My Study Abroad Experience in Madrid

    I studied abroad via Syracuse University’s Madrid program. The administration of the Madrid Program was run by Spanish Natives, and even though being fluent in Spanish wasn’t a requirement for the program, they tried to make it as immersive as possible. Part of this included having 10-day Signature Seminars which focused on different aspects of Spanish culture. I was a part of the Azahar Signature Seminar. This seminar focused on the Islamic conquest and Christian reconquest of Spain. After landing in Madrid, we traveled to Toledo, Cordobá, Málaga, Granada, and Sevilla. These were all cities located in the Southern half of Spain. These cities are of interest because most of the Muslim strongholds at the time were concentrated in the South, due to easy access from the African continent through the Strait of Gibraltar. We also looked at the lives of Sephardic Jews and their role in Spanish history. Without going into too many nerdy details, I’ll just say that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the beautiful architecture of mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals. Additionally, seeing the impact of Muslim architecture of that period was interesting and it was exciting to be on-site in the places we were learning about. 

The housing options for the program included homestays and a residence hall option, El Faro. I was in a homestay which I shared with another student in my program. We had separate rooms but going to classes together everyday afforded us time to get to know each other and we spent a lot of time getting to know the city together. We got along well and got along well with our host mother. Our host mom was a stylish, middle-aged, divorcee, high school art teacher. She had two daughters who lived elsewhere with families of their own. Through observing my host mom’s interactions with her family and what we experienced going out to tapas at various Spanish eateries, it became clear that family and friends are an important part of daily life for Spaniards. And, unlike American culture where individualism and personal needs are prioritized, “the group,” whether it be the friend group or the family, is prioritized in Spanish culture. Large groups of friends would congregate around tiny tables for tapas and drinks in bars. Tapas are finger foods para compartir (to share) among the people at the table and are often served with drinks. When tapas are being chosen at the table, it’s not what you like, it’s about what everyone likes. I was told by one of the relatively young staff members the Syracuse Madrid Center that the tab is split equally when you go out with friends. So, if the group chose Tortilla de Patata but you decide not to eat any, you’ll still have to contribute an equal share to the bill. Majority rules! Additionally, coming together with family is important. Every night at ~9:30, my host mom would knock on my host sister and my door and say, “La cena ha lista, si quereis”, which means, “the dinner is ready if you want”. By then, my host sister and I would be starving so we would drop what we were working on and race to the dinner table. My host mom, roommate and I would gather around the dinner table and talk about our day. When we did this, I got the sense that families all over Spain were doing the same thing at that very moment. On numerous occasions, my host mom’s family would come over for lunch. The house would be lively with sound, her grandkids zipping around the halls, the women in the kitchen chatting, the men in the living room watching football/ soccer. Most afternoons my host mom would go to the park and spend time with her youngest granddaughter, who was not yet in school. From these observations and some other discussions, I ascertained that for Spaniards, their job didn’t have the most impact on whether or not they lead a meaningful life; family and friends gave life meaning.   

Other than the differences concerning individualism and group-focused culture, there were a few other things that were strikingly different to me, namely differences in meal times, the Mediterranean diet and the drinking culture was evident after only a few days in Spain. For Spaniards, breakfast is between 7 and 9 am, which wasn’t much of a difference for me but lunchtime is pushed back to 2-3:30 in the afternoon and dinner is pushed back to 9-11 pm. Unlike the US meal culture where dinner is most important, lunch or “La Comida” is the most important and largest meal of the day in Spain. However, our host mom made an exception, preparing a large dinner every night. This was to ensure we had enough to eat and since it was our only meal together, it was a big deal. Speaking of mealtime, let’s discuss the Mediterranean diet. Google tells me that Spain follows the Mediterranean diet, which means intake of lots of olive oil, fresh fruits, vegetables, and a preference for fish and seafood over poultry and red meats with moderate consumption of wine. I did see the observance of this type of diet while traveling in Southern Spanish cities such as Sevilla, Granada, Malagá, and Cordobá but less so in Madrid where I spent most of my time. In my homestay and in the restaurants I visited in Madrid there seemed to be the high consumption of red meat, chicken, eggs, and cheese. A common delicacy was dried meats like prosciutto, eaten with cheese. But, one thing was universal, no matter where you go, Spaniards love their olive oil and wine! And, Spaniards are social drinkers. They seemed laxer about the consumption of alcohol. On occasions when my host mom’s family came over, my host sister and I would be offered some wine. Due to the lack of “excitement” surrounding drinking, it seemed that Spanish youth were less likely to drink irresponsibly. But, smoking did seem to be quite the epidemic among Spanish youth.  

Despite having a great time abroad, it wasn’t all great. Because, like the US, Spain has it’s issued when it came to racism and discrimination. In all my time wandering Madrid, I hardly ran into Black people. Most of them were relegated to the “Lavapies” neighborhood, along with with other immigrant people from middle eastern countries and the gay community. To emphasize a lack of Black communities and representation in other neighborhoods, the only place that a Black hair salon could be found was in Lavapies. In a few times, I visited this neighborhood, I was outraged at how dirty the streets where with the cracked pavement and huge potholes in the road. These conditions were especially infuriating because the street was sparkling clean and well kept every other neighborhood that I saw. I’d run into Black immigrants in tourist areas selling toys and trinkets or in the subways stations selling counterfeit purses. It seemed that there were little opportunities for upward mobility for Black immigrants once they moved to Spain. Additionally, there seemed to be a lack of sensitivity towards issues of race. A Spanish professor said the “N-word” during a class session in the Madrid program. The matter was exacerbated by the fact that the professor proceeded to say it multiple times throughout the class session and only stopped when a black student spoke up. Even then, the professor showed no remorse. Only when the program’s administration started investigating the issue did the professor’s demeanor change. There were incidences of Black male students being denied entry to clubs under the farce of being underdressed. But, the white males of the program, who were dressed in a similar way were not denied entry. The list of incidences was quite long and I won’t get into all of them but I’ll just say, Spain is a great country to visit but their apparent refusal to address issues of race closes the country off to the possibility of creating a more inclusive environment for all its residents.