Wednesday the 29th, I got to really start experiencing life in Madrid, starting with waking up later than I usually do (10:30 or so) and eating breakfast. The traditional Spanish breakfast is surprisingly similar to the traditional German breakfast of making individual sandwiches, with the exception of cutting off a section of a baguette, rather than using rolls to make the sandwiches. Paul graciously lent me his camera so I could have some pictures from my vacation, and we headed out to the center of the city.
Paul warned me about something before I arrived, and now I shall warn anyone who wishes to visit Madrid as a tourist: It's a lovely city, the center of a lot of Spanish history as well as current troubles and successes, and the political center of a very politically diverse country, but there isn't a whole lot to do in terms of tourism. It's not a place you can go to see; you really need to experience it in order to truly appreciate what it has to offer. I find this true in any case and generally dislike it when I only see tourist points in places I visit, but this feeling was definitely amplified when I was in Madrid. So I was very glad that, unlike in Rome when we were both tourists, I had somebody who lived there willing to show me around.
Our first stop that day was the very center of the city: Puerta del Sol, the main plaza. The first things I noticed were the large Tio Pepe sign, the unlit Christmas tree in the center, and a HUGE line that snaked all around the plaza and started at a tiny little booth. I assumed that they were selling the daily newspapers or whatever, since I had seen stuff like that in Berlin, although the line had never even been close to being that long. We made our way up one of the very crowded streets so I could see more of the center of the city. We saw a few more of the ridiculously long lines, and Paul explained that they were for the annual Christmas lottery. The lottery is famous in Spain and the pot is worth over one billion euros, and each ticket costs something around 200 euros.
We came across the Plaza Mayor, where they had their own Christmas Market set up. This made me very excited, as I loved the Christmas markets in Germany, although it was very different. The merchandise was different (I really didn't see as many food and sweets booths and a lot more nativity sets), there were a lot more kids and families around (it seems to be a crowd of couples and 20s-early 30s in Germany), and of course, there was no snow. But, we took our time to wander around and enjoy the atmosphere all the same before continuing on our way.
Finally, we ended up at the Royal Palace, where King Juan Carlos lives. The line to get inside was too long for us, so we just sat outside and listened to the end of of a tour guide's speech about Juan Carlos' contribution to Spanish history (and then the line, "This was my first tour, so any feedback you can give to me would be extremely helpful." Hello, deja vu, that was almost word-for-word what I said after my first tour at Davis). We headed back to Puerto del Sol and got lunch at a sandwich restaurant called Cien Montaditos, where each of the sandwiches were very small but just as cheap (one euro), so you can try several different things. After lunch we headed over to the Parque del Retiro (Park of Retirement), a nice get-away from all the crowds on the streets and in the restaurants.
That night was what I was most looking forward to experiencing in Spain since I had first heard about them a few years ago: tapas! Justin joined us and we headed to their favorite tapas place. As I do not speak ANY Spanish and would have no idea what was on the menu, I just told them what foods I wished to avoid and let them do all the decision-making. We ended up with blood sausage, Iberian ham, croquettes, shrimp, and olives, as well as bread and the free seafood medley tapas they brought us, and a couple pitchers of sangria. It was delicious and filling, and the atmosphere was upbeat, loud, and smokey, and I enjoyed slowing down and having conversation in between bites of tapas, completely different from what I experienced in either Germany or Rome.
Thursday the three of us took a day trip out of the city to neighboring Toledo. Since Paul knew where we were going, it went a lot smoother than our prior day-trip attempt, but not without its own hiccups. We planned to take the train over, so we got up bright and early (Note to future Spain visitors: going to bed at a normal Spanish time and waking up at a normal German time is NOT a good idea, especially on vacation) and headed over to the main train station, where we found out the next train was sold out. The options were to wait another 2 hours, cancel the trip, or take the bus. And so, I ended up taking Justin's and Paul's least favorite metro lines as well as least favorite mode of transportation in Spain. We arrived safely to the base of the hill that Toledo rests on and headed up the mountain. (In a taxi, fortunately.)
Toledo is a medieval-style town, with nonparallel street design and cobblestone roads. There were lots of stores selling knives and swords, and several religious centers for the three major religions. We went into one of the Catholic churches there, and had to pay money in order to get inside! This was a first for me- of all the churches I have ever been inside, either to see or participate in a service, this was the first time I had ever been told I needed to pay to go inside. Ridiculous. We did pay for that one, but we went to the cathedral next, and found out it cost 7 euros to go inside, so we skipped that one.
