“This is a vacation semester!” I declared to my friends on the first night of the program. I was wrong, this is not a vacation—so far, this has been better than a vacation.
On a vacation, you only have 8 hours or three days or a week to get to know a city. It’s surface level. On a vacation, you pick the 3 or 7 or 10 highest recommended sites from TripAdvisor and you go there. You typically don’t stroll, you typically don’t wander into unknown neighborhoods. Luckily, with nearly five months in Spain, I can visit the highly-recommended, Instagram-friendly touristy sites and stumble upon some lesser-known gems. Last weekend, walking through the neighborhood Chueca with some friends, we stumbled upon the Museo del Romanticismo. We wandered in, delighted to find out that youth under 26 are admitted for free, and marveled at the portraits and furniture on display.
On a vacation, you cram as much “local, authentic” food and drink into your mouth as possible to say you’ve had the experience. But, Madrid is a large city and has more than just tortilla and paella and jamón. Yes, these things are delicious and abundantly available, but so are Thai tapas, Mexican tacos, and small ramen restaurants!
On a vacation, you always have to catch the next tour, the next bus, or the next train. As I’ve gotten to know the public transportation better, we have come to realize that the majority of the time there is no rush. Madrileños have an attitude of “no pasa nada,” which has been really helpful when stumbling through Spanish conversations or being confused as to which Atocha Renfe train track to be standing on.
On a vacation, you sleep in a hotel or a hostel or an AirBnB and might live out of your backpack or suitcase. I feel so lucky to be on this program with a wonderful host family who cooks traditional Spanish meals for me, and with many staff members who are genuinely concerned about my well-being.
So OK, this is not a vacation. But am I a tourist? During my first week in Madrid, I proudly announced to my host father that I’d had my first sangría of the semester. He laughed at me, saying only tourists drink sangría in the winter, advising me to order a cerveza or a “gintonic” instead.
Clearly, I am American, an outsider. I don’t fully understand the cultural norms, and that’s OK. I stroll through barrios like a Madrileña but take photos of every beautiful apartment building I happen across, like a tourist. I speak Spanish, but with a distinct American accent. Like a local, I have classes, a Spanish family, and an internship here, but like a tourist I enthusiastically explore Madrid and its surrounding communities nearly every chance I get. I’m not quite sure which category I fit into, but it is clear that I am learning and growing as a person. And for me, this is not a vacation.