La Vida Madrileña: Adventures in Madrid

Summer Mengarelli

It was 7:30 on a Thursday evening, and the green line metro was packed. I had grabbed a seat when a commuter vacated it a few stops before, and now I was sandwiched between a man in a suit talking on the phone and a woman with her two small children. Across from me, a college-aged guy pulled a copy of El Cantar del mio Cid from his backpack, and after the next stop he was joined to his left by a middle-aged woman holding a ragged book with a torn cover. Before she opened her book, she took a lengthy glance over the student’s shoulder at what he was reading. He didn’t notice her, and a few minutes later she didn’t notice him when he paused to gaze at the book in her lap.
I thought about all the times I had sat on the metro and read from the copy of Persuasion I found in a secondhand English bookstore in Malasaña, and I wondered how many times someone sitting next to me had glanced over at the pages and taken note of the English text. I am keenly aware, every time I step onto the metro or hurry to find a seat on the bus before the driver jerkily pulls away from the curb, that nothing about my immediate appearance would signal to the other passengers that I am not native to Spain. I think I lost the anxious, hurried expression of a tourist within my first couple of weeks in Madrid—there is no real reason to stress about getting lost, especially not on the metro. No matter where I am in Madrid, I only need to get off at a stop that coincides with the purple line, number nine, and I’m on my way home.
This particular evening, I wasn’t reading, although the podcast I was listening to was in English. The businessman to my right stood up to wait for his stop and I slid to the inside of the bench, balancing my yoga mat on my feet so it wouldn’t touch the floor of the train. Someone sat down next to me and thanked me; as I responded, de nada, I wondered if my accent was strong enough to announce my status as a foreigner through that short phrase.
I got off at the Chueca stop, where every wall was painted rainbow, and walked up the stairs into a neighborhood I hadn’t visited yet. Chueca, one of Madrid’s gay districts, is full of boutiques, cafeterías, and art supply stores, and at eight in the evening the streets and restaurant patios were full of people. The street where the yoga studio is located is mostly residential, and that evening the street was quieter than the part of the neighborhood where I had left the metro; nonetheless, I passed more than one affectionate couple on the narrow sidewalk. The studio is inside an apartment complex, down a dark flight of stairs and past a tessellated mural. An earlier class was just leaving, and it was almost jarring to hear people conversing in English.
Although the commute is nearly an hour from my neighborhood in Rivas-Vaciamadrid, I’ve started taking classes at this particular studio because the instructor is a woman from the United States, and the classes are held in English. The other yogis are from numerous other countries—England, Holland, Pakistan—and we talk in the languages we share: English during class, Spanish before and after. The Thursday evening class in the lavender-scented studio ended with child’s pose, balasana, and dimmed lights. As I walked back through the neon-lit streets of Chueca I felt utterly content.

I came to Madrid for the fall semester as a participant in Greenville’s study abroad program, but I didn’t anticipate that I would be the only student. Although my host family is incredibly kind and Madrid is a beautiful city, my first month here was lonely and difficult. I have gone a week or longer without speaking any English, except through texts, and I sometimes hesitate to talk to my host mom about my classes or tell her about where I walked in Madrid because I doubt that I can communicate it properly. It was daunting to take public transportation into the city and navigate the streets alone, and I hated ordering in restaurants when all I could think about was how appalling my accent must sound. However, during the challenges of that first month I fell in love with Madrid: the juxtaposition of historic landmarks and classical architecture with upscale restaurants and modern shopping districts; the passionate couples who never hesitate to kiss on the sidewalks or embrace on the benches of el Parque del Buen Retiro; the terrace restaurants where you can sit under the string lights until late in the night and talk over tapas and tinto de verano, a lemony-sweet mixed wine.
This city is bursting with life and color and passion, and I feel infinitely grateful that I have this opportunity. I feel my confidence growing the more I speak to my host family and friends in Spanish, and places such as the yoga studio and the English bookstore provide solace when I miss my native language. I tend to exhaust of my own company and I get energy from being around other people, and I felt the consequences of my extrovertness when I first arrived. I had hoped that coming here would push me to do more things alone, and I have grown to love it. I feel almost at home riding the metro, often without a destination, people-watching and listening to conversation spoken with the native Castilian lisp; or walking through Retiro where I can feed peacocks or watch synchronized kayakers practicing in the lake; or exploring the artsy neighborhoods like Chueca and Malasaña. My time here is more limited than it seemed when I was flying across the Atlantic with the semester looming ahead, and it’s hard to imagine that by mid-December I’ll be in Greenville, moving back into my dorm just in time for finals. Travelers usually say that they leave parts of themselves in the cities that they love, but it seems more like this generous city is giving bits of itself to me: vibrancy and warmth that will stay with me even when I return to the rhythm of work and school.

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