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6 American Habits I Lost in Madrid

Student Work
by Rebecca Bellan Aug 13, 2015

1. I stopped counting the minutes.

Even though Madrid is far from the coast, the Madrileños live an easy Mediterranean lifestyle.

My first impulse was to use these free siesta hours to run errands. I was immediately frustrated to find nunca de las tiendas open. I couldn’t buy a piece of fruit or get a haircut to save my life. All of a sudden, between 2 and 5, I was living in a ghost town. I had to realize that Madrid isn’t like America — where the consumer is catered to at nearly every hour. Madrileños like to take the time to enjoy their lives, and soon I was doing the same.

Instead of getting things done, I’d have a caña or even a jarra of Mahou or Estrella with my long lunch. I’d sit outside that 100 Montaditos in Gran Vía and watch tourists and prostitutes bustle around the shops. I’d walk along the Manzanares River with a pan de chocolate fresh from the pastelería. Or, if I was out dancing at Kapital the night before, I’d just lay down and close my eyes on the sofa. The office wasn’t going anywhere. Que será, será.

2. My stomach’s internal clock got a new schedule.

A typical American might have breakfast around 8 am, lunch around 12 and dinner around 6. It took my stomach a long time to get over this routine, for while I still had breakfast at the same time, lunch didn’t happen until 3 or 4, and dinner was never served until at least 9 or 10. This was an even bigger culture shock than the language.

My confusion deepened when my host mom fed me chocolate chip cookies with my coffee for breakfast, un desayuno dulce, and omelettes, or tortillas, for dinner.

Once I got a handle on my stomach’s desires, I realized that the wait for a late lunch is well worth it. Comida is the biggest meal of the day, and I loved that nobody judged me for washing it down with a glass or two of vino tinto. In fact, restaurants encourage a little mid day drink to go along with your relaxed lunch.

And it was never hard to find a place to eat. All I had to do was walk around the thin, grey-brick laid streets of Sol or Cortes to find a plethora of cafes offering up a Menú del Día. Each pre-fixe menu included a first course, second course, postre and a drink for the low price of 9 euro. I enjoyed starting off with a paella de la casa or gazpacho Andalúz, then feasting on bacalao al horno or albóndigas en salsa. Oh, and the pan! Spaniards rarely sit through a meal without a basket of crusty white bread.

3. I no longer turnt down at 2am.

Ernest Hemingway writes in Death in the Afternoon that “to go to bed at night in Madrid marks you as a little queer…Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.”

Like many Americans, I was accustomed to going home when the bars close at 2am. This, however, is the hour that partygoers in Madrid turn up. The clubs in this party city stay bumping until the metro reopens at 6 am. To assimilate into this most serious of nightlifes, I had to learn to take my time and pace myself.

My favorite form of pacing was a tapear, to go out for tapas. You play the game by eating a little of the free swag that comes with your drink, and then drinking your drink in turn. Sip, bite. Bite, sip. By doing this, I was able to remain in a constant state of tipsy until I made it to the club of my choice (Often Joy Eslava, sometimes MoonDance).

Aside from gallivanting in the neighborhood La Latina and on Calle Cava Baja for the best tapas bars, I frequented El Mercado de San Miguel for a classy, one-stop shop for all the small plates I could eat. Where Americans have perfected the art of binge drinking via shots, funneling beers and keg stands, the Spaniards are slightly more sophisticated drinkers who see a night out on the town as a marathon, not a sprint.

4. Entertaining at home became somewhat taboo.

Even in the dead of winter, Madrileños socialize outside the house. Back home, it’s perfectly normal to have friends over for dinner or a party. But in Madrid, they consider staying in to be a sign of economic hardship, of succumbing to la crisis. If there was ever a weekend night that I didn’t go out, my host mom would immediately ask, “¿Qué pasa? ¿Estás enferma?

No one is expected to spend money when they go out. They’re just expected to leave the house and meet up with friends or family, often in public squares like Tribunal, Alonso Martínez or Puerta del Sol. It wasn’t so bad, especially when I had a bottle to share with my buddies and when vendors were selling cans of Mahou beer for 1 euro. While street drinking, referred to colloquially as botellón, is considered illegal, the law is rarely enforced as this activity is as popular a pregame in Madrid as tailgating is in America.

And in case you haven’t picked up on this point yet, Madrileños like to spend time outside late at night, and I’m not just talking about the party animals. I remember being shocked at first to see young children roaming the streets with their parents and giggling at street performers in Plaza Mayor or on Calle Montera at 11 at night. Shouldn’t they be in bed? Why are their parents exposing them to the debauchery of Madrid nightlife? Oh my god, do you think that kid knows that he’s playing right next to a gaggle of prostitutes?

And me, double fisting a bottle of ginevra and Fanta Limón by the fountain, wondering if I should hide my street drinking for their sake. Understandably, due to the brutally hot Madrid summers, nights are the best time to be outside. Presumably, everyone is well rested from their siesta already. But give these social butterflies a terraza on which to drink a cocktail and smoke cigarillos any day of the year, and they will be truly happy.

5. I stopped shaking hands and arriving early.

This is the land where you might grasp a new friend’s hand only to pull them close to you and plant a kiss on each cheek, first the right, then the left. Instead of saying, “Nice to meet you,” or “Mucho gusto,” the elegant Spaniards would say, “Encantada” or “Enchanted.” I loved it, and still say it when I meet new Spanish-speakers, which leaves people wondering if I’m from Argentina because my accent is half proper Castellano and half standard Latin American. I also learned that, even though Spaniards aren’t very punctual people, they see arriving late as just as big an insult as arriving early. I made it a point to arrive exactly on time for things like interviews or meetings.

Before my first interview for an internship at a local magazine, I arrived early and waited nervously outside the building for my 11am meeting. At 10:57, I began to make my way into the office, all the while checking my watch to make sure I was arriving exactly on time. Within seconds of opening the door to the office, my interviewer walked toward me with open arms, clearly gearing up for that still somewhat awkward cheek kiss. No handshakes in this oficina, just some warm Spanish amor.

6. I learned that sleeping in on a Sunday was a waste of time.

El Rastro, Madrid’s famous open-air flea market in La Latina, happens only on Sundays. It begins in the Plaza de Cascorro near the La Latina metro station and follows the declining street of La Ribera de Curtidores, branching out into the side streets, until its end at Ronda de Toledo. The entire neighborhood is packed to near bursting with vendors selling everything from Spanish flag underwear and artisan jewelry, to colorful scarves and Indian tapestries, to clay sangria pitchers and your basic nuts and bolts. Literally, anything I needed, didn’t need, or maybe would need in the future (except fresh produce) for home, leisure or comfort, I found at el Rastro and haggled over the price.

Sure, I didn’t need to go shopping every Domingo, but going to el Rastro was a social affair, and it was a great way to start my Sundays in Madrid, which were usually anything but lazy. Even if I stayed up all night partying, I’d still make an effort to be up early enough to make it to el Rastro, which opened at 8 and started to close at 1 — even though it’s meant to stay open until 3.

There was no better cure for my hangovers than chugging a café con leche and meandering through the many, many stalls at the market. And it wasn’t like I couldn’t go back to sleep after shopping — that’s what siestas are for.

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