Livin’ La Vida Loca? Moving to Madrid

As I am half way through an Erasmus year in Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, I thought I would reflect on what it’s really like to pack up and move to another country. So here are my top pieces of advice:

– 1) You will never need as much stuff as you think (there are supermarkets in Spain). I arrived at Madrid-Barajas airport at 1am on the 4th of September with two large cases and a rucksack. Anxiously, I had packed cleaning products, toiletries, even some food, as though I was under the illusion that people in Spain in fact do not eat or clean as there is no such thing as supermarkets. Actually, I am a 5 minute train ride from a huge Lidl, but the local Carrefour (basically Tesco) will do for me.

– 2) You will not experience culture-shock. I don’t even live in the city centre and still there is a McDonalds 30 seconds away. Sure, there are numerous places for Tapas, but there are more burgers and hot dogs on the menus of my local eating establishments than ‘albóndigas’ or ‘gulas’, and in 4 months I still have not found a decent paella. And the whole siesta thing, from my experience, is not always true, especially not in winter. Bear in mind, your Erasmus year will only de-bunk the myths and stereotypes that you previously had.

– 3) Erasmus is not just about getting drunk. It’s actually really hard studying in a foreign language all of the time, funnily enough. Plus, for my home university specifically, the grade actually counts towards the final degree. I ended up studying a mixture of Latin and Ancient Greek for first semester, roped in by the attractively interesting module name “History of Spanish Words.” Spanish universities are also pretty strict on attendance, more than 20% absence and you’re out, which is a far cry from the more relaxed ‘if you don’t turn up to lectures then it’s on you if you fail’ attitude in the UK.

– 4) But it’s not all doom and gloom. No matter how big the town is, there are always Erasmus events. Some of them are kind of cheesy, and there’s nothing more awkward than sober ‘ice-breakers’… Hi I’m Louise from Liverpool, my favourite colour is brown and if I was an animal I’d be… Others are great, especially the trips which let you travel around the country that you are there to explore, in my case Spain. I got to travel from Madrid right down to Granada in the South with an Erasmus company for a fraction of the cost of going on my own, which included a hostel, travel, and excursions like entrance into the Alhambra, which is absolutely stunning. I would say with things like this, the key is taking advantage of the opportunities, of the flyers on the wall of your lecture room or the poor people handing them out outside McDonalds. Anyway, just do it.

– 5) You can get a job AND study. But it appears that I just cannot find the time for the gym… Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend occupying all your time with something productive (see point 4) but there are lots of opportunities to make some money and gain valuable experience. I work for 2 hours a week tutoring English in a nearby academy, a very casual and stress-free job. It has given me experience in teaching adults which has really formed an important part of my work experience, having had taught children in the past. I also know people who have been given part-time jobs in clubs, promoting, or bar work, all good for improving language skills, especially learning colloquialisms.

– 6) Its worrying that I haven’t mentioned mastering the language of the country you’re in sooner, but that’s an obvious one; if you’re on an Erasmus year, the likelihood is that you’re going to have to try and actually get better at speaking the second language. Clearly it’s nice to be on your Erasmus with people from your university, but integrating is also helpful. I found the best time to make Spanish friends was on nights out. I do not mean the “friends” who hope you’ll swoon for their amazing pulling routine; I mean real, thinking people. Even though you might feel that you, being Erasmus, are still an outsider, one that is welcomed into the in-crowd to do some shots of 80% STROH (lethal, ask my friends) and then expected to go and have a dance with them, that’s not always the case. I have made some incredible friends from all over Europe, after that awkward few seconds where you drunkenly figure out what language you can both speak well enough to have that traditional heart-to-heart in the bathroom or outside. That also means you get to learn slang, which is so much more fun than grammar and tenses. Either way just make sure that you enjoy it (whilst being mildly productive…)

Image by Louise Evans

The Green Irish Pub, Alcalá de Henares. Photograph by Louise Evans.


Vodafone Sol, Madrid. Photograph by Louise Evans.

Photograph by Louise Evans

El Parque Europa, Torrejón de Ardoz. Photograph by Louise Evans.



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