My Erasmus year in Madrid was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It is a brilliant opportunity to expand your horizons linguistically, academically and socially whilst at university. Whilst it can seem a daunting prospect (and really can be to begin with) I found it to be an overwhelmingly positive experience overall, as did almost everyone else I knew on the scheme.
As far as motivation goes, I can trace mine back to the three years I spent living in Bolivia as a child. Not being naturally predisposed to languages, I perhaps never would have had the confidence to embark on a year living and studying in a Spanish-speaking country without having picked up this base level of the language. Not having perfected the language (being educated in an English-speaking American school in Bolivia) but then not particularly interested in studying Spanish as a major part of my degree, I was very keen to spend a year in a Spanish-speaking country and indeed had this as a criteria when applying to university. The additional factors to improving my Spanish came as secondary at the time but in hindsight were equally rewarding. These being chiefly the appreciation you develop for a different culture and way of life; the chance to meet people from around the world in a shared situation to yourself (one which engendered friendliness and openness); the increased confidence, self-sufficiency, and self-awareness you develop; the chance to explore a foreign city (and country); the exposure to a different system and style of education (and often maths); and of course in my case - the weather!
Something I would like to stress, though, was that whilst it made my arrival somewhat easier, having a certain existing level of Spanish certainly wasn’t mandatory. I met many people out there who came with virtually no Spanish and despite struggling at first, came on leaps and bounds as the year progressed. The language barrier is something I feel dissuades many students from trying a year abroad out, but just having English under your belt is enough to make it much easier in the opening months (as English and Spanish were the two principal languages amongst the Erasmus community by quite a way in my experience). This can equally prove to be a hindrance, however, as non-English speaking students did tend to pick up Spanish faster.
As far as choosing Madrid goes, staying in Europe (through Erasmus) and being interested in Spanish pointed me straight away in the direction of Spain, something I was very happy with, never really having explored the country previously. This then left me with three options: Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville. The possibility of lectures in Catalan immediately put me off Barcelona, and between Madrid and Seville I had heard too many positives about Madrid to have to give much thought to it.
My main concern over the summer was accommodation, and spent some time over the summer looking at various websites (such as www.idealista.com and others found through the university website here http://www.ucm.es/pags.php?a=internac&d=0000266). However, I was very fortunate in having a friend from Warwick also going to Madrid (albeit to a different university just out of the city) go out over the summer and with the help of a friend of his from Madrid, find a flat we both ended up sharing with other students (international and Spanish). That said, many people I know applied for accommodation through the university which they were generally very happy with, or went out and found somewhere whilst out there, so I would say it isn’t necessarily as much of a worry as it might seem. The university was covered in ads for flatmates and to be honest, finding somewhere that way makes it much more likely to be sharing with locals, which can prove advantageous both for the language and just everyday knowledge.
Once I arrived, my accommodation being sorted, my main concerns were money, mobile phone, and the intensive language course I had signed up for. The latter proved an excellent decision and one I would recommend to anyone, regardless of their ability. I was put in the second highest group (at a level of C1 for all those familiar with the DELE system) and found it interesting, challenging, and extremely useful! Our teacher was brilliant and he spent a lot of time on grammar (a weak point of mine), colloquialisms, and local culture. Even if the classes hadn’t have gone so well, the chance to meet so many people right at the start provided me with a decent social life from the off. The course was also free, which certainly isn’t a general rule amongst Spanish universities.
For money, not being content with paying through poor exchange rates and fees every time I withdrew from cashpoints, I decided to open up a Spanish bank account (with Santander). A quick look into (often extortionate) bank transfer fees then prompted me to do some web research and I found a plethora of currency exchange specialists offering much more competitive rates. I ended up using Smart Currency (http://www.smartcurrencyexchange.com/) who charged no fees on transfers over £3000. Having a Spanish bank account made paying rent became much easier, although setting up online banking was more of a hurdle than I anticipated!
For a phone, I initially went with Movistar as they offered very cheap mobiles (from around 15 euros). However, I quickly realised why: the phone was locked (and couldn’t be unlocked) to the network which charged a massive amount for pay as you go. This prompted me to shell out 50 euros for another phone with the much cheaper Yoigo network – something which probably saved me a fair amount over the year!
I found the first few weeks of lectures to be a stark contrast to my first few weeks in Madrid – spent socialising, exploring the city and attending the language classes. Due to inadequate preparation on my part, upon starting classes I discovered a much larger array of module options on offer than I had previously thought. This led to me attending lots of different classes of varying levels of difficulty, and finding it quite difficult to choose modules of the right level that fit into my timetable. This was caused in part by my desire to take a mixture of third and fourth year modules, in a bid to stay somewhat on par with my peers in Warwick, as I intended to stay on the MMath. In all of these classes bar one (where there was an Italian couple who kept very much to themselves) I was the only Erasmus student. The classes were small and people had their own friendship groups developed over several years at university and I found this very difficult to begin with.
