A Cornucopia of Troubles

Confession: I have had so much to write about in the past two or so weeks that I haven’t written at all, simply because it is often times a lot easier to just jot down phrases or words that remind me of how I feel or what happened that day, rather than express it in a prose-style. In an attempt to update you all on everything, I’ve effortfully created some headlines that illustrate small events that have made me think, “Gotta tell the future study abroad kids about that.” So future Georgetown in Madrid folks, this one’s for you:

The Maid’s Iron(y)

I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a three-story house for my home stay residence. The majority of the kids in our program are in apartments, simply because that’s where the majority of Spaniards live. My host family comprises of the following people: my environmental biologist host-mother, ophthalmologist host-father, and three siblings (an 18-year-old sister studying medicine and twins brothers that are 14). In addition, our household has a maid named Leonila from Bolivia that helps cook and clean throughout the week. She’s worked in the position for about 7 years now and often tells me stories about how she wants to go back to Bolivia, where her five kids (ranging in ages from 17-27) live. Despite her wishes, she can’t buy the plane ticket back because what would be her savings is always sent back to Bolivia at the end of each month to support her family. Her husband abandoned their family after her fifth child was born, marrying a woman he had an affair with during Leonila’s last pregnancy. Leonila helped me find shampoo at a place calles Juteco the first week I was here. She also feeds me delicious meals, so really she’s key to the study abroad journey I’ve had thus far. And you know what they say, the maid always knows everything.

Skinny Legs, Straightforward Men, and Pasapalabra: Spanish Class–Real World Style

Colloquialisms here have been one of the toughest adjustments, mainly because Spaniards like to use every word that no Latin American country would even attempt to use, making my seven years of Spanish class almost useless. Que tal (what’s up?) receives the response ‘bien’ (good) versus the usual ‘nada’ that “not much” would translate to in English. My host mom often asks me if I have to madrugar instead of ‘levantar pronto’ (wake up early), and if the answer is no (which it rarely is by the way), fenomenal or genial replaces the ‘muy bien’ my high school teacher Señora Padilla taught me my junior year. If I need to be excused? Perdona. You didn’t catch the bus on time? No pasa nada (no big deal). Which stop do you need to take now? Da igual (it’s the same). Looking for the filler word, an equivalent to ‘like’ in Spanish? This one is a bit tricky, because it’s something you will never actually learn. The phrase is ‘o sea que’ (pronounced oh-saw-kay). Okay, ending it on an easy note: Need to use the restroom? The ever-known baño is still replaced by los aseos or los servicios. Even that I couldn’t get right.

When my host brother is being silly and doesn’t come down to eat? ¡Que tonterilla, Juanito. Anda–a cenar! (Translation: Don’t be silly, Juan. Come on–time for dinner!) Juan thinks the American government is inútil by the way, but when his mom interrupts his politically incorrect insults about fat Americans, his mom finally tells him to shut it and comments, Que pesado, en serio…(you’re so annoying–imagine your mom saying that to you at the dinner table). Oh, but no colloquial phrase beats the most commonly used, ubiquitous expression of Spain: the ever-lived vale.

Vale deserves its own paragraph, because it serves as an affirmative, an acquiescence, a call to arms, or even just what it means: a simple ‘okay’. Just put it in the dishwasher, valeVale, that’s just how it goes. Come on I know that’s not the truth, vale vale vale. So how do you respond tovale? Well, with a vale, of course! Just close the door on your way out, valeVale, ciao! If you don’t say vale, you haven’t heard me or you’ve pretended to ignore me, both of which are unfavorable. Thus, vale never really means what it should mean, except it ends up meaning everything it could mean–vale?

All You Need Is Thread

With my South Asian roots, I grew up threading my eyebrows. This isn’t really an issue when you live in the suburbs of Atlanta, where there is a fairly large South Asian population and over a million places to get your eyebrows done (I mean, really, your best friend’s mom probably knows how to do them if you’re really in a pinch). Washington, DC made this process a tad bit more expensive, but DuPont Threading had gotten me through the past three years, and I was grateful. But the ultimate question was: how many South Asians live in Madrid, Spain and can do my eyebrows for a reasonable price? Sure I could go to Sephora, where they would charge me 30 euros (almost 45 Green Washington’s in the US), but let’s face it–even paying 20 in DuPont Circle, DC was killing me. And so, the search began.

I found a place in Puerta del Sol (which I recently heard someone refer to as the “downtown” of Madrid) and paid a steep 18 euros the first time I had to get my eyebrows done. A week later, I was back on Google, searching “eyebrow threading Madrid” with little unopened links remaining. So, I got creative–depilar (depluck), hilo (thread)and cera (wax) were new Spanish vocabulary words I had learned, leading me to a new place I tried today in Sol that ended up charging me even more than the other South Asian lady that knew she was ripping me off. I even played the “we’re from the same origin” card–with no luck.

