It seems like just yesterday I got off that plane at Barajas and started my new life in Madrid. And if not yesterday, then last week.
But it wasn’t.
Actually, I recently celebrated my tenth anniversary of life in Spain.
Ten years. That’s a full decade. Most of my adult life, actually. All spent, more or less accidentally, in a foreign country thousands of miles from “home”.
Originally, I had planned to be in Spain for just a few days. It was the summer of 2004 and I was twenty-one years old, trying to see half of Europe in just over two weeks, as Americans sometimes do.
A series of things happened which totally changed my life—long story, really. I met a girl in Madrid. Then I went back to Phoenix and found that my life there had taken a few unexpected turns, and suddenly seemed much less promising. Also, I was young, stupid, etc.
I quickly decided to come back to Madrid, originally planning to spend another few months just to see what happened. I’m not really sure how, but I ended up staying. And a decade later, here I am.
Maybe life is a joke. Or to paraphrase Melville, maybe the whole universe is a joke, and maybe the joke seems to be on me. I certainly didn’t see it coming.
Anyway, a lot can change in ten years. Both in a person, in a city, and in the world.
I’ve been around Madrid for longer than most other expats at this point, and I’ve seen it happen. So as resident old timer, let me tell you a little bit about the last decade.
Changes and the new Madrid “vibe”
If you’ve just arrived in Spain from the US, you might feel like you’ve gone back in time. But actually, the city has gotten much more modern in past years.
These days, I feel a bit of culture shock walking around the new Madrid. I go to Malasaña or Huertas and see that everything is suddenly gastro-this and hipster-that. It’s great for tourists, but a big change for “locals”—and I include myself, at this point.
I remember what I see now as the first sign of the new trend—when Mercado de San Miguel was remodeled and became, suddenly, an upscale attraction where they charge you 3€ for some olives on a toothpick. Several years ago, it just was a normal market.
White-haired fishmongers standing under fluorescent lights, shouting out the price of sardines. No ambience. No touristic appeal. Just pure local culture.
Is your town becoming gentrified?
Back then, there was no such thing as a gastro bar. Of course, there was great local food. Lots of it. It just wasn’t dressed up and served in fancy places.
The original stall holders protested the remodeling of San Miguel, but their generation is on the way out.
The economic crisis has done further damage to the old Madrid—and at the same time made way for the new one. When the recession started in 2008, many of the typical old-man bars ended up closing.
Some of the old rent-control laws expired, and the small mom-and-pop joints couldn’t hold on.
And in their places, a lot of chain restaurants have sprung up. The low-cost bars are mostly a new phenomenon. There used to be only a couple of them, and they weren’t nearly as popular. Now it seems like every major street has a Lizarrán and a 100 Montaditos.
On the one hand, it’s good to see prices becoming more accessible. On the other hand, we’re losing some of the city’s old-time charm.
In any case, a lot of the city is new, so naturally there won’t be much history in those areas. Newcomers have no idea, but about half of the metro was built in the last decade. Line 3 used to end in Legazpi, and there was no Metro Norte or Metro Ligero.
There was no Ikea in La Gavia because there was no La Gavia—the real estate boom led to the construction of lots of new neighborhoods and the infrastructure was built back when City Hall had seemingly unlimited money. Back before the crisis, when everybody was optimistically employed and something even better was just around the corner.
The Spanish miracle, which quickly became the Spanish disaster, created a lot of what we now see in our day-to-day lives.
The passing of time
Of course, time has been passing in my life, too.
Back home, my friends continue with their lives, and I’m out of the loop. While I’ve been learning foreign languages and living in tiny flats, drinking some of the world’s best wine, people back home are living in those enormous American houses, earning three times my salary, and driving from home to office to strip mall on an infinite suburban street grid.
While I’m dating women with exotic accents, they’re marrying someone from high school.
I see them on Facebook and don’t know if I should envy them or pity them. Is their lifestyle any better than mine is?
