I used to be a two-week traveler.
Every year, I would plan 2-week-long trips to some locale, board a plane, run around and return happily exhausted. When my husband and I moved to Madrid three weeks ago, selling all of our belongings and arriving only with two suitcases and our dogs, I expected much of the same.
Instead, I found a city full of people I could call my friends and neighborhoods I don’t want to leave.
Everything is a learning experience
This morning, I stopped at the local bakery for a baguette. The owner remembered me, and asked, “Pistola?” which was the type of bread I had bought last time. I shook my head no, and pointed to what I wanted, a thick crusty loaf with a dusting of flour. He took a moment to name the different types of bread: Colon, Integral, Baguette, Barria, Pisolin, Chapata and so on. I was slowly learning the names of these things and said, “Colon” with a smile. I paid with a single 1 Euro coin and we both said “Gracias”. My mini lesson in Spanish breads was complete.
If I had been visiting Madrid, I likely would have never ventured to the neighborhood I now call home, much less become a regular at the bakery, market or fruit stand. My time would have been filled with sightseeing and restaurants with English translations. Here in the Chamberi area of Madrid, most people don’t speak English. The waiters nicely correct me, and even getting locked out of my apartment taught me more Spanish than I would have learned in the tourist district.
Twice a week, I meet my Spanish language exchange partners in a café. For one hour we speak English, for the other Spanish. I’ve met a Spaniard from Andalucía who shared his favorite recipe for gazpacho, a pilot from northern Spain who quickly convinced me to pronounce my V as a B and shares his insights into Spanish politics, and a Madrilènes couple that wants to tour Toledo with us.
These relationships have been one of the best things about living abroad. They offer the opportunity to view the world through others’ eyes, whether it’s the importance of work and life, or the way others view Americans, or daily life in Spain. Over café or vino, we laugh, examine our cultural differences, or just enjoy some people-watching.
Going beyond the tourist trail
Since we’re here for three months, renting an apartment, owning Spanish cell phones and firmly implanted, it made sense for us to find permanent transportation. We opted to rent a Vespa for our time here, and, in doing so, have explored much of the city from a different vantage point. There is a beautiful sculpture of a hand, nearly 6 feet tall and made of brass, that I pass every morning as we run errands. We found a Chinese-owned shop that sells everything from ice cube trays to DVD players. During the summer Rebajas (sales), we found deals on Spanish clothes and footwear. In the end, we’ve seen parts of the city that would be too cumbersome to traverse on vacation, and have enjoyed every minute of it.
Incorporating slow travel into short stays
If you can’t live abroad, you can still delve deeper into your destination. Try choosing a hotel in a neighborhood outside of the main tourist attractions. Frequent local shops and start conversations with the locals. Spend a day wandering a sleepy area of town, and watch the way the locals move throughout the city. Or, best of all, find a local language exchange and meet some new people. You’ll return with a greater understanding and might even make a few friends along the way.
Christine Gilbert lives in Madrid with her husband and two very large dogs who can’t speak a lick of Spanish. More of her writings can be found at her blog: Almost Fearless.