As I walked home from Sol, I came across a store called “Indian Store: Jewelry and Antiques”. Entering, I encountered an elder man that probably never did his eyebrows, but I dared ask in Spanish anyway: I know this is a weird question, but do you know of a place I could get my eyebrows done here? Thankfully, he spoke English. The man, Khan Sahib from Peshawar, Pakistan, recommended a place nearby. I called to make sure the prices weren’t exorbitant the next time I tried going. Eleven euros. No sale here, but definitely the cheapest I had seen thus far, so I bookmarked the website I found online and have it saved for my pre-Easter break European adventure preparation. Khan Sahib also says to let Neena know he recommended me to go to her; that way she won’t charge me extra. Maybe I should get him a palmera one day to say thanks…

From the Palm(era) of my Hand

What’s a palmera you ask? Well, it’s only the most delicious bollería (pastry) you will ever eat in your life. Shaped like a heart, the palmera comes in a couple of different variations: white chocolate, chocolate, and glazed. It’s an unspoken rule that you always get the chocolate one, because it is obviously the best, but I also get them because of the following reasons:

1. They cost 0.80 euros at the Cafeteria at school ($1 when you convert, but remember, these guys are huge).
2. They satiate my daily chocolate craving.
3. They pair greatly with a café con leche (two espresso shots + hot milk is called coffee here–and tastes A LOT better than an americano (half coffee, half water), which is what we Americans perceive to be normal coffee).
4. It’s the cheapest lunch in the world.

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Yes, I am now known as the girl who eats a palmera for lunch every afternoon. Everyone from my Georgetown study abroad friends Esteban and Teresa to my host mom is aware of this fact, and also somewhat disgusted, but mainly confused about why it is I get this loving pastry as a meal every day (no pun intended). Well friends, for the above mentioned reasons. And trust me folks, when you land in Madrid and find normally-sized portions that cost more than their converted US dollars, consume an overwhelming amount of bread with each meal, and fail to secure any late night fast food to subside your cravings you too will endeavor in the daily palmeraritual.

The Sunday that Cured the Hangover

Truth be told, everyone lies to you if they say that by the third week, they are still in love with their study abroad ‘adventures’. At some point, the “I just want to eat a McChicken and watch Suits” phase kicks in, and you start to miss your friends, family, and fast pace more than ever. Since I had been warned about this phase, I immediately recognized it when it crept up on me about the second week of classes. I walked onto campus and saw the same graffiti-covered walls that wanted to “Be Liberated of All Authority and Fascism!”, had given up on trying to make new Spanish friends, and began wishing to only eat in solitude when my lungs almost collapsed because of the chain smokers in the hallway pervading my entry to obtain that little piece of heaven I find every afternoon for lunch: The Palmera. All I could think was, “God, I just wish I could stand in front of Healy Hall and appreciate it that much more right now.” I wasn’t myself, I was even more pessimistic than realistic now, and I knew it was coming, so I let it be.

Sunday, I decided to go to the local flea market by myself, where I purchased a ring (which broke by the time I got home) and a pair of owl earrings for one euro. Then, I spent some time in Sol, where I enjoyed the sun and read my “Islam in Spain” book, after which I traveled back and took a nap, showered, did some homework, and just really enjoyed the day leisurely. It was so great, and I thought, “Well, this is it. This is the Sunday that’s going to cure all of the days I’ve been sad and irritated.” 

Only I think I wished it were that easy. That Sunday was only accompanied by an annoying Monday of homework, an even more frustrating Tuesday of 10 hours of class, a Wednesday that started later and felt like it hadn’t, and a Thursday that left me tired and hopeless. It’s kind of sucky, ya know. To think that you have come all the way here to embrace a new opportunity, a new culture, and all you can think about is home. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because at the end of the five months, you have an expiration date in the country that’s hosting you. You will eventually pack up, selfishly take all of your cool memories with you, and leave the city for good. So why should anyone open their arms up to you? Awful thought, isn’t it? And that’s where I’m at now. Friendless, frustrated, and frantically hoping for a magical carpet to take me away and inspire me back into the honeymoon phase I was in when I first came to Madrid–but it doesn’t work that way.

Goodbye My Almost Friend

In my opinion, loneness takes a new toll in a country where language barriers prevent making new friends quickly. It’s taken me a good portion of my college career to understand and master the art of Small Talk, and to learn it all over again in a language that I can’t even think in? Talk about hard as crap.

Even traveling, the thing I hoped to master through this experience has been difficult, because contrary to the nomadic traveler’s way of life, I find myself needing a partner to travel with. I actually hadn’t imagined going to another country without someone else, as strange as it sounds. So what do you do when people aren’t really interested in going to the Museum, Cathedral, and Chocolate Shop with you? What happens when all of your other friends prefer going out while in another city or country? You don’t want to leave them, because let’s face it, you don’t know where the hell you are and wouldn’t dare risk going off on your own, yet you are also tired of being in this Irish pub for four hours when you could be doing the exact same thing back home. Well, I chose to stay. And think. About how much I am not like the people I’m around.

