Here I Come, Spain! My First Days in Madrid

Nicholas Mathis is a student at Virginia Military Institute and an ISA featured blogger. Nicholas is currently studying abroad with ISA in Bilbao, Spain.

So, the best place to start is always the beginning right? The first prompt for ISA asked me about my first 48 hours. It’s had to describe such a huge change in such a short period of time. I’ve never been across the Atlantic, and this was the furthest I had ever been from the US. It’s been incredible so far, but the only way to talk about what it’s like now is to talk about how I got here in the first place.

Bye America; Hola España!

On the evening of Jan. 4th, I said goodbye to my mom and dad in front of security at Dulles Airport, and stepped through the gate. I had no idea what I was getting into, and I probably still don’t. All I know is that this is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I plan to enjoy every second of it. For those who don’t know, I’m studying in Bilbao, Spain (located in the Basque region of Spain, about as north as you can go). I chose Bilbao for several reasons: I took a class on Basque culture last year at VMI, I wanted to go somewhere less typical than Barcelona/Madrid, and I wanted to be as deeply immersed as I could in the Spanish language. I had been told by multiple people that Bilbao would force me to rely on Spanish much more than being in a larger city like Madrid, which is exactly what I wanted. Don’t get me wrong, I thought Madrid was beautiful, and I plan to visit Barcelona as well but I wanted a smaller, less chosen destination. So far, Bilbao has proven to live up to everything I thought it would be. But again I’m getting ahead of myself, I should begin with my flight into Madrid and the trip to Toledo.
My British Airways flight that took me to Heathrow Airport was actually quite nice. It was the largest plane I had ever been on, and even in the common folk class where I was, everyone had touch screen TV’s with plenty of movies and a surprising amount of leg room. I have to say I was quite impressed…and was even more impressed with the dinner and breakfast we were served. Then when I found out that I could get the Dark Knight Rises (in Spanish) on my TV, well you can assume I’m quite the fan of British Airways now. I slept for maybe a few hours as well, but the flight was only six hours (with a six hour time gain). So when we arrived in Heathrow I suppose I should have been tired, but I was probably still on D.C. time. I grabbed a quick breakfast at a cafe, and then moved on to my flight to Madrid. Again, British Airways was quite nice to me, and after a pleasant flight (where I might have dozed off a bit), I arrived in Madrid.
Immediately, I knew I was in another country. In Heathrow, people were still mainly speaking English; in Madrid, I was definitely in the minority. And by minority, I mean the only one on my flight who wasn’t fluent in Spanish. To me….that was awesome. Now I’ve taken six years of Spanish in the classroom and spent a little bit of time in Mexico and further South, but this was totally different. It was a little disorienting at first to listen to a conversation and comprehend very very little. But I knew eventually I would pick it up, even if it took some time. There’s a HUGE difference between learning a language in a classroom and learning it in the real world. But regardless, I found my way to my luggage, and walked outside to grab a taxi. I said hello to the driver, helped put my bags in the back, and then grabbed a seat in the front. And here was where my first taste of being in another culture started. I was immediately greeted with the fastest Spanish I had ever heard. Not only was I dumbfounded, I was actually quite impressed. I’d never heard anyone speak to me so fast in another language. I managed to stammer out a few words asking him to slow down…and slowly got the gist of what he was asking. From then on, I think he realized he might have to slow it down for this silly American student who was in pretty deep.
During the ride, my taxi driver helped me understand a little bit about Madrid: how many people lived in the city (around 3 million), what the traffic was like, and what kind of food to order. The third one was most important to me, because I was starving. But I could tell that Madrid was huge, pretty overwhelming for someone in Europe for his first time. I got to the hotel safely though, and made my first ever transaction in Euros, a taxi ride. I grabbed my bags, and headed towards the door that my driver had pointed out, ready to get this adventure started for real.
I had been practicing my line to say to the receptionist the entire cab ride…but somehow I still tripped over the words. Oh well, I quickly tried to recover and gave her my name so she could check me off of the list of ISA students. And while I’m not going to confirm that I was the last one to arrive…I’m also not going to deny it. Fashionably late right?

