City of Opposites

Penelope Cruz is from here. That was 99% of why I came to Madrid, but as it turns out there’s much more to love about this place. I’ve been here since September, but it would be impossible to cram 4 months’ worth of stories and pictures into a single post. Instead, I’ll highlight some of the best and the worst of what I’ve experienced so far. As this is my first post, a bit of background on me: I’m…you don’t care. You came to read about Spain. Fine then. Here it is:

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Fullscreen it to really take it in.

As you can see, the word “beautiful” wouldn’t do it justice. It’s also not enough fully describe Madrid’s unique vibe. One thing that stands out is how seemingly opposite concepts come together so perfectly in this city. For starters, it’s fascinating how the classic architecture meets modern, top-of-the-line infrastructure. The streets are lined with buildings that look like a something out of a history book, and yet you can get anywhere within minutes through well-build roads with smooth traffic and a transit system that puts the TTC to shame (or Translink for readers back home. Pretty much just mom -__-).

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Another beautiful set of opposing ideas is the blend of big-city energy and small town tradition that brings the city to life. The best example of this happens every Sunday, and it’s called El Rastro. Every Sunday morning, a neighbourhood called La Latina fills up with vendors setting up stalls, tents and blankets on the ground to sell clothes, accessories, art, toys, human kidneys, souvenirs, and plenty of other things for incredibly cheap. I’m lying about the kidneys (duh), but there are plenty of random things sold here that you could never find anywhere else, and that’s a huge part of what draws thousands of people here every week.

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Rastro 1

The streets are completely crowded with people, and yet somehow over all the chatter of flocking Spaniards and tourists the sellers manage to make themselves heard as they yell out their offers. There are tons of great deals, but on my first visit I bought a couple of polo shirts on impulse and learned the hard way not to get too excited when I see cheap prices…

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The traditional Spanish spirit isn’t just at El Rastro. It’s everywhere and every day in   coffee shops teeming with overly affectionate couples and tapa restaurants lively with music. It’s in every narrow, one way street where kids play soccer football on makeshift fields and neighbours share beers and engage in loud conversations late into the night. I love the sound of it all but it’s almost impossible to tell if they are arguing or not, for two main reasons: 1. Spaniards tends to be loud and direct, even when being friendly and 2. I don’t know what they’re saying because I can barely understand Spanish.

My absolute favorite thing about Spain, the language, is the one thing that’s caused me the most trouble. I showed up way too confident, and despite only having one semester of Spanish class under my belt I thought it’d be fine to come here and take university classes in Spanish. Reality slapped me in the face from very first day of class.

I was expecting to hear:

“Buenos días clase. Me llamo Rosa. Soy la profesora.”

But instead it was more:

“Hola chicos hoyvamosaempezaconlossiwechuwudnmiowufndd…….”

 “Repeat that por favor? Yo no understand.”

Fortunately, Spanish people are some of the most approachable, friendly and helpful people in the world, so because of my classmates I managed to get through a semester. The only thing left to deal with was by far cruelest thing about Spanish universities: exams are right after the holidays.

It would have been great to enjoy those two and a half weeks of holidays to their full potential, but it’s not exactly easy when the imminent threat of 5 exams slowly gnaws away at your thoughts. Despite that, Madrid did a great job keeping us poor students distracted and entertained with what is definitely the most awe-inspiring holiday spirit I’ve ever seen.

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The holiday period culminated on the night of the December 31st with a Time-Square-like atmosphere in the dead centre of the city. As is customary here, thousands of people counted down the final seconds of 2013 together at Puerta del Sol  and then right after that, ate 12 grapes – one grape every second, for the first 12 seconds of the year. I don’t get it either but trust me it was beautiful.

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That’s not even scratching the surface of the multitude of traditions and beliefs that define this city. Madrid visually stunning – so much that it’s the only thing that made me start using Instagram regularly #shamelessselfpromo. But behind beyond the pretty sights and the delicious food there is an incredibly interesting culture and history that I’m still just starting to get to know.

As the second half of this exchange begins, I’ll be happy to share as much as I can about those but also some of the more mundane, day-to-day aspects of Madrid and its people. In these first months, I’ve really gotten interested in the subtle differences between young people in Spain and us Canadians: how they live, how they think, in school, night-life, relationships etc. Hopefully, I’ll also get to share a bit about whatever other cities and countries I can manage to afford visiting. But anyway, there are months ahead to get that all out. For now, I’ll end here and wish you all good luck with the New Year.

Until next time,

Jonny K

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