The Non-Conclusion

I guess this is my last entry. I guess this is the one where I’m supposed to wrap things up in a deep, comprehensive look back at my experience. I guess I’m then supposed to talk about the priceless lessons I’ve learned and how my life has changed and how I now see the world in a different way, and then I guess I’m supposed to give some words of encouragement for future exchange students and then finish it off with a Tumblr-worthy inspirational quote about travel and life, and experiences and dreams and all those wonderful flowery things. But I don’t want to.

I might just be the biggest buzzkill in the world, but I have my reasons. Apart from the fact that I try to avoid clichés, the main reason I want to skip the typical final-post conventions is that for me, doing so would mean mentally putting a close to this experience.

I still have almost six weeks left to spend here, so I hate the idea of considering this the end. I’ve still got six weeks left of struggling though Spanish conversations. Six weeks of sightseeing in the most culture-rich city I’ve ever laid eyes on. Six more weeks of partying, studying and building friendships with locals and other exchange students from all over the world.

Still, if I were to allow myself a quick glace back over this exchange, my glass-half-empty brain would highlight all of the things I didn’t do. It would remind me of the neighborhoods I haven’t seen, the foods I haven’t tried and the people I haven’t met. Madrid is the kind of city in which there is so much going on that no matter how much you do, you always feel you haven’t done enough.

That’s all okay, because I’ve still got six weeks. Six more weeks that I plan to make the most out of, because I know I’ll never have another experience like this ever again. I don’t want to close the book until I’ve finished writing the story.

Jonny K

O Canada: The Unofficial Guide to Homesickness

Homesickness is inevitable. It doesn’t matter how many amazing people you meet on your exchange. It doesn’t matter how many incredible things you see. It doesn’t matter how much fun you’re having or how busy you keep. If you’re away from home for long enough, you will get homesick.

It took about 7 months out here for me to start feeling it. No, it didn’t hit me like a freight train knocking me into a pit of depression. No, I didn’t lock myself in my room, turn the thermostat to below 0 and then cry tears of maple syrup while carving the national anthem into my wall.

The homesickness is pretty subtle, but it’s there, despite how much I’m enjoying this experience. It’s actually much less about Canada itself than it is about the people there that I left behind. I think the fact that I already go to university across the country from most of my friends and family has prepared me a bit and kept me from from experiencing the worst effects of homesickness. However, it hasn’t made me immune.

Symptoms                 

Here are few behaviors that are usually telltale signs of homesickness.

1. Talking about your country – A lot

Talking too much and too frequently about where you’re from, especially through comparisons, not only shows how much you miss home, but it also makes you sound ethnocentric and unwilling to adapt. Imagine having a foreigner visits your country and in every conversation they throw in a comment like “Yea that’s nice and all, but there I’m from we have…”

2. Too much Facebook

This is a problem for us no matter where we are, but being across the world only accentuates that FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) we feel when seeing pictures our friends having fun doing all the things that we should be there with them doing.

3. Negativity

Luckily, this is one I’ve hardly experienced at all. There’s too much here that I enjoy for me to feel any bitterness whatsoever. However, I do have a couple exchange friends who are not happy at all and they’re just counting days until they get to go home.

Treatments

There is no cure except coming back, but there are a few treatments that might help the symptoms.

1. Keeping in touch –Facebook creeping only makes you feel worse, but actually talking to people from back home is one of the best things anyone can do when they’re homesick

2. Doing what you did before

Although it’s recommendable to adapt to your exchange country as much as possible, it helps to maintain some aspects of your pre-exchange routines. Doing so reminds yourself that things aren’t so different. I still play basketball, watch mostly the same shows and have PB&J sandwiches every morning, no matter how weird they consider that here.

3. Create a bit of Home

Meet people from your back home. Make some food from back home. I’ve been on the hunt for gravy for a long time, and after coming to the conclusion that it doesn’t exist in Spain (they don’t even have a word for it), I had to make it on my own. I was finally able to make some sweet, calorie-dripping poutine for an international potluck.

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Canada = Calories

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Pretty much the only other Canadian in Madrid (happens to also be from U of T)

As for my prognosis, I think I’ll be fine. Like I said, I absolutely love it here, and I’m even starting to consider coming back next year for an internship. But man do I miss Canada, as I’m sure any exchange student misses home too.

Until next time,

Jonathan K

Occupy Madrid

It’s never a good idea to make Spaniards angry. That’s exactly what their government did, and this was the result.

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Protesting is high on the long list of things that Spain is good at. In the past 7 days, Madrid was subject to two very important displays of social activism, a student strike and an anti-austerity protest. Each had a different focus, but both are definitely worth talking about.

La Marcha de la Dignidad

On March 22nd, over 2.5 million people from all over Spain came together in Madrid to protest. Still recovering from financial crisis, the people of Spain aren’t happy at all with how the government has handled things. The details are complicated, which is my  way of saying that I understand little about social and political issues in Spain. Like the occupy movement back in 2011, La Marcha de la Dignidad was a way for several interest groups with different (but related) issues to unify their voices and make sure changes start happening.

