Once upon a time, I left Spain and wrote about the top five things I would miss about living in Madrid. It was all very true, and reminds me of the things I should appreciate now (whilst I’m still here). However, as with all things positive, there’s always a downside to everything. A lot of people assume that living abroad is glamorous, always fun, and never problematic. However, as I’ve elaborated on several times before, it can often be stressful. In terms of Madrid-specific things, here are the top five things that I take issue with.
1. The Staring
There are two things that make me very uncomfortable, and staring is one of them. Usually, this is a pet peeve shared between shyer folk, but I find that it applies to me, too. Here in Madrid, you could be walking on the street, minding your own business, and find yourself being stared down by the person walking towards you. I don’t quite understand why, or how, this is totally acceptable, but it seems that staring isn’t much of an issue to Madrileños. The worst place to experience this, however, is probably on the metro. The woman sitting across from you on the metro? She’s probably staring at you, her eyes furrowed. The man to her left? Don’t count him out – he’s staring at you, too.
Now, my intention isn’t to generalize. Not all Madrileños are like this, and not even all of these serial starers are Madrileños (let alone Spaniards). That being said, this is much more of a Madrid thing than an anywhere-in-Canada thing, so it’s still very much a culture shock (and problem) to me. While it’s probably sometimes a compliment to be looked at, I can’t help but get a little annoyed by it.
2. The Noise Levels
Normally, when people think about noise levels in a city, they assume you’re talking about the sound of traffic. In this case, I mean the sound of people. While not everyone in Madrid speaks very loudly, on average, Madrileños do talk much louder than most other people I’ve met in my life. I come from a louder-than-average family, but they don’t compare to Madrileños (at all). I myself have even been labeled as “loud”, but in Madrid? I’m “soft-spoken”.
I do have to admire the way Madrileños can project their voices, but it often seems completely unnecessary. It’s also extremely off-putting when someone’s natural voice sounds like they’re shouting, but then again, maybe I just prefer smooth voices.
Not having enough space is the second thing (after staring) that can easily make me feel uncomfortable. Granted, this one is probably a big city thing rather than a Madrid-specific issue. Still, it’s quite bizarre to me how much I feel I get touched by random strangers in Madrid. On the metro – once again a focal point – there is always someone touching you. There could be a great deal of room a few feet away, but the next person to get on will, almost definitely, come stand right next to you. Chances are, they’ll touch your bag, arm, or something. It’s never done in a very obvious way, but there always manages to be too much proximity. While I consider myself to be quite comfortable with touching, I usually apply this to friends, family, and even new acquaintances. Random strangers, however, don’t apply. Another thing I may not be as comfortable with is something speaking to me about 5 cm from my face, but it can often happen under the Madrileño sun.
Many people don’t have as much of an issue with any of this, but there’s one major problem in my case: I hail from one of the world’s biggest, and most spacious, countries in the world. Unlike the United States, Canada isn’t highly populated, so we’re probably more claustrophobic. Therefore, take this one with a grain of salt.
4. The Language Confusion
In all honesty, this one isn’t really Madrid’s fault. It is, by all accounts, my own. There’s really no changing where I’m from, and that Spanish is not (and never will be) my first language. It probably won’t ever be my second language, either, and would have to fight to be my third one. As a result of being multilingual, my brain can become extra confused by having to think in yet another way. To make things worse, I teach French as well as English. While teaching English can be a little challenging, it pales in comparison to teaching French in Spanish.
There is, however, one bone I have to pick with Madrid when it comes to languages. Should someone find out you speak English, it seems that it’s sometimes difficult for them to carry on with you in Spanish, unless you absolutely insist on speaking Spanish. Thankfully, I find that the longer I spend my time in Madrid, the less this becomes an issue. Still, there are always the extremely incompetent English speakers that refuse to revert to Spanish, despite my 2nd graders easily putting them to shame in that department. It can also lead to some strange encounters, and very strange approachers. A phone call in English? Forget about it – that just leads to more staring. No bueno.
