Foreign Correspondence: The Real Madrid

Opinion by and
Jan. 28, 2011, 12:17 a.m.

I had to go looking for Spain. In preparing for the trip, I had worked so hard to cover all my bases—to plan ahead for imminent contingencies, to have all the scraps and bits and bones of America in my suitcase and at an arm’s reach—that I almost missed the country I had to come live in.

I am fortunate in that the current group of students in the BOSP Madrid program is extremely close—surely an anomaly among abroad experiences. Accordingly, in our first two weeks in Spain, we did all the things we had predicted that we would—we listened to a lecture in the Prado, eyes dutifully directed towards the works of Goya, el Greco and Velasquez; botellon-ed in frigid town squares at midnight before venturing off into thumping discotecas that showed no signs of slowing down at four, five and six in the morning; voraciously tore through Big Macs when we weren’t sure of what else to eat; spoke English.

This was comfortable behavior. Yet as I Skyped my way home every night, started a 60-hour internship at a local bank, and awoke my first Friday, Saturday and Sunday with the sun in descent, I began to realize that this was not the Spain I had come for. Rather, it was Stanford, cleverly disguised in tastefully restrained European clothing. I was neglecting to live in the real Madrid, a city of serious faces, gorgeous glimpses into history and a language that bombarded me at largely unintelligible speeds.

During my first week of real classes, I returned home from the International Institute and got to my front door. I opened it and walked inside, but, for some reason, the door would not close. It seemed that the lock was jammed, so I went and asked my roommate for help, but neither he nor my host sister was able to do anything about it. Bewildered, I told my host mother, who was busily preparing lunch, that the door wouldn’t close. After a hasty inspection and a slew of maldicciones, she stormed off to call a locksmith, proclaiming the door inexorably broken. My roommate and I ate our food in tense silence, listening to our host mother’s shrill ranting through the walls. After a few minutes she walked in: “Alright, which one of you am I going to kill?”

I tepidly raised my hand, attempting to utter an apology but finding the Spanish words insufficient and awkward. “I’ll pay for it, an-and wait for the locksmith so that you don’t have to—I, I’m so sorry,” I stammered.

“No, you won’t be able to pay because you’ll be dead before he gets here. D-e-a-d,” she spelled out. Her fuming needed no translation. “I thought you kids were supposed to be smart—how could you break a door?”

“I swear, I just turned the…” Before I could finish she stormed out again. I looked incredulously at my roommate and began thinking that this wasn’t the way I had envisioned my demise.

Then something miraculous happened. Somehow over the course of the next 15 minutes, the three of us were sitting together at the table, talking like old friends. The inferno seemed to have dissipated, and I thought I could see a smile hiding behind that pair of wrinkled eyes that I did not yet understand. We spoke of idiosyncrasies, our families and the like, and I thought that I just might be in the clear.

Thinking things assuaged, I ventured a joke: “Well, it’s a good thing I’ve got this International Student Card anyway, because with it, the U.S. will pay for the repatriation of my remains…”

The easy string of voluble dialogue snapped; our host mother looked me square in the eyes: “When I’m done with you, there won’t be anything to send back to the United States.”

And so began my first week of life in the real Madrid.

So too began my faltering attempts at using Spanish in stores and with friends, my stories

left utterly without crescendo and climax in their foreign tongue. I have sampled fabada, a Spanish bean stew, and la tortilla española, which is nothing like the tortilla we Californians know but significantly better. I have spent whole afternoons exploring the majestic parks of Madrid, getting lost in the foliage and farther from my iPhone with every step. I have grown to really like my host mother, and I eagerly await mealtimes, when I can eat her delicious food and listen to her decisive views on just about everything. By no means am I any sort of expert on the city of Madrid—ask any of my friends how many times I’ve taken the wrong Metro line, or taken the right one in the wrong direction. Rather, I am settling into the lifestyle that I came here for, one that is decidedly not Stanford. I know I will be back on the Farm soon enough. Until then, I will continue exploring and peering between the hazy lines of translation.

Start the dialogue. E-mail Clayton Holz at [email protected].

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