Madrid: well known as a popular destination for sunny weather, plentiful tapas, talkative and playful people, with a urban nightlife full of after-parties that last until 8am.
I was there for a year to learn Spanish as part of my degree, and I was only partially excited to move there. This was largely due to the fact that I had established such a wonderful community in Edinburgh with fellow LGBT+ and feminist individuals that made me feel finally comfortable in the skin that I lived in. Notorious for being LGBT+ friendly, I was curious to see what the scene in Madrid was like.
The institution I studied at was an hour commute each morning via metro and train, on the outskirts of the northern region of the city. The terrain was plain and lacked personality, more functional than a place to spend leisurely time. Just a few days after I arrived, however, I did notice that people tended to relax on the grass if the weather was warm and bountiful in sunlight.
Orientation was droll – they placed all exchange students in a classroom and welcomed us by showing us a video about how “life-changing” and “epic” our year here would be, perhaps setting expectations in my brain about how the rest of my experience would go. The ESN (Exchange Student Network) committee was a very amicable and friendly bunch, but I didn’t embrace it like I should of. Instead, I thought I might try to make friends in classes and let friendship organically happen. This was not as simple as I had imagined it to be.
Even getting a schedule organised was extremely difficult, and it took me the better part of the first month to figure out how to make my timetable plausible. The classes I had signed up for originally had clashed with one another, and I had to manually change each detail by making numerous visits to the International Office, whose Head was more than irritable due to the large influx of confused students who couldn’t speak the best Spanish. The classes themselves differed greatly – the students who took the same degree shared the same teachers, same blocks of time, same classrooms, and had already formed friendships, meaning it was hard to become a part of their groups. Since I was taking only Spanish-speaking classes, I was disheartened immediately when the teachers failed to understand what I was saying, making me a silent member of each class for the rest of the year. There were some nice teachers who took pity on me, and others who pushed me by treating me as any other Spanish student. There were no societies apparently, and I didn’t find much reason to stay on the university campus except for the occasional bout in the library. I couldn’t even figure out how to print documents on my own, and had to rely on the printing stores they had stationed in each faculty, which had large queues resulting in impatient customers and staff.
To be honest, I was very much terrified and scared of speaking Spanish for the first three months, despite being able to, and I couldn’t find anyone that provided support for the LGBT+ community either. I found comfort in a friend in my Gender Studies class: a Chinese student who identified with being queer and seemed to feel a sense of duty to make sure that I didn’t hate the class.
The city life and the university life were completely separate, and I hardly spent time with people I went to university with. There were friendly individuals every now and then, but I didn’t develop any friendships with them, even when they suggested that we “hang out”. I later came to learn that these gestures were merely politeness, but didn’t have any meaning.
Through some mutual friends from Edinburgh, I was invited to a community space that was refuge for alternative lifestyles and feminist meetings, but I felt very out of place despite it seeming like a space I would connect with. The language barrier was immense, and the pressure to speak Spanish only increased my anxiety. I eventually joined the Roller Derby team in the city and found friends in members of the team, who were wiser and older queer and non-queer women, who showed me the most kindness and inclusivity. These women taught me a lot of about perceptions, since these were bad-ass ladies who were also mothers, nurses, designers, teachers, wives, etc. who packed a mean booty-shove. They inspired me to keep playing Roller Derby even today! I also visited a cafe in the centre every week that had an open mic night; I went with one of the girls from the team, who eventually shared her poetry with me and let me practice translating them.
Madrid is plentiful of art, food, and culture, being home to many great works of art (Guernica, Goya’s Dark Paintings, Las Meninas, the Garden of Heavenly Delights), and had a lot of character. The graffiti was very cool and scrawled all over the streets, and there were many street and food markets. There was a lot to do! However, most of the queer scene was male-dominated, and the Chinese community seemed to only spend time with each other – I hardly ever saw them mixing with Spanish/English speakers. I made my way to the Chinese District of Madrid a few times to feel nostalgic by eating comfort food.