La Huelga Estudiantil

Tuition is too damn high! Although that’s the biggest complaint, it’s not the only one. Students are also dissatisfied with reductions in financial aid and educational system reforms that they believe have done more harm than good. To make their voices heard, students all around Spain decided to go on strike from March 25th to the 27th. For a good part of the students, that meant skipping class to get together and protest. For others, that meant just staying home. As with any protests, there were a few violent people, vandals, and pyromaniacs sprinkled among the rowdy but otherwise innocuous students.

Aftermath

In both protests, police had to intervene in some instances. People got hurt, things got broken, and people got arrested. Luckily, this only happened in a few cases, and overall none of the protests escalated beyond control.

One thing I can guarantee is that people listened. I can vouch for the incredible solidarity and passion that echoed through the shouts of every single person marching down those streets. It’s no wonder that these protests were covered by media all around the world. There’s no doubt that government officials took notice, and now we can only hope that they will also take action.

Until next time,

Jonny K

¡Fiesta!

“What happened last night?” is a question that gets asked quite a bit around here.

First, a disclaimer: I am not prone to debauchery. That being said, I’ve learned over the past few months that going out is not only an inevitable part of the exchange life, but also Spanish life in general. It can be anything from a couple of drinks and tapas with friends one evening to completely wild weekends. I’m usually somewhere in the middle, which is already a big upgrade from my library-camping life back at U of T.

In Spain, things usually start late and end late, and the night-life is the clearest of examples. First of all, it’s considered abnormal here to have dinner any time before 10pm. People then meet up for drinks around 11 or midnight, head out to clubs around 1, and then party till 5 (or later). In Canada, we usually start our nights around 10 and most places shut down around 2:30.

While we might not party as late and as long as Spaniards do, I definitely miss the music scene in Toronto. In Madrid, electro, house, techno, dubstep and everything else that sounds like robots having seizures, is 90% of what you’ll hear in clubs. The pop music that does occasionally come on is usually a little old and the hip hop (which unfortunately almost never gets played) is often much older.

But even with picky musical taste like mine, it’s really easy to have fun on a night out. One of the places I’ve been back to a few times is called Kapital. It’s a HUGE club with 7 floors, each with a different vibe. Also, Kapital and the other big clubs in the city centre are really popular with exchange students and other young people who are in town for the weekend, so they’re good places meet people from different countries.

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There’s so much more worth highlighting, prices, do’s and don’ts, stories, etc, but I’ll just sum it up by saying this: Madrid knows how to party. The night life out here is definitely one of the city’s best experiences and I recommend it to anyone who gets the chance to come by.

Until next time,

Jonny K

Language Problems for Everyone

I have gained a HUGE  amount of respect for international students and U of T, especially those who had to learn English to come here. I came in September with very little knowledge of Spanish, and 6 months into this exchange, it’s still a major struggle. That being said, I definitely feel like I’ve made progress, but that’s inevitable when in Spain, taking classes in Spanish and hanging out with Spanish-speaking people. That last one is key; one of the most beneficial things has been the effort not to spend too much time with English speakers, aka my exchange bubble. I went from hardly being able to put together a sentence to confidently talking to friends, shopkeepers, and even professors. I’m far, far from fluent, however. I still regularly mispronounce, mess up grammar, and fail understand what someone is saying every now and then, but it never gets bad enough to make conversation impossible.

One thing is for sure: even years of Spanish class back in Canada wouldn’t have moved me as far along as these few months here have. Although grammar books, worksheets and tape-recordings are good training wheels, spending time with locals is the only way to  become able to talk somewhat naturally.  That’s the one of the main reasons why all of those years of mandatory French class haven’t done much for most of us, and interestingly enough, Spaniards face a very similar problem with English.

English is taught here at school from a young age, just like French is to us. French is taught to us with the hopes of a bilingual Canada, and the promise of better job opportunities. English is taught to Spaniards with one big motive, absolute necessity. English is one of the most (if not the most) useful international languages and many jobs around Europe require it. Even in Spain itself, which is on the heels of the economic crisis, many companies, in the hopes of becoming more internationally competitive, are hiring only those who are well-versed in English.

The problem is that English is generally taught to Spanish students like French is to us. Keep in mind, I’ve never stepped foot in an English class here (it would be fun, though), but I’ve spoken to many of my Spanish friends and their opinions on this are pretty consistent. There’s too much emphasis on worksheets, lectures and tests and not enough practice for real-life situations, just like for us. I’ll skip the bigger-issue discussion about school system flaws in general blah blah blah and go right to the consequences. Spaniards are losing jobs. Because of a lack of English skills Spanish students, already suffering a crisis-affected job market, have it even worse when English-speaking foreigners come in and take the better jobs.

