The days leading up to my departure didn’t feel real. Even on the two hour ride to the airport, my mind wouldn’t let me believe that I was really about to depart for Madrid to do an internship in Spain. I had researched nearly everything that I could think of prior to arriving, but nothing really prepares you for the experience until you’re there! I am going to tell you everything that almost went horribly wrong and share my top tips for survival upon arrival in Madrid. I hope that the following tips will help you to avoid some of the issues that I had during my journey. I have now been here for a little over a week, started my internship, made a great group of friends through The Intern Group and I am falling in love with the city fast and hard!
Tip #1: Know your visa & know it well
I am a citizen of the United States so I can travel freely in the Schengen Area without a visa for up to 90 days per six months thanks to the Schengen Agreement. My internship will last for six weeks, but straight after my internship I will be studying abroad for a semester. The program that I’ve chosen allows you to travel to 3 different cities for 6 weeks at a time while taking classes. I had planned to go to London, Paris and Rome. The UK is not in the Schengen Area, but France and Italy are. This means that my time in Spain, France, and Italy would have pushed me over the 90 day limit and I could have gotten some serious penalties. Not good. As you can imagine, I was panicking and trying to change things around and it was messy.
Moral of the story: Know your visa requirements. If you are unsure, speak with someone in your program who can help. Bear in mind that my situation was very unique, so most of you won’t have to worry.
By the way, if you’re curious, the solution to my issue was to change the order of my study abroad program and go to Germany, London and then France. Even though Germany is part of the Schengen Agreement, you can apply for temporary residency (or something like that) if you are a student taking credits, and it will not count toward the 90 days. Yay Germany!
Tip #2: If you enter the country, have a plan to leave
I’ve already explained my study abroad situation so you know that it’s slightly confusing. This means that when I fly back to the USA, I will be in France instead of Madrid. For this reason, I only bought a one-way ticket. This makes sense, right? WRONG. After waiting in two long lines at the airport, I arrived at the counter nearly 40 minutes before my flight departure. The flight attendant said that she could not give me a boarding pass because I had a one-way ticket and no proof that I was leaving Spain. So I had to quickly buy a ticket from Madrid to somewhere else, on the spot, just to show them that I was actually leaving. Of course I made sure that it was a refundable flight and got my money back within a week. (The employee at the a counter was super cool and told me that I could do this, she just couldn’t legally give me a boarding pass until she saw proof). You’ll be pleased to know that I still made it to the flight on time.
Tip #3: Luggage problems
Firstly, I’m going to be a hypocrite and tell you not to procrastinate. That’s all I’m going to say about that.
I had to pack a lot because I’m going to be abroad for 6 months. However it’s crucial that you don’t overpack. Pack for the climate that you’re going to be in and only bring clothes that fit you and that you’re actually going to wear. Next, make sure that your luggage stands out in some way. Mine was as plain as could be but thankfully I used bright, colorful luggage tags which helped a little.
If you have a lot of luggage, like me, you may feel a little helpless. So many bags, not enough arms. Try not to LOOK helpless. There are luggage carts in the airport for a couple of euros. I was too scared to go over and try to figure the machine out, so I just stacked my carry-on on top of my largest suitcase. I rolled this stack of suitcases in one hand and carried my remaining luggage in the other hand. I highly recommend spending a couple of euros instead of struggling like I did.
Also, if you’re scared about lost luggage like I was, don’t be. I bought luggage with a “global tracking system”. It sounds fancy but doesn’t really mean anything. I also spent $70 on four of those tile things that let you track things on your phone. Personally, I don’t think they’re worth it (you can only see things if they’re right next to you).
Tip #4: How to eat food
It’s possible that I am the only one who has ever had this problem because I’m shy and often impractical, but when I got here I did not eat at a restaurant until the fourth day. (I arrived early for some solo travel before I met up with The Intern Group). I looked up a restaurant that I wanted to go to and made plans to walk there. When I got there, I walked in and no one really acknowledged me, which was odd for me. It was a bar area, but there was a sign that pointed to a restaurant area so I looked in and it was packed. I ran out and went back to the bar area and sat down on what seemed to be waiting chairs. Still no one noticed me. At that point, feeling confused and a bit stupid, I resorted to pretending that I was texting and then I made a fake phone call. Then I left and went back to the Airbnb that I was staying at. I did some Google research and found a site called Just Eat, which is the Spanish version of Order Up in the US. I then ordered delivery and ate that for the next 3 days.
In hindsight I really should’ve just asked someone, but it’s me we’re talking about. Here’s how to eat in a restaurant in Spain, successfully: There is nobody waiting to greet you at the entrance to take you to your table. (That’s the only real difference between our cultures when it comes to restaurants, but it really threw me off). All you have to do is march in there, find a free table, sit, and wait for a waiter to bring your menu. It’s that simple. Honestly.
Tip #5: Don’t look lost!
Given that Madrid is a city, and a relatively small one compared to other big cities, it is super easy to navigate! One thing that you should try to avoid is walking around with a map or using navigation on your phone. It’s like putting a sign on your face that says “I’m a lost tourist. Take advantage of me” (Ok maybe I am being slightly dramatic). However, a good thing to know, at least for iPhones, is that if you look up a map of an area while you are connected to wifi, it saves while you’re offline. So you can look on your phone when you’re out and it will still let you move around the map of Madrid and zoom in and out. It also keeps your current location updated! Thanks Apple.
Before I go anywhere, I always study the street that I’m on, memorize the streets around it and then study where I’m going and the streets around that. Then I memorize the route that I’m going to take and generally stick to that. If you ever wander off, it’s okay because the map will be there and show you where you are. You always want to look like you know where you’re going (even if you have no idea). Madrid is a safe city but this is a rule that I live by everywhere.
Importantly, I survived the somewhat difficult journey and I’ve settled in. I’m falling in love with the city fast and hard. If you are worried, don’t be because everything will be okay, trust me!
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Photo 1. by Kaela Green
Photo 2. by Kaela Green
Photo 3. by Kaela Green