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Ready for a change

by Ahmed Jay Nicklaw

I was living in LA at the time and was ready for a change. I was tired of all the plastic people and fed up with having to spend 2 hours a day in the car. I was ready for a change. I really wanted to learn Spanish so moving to Spain was definitely on my mind.

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Ahmed in Cuenca

Ahmed in Cuenca

When I stepped off the plane and got to the baggage claim I was shocked to see people smoking. There were 'no fumar' signs all over but no one seemed to care. I soon realized that's a very typical here. People smoked in the bank, inside stores, in restaurants, etc. Several years later a non smoking law was implanted and it was was prohibited to smoke in many places. I'm not sure what type of establishments are included in that law since people continue to smoke almost everywhere. Sometimes it seems like the laws here are a mere suggestion.

North Castellana - Partial view of the Tetuán district in Madrid (Spain). In the background, the Puerta de Europa (Gate of Europe) inclined buildings. Zaqarbal originally posted to Flickr as Puerta de Europa.

Not just with smoking but other things as well. Take driving for example. I get the feeling that the striping on the roads must be optional as well. In fact, turning from any lane seems to be acceptable here. I mean why would you pay any attention to lane indicators when half the time they're aren't any? For example, while driving down the Paseo de la Castellana, a very wide, main boulevard, there are 5 lanes going in each direction. At least on most of it. In some places 1 or more lanes disappear after going through an intersection and then reappear after several blocks. All of that with no warning whatsoever.

Another thing that surprised me is that drinking on the streets and in public squares (called plazas) was permitted. This is called "botellón." It's very common to get together with friends on a Friday or Saturday night (or any other night for that matter) and hang out drinking in the square. Also, liquor was sold all night at small corner stores. Later on a 'no botellon' law was put into effect prohibiting this and no beer could be sold after 10pm. The police started issuing tickets to offenders. At least the ones they could catch. I mean how do you give a ticket to thousands of people every night? Several of my friends got tickets for breaking that law. The funny thing is they never received the fine in the mail. And you can still buy beer all night because there are 'Chinos' with their little booths set up on half the street corners selling it.

Over the years I've been given countless parking tickets. More than half of them never showed up and the ones that did I contested. The city is so disorganized and back-logged that they almost never respond in the allotted time-frame so I automatically won and didn't have to pay. Out of about 100 tickets I only had to pay 5 or 6. I guess what I'm getting at is that things aren't so black and white here. There's a lot of grey. While this is great for avoiding fines, it does have it's disadvantages. When it comes time to get things done it can be discouraging. Civil servants aren't very helpful and the red-tape seems endless. When I went down to sign-up for a health card I was sent to the 'Tesoreria de la Seguridad Social' to get my social security number where I ended up in the wrong line and then I had to go somewhere else before returning to the place I started at. Of course I had to go back the next day because they're only open from 9am to 2pm.

Another example of this is the experiences I had with the 'Ayuntamiento' (City Hall). For 5 years I owned a 'locutorio' (phone shop where people can make calls from) and had to deal with them to make changes to the business license. It took years to get the paperwork through. Whenever I called, it was always busy or no one answered. The few times I went in find out the status, it was like something out of a comedy skit. One time I was told my paperwork was on the 4th floor and when I got up there, one person was sending a text message on her cell phone, the other one was on a personal phone call on the business phone and the other one told me (as she was filing her nails) she thought that Conchi at the other end had my paperwork. So, when I down to Conchi's desk, she told me Juanma had my 'expediente' but he was downstairs having a coffee and couldn't be interrupted.

I used to think people here were rude. In restaurants, the service is usually lousy and the waiters sometimes seem to be in a bad mood. In stores, the salespeople seem to be bothered when I ask them a question about one of their products. But I soon realized that's just the way they are here. If they're having a bad day, they don't hide it. I made a lot of good friends and have found most people to be very friendly and open.

Jardines del Buen Retiro (Madrid) 30 by Fernando Garcia Redondo on Wikimedia

Jardines del Buen Retiro (Madrid) 30 by Fernando Garcia Redondo on Wikimedia.
See more: Retiro Photos.