I lived in a typical Erasmus flat with nine other people: 5 boys and 3 girls, and me. No one really spoke to each other, with the exception of one of the girls, who I had coincidentally met before I moved in, and found it crucial to our friendship. She actually introduced me to a girl who went to my university that she had met in a hostel before she moved in, and she became the first friend I had in university. I found myself hanging out with mostly international students, because they seemed to be the only people who would bother talking to me, and I found a queer companion in a Polish boy who was the only one who was enthusiastic about going to the queer clubs. Ironically, some of the strongest connections I made were from people in Scotland, since my friends introduced me to mutual friends who would also be living there. I spoke the most Spanish with a group of Italian girls that I met, who were completely lovely and friendly. Yet, even amongst the international crowds, I found that some of the people who came from the same countries were content to make groups of friends who spoke their language, and easily made those who didn’t feel excluded.
What I learned about marginalised identities in places like these, is that when being “gay” is normalised, like it is in Madrid, people are quick to generalise and make assumptions, failing to acknowledge the differences in experiences that LGBT+ individuals face. I heard a lot of “It’s 2016! You’re in Madrid! It’s fine to be gay. Look at all the men making out on the streets. It’s the same.” I know that Spain was amongst the first countries to allow same-sex marriage, and that Madrid has constantly been marketed as the best city to be gay, but most of Spain is still highly conservative and Catholic. The renowned poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was assassinated before the Spanish Civil War, was famous for being gay, yet his own family refused to mention this part of his identity as part of his literary legacy. Asking other queer Spanish individuals about where they were from and whatnot, they said that it’s still a very sore and taboo topic for their families from outside Madrid.
Furthermore, due to the large Asian communities in Madrid, people would often make assumptions based on stereotypes about me without feeling these were unacceptable things to be saying. They talked about the “Chinese and African mafia” and all the horrible things that Chinese business people would do to import immigrants from China and make sure they were unable to integrate into the community. This is even featured as a plot point in the movie Biutiful, starring Javier Bardem, about a man who works for a Chinese business owner by maintaining illegal sweatshop workers in Barcelona. How much this is true I’m not sure, but I suspect very little.
I realised that I was very lucky to live in a place like Edinburgh, where the student communities are tight-knit and inclusive (and the ability to speak English is also helpful), locals are friendly, and the artistic community provides a lot of opportunities. Edinburgh’s international element has always made it hard for me to feel like a true outsider. Perhaps, on a personal level, I just didn’t really fit in with the mentality of people in Madrid. One of my few friends from Madrid had told me that “Madrileños” didn’t really bother with making friends who didn’t speak Spanish on account of being ashamed to speak English and because “if you’re in Spain, you should be speaking Spanish”. I can speak Spanish, but I quickly realised that an accent was a turn-off for some locals.
In conclusion, I don’t believe that Madrid is a bad place to live for queer kids or people of colour – queer people and POC are visible there, but they are marginalised within that culture in their own distinct way. Anarchist feminism communities are present, but they can be hard to be a part of without adequate assertiveness and Spanish skills. I truly believe that for most people, it is a wonderful place to live, and some of my friends are moving back there at some point in their lives. I just think that it wasn’t my sort of city.
I think people shouldn’t be going with naive innocence, thinking that the problems of language barriers and cultural boundaries won’t be there, or that it’s intuitive to find queer communities or POC to befriend. It is extremely hard to move to another place and live another life, to make new friends and routines. I missed Edinburgh everyday: my friends, how organised the school administrators were, how punctual events and classes were, and how convenient and intimate things were. However, I do not regret going. I made some lifelong friendships and had some unforgettable experiences in some of the most unique places that I found in the city. Madrid is very open ended and full of adventure, with great and wild moments (if you meet the right people). It wasn’t easy, and I didn’t expect it to be.
I guess I just wish I had more positive associations with my Erasmus year, and that the beginnings weren’t so rocky. People often feel the pressure of saying that their year abroad was amazing, but actually, I met several of people who shared my experience. Lots of trials and tribulations, lots of growing up, and lots of learning about yourself because you’re forced to spend a lot of time alone with your thoughts.