Monday, March 14, 2016

So what's it like to be an exchange student in Madrid?

Most of my posts this far have been about fun and exciting things. There's a reason for that - on an actual day-to-day basis, I live a humble life as a university student who wants to pass her papers and move on to the next step (and who spends hours wondering what that step will be).

The weeks
I'll do a more detailed post on university later on, but in general, university here is good. I take 3 papers in Spanish (actual law papers, not papers to study Spanish) and 3 in English, 2 of which will start this week.

I scheduled my timetable so that my earliest class begins at 12.30pm - perfect for all the going-out I'd been told that exchange students did (more on that later, too). However, in order to do this and have Fridays off for part of the semester, it means that my uni day finishes at 9pm twice a week, 7:15pm once a week and 5.30pm once a week. It's definitely not as bad as it sounds - I realised that unlike with morning classes, it's easier to stay focussed if you're not forcing yourself awake in the morning, I'm still with peers around my age (not proper adults as I'd been warned) and if I do choose to go out, I can still get the recommended 8 hours of sleep per night.

Classes have 3 hours of contact time per week (similar to Vic) but it's split into one 1.5 hour 'magistral' (lecture) and a 1.5 hour 'práctica' (tutorial/assessment class). The prácticas I find quite stressful - some involve doing a group assignment which we then submit at the end of the class, getting rigorously questioned by the teacher or they are basically another lecture. Some are more fun - my favourite teacher reminds me of the Dean from Community and he's quirky, nice, funny and enthusiastic, I am literally smiling all the way through the class. Moreover, he has an excellent taste in music and begins every class with a song on YouTube.

The workload has certainly increased since the beginning, and more so with more papers starting now. Some only run from weeks 1-11, some weeks 5-15, you get the idea. I spend quite a bit of time reading/translating law guides from Spanish into English and trying to then understand what exactly they mean. It's getting a bit easier, but my Spanish speaking ability isn't catching up as I would have liked.

Typically, maybe once or twice a week, some of my friends will meet - at a bar or a park or a café, to catch up. This also involves me leaving 'early' at 11.30pm to catch the last train home, or otherwise I have to wait until 1am for the first bus and won't get into bed until 2am. Some exchange students are the opposite to me - they'll stay out until dawn or whatnot, but to be honest, aside from a few odd occasions, my preference is to go to bars and not clubs, especially as a lot of the time clubs charge an extortionate entry fee (sometimes up to $30 NZD).

The week also consists of fun and exciting things like going to the supermarket, going to the gym, doing washing (and inevitably dropping socks off the clothesline outside and down 3 stories), washing dishes, keeping up with group message chats on Whatsapp and Facebook, and trying to read a book.

The weekends
The free time I have here is something I am so grateful for! Although I generally try to do a few hours of uni work, I don't have to struggle to jam it in between working very odd hours like I did in NZ (in an enjoyable but pressured job). Instead of trying to find time in the weekend to do readings, assignments and study for tests, I can go out an enjoy the city and the region. I've done a lot of weekend trips for the short amount of time I've been in Spain, and they've all been great.

Last weekend a friend from uni (yes, just a friend, because it looks like a few have got the wrong idea!) visited from Denmark. We'd been studying law together for 5 years and decided that if we did exchanges together, we'd have to try and visit one another. This meant I got a chance to actually be a bit of a tour guide - show him the city, see new things myself, and of course, hunt out decent coffee.

Not happy with me taking a photo outside the oldest restaurant in the world
Not only that, but it's so nice to have someone around who you've known for a long time. So naturally we spent a lot of time ripping each other out, being sassy, sarcastic and brutally honest (apparently I'm stupid). When you know someone you can actually do that though! I also didn't feel like the only one in the city wearing a black puffer jacket for once. Honestly, if I ever see someone in a Kathmandu puff, I will be so excited. As good as it is, I hate wearing that jacket now, being literally my only outfit for the past two months.

We did a lot of failed dabbing around the city, looking like actual idiots in scenic places, like Templo de Debod and Retiro Park.

This is embarrassing

We also stumbled across a film crew making a music video for a hospital, and other cool stuff like that.

Saturday ended a cute picnic in Casa del Campo, another huge park with lots of cool dogs.

It was also the second Saturday that my friends and I decided to bypass eating at a restaurant, and opted for a home cooked meal. Some friends came to my apartment and we enjoyed (hopefully) my attempt at Mexican food with some delicious (and very cheap) Spanish red wine.

