My first contact was with the people. My girlfriend is an absolute sweetie. A nicer person you could never find. She has a large and lovely family. When I met her mother for the first time at a new year's eve party, she said to me, "We're not sophisticated people. We enjoy life together."
And then the whole family proceeded to have a great party. There's a great sense of family unity there and a love of life. At midnight everyone threw fireworks and bangers out of the windows. It was a remarkable display which went on for almost an hour. There was a great sense of community because all the neighbouring tower blocks were doing the same. It was a real connection between the people. It would have been dangerous to have been outside at the time though!
Family celebrations are always very lively and warm here. If the whole family is going to be involved, it's necessary to hold it in a restaurant because it would impossible to fit everyone into a flat. My girlfriend has 3 sisters and a brother. Each of them is married and has two or three children. Then, if you add on girlfriends and boyfriends, you can see where the numbers come from.
There are also some great places I've visited around Madrid. One of the most memorable places I've been to is Aranjuez. It's the place where one of the Kings of Spain used to have a palace where he stayed at the weekends. But it wasn't the palace that interested me. It was the beautiful gardens that are so nice to walk around on hot summer afternoons. They offer a lot of shade and a peaceful, quiet atmosphere. (Aranjuez can be reached by train.)
Aranjuez is a little town about an hour southeast of Madrid with beautiful gardens. See more: Aranjuez
Another interesting place is Toledo, a very old walled town built on a hill. It's a photographer's paradise. There's a photo opportunity around every corner. We sometimes go there and walk around the town, stopping at a little restaurant for Pizza. You need to be careful where you eat though, because some of the restaurants are expensive.
This is a creative commons photo of Toledo from Wikimedia.
There are also a lot of parks in Madrid. The Retiro (Retiro Photos) is the largest and most well-known. I live in a suburb of Madrid called Leganes. We are very lucky that we have a park very close to the flat. It has a water fountain which was designed by Gaudi. My girlfriend and I walk the dog in this park every day and in the summer you can often see young people sat on the grass socialising.
The Gaudi fountain in Leganés.
I've spent many happy summer days up in the mountains too. When the weather gets really hot in August I often go up into the mountains around Madrid with my girlfriend and a few members of her family. We take a picnic, which consists of a lot of tortilla patata (potato omelette), salad, gespacho (a cold soup made with garlic, celery, vinegar and other vegetables) and, of course, plenty of wine and beer. We like to go up into the mountains because the weather is a few degrees cooler and we can spend all day in the woods. It's a beautiful, peaceful place. My dog loves it too and swims in the river.
It's not uncommon for my girlfriend's brother-in-law to appear with huge bunches of wild asparagus that he's collected in the countryside or bags of setas (wild mushrooms). He lives in Madrid but I think his heart is really in the countryside. When I was up in the mountains with him, he picked a bag of blackberries. The next time I saw him he gave me a bottle of the most horrendous petrol-like spirit to which he had added a lot of blackberries. He saw the pained expression on my face when I tried it and he said, “Don't worry, it'll get much smoother if you leave it for a month or two.” Well, I left it for 18 months and it was still like paint stripper. I suppose it's an acquired taste. (Orujo is a spirit made from the grape skins that are left after the pressing. If you know the right people you can buy large amounts very cheaply).
These are photos of Niscalos from Wikimedia.org.
My first experiences with the language were realisations that it's not as easy as I thought to be “fluent”. People back in England kept asking me “are you fluent yet?” and I had to keep saying “not yet”, even after a couple of years. One day, feeling quite confident with my Spanish, I bought a newspaper from a rather rough looking man in a street kiosk. I gave him a ten euro note and he asked me. “Ke me dao?” I thought “My God. This man's talking Japanese!” He kept repeating over and over “Ke me dao?” Eventually, seeing my total confusion, he took a 10 euro note in one hand and a 20 in the other and was waving them in the air saying “Ke me dao?” Then I realised he was actually saying "Que me has dado?!!" There's no substitute for living in a country to really hear how they speak and to be able to understand them.
A word of warning when getting your residency card or doing any other type of administrative activity. You will get poker-faced ‘funcionarios' ordering you around in Spanish as if you are a criminal. They have jobs for life and don't need to treat people nicely. Most of them make the most of the situation. They're rude and lazy. None of them speak English and will send you from queue to queue mercilessly to fill out countless forms. Eventually you'll get what you need, but it will take a long time. I recommend you try to find out exactly what paperwork you're likely to need from people who have already done it.
Actually, the poker-face isn't always rude. It's just the way they are when doing business. You see it in shops and bars too. When you buy something in a shop you say “Give me …” with no please or thanks. The shop assistant or bartender says the price with no ‘please' or ‘thank you' and the money is put on the counter rather than going hand-to-hand. It seems rude at first, but it's actually just that they don't waste time on unnecessary words. If you smile all the time they'll probably thing you're retarded. I decided to smile in any case. I'm a believer in “smile and the world smiles with you”. In any case, my experiences with students during my five years of teaching here have been very positive. On the whole they're thoroughly lovely people and a pleasure to teach.
I've had some excellent meals out in Madrid. I was warned that the Indian food isn't that great. The first Indian meal I had was appalling although the décor was nice and the staff were very friendly. Actually they weren't Indian. I had vegetable curry which was basically a bag of pre-chopped mixed vegetables which had been boiled to death and then been added to a packet of chip shop curry sauce. However, since then I've been to an Indian restaurant in Lavapiés where my girlfriend and I shared a superb “menu del día” for two people for 15 euros. With that we had samosas and onion bagees for a starter, sag paneer and vegetable curry with rice for the main course, a choice of deserts and a glass of beer. It was an excellent curry, even by British standards.
It's really not expensive to eat out in Madrid if you shop around. When my parents came to visit me we went to a restaurant near Gran Via metro station. It was the best meal out I've ever had because every aspect of the meal was perfect. The staff were very attentive without getting in the way, the acoustics in the building were so good that I could hear my family speaking in spite of the fact that the restaurant was teaming with people. Also the air purification system was so good that, although people were smoking, I couldn't detect it at all. I'm a non-smoker so I notice if anyone is smoking near me. It smells as bad as car exhaust. The food was fantastic. Everything about that place was like a very high class restaurant because a lot of thought had clearly been put into everything. The icing on the cake was the bill, which was less than half what I expected it to be. (Since then I've discovered that the cheap prices are pretty typical of Madrid.) What made it even better was that my dad insisted on paying the bill. Food always goes down better when someone else pays for it!
My experiences in the metro have all been very positive. The price is the same wherever you go (around 1.5 euros) and the trains are clean and air-conditioned. If you're used to the London Underground you'll be very pleasantly surprised. The same is true of the surface trains. They are comfortable, clean, air-conditioned and cheap. A real breath of fresh air after British Rail!