Although this isn’t my first overseas rodeo (or bullfight, if you want to be thematic), I started out with wide-eyed and, what I now recognize as naïve, expectations for my year in Madrid. I would integrate myself completely into Spanish culture, I told myself. I’d live with Spaniards, go out with Spaniards, and travel with Spaniards. I’d eat Spanish food only. I’d speak Spanish everywhere but at work. Hell, I’d dream in Spanish if I had anything to say about it. Anything else would make me a sellout, I thought, reminiscent of an opportunity-squandering college kid on a study abroad booze cruise. It’s only natural to see one’s own culture as a neutral status quo rather than a culture at all, and so I thought that any allegiance to my own traditions and customs would dilute my time spent living in Madrid.
Fast-forward to the end of my first year here, and things have changed a bit. Not for the worse, but rather for the…real. There’s a spectrum of cultural integration that foreigners fall upon when they move to Spain (or to any other country, I imagine). Some go native, while others move contently within expat ghettos, dine at Starbucks and McDonald’s, barely speak the language and step out of their comfort zones as infrequently as humanly possible.
Looking back at my first nine months in Madrid, I’ve found my happy medium. I have fallen in love with a city that, as a tourist two and a half years ago, I found expansive and devoid of charm, especially when compared to Sevilla where I was living at the time. Now, after exploring its wide avenues and winding streets that aren’t so spread out after all, I see that Madrid is a diverse, lively and international city that incorporates cultural elements from around the world without losing a bit of its “Spanish-ness”.
So, it makes perfect sense that some of my favorite bars and restaurants have more on their menus than ham, tortilla, and sangria; they put their own twists on the classics and borrow from the best of international cuisine. I’ve also had stir fry, Brazilian fare, and tacos here. That is the authentic Madrid, just like living a true New York experience would require eating something other than pizza, burgers and fries. It’s also okay that I’ve shopped at Taste of America a few times to buy baking materials, peanut butter and Celestial Seasonings holiday tea, and I’ve enjoyed more than a few slices of carrot cake at various cafés around the city. That, too, is the real Madrid of the 21st century: carrot cake is all the rage; plus, it’s the real me, being an avid creator and consumer of baked goods. It’s perfectly acceptable that I have some American and British friends with whom I am able to speak colloquial English without explaining every other word and expression, share sob stories and best practices of EFL teaching, and travel and sightsee to places that locals have already visited. You know what? An international group of friends isn’t too far from the typical reality for a modern Spanish young adult either. It’s also cool if I want to see an American film in a specialty theater that shows movies in their original versions with Spanish subtitles, rather than watching it dubbed out of my native language and into my second one. That’s just logical, really. And I’ve even decided that it’s acceptable to order tap rather than bottled water at restaurants when I’m thirsty, even though it’s frowned upon in Spanish culture…importing an innocent practical custom or two from home won’t hurt anyone.
Of course, I’ve also seen a handful of movies in Spanish, visited important historical and cultural monuments, enjoyed more than my fair share of truly traditional cuisine (I think I might be physically incapable of turning down a tostada de jamón or a tinto de verano), made some wonderful Spanish friends, and adopted many Spanish customs, from the double-kiss greeting to drinking café con leche in my school’s cafeteria at break time rather than desperately clutching a Dunkin’ Donuts medium iced black on my unpleasantly early morning commute.
Idealism, meet reality.
This mixture isn’t a watered down Spanish experience, as Emily-of-nine-months-ago may have seen it, but rather a carefully navigated fusion of the familiar and unfamiliar, the traditional and the modern. Overall, it’s been a year of pushing, pulling and prodding to discover where my true comfort zone lies. It’s been a year of negotiating the space between expectations and reality, and between the culture within me (internalized over the course of my first 22 years) and the culture currently surrounding me (living and breathing on a daily basis), to discover what it is I truly value. Staying for a second year will only give me more opportunities to refine those barriers and lines — learning more about myself, American culture, and that of Spain — and allow me to more smoothly put together my own personal cultural jigsaw puzzle without uncomfortably shoving any pieces into place.