So often a weekend will involve doing fun stuff like that if I'm in Madrid. I now have a list of coffee places to visit, thanks to the Aussie barista at one of my now-favourite cafés, Toma Café. (A post about coffee in Spain is also in the works!) As my budget decreases and my workload increases, weekends will also involve more studying. I also still have to explore the many museums and art galleries Madrid has to offer!

Where I live
Instead of paying Wellington/Auckland prices and renting in the city centre, I opted to live close to the university and pay literally half the amount of rent. It's ridiculously easy to walk to campus - literally 2 minutes. My apartment is fairly small and basic, and I share with 2 other exchange students. But it's clean, new-ish and comfortable. We are lucky enough to having a living room and a sunny balcony room, and two bathrooms for 3 people. Admittedly, being a tough-skinned and skimpy Kiwi, I froze in January as I didn't want to buy a heater and the apartment didn't have heating, but living in Wellington teaches you survival skills like 'studying on campus to stay warm', 'going to the gym means you stay warm for a few hours' and 'going out to meet up with friends also means you stay warm if you go to a warm place'.

It is about a 10 minute walk from the train station and then a 20-25 minute train ride into town, on the Renfe and not the Metro. So it's not underground, and there's picturesque scenery like industrial power stations and endless red brick apartment buildings.

My suburb feels super safe and friendly. It's not nice looking, but it's filled with families, older people and small dogs. All the buildings also look the same - 5 story high red bricks - but that's fine. It's not like the charming city centre (so not what I imagined when I pictured living in Madrid) but for the price I'm paying it's perfect. Also, there are dozens of fruit markets, bread shops, dairies and a supermarket within walking distance. And the fruit is really really good (except for the apples).

What I miss
This is my seventh year living outside of home, and I'm lucky that this is the case. Instead of being wrought by homesickness like I was when I first moved away from home as a 16 year old for an exchange to Chile, I find I really want to share what I see here with so many people I know. Missing things is a good thing though. I won't call it homesickness, but rather appreciation.

- Friends. Seeing them at uni every day, going on coffee dates and brunch dates, attempting to study at the office at work, catching up for dinners and brunches. Special shout out to Reweti, who Rhys and I had a fantastic two hour Skype with last Sunday.

- Family. Not such a struggle as I don't see my fambam on a day to day basis in NZ, but the time difference makes it tricky to arrange Skypes. I also miss my Mum's muesli!

- NATURE. Honestly not something I was expecting to miss this much, but I crave it every day. I can't really describe properly how it feels. It's like I just want to transport myself back to Wellington to get a good burst of fresh air then come back. Back in NZ we are lucky to be surrounded by nature - bush, the sea, reserves and parks. And it's a different kind of nature than it is here. I feel like here it's more forced, but in NZ it just 'happens'. I miss going for runs in the Polhill Reserve, Te Ahumairangi Hill, Brooklyn Hill, Red Rocks... some of the amazing places literally within running distance of where I lived in Wellington (although a lot of those runs were also walks because of the steep hills).

- Justice Tipping. Not really, but in general, the intricacy of the common law system. Civil law has its perks, but common law is not quite as black and white as civil law. Reading endless cases can get boring, but you learn so much. Not just about law, but other important things too - how financial markets work, how mortgages work, and get intelligent remarks from judges and lawyers every now and then.

- Coffee. Europe has a different coffee culture and different coffee. But luckily I have found a few gems that don't use burnt sugar coated beans. And Rhys bought me Ozone coffee back from NZ so I am content for the time being

- Fresh milk. They have it here, but twice the price. So I do the budget thing and buy UHT.

Visit Toma Café if you're ever in Madrid and need a good coffee. Metro stop: Noviciado, red line

Other exchange students
Madrid is choca-block fill of exchange students studying at the university here. Erasmus students are the European ones on the Erasmus scholarship, and everyone else is an exchange student. Not only do I know those in my school, but also those who go to different schools, thanks to multi-university Erasmus Student Network events, chance meetings in Edinburgh and general 'friend-of-a-friend' situations. They're all great. Some older, some younger. In general, English is the common tongue we all speak but with some we try to speak Spanish and go to lots of language meet ups. It's also an incredible opportunity to learn about different cultures and bond over our common interests.

I think I'll leave it here for now. Please ask me anything you'd like to know about Madrid! There are literally pages more I could write, and will try to write.

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