My love affair with Spain will never end. Most people think of Spain and they immediately think about tourist-filled beaches and expat nightmares. Well, that’s certainly true of some areas, but for me, my Spanish heart lies in two areas; Andalusia and Madrid. I need to explain more about the Spanish capital, because it’s one of the places I think I really discovered the person that I am now. Not only is it vibrant, complex and beautiful, it’s a city that taught me true independence, a new language (kind of), and a deeper appreciation for the country I’d love to live in again one day.
But first, a flashback.
It’s 2004. I’m about to start my third year at university, the year I’d been dreading, and the one I’d been in total denial about since I started my Combined Languages course. I’d been oddly, naturally good at Modern Foreign Languages when I was at school and college, and so taking it on at university seemed like a natural progression. It didn’t hit me until much later than aside from becoming an MFL teacher, interpreter at the UN or translator for hire, there wouldn’t be much scope for me to do anything else career wise.
Anyway, it’s 2004. I’m freaking out about the fact that I’ve got to pack my life into a bag and go and live in another country for at least a year. I didn’t actually start learning Spanish until I got to university, so to say I was nervous would be a massive understatement. The plan was that I would fly out to Madrid with the others from my course, and then after a day or two doing paperwork, I’d head down to Andalusia to help out in a school there. Or something. I had family in Andalusia, so I felt a little bit happier about the whole thing with that safety blanket.
Except, when I got to Madrid, there was no record of me. Literally every time I arrange something in my life, this happens. After a lot of stress (I had a one way ticket and I was 20 years old. Panic much?) I ended up sitting outside the British Council office in Madrid, with nothing but my suitcase and enough Euros to probably get me mugged. Much confusion abounded, and it turned out there was no way for me to get to or work in Andalusia.
But there was a bilingual primary school on the outskirts of Madrid that had a spot for an English language assistant.
So, I picked up my stuff and I got in this random Spanish guy’s car, who drove me out to a place called Arroyomolinos. This is a little town on the outskirts of the city and I’ll be honest, I’ve never felt so scared in my life as I did on that day. I had no idea where the hell I was, I could barely string two words of the language together and even worse, I had no idea where I was going to sleep that night.
I headed into the school building with the man who thankfully hadn’t attacked me and was greeted by a secretary named Maria. She was lovely. She didn’t have a bloody clue what I was talking about, and I didn’t understand her either, but she could see that this pale, ginger kid had literally no clue what was going on, so she took me in and gave me a drink. Into the staffroom I went, and thanked my lucky stars because in that room was a girl from Manchester University, and I’d never been happier to see someone else as pale and pasty as me in my whole life.
That girl was called Nikita and she became my closest friend. She said I could move into the flat she was renting; the room I would be in was basically a cupboard with no windows, but I didn’t care at all. I was grateful. As it turned out, the flat couldn’t have been in a better place. It was smack bang in the city centre of Madrid, and we were sharing with a couple of other girls from Manchester university who were there doing an Erasmus programme.
Being honest, I was apprehensive at first, but living with total strangers I could talk to would obviously be way better than with total strangers I couldn’t.
That year soon changed from being one of the scariest times to one of the absolute best years of my life. Me and Nikita were way more alike than either of us had realised – our birthdays were a few days apart, we had the same sense of humour, we lived worked together 24/7 and never had one argument the entire time. It was the most intense, hilarious and awesome relationship I’ve ever had without actually being someone’s girlfriend. The work days we had together became fantastic fun, despite our tutor mentor being an absolute cow to us both.
I learned that I had a knack for city geography too; we travelled to Arroyomolinos and around the capital every day via Madrid’s brilliant public transport system. Metros and buses, walking and exploring, the place is a haven for pedestrians. Which is just as well as some of the driving (and parking) is just ridiculous…you could barely get a piece of paper between the bumper-to-bumper parking styles.
Living in Madrid itself was amazing. Looking back I realise how lucky we were to be renting that apartment for the peanuts we paid each month; it would cost an absolute bomb now. Madrid is a compact city, with the grand beauty of the Royal Palace, the tranquil gorgeousness of El Parque Retiro, and the shops and boutiques on Gran Via being prime places to check out. Start with this guide if you’re not sure where to dive in! Away from the tourist hot spots, the general architecture of the place is just incredibly beautiful. I used to love just walking around and taking it all in.
Nightlife in the city is like nowhere else. Madrileños really know how to party. They go out late and they stay out late, sometimes seeing the sun come up on their way home. The clubs and bars were amazing. There’s a real cultural mix and party atmosphere all year round. Our street had a little cafe bar on it called Cherry, where they served the most incredible tapas and meals, not to mention the cocktails. One of the barmen took a shine to Nikita, but that’s a story too funny to share here. One of the best things about Madrid is how safe you feel walking around at night. The city lives for the evening.
That year helped me learn a lot. I became fiercely independent and made some friends for life. I experienced moments of real fear and panic, and learned I could survive them all. I gained a diploma at a Spanish university and met some incredible children working in that primary school. I learned how much I love cities, whereas before I’d never experienced that lifestyle. Living in Madrid was a huge culture shock to a young woman who’d lived in a small town bubble for most of her life. It made me view things so differently, and genuinely changed me forever.
I remember crying my eyes out when the time came for us all to leave and return home. I genuinely didn’t want to come back to my old life. I was different. My perspective on things was different. Most of all, I felt like I was leaving one home to go to another. It was a tough adjustment. I still miss it now.
Madrid is one of those places you have to visit. It changed me for the better. I hope that one day I get to go back, because it holds such strong memories for me, and because it’s an amazing destination to travel to, full stop.