Pretty sucky, I know, but I think that’s what they mean when they say, “You learn about yourself when you’re abroad.” (Sneak peek: I learned I don’t like drinking while I am abroad. Why? Well, simple. I don’t drink.) So what I wouldn’t do out on the streets of Washington, DC, I sure as hell would not enjoy doing on the streets of Cadiz, Spain. But that’s not the only thing I learned when I went to Cadiz a couple of weekends back for the Carnaval (the NOLA Mardi Gras of Spain). I also learned a couple of other things through a conversation that I had with Julian, a friend who came along on the trip with me:

a) I still need to loosen up and take risks. I am extremely guarded and afraid to be vulnerable, mainly because I have been taught to be responsible to the point where I must take the mother role in the group. This serves me well in some circumstances, but also limits me when I have an experience like in Madrid, where I get to be a kid and just play. It’s hard for me to do that when I have responsibilities that lurk over me: taxes to file, roads to find, classes to sign up for, fun to have. Wait, fun to have? That shouldn’t be on a list of things to do; it should be innate. And that’s something I have to learn, and not just learn to do it, but also how to do it. Which leads me to think that traveling by myself may not be such a ridiculous thought…

b) I often find the negatives in myself, but find a hard time noting the positives. I can be outspoken, controlling, detail-oriented, but all of these traits are looked at with a negative connotation. Julian says to truly love yourself, you have to start looking in the mirror and tell yourself “I love you” and mean it That’s the hard part. So, I tried it when I got back home after chatting with him, and I couldn’t do it. If I can’t even say ‘I love you’ to myself, how do I expect someone else to do the same?


Change of Pace:

After a philosophical discussion with myself on who I am, what this experience both should and does mean to me, etcetera, I think I will end with a little thing I like to call, “Things I Wish I Had Known (about Study Abroad and Spain)”:

1. Consider your daily expenses. If I had known that a normal Menu of the Day costs 14 euros, I probably would have thought twice about coming to Europe. It’s too similar to the US and a lot more expensive because of the conversion rate. Sure, it’s cool to travel all around Europe, but you tend to do what’s known and overrated, rather than find hidden gems in the favella-filled slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (not to mention Rio is MUCH cheaper, and you could probably feed yourself for $5 a day).

2. Look at the University you’ll be attending. I didn’t consider this before I came, but my classes were much more difficult to find because Complutense en Madrid doesn’t have a Theology department, when I’m trying to fulfill two theology requirements for Georgetown this semester. I figured they would have something, but that’s led me to take a class I don’t particularly enjoy and another that ends far past my siesta time. Think about what classes you need to take when you’re abroad, and make sure your host University offers that subject widely…but actually.

3. Buy a small converter, but don’t bring your extension cord. The converter I currently have is pretty big, considering it works for the US, UK, Europe, and Asia. The downside? I can’t really lug it around in my book-bag at school, which can be troublesome when my Macbook Pro dies at 1pm and I have a two hour break from 3pm-5pm with nothing to do. A friend recommended bringing an extension cord, so you can hook up the converter to that and use a ton of outlets–smart idea, right? Incorrect. The first time I tried this, I blew out the circuit in my house and my host cousin had to reset it (embarrassing). It’s too much voltage being carried at one time and probably won’t work (unless you are in a dorm).

4. Walmarts and Targets do not exist here, but rather specialty stores. Like any other country, Spain has its brand name stores, too. So I’ll go ahead and give you a head start on some of them:

–Need folders for class? There’s a stationary store. Carlín is the most popular and is a chain found pretty much all around.
–Bras? Lingerie store. Oysho and Women’s Secret is what its called, similar to a Victoria’s secret, but not as sultry (and no semi-annual sale).
–Haircut? Barber shop. Marco Aldany is a good chain, and they have 10 euro haircut promotions sometimes.
–Shampoo, Razors, Body Wash? Toiletries Store. Juteco, another chain that is literally found everywhere.
–The inevitable shop til you drop kind day? Outlets are cheaper than the stores on popular touristic streets (i.e. Calle de Goya for example) and still found on metro stops. Good stores include: Mulaya, Pull and Bear, Bershka, Pinky, and Zara (Tip: do not go to H&M, as its overpriced in Europe).
–Wanna go to something similar to a Panera Bread? The higher-end fast food places include: VIPS (coffee, although they also serve meals), Café y Té, Lizarran, 100 Montaditos (50 cent sandwiches every Monday–go or be forever poor).

–Need to check out a book that you don’t want to buy for class? Theres a library in every building at Complutense, as well as in every neighborhood in Madrid.

Although this is by no means a complete list, it helps you get started. The best advice I can give though is the following: know that you will lose money, get lost, miss your friends, want peanut butter, and the list goes on. But at the end of the day, knowing these things is different from accepting them. I knew these things would be obstacles in my study abroad experience. Now, I am just hoping I can accept them and assimilate into it as best as possible. Wish me luck.

There is one thing that I do enjoy about Madrid: it is always really sunny here…

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