So anyway, I try not to think unpleasant things because anywhere you live there are always pros and cons. I definitely think Madrid has more pros than cons. One thing I especially like about is the number of parks. There are tons of them! No matter where I've lived, I always had a park within walking distance. Sunday is a good day to go to the 'Parque del Retiro.' It's a huge one in the middle of the city and it's great for biking, rollerblading, playing sports, picknicking, sunbathing, or just walking around and watching all the performers doing their thing. There's even a pond in the middle where you can rent row boats. On one side of the pond there's a big monument which looks kind of like a colosseum cut in half. I've spent many summer evenings there with the hippy crowd playing their tambores and dancing. There are plenty of big trees so if it's hot, I just lay in the shade. And that's another thing I like about Madrid. For a big city it has lots of trees. And they seem to be planting more all the time. In many places they've taken out the parking lanes on the road for that purpose.

When I lived in Valdebernardo, which is one is the newer neighborhoods, I'd go to the park which separates the neighborhood from that of Vicalvaro where my friends go to University. It's the newest park in Madrid and has 2 ponds and plenty of trails, some of them paved for bikers and rollerbladers. It's a more laid back atmosphere then 'Parque Retiro.' There are no performers and no crowds. It's nice for when you're in the mood for something 'tranquilo'.

Another thing I like about Madrid is the proximity of everything. I've lived in many different areas of the city and have always been able to get everything I needed without going to far. Where I lived in Valdebernardo, there is a grocery store across the street, a bakery just up the road, restaurants only 2 blocks away, and there's a bar on the corner along with many other stores. There's also a metro (underground) stop closely. Now I live in the 'Barrio de San Isidro.' It's not so new but has all the same conveniences close by. And the nearest park is just a 2-minute walk behind my apartment building. And it has some magnificent views of the city.

Finding my way around Madrid took some getting used to. There are very few areas with a grid street system. In most places the streets are going every which way and traffic circles with 5 or 6 different roads to choose from really confused me when I first got here. On the flip side Madrid had one of the best and least expensive Metro systems I've seen. It has 12 underground lines and 3 above ground. Many of which are very new. When new neighborhoods are built, the metro lines get extended. There's also a suburban railway network called 'Cercanias' which goes to almost every town outside the city. I really like that about Madrid. It really is a city designed for people and not for cars. There are many pedestrian streets which makes the city center a nice place to walk around. And lots of neighborhoods are like 'Moratalaz' where I worked, 'Francos Rodriguez' where I lived, and 'Alemeda Alasuna' where my friend Jonny lives. They are set up with tall apartment buildings but spaced out with green areas and pedestrian walkways in between them. Not treeless, paved parking lots like you see in many U.S. cities.

Río Manzanares en Madrid - CC by Nacho Castejon Martínez on WikimediaAnother example is the 'Rio Manzanares.' It used to be an ugly, noisy expressway that totally blocked access to the river. Several years ago a network of tunnels were built and the area alongside the river is now being turned into a tree-lined park with a walkway and bike path. The stretch of 'National Highway 5' that starts in 'Principe Pio' (a train station and mall) and runs alongside the 'Casa de Campo' has also been diverted underground, therefore connecting the adjacent neighborhoods with the big, beautiful park. This enormous forest-like area used to be Franco's old hunting grounds and for a while was home to prostitutes. But now most of the streets have been cut off to car traffic so as you're walking or biking through it, you feel like you're nowhere near a city. Only the distant screams from the nearby amusement park give it away. When my cousin came to visit we took the 'funicular' (Teleferico) and were amazed by the beautiful views of both the city and the park.

The weather here is great! Almost every day is sunny and nice. It's a very dry climate and most of the year it hardly ever rains. The winters can get chilly in December, January, and February with temperatures in the single digits but it rarely get's down to freezing. In the 7 years I've lived here I've only seen it snow twice. The summers are hot in July and August and for that reason most Madrileños take their vacations in the summer and head to the beach towns. I usually do the same and have been to many of the costal areas of Spain. Galicia and Asturias are my 2 favorite regions. They are located up in the north and usually have cooler temperatures in the summer. The landscape is lush and green and the beaches breathtaking. The only downside is they tend to have more rain than the rest of Spain.

