Apart from the usual benefits one hears about living abroad, I wanted my Erasmus experience to be about meeting as many people as possible. A combination of a background in the language and a dream to live the Mediterranean lifestyle led me to choose Madrid for my Erasmus year. I have mentioned some points in the report below that hopefully give you some information if you’ve chosen to do the same. It’s unfortunate that only a handful of people in maths take advantage of the year abroad, and especially when the department is so accommodating of students that do choose to go abroad - in my case a new partnership was created with UAM.
Overview of life in Madrid
My typical day was classes from 9am-1pm followed by lunch with friends. In exam time I’d stay on campus a bit longer in the library, but usually I’d leave campus around 4pm. Almost always had a short siesta once I got back. Shops do close in the afternoon, but supermarkets tend to be open throughout the day. Dinner was usually around 9pm – Spain is so cheap I rarely cooked and would usually meet up with friends in the centre for some tapas. I never had classes on a Friday, so I’d go out Thursday-Saturday. Everything is closed on Sundays and apart from El Corte Ingles or the chinos (corner shops). I’d usually spend Sundays catching up on work and in the evening our flat would always host a dinner with friends.
Universidad Autonoma de Madrid:
UAM is located about 30 minutes from the city centre by train. It’s a campus university, so anyone from Warwick will be happy to know everything you need is within walking distance of your classroom. Each department has it’s own library, although I found Spanish students prefer to ‘work’ on the desks in the department corridors. There is a central plaza; which has a bookshop, travel agents, health centre and a large cafeteria – the meals in all of the cafeterias are really cheap, although quality varies.
There isn’t anything like societies, and most students don’t spend longer on campus than they need to. There is an on campus gym and a few sports clubs that you can join, but in my experience they were fairly casual.
For Erasmus students however there is the ESN. They are separate from the university, in that they aren’t officially associated with it, but they organise lots of trips and socials to help you meet other Erasmus. It’s also really useful to meet Spanish people; I found it difficult to make friends in the classes as most people already had their own groups, and the ESN coordinators became good friends of mine. As someone who was quite involved in societies at Warwick, I really missed this and ESN was able to give me some opportunities to get involved with university and local activities outside of maths. I was in the newspaper giving opinions on Erasmus, I helped out with a conference hosted at the university about international mobility and even made it to Spanish TV giving opinions about the Spanish economic crisis.
The style of teaching and assessment at UAM is very different from Warwick. In terms of teaching, most classes were smaller than Warwick with at most 50 students in the most popular ones, and just 5 or 6 in the more difficult ones. It’s a lot more like a classroom than a lecture hall, and a lot more interaction between students and professors. Assessment is a bit more complicated than Warwick’s 15% assignments, 85% exam structure. For example, in my Galois Theory course there were 3 tests during the term. Passing these (>50%) meant you could replace the final exam with an extended assignment sheet that was about Galois’ original methods. In my measure theory course, I had two group assignments, which were very informal – the lecturer would write (sometimes just say) exercises during the lectures. Depending on your performance in an oral exam, where you had to explain an exercise that you select, you could get a maximum of 8/10. For additional marks there was a mini test in the term. If you failed to get 5/10 from these (I don’t think anyone did) then you would have to do the exam. In general, the difficulty of mathematics is probably less than it is at Warwick, mainly due to the pace; however, the amount of work required is far greater. Most Spanish students fail one or even more modules and will do these in the resit period or the following year.
In the end I found it difficult to get good grades across the board as I chose some modules that were actually 4th year modules that I wasn’t ready for. It is relatively easy to change the learning agreement if you do it early, but I left it too late. The courses that were at a 3rd year level, however, I managed to get good grades with (honestly) very little effort. Although I spoke Spanish (Level 6 at Warwick), I did find it a struggle to understand all the details – this required lots of reading of the lecture notes. Some of the professors weren’t Spanish though, and were sympathetic to my situation. In general, all the professors were kind, and happy to explain something in English if I was really struggling – although I avoided this option to really ensure I improved my Spanish. Some of the teaching materials were however, in English.
Making friends with Spanish students requires some effort on your part and will take time. However, the main barrier here is language. In one of my classes I had an Erasmus friend who didn’t speak any English so we would always interact in Spanish and although the other students realised I wasn’t from Spain they felt more comfortable talking to me, as they weren’t very confident speaking English. In another class I had a German friend who only spoke English so it was very difficult for us to interact with the other students in that class.
Madrid is a rather large city when you look at the official geographic boundaries, however, the centre, where all the activity is concentrated, is quite small. One of the most interesting things about the city is the contrast between neighbourhoods and the most interesting ones are all within walking distance of each other.
Puerta del Sol is the centre of the city and a meeting point for just about everything. Erasmus students congregate around the bear statue every night and head to the restaurants, bars and clubs from there. Madrid has the highest number of bars per square metre and most of these are located in Sol. The immediate surroundings have some pretty important landmarks and streets, including Gran Via (main shopping area) and Plaza de Espana to the north, which are also popular meeting points. Nearby Plaza de Santa Ana was one of my favourite spots for lunch and is especially lively on weekends.