Despite being fairly confident in my Spanish and quite a sociable person, it was a completely different ballpark being surrounded by native speakers who all knew each other and not knowing anyone myself. However, over time I did begin to make friends, and found many of the students to be quite friendly once you broke through the initial stages. Having friends in lectures proved invaluable, in terms of catching up on any missed lectures but mainly just to find out general information about the module, assessment methods, etc. that everybody seemed to know (or at least know someone that did!). I did find it to be a lot less structured and clear than in England, and this wasn’t simply to do with the language. Indeed I found the language to be not too much of a barrier in terms of understanding teachers and following lectures.
Several main differences I found with UCM (the university I attended) and Warwick were the complete segregation of the department, the timetabling of classes, and the size/number of classes on offer for the same subject (and often varying drastically). Firstly, since there was a cafeteria and library in the Maths building and since every maths lecture took place there, students virtually never left the building. This meant social groups were generally strongly inter-departmental, something that made it especially hard to penetrate friendship groups at the start. The other two points led to an almost school-like feel to university. Almost every one of my classes was on every day and at exactly the same time. This led to my timetable being like a block with maybe a small break in the middle and almost identical day to day! Also the size of the classes was a novelty to me, having come from the enormous lectures of first and second year maths at Warwick. The largest class I took had maybe 25/30 students, the smallest had 10. This was down to there being several teachers for each subject, and something I quickly discovered was how much the course could vary due to this, as the teacher had pretty much sole control of the course and exam offered. In addition to this, the Spanish students would all know who were the best teachers / who set the best course/exam, so speaking to them prior to second term made choosing modules a lot easier! I still apparently managed to choose two of the hardest modules on offer it turned out, but at least with Measure Theory I picked the class where the exam was actually passable, according to the local students!
In terms of difficulty of the courses, I found it extremely variable. I failed one module – VCAF (Variable Compleja y Analisis Funcional), a mixture of functional and complex analysis, mainly due to not really having a clue what the complex analysis exam was going to be about (the course was split entirely in two, with two separate teachers). However, on most of the other courses, I did quite well, and found some very easy compared with here. That said, the other seven English Erasmus students in the department took second year modules (on recommendations from their home universities) and failed most of them. I think this discrepancy was in part due to the higher level of difficulty of maths at Warwick than at most other universities in England - I was the only one not of the impression that maths was much harder in Spain. The style was very different though, with greater attention paid to more minor details along the way, and in general a slower pace than here. There were also more classes for each module, with practical classes being the equivalent of our support classes, but with the same teacher as the theory classes (i.e. lectures) and with more of them.
Most of the modules I picked were the similar to what I would have taken at Warwick, i.e. Functional Analysis, Complex Analysis, Basic Topology, Measure Theory, Geometry of Curves and Surfaces, Galois Theory. Indeed this is why I chose them, to be interesting and challenging, and setting me up for fourth year back at Warwick. However, I also took Algebraic Curves, something I wouldn’t have done here, but which was fairly interesting, and Astronomy and Geodesy. This was mainly due to there being a shortage of modules at the right level which fit into my timetable in second term. I ended up with the choice between this module, a logic module which needed programming knowledge I didn’t have, and a couple of fifth year analysis modules. Initially, I didn’t like the class at all, which involved loads of outside work in addition to the exam, and was taught by an older lady missing several teeth who spoke very fast, colloquial Spanish. She often turned to me to see if I understood certain words she had used, to which the response was invariably no! That said, when I put the time in to really get to grips with the module, it was actually quite interesting and it was nice to have one module a bit different to the rest.
Life in Madrid
I found Madrid an amazing city to live in. Coming from the countryside and having lived on campus / Leamington whilst here at Warwick, it was quite a drastic change living in a capital city of over one million, let alone one with the vibrancy of Madrid. The sheer variety of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, etc. was quite impressive in itself. I lived by Anton Martin, a very central location just by one of the main nightlife hotspots (Huertas/Plaza de Santa Ana/Sol), which was partly formed of a continuous stream of bars/clubs/ restaurants of some description. These tended to be quite small and often had reps outside trying to entice you in with a free ‘chupito’ (generally very weak shot!). This location was excellent in terms of my surroundings: in addition to the bar district on my doorstep, I was on the same road as the renowned Reina Sofia art museum; within walking distance of the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza art museums (which together comprise the three most famous museums of Madrid), along with the impressive Atocha train station and the amazing Parque del Retiro. The latter is beautiful park containing a crystal palace, large lake with rowing boats available for hire, and many statues and monuments. It was very popular with locals for a stroll or evening run – something I used it for many times over the year.