There are some things I absolutely love about Madrid’s location. Firstly, Madrid is in central Spain, meaning that traveling to any other part of Spain is sort of a breeze. It’s also well-positioned in Europe, and is only a few hours away from a coast. Its location is why it’s so sunny, too, which is never to be depreciated. Madrid also has beautiful mountains, some of which I’m lucky enough to see every day at work. However, as much as I love what Madrid has to offer as a big city, I’m not really a closed-quarters city person. What I appreciate the most, about any place, is usually its natural beauty. The ocean, in particular, is my favourite place to be. As cheesy as it sounds, I’ve always considered myself to be a “water person” rather than a city or country person. As such, I find it difficult to completely attach to cities or places that lack the ocean at its doorstep, which is unfortunately inconvenient. Sorry, Madrid. It’s not you, it’s me.
Despite its downsides, Madrid is a great city to live in, with so much to explore and truly appreciate. I’ve never been to a place like Madrid before, and think of myself as blessed to experience it. I suggest that anyone with a slight inkling to visit the city to do so, and even consider living here if possible!
I definitely won’t miss the noise. Apparently the day for the street cleaners to blow all the leaves off the street is Sunday at 8:00 a.m.! Ugh.
I also won’t miss having to take a metro/bus everywhere. I do like public transportation, but I loved living in a smaller Spanish town where I could walk everywhere within a half an hour.
The staring? Yeah that too 🙂
I never hear them do that, thankfully!
Looks like I could be in for a huge culture shock too in terms of the space..! I’ve never really been anywhere where there isn’t a garden, field, park, ocean etc near by!
Yeah, I had no idea how nature-oriented my home actually was until I moved out here. The other places I’ve lived in have also been fairly nature-centric (Southern California definitely is, even as a busy place). Madrid is kind of a concrete jungle unless you opt to live in its more open spaces, which aren’t in the center. It’ll be a different experience, but that’s a good thing!
I agree the proximity drives me nuts, the other things don’t bother me nearly as much. One time, a guy was standing so close to my face while talking that he literally spit in my EYE. I politely excused myself and then dashed to the bathroom to wash out the spit. I mean, that’s just far too close for me!
Hahah! I’ve had that happen to me too, minus the eye-spitting. It’s awful and hilarious at the same time – are you supposed to move back, or awkwardly accept the lack of distance?
the noise is something that happens across the country….people do speak loud….when i go to a supermarket it really upsets me to hear people’s conversations while i stand in queue to pay, i can´t stand it!
i don´t really know what you mean by proximity…..when i go to our local Sunday market which gets full of people, you literally touch everyone, and everyone touches you while walking through the crowd.
as for the staring…well maybe it is because people may realise that you are not European, so they look at you being curious…when i went to New York city in 2010 and 2012 some people on the Subway looked at us curious because, i think, we are Europeans, i am not sure about it anyway, but most people round us on the Subway at that time were black and Latin Americans (we were on our way to the Bronx to visit the zoo) , even a woman struck up a nicely conversation.
the location…i agree with you! i need the sea, i also need a sunny and warm climate to be comfortable, that’s why i couldn’t live in Madrid or a place without water and a sun shining up there most of the time!
Proximity = proximidad/how close people get to you.
I don’t think that’s why people stare at me, haha. I don’t think I look Spanish, personally, but I’ve had Spaniards tell me they would have thought I was Spanish. I’ve had a lot of “Italiana” thrown at me, mostly, and people never seem to guess correctly around here (or most places, to be fair). There’s actually a student of mine who looks a lot like me (she’s only 7) and she’s Spanish! It’s been confusing figuring it out/explaining it to others. Maybe it’s just that staring is generally a normal thing to do here, regardless of who it’s to?
I think in your case, there could be lots of different reasons – maybe your style was very different (although New Yorkers dress in tons of different ways), or maybe they heard Spanish, or maybe you looked lost. I find that looking lost is the easiest way for someone to think you’re foreign!
i already knew that proximity means proximidad….here in Spain people give two kisses when meeting someone, is that what you mean? also in villages or some streets of a town people leave their doors open because they have confidence with their neighbours….here in my hometown there’s a neighbourhood of fishermen, and because they know one another and many are related to others they leave their doors open (i don’t mean flats or blocks, just plain houses/semi-detached).
i didn’t look lost while on the Subway, what? i think they looked at us because we looked different if compared to the rest of people round us, as i said before they were black and Latins.
also when we were at Toys ‘R’ Us an employee told me that the 3DS Nintendo game i was about to pay was not going to work in Europe……i had not even spoken to him, and he was able to know that i am European.
