Studying Abroad in Madrid: A Five-Year Retrospective

I’ll be the first to tell you that nothing compares to the opportunity to live abroad. But anyone who has experienced it knows that it’s not always the fantasy vacation we imagine it to be.

If only there were one of these for every step of the expat life.

If only there were one of these for every step of the expat life.

My first day of studying abroad in Madrid, just over five years ago, was far from smooth. After over three years of non-stop contemplating and dreaming about my return to Spain, I was finally back, with just about the highest expectations imaginable. Exhausted from a long flight, I peered out into the disappointingly brown landscape surrounding Madrid-Barajas airport, dry and sparse as summer was coming to a close, not the stunning Spanish countryside I had been reminiscing about for years.

I arrived at my hotel to find that there had been an error in the booking dates, seemingly a pessimistic sign from the universe. Upon resolving the issue, I trudged up to my room, already a bit homesick and eager to connect online with the people I loved, only for my electrical adapter to burn up, shorting out the circuit and leaving me without power. I could have easily called the front desk for help, but, dejected and exhausted, my mind racing through all the millions of reasons I should have never plunged into a full school year in a foreign country where I knew nobody, I instead melodramatically cried myself to sleep in a dark hotel room.

Later that night, though, upon setting foot onto Gran Vía, Madrid’s main street that lay just outside the hotel’s doors, I was instantly reminded of how beautiful and vibrant Madrid really is and how I was making my greatest dreams come true by moving there for ten months.

Stopping by Plaza de España on my first night in Madrid (before I had a decent camera, I might add)

Looking back on orientation, our first month there, it was far more miserable than it felt at the time. Temperatures near 100°F/38°C with no air conditioning, revolting cafeteria food that had me eating only bread and lettuce by the end, dull classes, homesickness and broken hearts, rampant flus and colds spreading throughout the group… Probably not the best way to be reintroduced to a country, but I think we were all too excited to feel as dismal as we could have. But, then again, we were a group of 20-year-olds with all of Europe at our fingertips, so our stubborn optimism was fitting.

We’d spend too much time the rest of that year being overly timid with our Spanish, stressing about surprisingly challenging classes, pining over boys back home that didn’t deserve us, finding comfort in McDonald’s €1 ice cream cones, complaining about dreary weather, and generally being naive college students. But we’d also travel throughout numerous foreign countries, meet a charismatic cast of characters, form inseparable bonds, gain unprecedented confidence, become real Spanish speakers, and cement a love for (and occasional frustration with) Spain that we’d carry all our lives.

Find a madroño tree? Pose as Madrid's iconic Oso y El Madroño statue. Duh.

Find a madroño tree? Pose as Madrid’s iconic Oso y El Madroño statue. Because that’s how my study abroad friends rolled.

That entire year was easily one of the best years of my life and arguably the year that most shaped me into the person I am today. I generally stay away from negativity on this blog, as, honestly, with the life I’ve led, I have no reason to be negative. I could write (and have written) countless posts on how fabulous that year was. But looking back on that year, along with its ups definitely came some downs. It’s important to remember that’s entirely normal in an expat’s life, and, really, it’s something that makes life abroad all the more worthwhile.

I’ve had similar moments of desolation, panic, and “Holy [blank], what have I done?” upon moving to Sevilla and Sydney, but you have to remember that it’s always only a matter of time before those moments pass. And, yes, living abroad can get tough, no matter how familiar with the country you become, but that’s life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

28 Responses

  1. I can definitely attest to this – I didn’t understand a word my señora said, was tired and hot and hated Spanish food, and wishing I had studied elsewhere. Nine years later…me callo!

    Also, Spanish solutions R US? DUH, it’s called my new business! 🙂
    Cat of Sunshine and Siestas recently posted Autonomous Community Spotlight: CantabriaMy Profile

  2. …Considering that I’m arriving in España next Monday and having some anxiety as to what in the world I’m doing, exactly, it’s nice to have some encouragement through your honest words/experience, :-)…
    Betty J. Ogburn recently posted 7 Days, 7 Thoughts From A Soon-To-Be Auxiliar…My Profile

  3. Those “holy hell what have I done moments” are what make us human. The fear of moving abroad is real and I hate how often it is glamorized on sites like Thought Catalog and BuzzFeed. Sure, there are so many fabulous moments, but they come through hard work and not without their emotional struggles. Then again, I myself am guilty not writing about the hard times abroad so often. You hit the nail on the head though, time abroad will sure shape you like no other.

    • So many people think living abroad = amazing vacation, but, no, it’s just life! I’m okay with sites glamorizing it a bit, as I think more people should be encouraged to live abroad for a time, but it’s true that they don’t point out that it’s not always rainbows and butterflies.

