“Tienes un acento. Tú de donde eres?”
“You have an accent. Where are you from?”
I was suddenly flustered, conscious of not only my strange accent but also the fact that I’d used the wrong word. I was at a fiesta at my new friend Patri’s house, and, in an attempt to strike up a conversation with the girl next to me, had commented on her cool outfit. Except, I couldn’t remember the word for outfit, and had substituted the word for dress. However, I’d only substituted it in my head and the word came out as skirt. “What a great skirt!” I’d exclaimed.
“Actually, it’s a dress,” the stranger replied. She looked at me strangely for a second. Then, she asked where I was from, no doubt curious to learn in what country the people refer to dresses as skirts.
When I told her I was from the US, Ana became very animated. She grabbed the wrist of another girl, Natalia, and announced “We have an American in our midst and we didn’t even notice!”
I hadn’t anticipated this much enthusiasm, but was grateful for it. I’ve been extremely fortunate in that I’ve had pleasant encounters with the people here. Strangers are willing to help point me in the right direction when I’m lost, explain things a second time, and even, in the case of Patri, take me under their wing.
Let’s rewind to Saturday morning. Immediately after seeing the first apartment, I met up with Patri to tomar un café (to have coffee).The area was not too far from the Puerta del Sol, but the feel was more like that of a smaller city. We chatted about different topics—work and studies and hobbies—over tall, slender glasses of café con leche.
Patri is studying Journalism, but works in the tourism industry. A few years older than me, she stays busy working and studying. She did several study-abroad stints, including a recent stay in Portugal and several months in Canada. We both share an interest in languages, as well—she has studied not only English, but also Portuguese and German. Having grown up in León, we also reminisced a bit about the town.
There was a cool breeze in the air, but once the sun began to creep up our backs, it was time to leave. Patri invited me to come along as she gathered the ingredients to make hummus for a party later that night. I didn’t have anything else planned, and willingly agreed to accompany her.
Our first stop was a pharmacy of sorts in Embajadores, a neighborhood south of Puerta del Sol. Besides medicine, the store also had tiny jars of herbal supplements and specialty items. Who knew this was also the land of tahini? The next step was aquiring garbanzo beans. This was accomplished at one of the many grocery stores on the way back to Sol, in the barrio of Lavapies. When I noted the sudden prevalence of groceries, Patri was quick to tell me that some are better than others, especially when they are outside of the immediate town center.
Since Patri still had time before meeting some friends for lunch, she told me she would help me pick out a phone if I wanted to. I agreed, since I was already planning to pick one up later that day. We went to El Corte Inglés, and luckily Patri was kind enough to ask some detailed questions about phone plans. While phone plans are the cheapest option, I didn’t spring for one because it would have meant an 18-month contract. Instead, I now have a pay-as-you-go phone. Texts are 12 cents, which is also the cost-per-minute of calls.
By this time it was nearly 3:30, and Patri left for her lunch. It was too late for me to return to the residencia for the meal, since lunch is over at 4. So, I headed toward the Plaza Mayor and stopped on the way to pick up lunch from a bustling place that touts itself as Madrid’s “tastiest museum.” The Museo de Jamón isn’t actually a museum but a restaurant with haunches of ham hanging from the ceiling. They have a picnic special that includes a bocadillo (sandwich), drink, and piece of fruit (in this case, a pear) for only 2 euros. I tried the croissant mixto (a croissant with slices of thin York ham and sheep’s cheese), which was delicious. If only I’d known about this place on my last visit to the city!
Lunch revived me, and I retraced my steps back to Huertas, the same area where I’d been interviewed earlier. Did I mention that I love the feel of this barrio? Others in my program profess a similar love for Lavapies, with its hippy vibe, or Salamanca, with its trendy exterior. Huertas feels like it is straddling two worlds, an area that teases and lures tourists with outdoor restaurant terrazzas yet caters to locals with ground-floor specialty shops and second-floor apartments. Underneath the businesses and tourists, I sense the pulse of a distinct community.
I jotted down a few numbers of apartments in Huertas to call later, and then headed back to the residencia. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the residencia from the center of Madrid, and once back I was tired again. I stopped to chat with some other Fulbrighters before crashing on my bed to write about my experiences from earlier.
Writing updates from my room
View from the hallway window
Time passed very quickly, and soon I had to take a quick shower before heading out at 8:45 to go back to the center of town. Another 45 minutes back to Sol, and I was picking up some drinks to take to Patri’s apartment.
Patri has an amazingly-centralized apartment in one of the streets shooting like the ray of a cartoon sun from the center of the Puerta del Sol. She welcomed me into a room full her flatmates, all 7 of them! While she said this was a small party, I should have known that small is a culturally-relative term; the event quickly mushroomed into a 20+ person fiesta.
One of the other residents, Natalia, is a dance instructor and had invited many of her students. It was easy to pick out the dancers—they were all hips and energy. I also met Patri’s friend from the Canary Islands, David. Hailing from the islands, he has an accent that I’d never heard before. David was only in town for the night, and was like me in that he didn’t know many people. We share a mutual love of reading, and he quizzed me on my knowledge of modern lit. After discussing our favorite authors, I asked for recommendations as to Spanish authors I should check out. He gamely agreed to make a list of titles and authors for me, so now I have an idea of new writers to discover.
Each visitor contributed food or drinks, and we shared meal on toothpicks. It was here that I had my first bites of old favorites like tortilla española and empanada. There was also shrimp and avocado salad, hummus and pita bread, cubes of cheese and ham, and the ever-present olive.
The party was going strong, but I left before midnight so that I would still have some energy for the next day. Getting back to the residencia went smoothly, even in the dark. Since it was Saturday, this meant that the students in my district were only just heading out for the night. The metro was flooded with people, and even the streets leading to the residencia was dotted with couples linked arm-in-arm. I pondered my earlier language flub and suddenly felt more confident. It will be hard at first but yes, I can get around this city. I can live here.