I have now spent approximately two and a half months in Madrid, and while I certainly have much to learn, I have gathered a small list of advice to anyone planning to study in Madrid.
1. If you don’t already have it, download Whatsapp to any mobile device you plan to bring to Spain.
Even if you don’t plan to buy a data plan for a smart phone (which I would highly recommend), I would recommend at least having the app for the easiest method of communication with other program participants as well as Spaniards. From potential landlords to Spanish classmates, most Spaniards I have met use Whatsapp instead of texting because texting phone plans are relatively expensive.
2. Find your Spanish comfort food.
While you may be able to find a bag or bottle of your favorite snack from the States, finding a uniquely Spanish or Madrileñan food can help with the transition to living in Spain. In my own experience, I found such comforts in some of the many ice cream stores and tapas bars after several long afternoons of apartment hunting (Kalua Helado Artesanal or Mercado San Ildefonso, for starters).
3. Take advantage of easy travel within Spain and Europe, but don’t forget about Madrid!
Madrid offers virtually limitless options for entertainment, shopping, and cultural activities. I have not regretted a single weekend that I’ve spent in Madrid because there is constantly something waiting to be discovered.
4. Read or watch Spanish and international news daily.
I may not have known much about current Spanish news, but Spaniards I’ve met have been quite well-read on both Spanish and American news. I like El País, but El Periódico and ABC are also good choices (and all have mobile apps).
5. Cafés are not for studying, generally.
Unlike the IMU Starbucks, cafés in Madrid are not for studying. If you’re looking to study outside of your apartment, university or public libraries will be good alternatives. However, there are a few cafés that have become popular hangouts for American students to study. Located in the attractive Malasaña neighborhood, La Bicicleta offers great afternoon snacks and a comfortable (if not loud and English-heavy) study environment.
6. Limit time messaging/Skyping with American friends and family.
More than just helping to adjust to living in a foreign country, this helped with keeping my mind focused on adapting to Spanish.
7. Complutense classes are daunting, but not impossible.
Spanish students, unlike their American counterparts, take classes exclusive to their majors (carreras), which means they are very well versed in their field by their second or third year at university. So when I began my third-year Spanish literature course with little background knowledge besides my an introductory Hispanic literature course, I was flustered by the amount of literary connections from prior classes students were able to make. But with the help of a tutor to review class notes, I’ve found that I am slowly but surely catching up.
8. Reunidas (American-style teaching) classes transform Spain into a living classroom.
I’ve found that the classes in which I have learned the most are those about contemporary Spain. They have helped tremendously in understanding the economic, social, and political issues in the daily news.
9. Even at the heart of the Spanish capital, you will find that many Spaniards are also fluent in English.
This has been a frustrating aspect of being an American in a Spanish-speaking city. Many times when Spaniards hear our American accents, they try to speak in English to help us. However, as an American trying to learn Spanish, it is important to keep speaking in Spanish, even if it’s not perfect.
10. Be aware of pickpockets.
I say this not for a scare factor, because the issue has mostly to do with being aware of your surroundings. My closest encounter with pickpockets occurred on a very crowded metro on a Friday night. While that was a stirring experience, I realized that Spaniards are just as leery and vulnerable as tourists are. I’ve found that sticking together and voicing any suggestion of danger are the names of the game in these situations.
11. Madrid’s nightlife lives up to its name, but at a price.
There seem to be countless unique bars, restaurants, and clubs in Madrid. However, most have quite expensive menus or entry fees.
12. Struggling with the language is a difficult but necessary part of the learning process.
Everyone in the program, no matter their previous language skills, struggles with the language. What we learn in an American classroom doesn’t compare to the reality of living and interacting with Spaniards, who enjoy their own set of refrains and vocabulary unique to the Iberian Peninsula. The key is, as in most things in life, to try, try, try again.
13. Always keep a metro map (and card) and/or a 20EUR bill with you.
Even if you don’t want to look like a tourist, a metro map or some taxi money would allow you to go anywhere in the city in an hour or less.
14. Save yourself suitcase space and frustration—buy personal electronic appliances in Madrid.
In the case of many friends here, many American appliances such as straighteners or electric razors don’t work with Spanish outlets. As the Spanish say, “A Corte Inglés” (Corte Inglés is a large internationally-focused chain that carries many items not typically found in Spanish supermarkets and other stores).
15. Use Spanish whenever you are not talking with your American family and friends.
This, like all of these points, depends entirely on your personal goals, but as someone who wants to master the Spanish language during my limited time here, limiting myself to only speaking Spanish with other program participants and natives here is the way to go.