Cheek kisses are pretty common in a lot of countries – I grew up doing that as a way to say hello to people, as well. It’s less common for Americans/Canadians of certain backgrounds, but in my parents’ cultures, it’s normal. Proximity refers more to how close people here get to each other – in talking to them, standing on the metro, even walking on the street. A lot of expats/foreigners do complain about something as simple as walking down the street – a lot of times, people don’t seem to move a little to not touch you as you walk by, even if you make the effort to move for them! I find it a bit odd at times. I think we’re generally taught to give people a little more personal space, which can sometimes make Spaniards think we’re cold… although, I grew up with a bit of both (so… for me to still find it a bit too much in Madrid says something, I think!).
so you live in a part of Madrid where people don’t move to a side when they go directly towards you while walking down a street? well then those people are blind or living dead!
i think that Spaniards do give personal space when not knowing someone in person.
another important thing is in North America people use their cars even to go to a supermarket, whereas Spaniards just walk….that’s why in the USA or Canada you may not see people walking down a street or walking along a road carrying their bags, filling a whole street as you see in Spain…..so a North American may feel pressured or exhausted walking along a street because he or she thinks of the freedom of a car, right?
this is my opinion and i may be wrong of course.
Maybe I do live in Zombieland! Sometimes, it feels like it. In any case, maybe you’re right – maybe just a small minority get up close and personal without knowing someone, but I think the normal level of it here is different than it is in NA.
Well, there’s also the fact that our streets are generally bigger, too. There are some cities that are just as busy on the streets, if not more so (Toronto, NYC, etc), but those cities are like Madrid – the people who live in the inner city are just as into walking and using public transportation. A lot of what I’ve said pertains to other large cities/cities with lots of people! However, to be honest, I don’t really recall ever having as much of an issue with walking/people walking into me in Toronto or even NYC, which is insane because NYC is bigger than Madrid.
I don’t think we feel exhausted walking on the street, in any case. I love to walk, as do a lot of North Americans. It isn’t the act of walking that’s tiring – sometimes, it’s just that there really isn’t that consideration from others. Streets here are rarely full from left to right, anyway, it’s just that there are often people who don’t utilize their space properly. It’s a very weird complaint to have, yet it’s totally true. I think any foreigner from NA who comes to live here will notice it, but I can’t speak for everyone.
let me please explain it better: usually normal people do respect others’ space when walking down a street, but you know that there are people who get very close to you and even touch you because they may want to steal your handbag…….it does happen along streets…..maybe those people who don’t move a little to avoid touching are thinking of evil purposes…..don’t know…..
the only two poximities that i know are the kissing thing, and speaking loudly in front of you, something that i really dislike.
are those people who touch you Gypsy, Bulgarians or Romanians? i ask you because they only respect themselves
Staring can be intimidating. Maybe you could wear sunglasses or something? And on the metro, are people often without their little gadgets? Here in Canada, people are always looking at their devices, even as they walk – it’s a whole sea of people averting eyes!
Yes, and sometimes it’s kind of funny how much people in Canada will look the other way! It’s the complete opposite over here, and it really can be intimidating.
YES TO THE STARING! I am living over in Galicia right now (Ferrol), and I get it all the time! Especially since it is such a small city and everyone knows everyone. A few times the old people have literally stopped in their tracks to just stare as we walk by. It’s so annoying!
& I completely agree about the space issue. No one ever moves out of the way in the street. At first I figured it was just a seniority thing (like, “I’m an elder, you move”) but everyone does it. It’s just worse when its 3 or more people taking up the entire sidewalk and you have to stop or go into the street. Drives me insane!
The language confusion gets to me, as well!
I grew up hearing Latin American Spanish (my family is of mostly Mexican descent, and a lot of my extended family still live there.) I hate when I use a word, and it turns out it’s not Castillian Spanish. Mostly because many times they react like it’s such a crime that Latin American Spanish is so different. All I can do is remind them how English is different in the US than it is in Britain and they usually hush lol!
I still love being able to live here, though! I actually just got placed in the community of Madrid for next year… crossing my fingers I get to live in the city! Then I could use your Where To Live In Madrid post! 🙂