Ahmed in Segovia

Ahmed in Segovia

There are plenty of places to visit close by Madrid as well. One of my favorites is 'Segovia.' It's situated on a hill to the northwest less than an hour by car, bus or train. It has an immense, ancient aqueduct which always impresses me no matter how many times I see it. There's also a nice old town with lots of beautiful architecture and a castle which overlooks a valley. When I visit Segovia I usually enjoy a nice lunch on one of the many Terrazas (sidewalk cafes). Most have a 'menu del dia' which is a 3-course lunch menu and includes wine and desert (daily special).

Ahmed in Cuenca

Ahmed in Cuenca

Another beautiful place to visit is Cuenca. It's only a 1 1/2 hour drive from Madrid via the new 'A-40 autopista' (highway). It's also accessible by the 'Ave,' a luxurious high speed train which arrives in half that time. The town sits on top of a huge 'alcantilado' (cliff) and has incredible views once you get up to the top. On one side the town is separated by a huge drop. There's a bridge to get across and that in itself is an experience. I trembled as I walked across it. I'm not sure if it was just the feeling of height as the bridge was suspended in mid-air by nothing. It was definitely a memorable experience.

Another good thing about Spain is that they take care of their people. Everyone gets free health care. Regardless of your residency status. It's a very liberal country as well. Gay marriage is legal and there's a huge community based out of 'Chueca' located right in the city center. There are tons of bars and nightclubs around there. I sometimes go out there on Saturday nights.

Madrid has an incredible night life which goes from Thursday through Sunday. On and around the 'Gran Via,' a main street which runs through the center of Madrid you see people out at all hours, even during the week. It's lined with plenty of restaurants and shops. Since dinner is usually served at around 10pm, most bars don't usually start filling up till at least 11. Unless of course you go to a place like 'El Tigre' in 'Plaza Vazquez de Mella.' They have cheap drinks and give you free tapas with it. And I don't just mean some olives. You get 'croquetas' which are fried pieces of dough usually stuffed with 'jamon' (ham) or 'bakalao' (codfish), fries, 'montados' (which are open faced sandwiches), and much more. So, as long as you keep ordering drinks, they keep giving you food. But you have to get there early, otherwise it's so full you can't even get through the door. Between 2 and 3am is when people start heading to the clubs and we usually end up home around 7am. But, that's okay because after waking up for lunch at around 2pm, everyone usually takes a 'siesta.'

As for the job market, it's pretty bad. Currently, Spain has almost a 20% unemployment rate. Being a native English speaker, I've found there's still a lot of work teaching. Most schools want you to have either the TEFL or CELTA certificates. Not long after I moved here, I took a course to get my TEFL. The same school hired me on and I taught for a year giving private lessons in people's homes. I taught all ages and levels. It was a very fulfilling job and I enjoyed working with my students. I got to know each one of them personally and that made the classes even more enjoyable. I've found that if I include some of my student's interests in the lesson, that keeps their attention going and makes the class even more productive.

As I mentioned before, I've moved around quite a bit. Finding a good apartment in a decent location for a reasonable price can take some effort. Most landlords ask for 2 months security deposit and many ask for a bank guarantee of 6 months. I've found it's much easier to look for a room in a shared apartment instead. There are several websites where people advertise. My favorite is There are many places to choose from at all different prices. I currently pay 250€ a month which is about the cheapest you can find. There are 3 of us (each with our own bedroom) and the flat has an average size kitchen, a large living room and 2 bathrooms. Working as an English teacher I find the cost of living very affordable. Language schools usually pay around 15€ an hour and giving private lessons on my own I charge 22€ an hour. Working 20 hours a week and I usually bring home around 1,600€ a month. That's a pretty good ratio between cost of living and salary.

Well that's all for my story. I hope it's given you an idea of what living in Madrid is like.

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