Atocha is one of the main stations in the south of the city. It hasn’t got much to offer other than one of the largest nightclubs in Madrid. Nearby is the Parque del Retro, which is extremely popular in the summer for picnics. La Latina and Lavapies are just south of the centre and the former is home to the Sunday Rastro market. Lavapiés offers alternative music and cheap curries (probably the only place you’ll get Indian food in Madrid). Finally Salamanca and Plaza de Castellana have more upmarket offerings. You can expect to see the Real Madrid team around here – although I actually met Iker Casillas in a terrible, overcrowded student bar in the centre.
When deciding where to go on Erasmus I initially chose Sevilla because I thought it would provide a more typical experience. I soon realised though that Madrid was infinitely better as I had the opportunity to travel all around due to the central location. Moreover, Madrid has a lot more going on than other parts of Spain, the only exception probably being Barcelona. The neighbourhoods are also so different you can go to La Latina if you want to be in a typical Spanish barrio, or live in Castellana if you want a more cosmopolitan vibe.
Most Erasmus students tend to live in the centre, and although there are cheaper options (in the southern parts of the city especially), it’s a lot harder to get to the university. I lived in Moncloa, which is very close to UCM, and only 10 minutes from the centre by metro. Public transport is great by the way. The metro is about €30-40 per month depending on which pass you need (A for the city, B1 if you are at UAM). As well as the metro there is a bus system that is useful for nights out – but you will end up taking the first metro at 6am a lot! Taxis are very cheap as well – about €10 for a 10 minute ride from Sol to Moncloa.
Finding accommodation can be tricky, but I definitely think it’s a lot easier than people make it out to be. I joined all the Facebook groups for incoming students and there were plenty of people looking for flatmates. Through Facebook I found a group of Erasmus students who were looking for one more person and signed the contract within 10 minutes of seeing the flat. With a budget of about €400 per month for rent and bills I was able to find something fairly easily, living at most 10 minutes from the centre. Some people went through more painful processes, but everyone ended up in a flat they were happy with. People tend to move around as well, so don’t be worried if you don’t get along with your flatmates or don’t like your house, it is easy to change a few weeks into term when things are more calm. I would recommend avoiding the agencies such as EasyMadrid etc, they are notorious for not returning deposits, crazy rules and curfews, and a very strict no party policy. The last point is worth noting – a lot of people got kicked out of their flats for hosting house parties, don’t put yourself in that situation as they will simply throw you out within 24 hours.
My flatmates were all Erasmus students (from Germany and Italy) and I enjoyed living with them. It was particularly useful for the language as we all spoke Spanish in the house, but could switch to English if the conversation was struggling. A lot of people make a big deal about living only with Spaniards. There can be a sense of being in an Erasmus bubble, but I found that my interests and schedules aligned more with Erasmus students so I was able to travel and go out with them a lot more. Although I had some Spanish friends they were often busy studying or working which meant they couldn’t always meet up.
(One of the things that shocked me was the lack of windows in some rooms. If this isn’t a concern then you can probably save a lot on rent, but for me I wanted a window!)
Plus point – Spain is generally cheaper than England for most things, maybe with the exception of the hairdressers (a truly terrifying experience!). In general, I think with student finance and the Erasmus grant you should be able to live well but might not be able to afford all the trips. If you want to save some money from the funding, that’s definitely possible too. It’s worth getting a card with MetroBank who don’t charge fees on withdrawals abroad and have the most attractive exchange rates.
Accommodation varies depending on many factors, but €350-400 is a comfortable budget for a decent sized room in a good location. However, I know people who spent €250 and others who spent €700 a month.
Food varies depending on your preferences – I ate out most of the time so this was more expensive, but even then managed on €50-60 a week. The key is to change your eating habits to that of a Spaniard. That is large lunches (which are only €5 in the university café) and tapas for dinner which is at most €5. Supermarkets are about the same price as here, and the weeks I tried to save money and cook I spent about €20-30.
Going out is probably the biggest expense; at least it was for me. Although there are plenty of drinks deals, club entry is at least €10 (ladies, you have an advantage here as you get in for free – but even then, on the most popular nights you will have to pay). A sangria in a tapas bar is only a €1 or 2, but at the clubs a simple cubata can be more than €10.
Finally, there will be trips throughout the year and I found ESN were the cheapest – often beating the price of organising it independently. I travelled to Granada, Barcelona, Portugal, San Sebastien and a few other places and only paid €100-€150 for all inclusive weekend trips. The bigger Ibiza trip is worth saving up for, it’s closer to €400 but much longer and a once in a lifetime experience.
The Erasmus lifestyle is great! I have tried to keep this report as informative as possible without going into too many personal stories as I appreciate different people will want different things out of their Erasmus year. For me though Erasmus was all about meeting new people from all over Europe, not just Spain and that’s exactly what I did. I now have friends all over Europe and as far as Mexico and Mongolia. Although Warwick has a diverse student body the vast majority of us are here for a full 3 or 4 years and the experience isn’t as intense (in a good way) as an Erasmus year. As with most things, it is entirely what you make of it.
If you have any questions about Erasmus, Madrid or UAM in particular then feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also to find out a bit more about why people choose Madrid you can read this article (in Spanish).