As a student who loves to read, I’ve trained myself to look beyond taking things at face value. Words have much to offer, and taking words too literally leads to an experience that is unrewarding at best and downright misleading at worst. There is at least one notable exception to this rule, though: it’s the phrase thrown around more than any other with students who study abroad. Of course, I’m thinking about the term “cultural immersion.” Sophisticated and academic-sounding, cultural immersion is nothing more than the act of jumping into a culture headfirst, placing yourself in the context of a new world and leaving any American inhibitions at the customs gate of the airport. Unfortunately, Americans studying abroad often fall into the trap of thinking that cultural immersion is limited to the classroom and group excursions – the two venues in a study abroad experience in which an American is surrounded by, for the most part, other Americans.
I’m thankful to IES Abroad for setting up a curriculum that takes learning outside of the classroom. For example, my trabajo de campo for my Spanish language class involves interviewing people throughout Madrid, and my course on the history of Madrid has given me insight into the different communities that make up this wonderful city. At the same time, I spent my first week in search of an authentic Madrid – something that one cannot find sitting in class or sticking to the tourist-heavy city center. I have a long way to go before I can rightfully call myself a Madrileño, but I’m trying my best to live como un Madrileño – as a citizen of Madrid would. A big part of accomplishing this endeavor has been spending time in neighborhoods outside of the one in which I live. To this end, I’ll be using this blog post to highlight some of my favorite spots of this city, some of which often go unnoticed to the average tourist.
It’s no secret to my friends that my favorite of the bunch has been Malasaña, a neighborhood that has been the creative and countercultural center of Madrid since the regime of Francisco Franco. Decorated with vibrant graffiti and progressive clothing boutiques, the neighborhood has appealed to my love of art, music and open social spaces (in addition to, as my friends love to tease me for, the “hipster aesthetic” – refer to Exhibit A in the photos). Toma Café, a café as picturesque and forward-looking as any in the United States, has become one of my favorite spots to both study and socialize with locals, and I’ve spent hours hearing about the neighborhood from owners of shops selling used books or vintage goods. Young Spaniards often use the word guay to describe things that are cool or hip – while I cannot give you a precise definition of the word, I can tell you that it doesn’t get more guay than Malasaña.
Likewise, I’ve spent much of my time in Lavapiés, a multicultural neighborhood with a similar vibe as Malasaña. Steep hills and narrow streets are part of what makes this neighborhood so charming, and the excellent selection of local eateries doesn’t hurt. Café Barbieri, which features live jazz or swing music on Mondays, and Pum Pum Café have become two of my favorite spots to share a meal with friends from the program and beyond. Swinton and Grant, though conspicuously American-sounding, is another awesome local spot, featuring collections of Spanish street art, coffee from local roasters and an underground gallery that showcases the work of Madrileño artists. I was actually contacted by the artist of the most recent exhibit after sharing a photo of his work on Instagram, and was clued into some other spots that showcase local artists. It goes to show how friendly the people of this city are.
I want to also highlight the Paseo del Prado, a more mainstream area that deserves whatever hype it receives. Once a destination for Madrid’s elite to show off the newest fashions, this street features the best museums in Madrid – which, I have discovered, are also among the best in the world. Coming into this experience, I could hardly remember what spending an entire afternoon in a museum felt like; with offerings like the Prado or the Reina Sofía, an entire afternoon feels like not nearly enough time. Practicing Spanish is easy when there is a subject to discuss, and there are few better facilitators of conversation than art. Beyond visual art, the neighborhood is littered with stunningly ornate architecture, fulfilling whatever stereotypes about Europe an American may have. In general, the shops and eateries in this part of town are more upscale, but that didn’t stop my friends and I from discovering a restaurant in which we cold treat ourselves to a three-course lunch for only 15€.
Of course, in the spirit of cultural immersion, I’ve attempted to engage with the community when possible. I mentioned my love for spontaneous café conversations, but structured activities are important, too. With both a book fair and literary festival this past weekend, I was able to share my love for literature with others from this country. (Particularly exciting was an exhibit within the Royal Palace that featured a first-edition copy of Don Quixote; not for sale, unfortunately.) I’ve been scouting out coffee cuppings throughout the city, and in a similar vein, a few IES Abroad students and I will be attending an introductory beer tasting course with two-dozen Madrileños tomorrow night. With cultural opportunities abound, cultural immersion could not be more exciting.
I’m glad to have the opportunity to learn Spanish in a city as beautiful as Madrid, and I’m fortunate to be able combine my language learning with my favorite hobbies. As you can tell, living como un Madrileño is pretty good, and there is no better feeling than learning simply by doing. My advice to other students who study abroad is simple: find something you love to do, and do it in Spanish.
For the most up-to-date notes on my study abroad experience, follow me on Instagram @tarxander https://www.instagram.com/tarxander
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<div>I'm Xander—a photographer, amateur restauranteur, recreational runner and humanities major spending six weeks of <span style="font-size: 13.008px; line-height: 1.538em;">my summer in Spain. Traveling notebook-in-hand and iPhone-in-backpack (or maybe the other way around), I'll be </span><span style="font-size: 13.008px; line-height: 1.538em;">showcasing the best of Madrid culture available to travelers and students on a budget. You can expect photographs of </span><span style="font-size: 13.008px; line-height: 1.538em;">and musings on Madrid architecture, history, literature, food, music and the great people I find along the way. Oh, and </span><span style="font-size: 13.008px; line-height: 1.538em;">there will be coffee, too —don't forget the coffee!</span></div>