They certainly have more money, but then again, I can hop over to Paris or Rome for a long weekend whenever I want to. I walk out the door and I’m just a few minutes from anything I need.
And I’m certain that (unlike me) my friends back home can barely afford a bottle of Rioja. I just wander down to the supermarket and it’s 3 euros. Or maybe 6, if I’m feeling extravagant.
Life in the international bubble
As Tom explained over in his article about making Spanish friends, it’s hard for a foreigner to feel truly integrated in Spanish society. This is true for people who spend a couple of years here, and it’s still true for me after a decade.
Even Brian, who’s been here more than twenty years, doesn’t feel like a perfect Spaniard.
Some people marry a Spaniard and are adopted by their significant other’s social network, but most of us guiris live in a sort of international bubble, it seems.
I’m the same. In ten years I’ve made a few Spanish friends, but foreigners still outnumber them by a wide margin. And interestingly, they’re from countries all over the world—not just other Americans.
I suppose the reason is that in the international bubble, we all have one very big thing in common—we’re in the minority.
Of course, it’s eye-opening to have friends from places I had never even thought about previously, and it’s something that definitely wouldn’t have happened if I had stayed home. I’ve learned an immense amount about different countries and different kinds of people, and discovered that, in the end, we’re all pretty similar.
And in the process I’ve learned a lot about American culture. A lot of small things I took for granted back home just aren’t as universal as I had thought. It’s certainly been interesting.
Anyway, I’ve drawn a few other conclusions from life here in Madrid.
Language, personality, and big city life
The link between the language you speak and your worldview is debatable, to say the least. What’s less debatable is that people feel differently—and can be perceived differently by those around them—when speaking a different language.
As many of my friends are keen to point out, in Spanish I sound like a jerk.
Well, it’s not entirely my fault, I say. That’s how people talk here. In Madrid, if you’re not able to shout your order at a waiter in a crowded bar, you’re gonna go hungry.
But customer service in Madrid just isn’t that great.
Spanish life has certainly changed me. I’ve gotten used to invading people’s personal space, and even (gasp!) touching them.
I am able to talk constantly, like Spaniards do, interrupting or talking over anybody who tries to get a word in. I don’t exactly feel good about it. But it’s one of those Spanish survival skills you pick up along the way.
Big city life has an effect on you too. Phoenix, of course, is a big city, but you hardly see other people walking around.
There’s little public life outside the shopping centers. Most of the time, in fact, the rest of society is represented by cars and trucks whizzing down the highway, or customer service workers who are trained to be friendly in a scripted, corporate way.
Here in Madrid, you can’t go anywhere without bumping into dozens or hundreds of other madrileños, out and about on their daily errands.
They might be in a good mood and they might not. You quickly learn to push past slow walkers, to step around drunks in the street, ignore the pordioseros, and to constantly be worried about the whereabouts of your wallet.
Again, maybe you don’t feel too good about it. But it happens.
Coming to terms with living abroad
I’ve had quite a bit of time to think about these issues and to try to come to conclusions. Unfortunately, I haven’t been very successful. My years in Madrid have been wonderful, and I’m happy to have made the decision to come—silly as it seemed at the time.
On the other hand, if I had stayed home, I have no idea what I’d be doing now. Time passes here, but it would have passed just as quickly somewhere else.
For better or worse, I’ve made the decision to make things work over here. It would have been easier, of course, to do things differently. But easy isn’t necessarily what I needed.
In these years I’ve gone from head-over-heels to a sort of love-hate relationship with Spain. But there’s still much more love than anything else.
I guess I’ve got a few more years in me. For all its problems, the new Madrid is still one of the world’s greatest cities to live in. So let’s see what the next decade brings.
P.S. This article was originally over on ¡VayaMadrid! And a couple of years have passed since its original publication. Here’s the new version – 12 years of Spanish life. And if you want more, check out some alternatives to the typical tourist traps. Have fun!