I’m doing my part by helping out some of my friends practice their English, but this is an issue far beyond my reach. I understand now that as difficult as language learning is, language teaching is much more difficult to do properly. However, young people here are very smart, and very dedicated, so I’m sure things will get better soon enough.

Until next time,

PS: If you’re wondering about the lack of pictures, I had an…um…eventful…weekend, and I lost my phone (which also happens to be my main camera). More on that and the Madrid night-life in general in another post …

Tourists. Tourists Everywhere.

“The Door of the Sun” sounds pretty lame in English, but out here, “Puerta del Sol” not only sounds nice, but it’s also the name given to the most popular destination in Madrid. This means that it’s the perfect place to witness just how ridiculously rampant tourism is in this city.

Instead of stats and facts, I’ll share a couple of the things I’ve seen with my own eyes. Sol is right in the middle of Madrid. I catch the train to school there every day, so every day I’m running through dozens of  groups of old people with cameras, Hawaiian shirts, visors (even in winter) walking ever-so-slowly behind tour guides and pointing at things. For those among them who prefer not to walk, there are also these big, red beauties:

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I am almost sure that there are more tour buses than cars in Madrid

Most of the scene is pretty typical, but Spain is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and it didn’t get there by just sticking with the typical. Eventually, even the most passionate of tourists risk growing tired of the monuments, the restaurants and the souvenir shops. This is where the street performers come in.

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O hi…

You’ve heard of magicians and dancers, but Madrid likes to keep things a little more eccentric. One of the best examples you’ll notice at Sol are some lovable but somewhat out-of-place cartoon characters.

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Not quite Disneyland but it’s a start I guess.

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Come take a picture with me kids, as long as you’re ready to pay!

But of course it’s not all for the kids! Adults can have fun too, and what’s more exciting and animated than a human statue!

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I have to admit that this last one did have me pretty impressed. It’s one of the many reasons why even 6 months into my exchange, I still like to stop for a little while at Sol and enjoy the sights. What I see makes obvious why tourism is Spain’s greatest source of income. As much as I might be getting bored of some of the gimmicky aspects of it all, it’s clearly a joy for tourists, and even for many of the locals. In any case, no one can deny that overall, Madrid is an incredible place, and definitely worth the visit.

Until next time,

Jonny K

Exchange Bubble

Today, I have no fancy cultural anecdotes about Madrid to share. No breathtaking landscapes, timeless art or exquisite architecture to feast your eyes on. No delicious dishes or eccentric celebrations to describe. Nevertheless, I will highlight one of the most important factors in the exchange life. It’s something that has shaped my experience and influences every other exchange student around the world: other exchange students.

As the second semester started, I looked around and realized that a good half of the good friends I’ve made here are gone. They were only here for a semester and are now back in their home countries. It’s a sad thing in itself, but it also made realize how much time I’ve spent not with Spanish people but rather people from different countries.

It all started back in September during the week before classes. It was a week filled with events, activities and parties organized for the hundreds of us exchange students in order to get to know the school, the city and each other. Think frosh week but for visiting students.

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-Fail of the week: International potluck, where I was one of the the few who came empty handed because neither maple syrup nor poutine gravy exist in Spanish grocery stores.

“It was fun” <– understatement of the year. Details aside, this “Welcome Week” had an effect that is all too similar to what we experienced in frosh. Groups started to form. However, whereas groups of friends at frosh tend to happen arbitrarily (“Hey you’re a person, lets exchange numbers!”), people at Welcome Week seemed to gravitate towards people from their own country, or those who speak their language.

The fact that people started grouping up didn’t cause too much of an issue in getting to know other exchange students. Over the semester there were plenty more events organized for us, so it’s been easy mixing with the group as a whole.

The problem with these exchange bubbles is that it held many of us back from socializing with the local students, and so it held us back from the true exchange experience. One of the best things about studying in a foreign country is getting to know its people, speaking their language and spending time with them. Studying abroad but only hanging out with other visiting students is like venturing out into the ocean in the safety of a submarine instead of swimming in there yourself.

That being said, it’s not so easy to just integrate with the Spanish student body like a social butterfly. The language is barrier is one thing, but that isn’t a huge issue as many of us are here because we can manage in Spanish. Another problem is that we’re 3rd and 4th year students, so most of our classmates have known each other for a while and already have their groups of friends.

I have to admit that I ended up in a sort of submarine, but I still regularly venture out with my scuba gear to spend some nights out with Spaniards. I really don’t have anything against spending time with other exchange students and as a matter fact, that’s what I’ve been doing most of the time.

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Germans

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Italianos

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French

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And I’m big in Japan

It’s amazing how such different backgrounds bring us together, with the same struggle and the same passion for all things foreign. Truth be told, getting to know people from different countries has been just as exciting as getting to know Spain. As much as I try not to stay in it too much, I love my exchange bubble.

Until next time,

Jonny K

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