A downside to the location of my flat was the distance to university: effectively a 35 minute commute door to door. However this wasn’t so bad, having got used to worse than this living in Leamington in second year! It involved a short walk to the Metro, a 20 minute journey with one change, and then a longer walk of about 10 minutes at the other end within the (very large) university. A couple of times I walked back from university, which took just over an hour at a leisurely pace. This route took me through Moncloa, the student area by the campus; Plaza de España, a main square near the royal palace; along Gran Via, the main road, lined with clothes shops, through the city centre, and right through the heart of the city at Callao and Sol, just off the famous Plaza Mayor. This was a great way to soak up the atmosphere of the city, and I loved how so many of the main sights of Madrid were so close together, and indeed on my route between university and home!
My flatmates consisted of a half-Columbian, half-German student on an internship in Madrid, his Spanish girlfriend studying at a different university to mine, a Spanish boy studying music just down the road from us, and then my (English) friend from Warwick and a German guy both studying at another university just outside Madrid. This was great as we all got on very well apart from the Spanish boy who was quite introverted and felt a bit separate from the rest of us, despite our best efforts to include him in social activities. This was perhaps exacerbated by his age, being over a couple of years younger than any of the rest of us. A real downside to this was the fact only he in the flat couldn’t speak English, so a great opportunity to speak Spanish at home was lost there. I found although I was quite confident in my Spanish on the whole, I did tend to speak English whenever there was the opportunity to, which was virtually all the time at home. Based on this I would say trying to find a flat with non-English speakers would be very wise move as it forces you to speak Spanish at home as well as on the street / at university.
As no one in my flat studied at my university, to begin with I had quite a stark contrast between classes, where I knew nobody, and at my flat and outside of class where I knew a lot of people through Erasmus connections and my flatmates. You find it is very easy to make friends with other Erasmus students, as you are all in the same position living in a foreign country finding your feet and so have a unique bond right from the off. Forming relationships with Spanish people can prove much harder, which is why living with Spaniards (albeit not locals of Madrid in my case!) can be a real bonus. I made Spanish friends largely through my flatmates and other Erasmus friends I had made initially, and it took a lot longer to start making friends with locals myself at university. The main catalyst for this in the end was football. I attended trials for the department team after seeing posters about and made it onto the second team as the sole non-Spaniard. Through this I not only enjoyed playing regular , competitive football but made many friends within Maths which made being around the department much more enjoyable. I also managed to make friends with virtually all of the other Erasmus students in Maths, and many other Spanish friends through them or directly through my classes over time. This, along with a much better understanding of the structure of the modules and exams, led to my second term being much more enjoyable and less stressful than the first. Indeed, I managed to score a very high grade on a difficult module largely due to Spanish friends from football helping me with how to tackle the optional practical assessments of the class.
A recommendation I would make to any prospective Erasmus students is to take up the offer of a Buddy / Tutor / Tandem, i.e. a scheme whereby a local student (often one returning from Erasmus themselves) shows you around, introduces you to people, and generally helps you with any queries you may have at the start. This is something I didn’t bother with, but in hindsight feel was quite a big mistake, given how lost I felt at university to start with. In our case this was provided by ESN, the Erasmus Student Network, a very large Erasmus organisation with a presence over most of Europe. Also, going on trips provided by them (or an equivalent organisation) early on is a great way to meet people, albeit Erasmus as opposed to Spanish. I only started getting involved with them in second term and wished I had done more at the start! They ran many trips across Spain (and even to Portugal) at very cheap prices, and were very fun on the whole. These, combined with self-organised trips if you want to get more of a raw feel for a place, provide a great way to see the country you are living in. I ended up, through a combination of the two, seeing Toledo, Salamanca, Barcelona, Valencia, and Cadiz over the year and still plan to go back and spend both more time in Madrid but also see as much of the rest of the country as I can! The Basque country, Galicia and Granada/Seville are still high on my list of places to visit!
All in all, I feel like I grew a lot as a person on my year abroad and was rewarded in so many ways. It really is a case of step out of your comfort zone and then see it expand enormously. I have made friends from across the world, some of whom I have already visited over the summer post-Madrid, and many others who I intend to see. I am much more confident in my Spanish and am keen to push it on further in the future, perhaps though working in a Spanish-speaking country. It has been strange adjusting back into life at Warwick, but I feel I appreciate it more and view it very differently having been in such a different environment for a year. I am still amazed more people don’t take the opportunity on offer to go on a year abroad, especially without having to pay fees and with a generous grant available. Both the actual experience and what you take away from it are priceless.