3 in the afternoon, most restaurants in the city will offer “menús del día” that feature three great courses (and a full glass of wine) for a very inexpensive price. Ordering “tapas” or other small plates is another nice way to eat and drink on a budget, but nothing beats a satisfying “menú del día” in the middle of a hectic weekday.

The most addictive of tapas, “croquetas” with serrano ham and cheese

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