  4. I love this post! Brings back so many memories..It’s true though, being an expat in a new country is not easy at first. But that’s kind of what I love about it too! I went to Quebec City to study French for a year and when I got to my apartment, I could not understand a word my roommates were saying as they were from Northern Quebec and had a harsh accent whereas I had always learnt the European French. I felt so bad and was sure it was such a mistake and too difficult to learn the language. Eventually, since nobody spoke English, I learnt French and returned to Europe with a quebecois accent much to the horror of my French teacher lol I also met my boyfriend there and now we are celebrating our 5th anniversary this weekend… 🙂
    Annika – Live Laugh Explore recently posted Nicaragua & Costa Rica in 10 daysMy Profile

    • I went to Spain thinking I was an expert at Spanish, having passed high school Spanish classes with flying colors, so it was a bit of a shock realizing I still had some work to do! Aw, congratulations on five years! Sounds like it worked out perfectly 🙂

  5. Courtney says:

    Yes! I can totally relate. Expat life is not an extended vacation. There are high highs, but there can also be low lows. When I studied abroad in Cádiz, I had a really bumpy start. Instead of riding it out/embracing it, I focused on those lows and ended up having a miserable five months. I had insanely high expectations upon my arrival – and when those weren’t met, I pretty much gave up. Since deciding to give Spain (and myself) a second chance by moving to Madrid, I’ve realized that your time abroad is what you make it. I chose to be miserable in Cádiz, and to this day I wish I could go back in time and change my attitude!
    Courtney recently posted Santorini One Sip at a Time: An Afternoon with SAFOWIMy Profile

    • That’s fantastic you were able to give it a second chance, though. Most people wouldn’t be that brave. Although you may regret being so miserable during those five months, just be glad you’ve ended up where you are today!

  6. Debbie says:

    Come on, Madrid? Spain?? It is absolutely heave for students!!
    Debbie recently posted Colorful WarsawMy Profile

  7. It’s so true that you think you’re good at a language until you arrive in that country to try and speak it! Although I don’t like writing about negative things either, sometimes I find it necessary to show traveling and living abroad isn’t all rainbows and butterflies.
    Hannah Wasielewski recently posted Ways to Live and Work Abroad (Besides Teaching English)My Profile

  8. Lovely post! I often find myself in content though, as I realise I’m currently living the best years of my life – sounds like you are too, and it’s so great that you realise this and appreciated.
    Of course there’s always some difficulties, but every expat needs these so they can realise how lucky they are to be out adventuring and living such exciting lives.

    Here’s to the next 5 years 🙂
    Liz from Passport Packed recently posted A Young Kiwi Expat in JapanMy Profile

  9. Loose Goose says:

    Gran Vía, Madrid is now a wasteland. Derelicts infest the streets to peddle their wares. Often then are pants-less.

    I did meet a WONDERFUL gentleman by the name of Torbert who, after 14 years as a spinster, taught me that life could be beautiful once again. I will never forget his swarthy frame juxtaposed with the silk drapes in my hotel room, the moonlight accenting his crisp, continental “butt.”

    …on second thought, I love Gran Vía, Madrid.

  10. Torbert says:

    @loosegoose my, luv, i wish to pillage your depths once again.

  11. Spoon says:

    COULD ANY1 SELL ME A SPOON FROM SPAIN? IM A COLLECTOR

  12. Shannon says:

    I’ve read so many great things about studying abroad in Spain. My cousin just got back from her program there and wrote about it on my blog. I unfortunately never got to study abroad, but I’ve been making up for lost time since then, haha. Thanks for the great read!
    Shannon recently posted Meet Courtney: Traveler, Writer, Student AbroadMy Profile

  13. This reminds me of my first night in Madrid – stayed in a Hostal on Plaza de Espana – really exciting time.

  14. Micheal A says:

    One of the experience I really wanna have is traveling to Madrid for a vacation. I really find this post useful and many others will do.
    Micheal A recently posted Federal Polytechnic Idah ND/HND Admission List Is Out – 2016/17My Profile

  1. October 7, 2014

    […] visited Dublin in 2009, just a month after arriving in Spain to study abroad, and it was fantastic. But I was still a novice to independent travel (i.e. without my family), and […]

  2. November 26, 2015

    […] Studying Abroad in Madrid: A Five-Year Retrospective Kirstie Jeffries looks back on her feelings and experiences during her year in Spain, including stressing about surprisingly challenging classes, pining over boys back home , finding comfort in McDonald’s ice cream cones, forming inseparable bonds, gaining unprecedented confidence and becoming a real Spanish speaker. […]

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