Regardless, I headed up to my room (in what seemed to me like the world’s smallest elevator) to meet Tyler, my soon to be roommate for this entire trip. And yes, I mean the entire trip, we were the only two chicos in a group of eleven, so we’re roommates by default. I’m down with that though, Tyler’s a good guy, and easy to live with. He wants to travel a lot, just like me, and there’s also that whole “we both go to the same school” dealio. So we understand each other.
After I got semi-settled in, I met the rest of the group, and we took a scenic tour of Madrid on a charter bus. This was my first experience with Europe, and although I’d spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C, it was a much different atmosphere. Madrid is huge; even though we spent close to an hour on the bus, we didn’t even come close to seeing all the city had to offer. After the tour, we had a quick meeting welcoming us to Spain, giving us options for cell phones and telling us a little bit about what was expected of us and how to handle ourselves during our time here. After our meeting, the group made the unanimous decision that we were all starving, so we decided to wander (yes, literally wander) out into the city to find ourselves some of this famous Spanish cuisine.

Having absolutely no idea where we were going, we found ourselves a nice tapas restaurant in a plaza not far from our hotel. Turns out, that Plaza Mayor is a huge meeting spot in Madrid. Considering we were early for dinner by Spanish standards (it was like 9:30 in the evening though), there weren’t yet many people out in the streets. In fact, when we walked into the restaurant, we were the only customers. The staff actually seemed surprised to see us. But they led us downstairs (it’s common for restaurants in Spain to have very little room on the entry floor, but much more room either upstairs or downstairs) to our own table. Again, having no idea what we were doing, we asked our waiter what he recommended. He smiled knowingly, and said he would take care of us. What resulted was possibly the best welcome I could have ever asked for. Round after round of tapas came to the table, with plenty for everyone to share. We asked for an explanation of everything, and found everything to be incredibly delicious. This is also where I really got to know the group. We quickly became comfortable with each other, probably because we had no one else to talk to!
After dinner, we walked outside for our next surprise. It was probably eleven at night, and the streets were packed. It was incredible; old, young, and everywhere in between were walking in the streets, going in every direction. Shops were open, there were vendors in the streets…even street performers! It’s close to midnight, and street performers are just starting to set up shop! Now I had heard all about this before, but seeing it was totally different. It seemed like the whole city was out on the streets; the crowds were so thick in places you had to push your way through. It was invigorating. You could feel the energy in the city, and I was just happy to walk around and be a part of it. We eventually found our way back to the hotel and called it a night, but I have to say…I could tell already that this trip was going to life changing.

Christmas Market in Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

The next two days in Madrid continued in this fashion: sight seeing during the day (El Museo del Prado, city tour on foot, etc), and then walking around and generally enjoying the tapas style at night. For those of you who don’t know what tapas are I’ll give you a quick rundown. Spaniards usually eat a light breakfast, and then have a snack in the early afternoon before lunch (which is usually between 2-3). Then usually another snack before dinner, which gets started around 9 or 10 with a drink and a light appetizer known as a tapas (if you’re out on the town). This process continues for several hours and on weekend might not end until the next morning at like 6. Yes…six. In the morning. I can testify to it, I’ve done it.

In the Basque region where I am, tapas are called pintxos (pronouned pinCHos, with a chh sound). It’s actually a very cool process. Lunch is normally the biggest meal, but if you’re eating in with your family dinner can be the biggest meal, with several courses followed by fruit/yogurt/pastries afterwards. But I digress…I’m sure I’ll get more into food later, because it’s incredible here. I’m honestly in heaven every time we sit down to eat.
After our two nights in the Nacional, we boarded the bus to the ancient city of Toledo, and I said adios to the city of Madrid…for now.

NH Nacional Madrid, Spain

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