So, my first three weeks in Madrid have been quite the rollercoaster ride. It's been a whirlwind of travel, meeting new folks, the never-ending game of packing and unpacking, dealing with a nasty bout of illness, and feeling a little bit like a fish out of water. I think anyone who's been an exchange student can relate to that complex mix of excitement, anticipation, and uncertainty. I think being doubly displaced has aided in that. I feel much more at ease than I did when I arrived at Duke; I’m not sure if it’s being in the city (although I do very much live outside it), or a general atmosphere of excitement and wanderlust in the air, the ease of academic pressure knowing that my classes are transfer credits and there’s an added benefit in that everyone around me can share in that feeling of being international, a foreigner. Honestly, though, I’d never have thought life could move this fast, but here we are! So, in the spirit of embracing the chaos, I feel compelled to share a chronicle of my first month in this dynamic city. Brace yourselves because this one's a biggie.
Let's kick things off with my new best friend: my Metro Card, or as I like to call it, "How I Somehow Blew Through Over 50 Euros Just Trying to Get Around in Week One." Beneath Madrid's bustling streets lies a subterranean labyrinth of winding tunnels and bustling arteries, an ecosystem that seems to march to its own rhythm. My inaugural ride was a blur of jet lag and grogginess, guided by the IES Abroad staff. Here's the kicker: due to a glitch in photo quality of a personal picture I had to upload, I didn't secure a personal metro card like the lucky few. Instead, I was handed a multi-travel card that required me to load it with ten journeys at a time.
Now, here's the twist—these multi-journey cards are only good within the city limits of Madrid itself. Anything beyond that, and you're shelling out for a separate ticket. My university, Universidad Carlos 3 Madrid (UC3M), is out in Leganes, a suburb that requires crossing metro zones. Trying to figure out distances, especially when I was mapping my route from my new digs, was like trying to decode an ancient treasure map. Before Madrid, my daily commute was a leisurely ten-minute stroll from bed to class, coffee in hand. Living on campus had me spoiled rotten, little did I know I'd soon be embarking on an hour-long adventure, complete with three metro changes and a ten-minute walk to and from the metro station. It's an interesting journey, especially when I have companions to chat with but otherwise devoted to a mix of people-watching, Netflix binging, and dozing. But oh, how I miss my afternoon naps!
Getting a personal metro card, if you don't luck into one right away, is a bit of an ordeal. It involves making an appointment at one of the public offices, which, conveniently, are in most metro stations. But here's the catch: the Madrid transportation website is precarious and prone to collapse, especially when commuters are anxious to renew cards after summer. Oh, and it's all in Spanish, but this I cannot begrudge. After multiple failed attempts to log in and dealing with server meltdowns, I finally managed to secure one in my second week, thanks to my endlessly patient mother. (IES Abroad staff were also willing to step in and schedule one for students later.) I don't think my comrades who have been brandishing their cards from day one are as appreciative of their powerful, handy Madrid passport; at just 8 euros a month, it provides unlimited access to a public transportation system that links Madrid and its suburbs.
Google Maps (and Translate) is my digital lifeline. I was only without a working internet connection for three days, but it felt like an eternity, making me realize just how reliant I am on my phone's data. Booking Ubers, navigating the metro maze, and, most importantly, relying on Google Translate have become second nature. I have had some rather entertaining mishaps that came with the learning curve, including hopping on the wrong metro lines, following crowds and boarding the wrong trains, and other translation hijinks.
TLDR: Case in point: we had a power outage at 6 a.m. last week, plunging my hallway into darkness and cutting off the power supply. Cue a real-life game of charades, made more comical with the help of the Google Translate app as we tried to get things sorted. Or how about my first week when I tried to order Subway through Uber Eats and had to explain delivery instructions with my mighty vocabulary of three Spanish words? Courtesy of local Orange mobile, I now have a whopping 100GB of data to burn through each month. I can confidently say I can find my way to classes and the city center—places like Gran Via, Atocha, and Sol—without relying on Google Maps.
Class Registration felt like a high-stakes race against the clock.
The university's course database was available in August, but the registration window opened on the day I was supposed to leave for Madrid. Not the best timing, to say the least. The portal stayed open through the first week, and changes were possible, but spots were limited, especially for the courses I needed. The ideal study abroad schedule, of course, avoids classes on Fridays and cleverly skips over Thursdays and Mondays to leave room for travel. This dream schedule inevitably means limited availability, so students have to get creative to snag their preferred classes. The initial login experience was a bit of a nightmare. The site struggled to handle the influx of about 500 IES Abroad students, all trying to log in at once before their flights. I ended up waiting almost an hour and a half just to access it. But I did manage to secure the engineering courses I needed. As for my elective, it took some serious scrolling through options before I found one that worked, but it all worked out in the end. The IES Abroad staff were a big help, too. One thing I didn't initially consider was the timing and location of classes. UC3M has two campuses, about 45 minutes apart—one for humanities and one for engineering. So, it's crucial to do your homework and have multiple potential options in mind.
Finally, here's a piece of advice that's been drilled into me during my research: say "yes" to everything. It's the most recommended strategy to have a smooth introduction to the study abroad experience. And I have to say, I leaned into that advice during my first days here. From going clubbing on my very first night in Madrid to booking more weekend Euro trips than I can count, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I'm usually someone who needs some downtime after intense socializing, but diving in headfirst helped me get my bearings, explore my new surroundings, and meet some amazing people I'm lucky to call friends now. But if there’s one thing that stuck out to me at orientation, it’s this: know what you want from your study abroad experience. Is it language learning, traveling, or the social aspect that's your top priority? Understanding your goals will help you make the most of this incredible adventure.
One of the things I've always loved about visiting new places is how it allows me to fall in love with the everyday. It's so easy to get lost in your thoughts and questions, but the more time you spend in a place, the more you start to appreciate the little things. In Madrid, I've learned to savor the everyday routines—finding a cozy coffee shop, taking a different route to class, or even venturing onto a new mode of transport like the bus or train. As classes pick up pace and midterm season draws near, I've been attempting to devote my rather large gaps to homework and studying, but I absolutely adore just walking around the neighborhood and visiting the shops; everything still has a glamour attached to it, the vividness of the unknown. At the same time, I can slowly see the veil lift, especially as my dorm and my room start to feel familiar and cozy. It's a strange feeling, a hum of nostalgia, languor, and restless energy. After all, part of the charm of traveling comes from its transitory nature, knowing that it will end soon.
(Room pictures and Madrid Spots Upcoming)
Catch you soon!
More Blogs From This Author
My name is Eeshta Bhatt and I'm originally from Mumbai, India. An avid reader, writer, and dancer; you are most likely to find me sipping coffee with a fantasy fiction novel, watching a murder mystery or charting out new runnining trails.