When we got back to Madrid, Paul and I went out for Döner Kebabs and then went to a jazz club called Populart. We got there really early (9 o'clock for a 10:30 show), but we still grabbed one of the last available tables. We ordered our drinks and sat around talking, waiting for the show to start. This club is apparently very popular, and people were standing even before the music started because there were no more tables, not to mention we were the youngest people there by probably 20 years at least. In fact, at one point, the waiter came over and asked if we "kids" were sticking around for the show! I found this a little rude, as we were currently on our second drink each and the "adult" next to us didn't order anything more than a coke the entire night! The band was doing more showy jazz than I'm used to (they started out with "I Wanna Be Like You" from the Jungle Book), but all in all, a very enjoyable evening, with the one exception of having all of my clothes REEK of cigarette smoke when we left. Oh, well, it happens.
Friday during the day was very quiet. Paul took me over to Casa de Campo, the largest park in Madrid although not nearly as famous as Parque del Retiro, where we just walked around for a couple hours. Friday night was really the exciting part of the day, since that was New Year's Eve. After a quick dinner, we stayed in at the piso to celebrate. I tried some Tio Pepe (Spanish sherry), we had some champagne, and Justin brought out a roscon de reyes cake, typically eaten on January 6th for Epiphany. Inside the cake there is a small figure of the baby Jesus, and whoever finds Jesus has good luck for the year. As I was asking Justin all of this to make sure I had the tradition correct, he suddenly stopped cutting and said, "Uh...I found the Baby Jesus." Yes, as he was cutting, he hit the plastic that was covering Jesus. So much for the anticipation of who finds the baby in the cake. Justin gave me the slice and told me to open the plastic baggy. When I did, I was surprised to find that Jesus was not a baby, but rather a clay motorcycle.
Soon after we headed back to Puerto del Sol to wait for midnight. This is kind of like the Times Square of Spain. Even though people had been waiting there for hours before we arrived, we managed to make it into the actual plaza instead of just one of the side streets. And since we were in Madrid, we had to partake in the Madrid tradition of eating a grape with each ring of the bell at midnight. Let me tell you, those chimes sound a whole lot faster when you're racing against them! Most people then went out to clubs to dance the night and morning away, but since they generally cost around 70 euros to get into for New Years, we just headed back to the piso, talked for a while longer, and then went to sleep.
Saturday Paul and I just walked the streets of Madrid. We first went to Lavapies, the international neighborhood of Madrid with lots of Chinese and Indian restaurants, then to Chueca. That night was my last night, so we went to another tapas bar for dinner. This time we had calamari, potatoes, Spanish tortilla, and some kind of fried fish. Unlike the last time we went out for tapas and really unlike the Spanish style, we were asked to leave soon after we payed the bill, since they had other customers coming in wanting our table. To compensate, they gave us each a free shot. Yay for free things!
On Sunday Justin, Paul and I headed over to the Prado, the famous art museum. It was the first day of a new special exhibit there, so the lines were longer than we expected, but we made it in without too much trouble. I even was able to get in for free! EU students get in for free, but as exchange students, we're not considered to be EU students, at least in Spain. Fortunately, the ticket lady didn't understand the word "Direktaustauschstudentin" on my student ID, just saw that it was from Germany and gave me the ticket for free. Hooray, more free things! I'm not a huge art fan, but at least the Prado doesn't have modern art, so it was interesting seeing all the paintings, especially El Greco and Goya. I soon had to be off to the airport, so we tried to find some kind of fast lunch before I left, like a Spanish version of fast food. We didn't find Spanish, but we did find a Taco Bell, where Paul and Justin told me to try to order on my own. Considering I was able to do it in Milan, I figured it was worth a shot. I got up to the counter, and before I could say anything, the cashier asked, "Nombre?" to which my response was a blank stare. (Yes, I know what nombre means. However, it was completely out of context and I wasn't expecting it.) He took one look at my face and switched to English, which I was a little surprised about, since it was one of the first time I had heard English since I arrived.
At that point, I had to head over to the airport and head back to Berlin. It was sad that I couldn't spend more time traveling or with Paul, and that I had to go back to class the next morning. At the same time, it was almost a relief. You don't fully realize it until you experience it, but it is mentally exhausting being surrounded by a language you do not understand, and I had just spent the prior 12 days in two countries with two unknown languages. I truly did enjoy the majority of my travels (I won't pretend I enjoyed getting my camera stolen), but I was hoping that getting back to Berlin would be the vacation I needed from my vacation. What actually happened will have to wait for another time.