The best of times?

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sarah dickins montage
Credit: Sarah Dickins

It was the best of times, it was the best of times: and quite a lot of them too, I’ve been living in Madrid for 7 months and 22 days. Or 33 weeks and 3 days. Or 234 days, whichever sounds most impressive.

In an effort to lessen the trauma of moving away, here’s a (totally self-promotional and incomplete) A-Z of my year, from fiesta to fiasco, in España.

Acostumbrarse – Literally ‘to get used to’; not in the sense of ‘they amputated my legs, but I got used to it’, but rather ‘I’m so overwhelmed and curious and excited to try living alone in a foreign country’.

Banks – Or anything scarily legal, can be a nightmare. Gives you some interesting vocabulary, I tell you. Ask for a translation if you’re in doubt.

Charities – What better way of using your free time and getting to know new people? There’s something for everyone: if it matters to you, get involved.

Dating – See “Mingling in Madrid”. It’s those subtle differences that really make you wonder if you’re autistic or if he’s actually being weird.

English – It’s too tempting to stick to your expat bars with your expat friends, I know. Can you please not? Mingle as much as possible; talk to pensioners on the metro, taxi-drivers, whoever. You can’t learn a new language well if you never use it in the real world.

Family – They come in handy, after all. Who knew? For when you forget how a washing machine works or what a vegetable is, a friendly, pixelated face on the other end of Skype is just perfect.

Grants – There are lots available, and most students are eligible for an Erasmus+ grant. The University year abroad team will provide pre-departure information on how to receive yours.

Home – Is, obviously, rather important. And I’m not just talking about your rainy, British suburb; find a flat that you feel comfortable living in for the long-term, preferably with flatmates that aren’t unbearable. Don’t be afraid to move out if it’s not what you’re looking for.

Ill – Is going to be rubbish, whether you have views of the Eiffel Tower or not.

Jokes – For someone who grew up on a diet of Monty Python and BBC 4’s The News Quiz, Spanish humour is notably different. Think: fewer puns, more bawdiness. Hooray?

Kulture – Madrid is probably the most important Spanish city for fine art; Museo del Prado, Museo de la Reina Sofia, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Matadero, the Tabacalera, to name a tiny few. No excuse for staying in on rainy days (not that they’re common).

Lonely – People who say that the year abroad is unilaterally hip and groovy are lying. It’s been great, but the first few weeks were hellishly lonely and overwhelming. This is totally normal, especially if you’re not feeling too confident in your second language. Give it time.

Music – Get into it. All of it. In a foreign environment, you’re surrounded by the unfamiliar. Sweet baby Jesus, it can be awful: Enrique Iglesias and I have some talking to do. But it can also be interesting and eye-opening and the best ever ever. So go to that concert or festival or opera or jam session, you’ll almost certainly discover something new.

Nightlife – Going home at 2am, St Andrews? Not a chance: people might venture out for a drink at about 11 or 12, but clubs are only worth going into at about 3 in the morning. On the other hand, natives of the land of fiesta just don’t drink as much as in the UK.

Oreja de cerdo – Or pig’s ear, is just one of the culinary delights that awaits you in Spain. Though I’ve exempted myself from the meatier delicacies (see “A Vegetarian in Madrid”), don’t be too quick to reject new stuff. At least you’ll have the dinner-party anecdote later.

Parties – Have been on the tamer, social-gathering side of things this year. Whilst nice, I am looking forward to a proper uni party.

Questions – Forget pride, ask lots.

Running – Is my soul-mate. I’m joking, I absolutely hate it. But my usual route around the Manzanares (or the Madrid Río) is kind of lovely, especially at sunset.

Stress – Whilst you’re busy being kool and kultured, make sure you give yourself a break too. Get in touch with people from home if you need to. The Facegram tweets (or whatever you young things are into) of some exotic location can wait.

Travel – Lisbon, Seville, Granada, Valencia, Bilbao; this is probably the best opportunity you’ve ever had to go roaming, make the most of it.

University – For most of us, it continues. Keep half of an eye on deadlines and paperwork, etc.

Vile – Something that nobody stressed enough. Small children are disgusting. Disgusting. Without going into detail, if I never see another bodily fluid again, it will still be too much.

Work – Though, on the flip-side, I have enjoyed teaching in a primary school far more than I expected. It’s such a diverse job that brings you into contact with a huge range of people. Definitely worth trying.

X – Despite being a common phoneme in medieval Spanish, there are relatively few words that begin with the letter nowadays. Wow, Sarah, thanks. So interesting. No, really, just thrilling.

Yoga – I think I fell asleep during the last meditation session, but I’m really not sure. Either way, it’s cracking.

Zoo – There is one. It probably has animals and everything. I haven’t been yet (oops), but I’ll keep you informed, if you can bear the tension until then.

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