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First Impressions of Madrid

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Simon Wallace
September 20, 2023
City street in central Madrid

During my first couple of days in Madrid I was struck by how inescapably pretty the city is. Even the darker and smaller side streets and alleys are endeared with that quaint European feel and aesthetic. Many parts of the center of the city have winding and sloping stone paths jutting out in any direction they please—much unlike the grid-like road patterns I’m used to in the United States. There are also many “pedestrian roads,” containing a small lane for motor vehicles, but large sidewalks for pedestrians on either side. Each new path or side street you walk by is a pleasant invitation to get lost down. Down these streets you can often find mini-town squares—a cutout of a block of buildings containing restaurants and cafes with lots of outdoor seating. As you walk through these streets, the colors and architectural styles of the buildings are just different enough from one another to keep you looking, but not so different that they look out of place or awkward next to each other.

One of the biggest shocks you’ll face as an American coming to Spain is the schedule shift. The Spaniards love their nightlife, and many people don’t have dinner until 10 or 11 pm. One of my first nights in the city I took a stroll through Madrid Rio Park, which stretches along either side of the city’s main river, El Manzanares. It was around 11 pm and I was surprised at how lively the park and general area was. The skatepark was full, there were people playing soccer throughout the park, biking, rollerblading. There were a lot of couples just going for an evening stroll, and there were also quite a number of small children out on the playgrounds under their parent’s watch. It wasn’t just the park either, it was all the restaurants and bars I walked past that had their outdoor seating filled with people. The atmosphere of all the people enjoying their night made it feel like it was 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday, when in reality it was 11 pm on a Wednesday.

Another cultural thing that struck me pretty quickly was how much people in Spain value their appearance. It’s hard to find a person walking around in athletic clothes like gym shorts or sweatpants. Even in the heat, there is more of an expectation than in America to wear long pants as opposed to shorts. I’ve even noticed mirrors are more common here. The very study room I’m writing this blog in has a whole wall lined with mirrors, and my bedroom came with a full-body mirror, which is atypical for an American dorm room. Every elevator I’ve been in has had a mirror as well. Many grocery stores I’ve walked through have mirrors covering the pillars of the store. The biggest tell though is simply how well they dress in Spain. The clothes they wear are cleaner, newer, and trendier than the outfits I see in America. They are masters of their appearance when compared to Americans, and I don’t necessarily think this makes Spaniards more vain or self-absorbed. I appreciate their sense of style, and I like the fact that fashion as a form of self-expression is something they don’t shy away from.

As far as cultural differences between Spain and America, one of the famous ones is that Spaniards are said to be more laid back as they go about their day. There is more focus on enjoyment and just living in the present moment. I think that assessment of Spain is probably blown out of proportion, but there is also truth to it, which I’ve seen manifest in different ways. For one, schedules are less rigid and people are less punctual. Times for events seem to be more like suggestions rather than exact starting times. For example, my commute to class is quite lengthy and involves taking a twenty-five minute train ride, and I ended up being a few minutes late a couple of times to class. However, my professors were unbothered by my tardiness and were more understanding than I imagine my American professors would’ve been.

This may sound strange but there is also something about how Spaniards walk on the sidewalks that sometimes conveys what I would call a healthy level of absent-mindedness. While I believe “walk on the right side” is technically the rule here as it is in America, there is much less orderliness and a lot more of individuals weaving back and forth on the sidewalk as they please. I find it difficult to not run into people and I often find myself preparing and rerouting well before the people walking opposite my direction do. These walking tendencies were frustrating at first, but I think it really could be explained by a Spanish mindset that is more at-ease than an American one. The people fifteen yards ahead that are walking toward me aren’t changing their direction simply because they haven’t gotten to me yet. When they reach me they’ll figure something out. The people of Madrid walk like they're always on vacation, and it’s hard not to admire that.

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Simon Wallace

I'm from Williamsport, Pennsylvania and I am a senior at Penn State University studying computer science. I enjoy being physically active, whether that's organized sports, going to the gym, or just spending time outdoors.

2023 Fall
Home University:
Penn State University
Computer Science
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