A summary of my experiences in Madrid after the pictures.
Buenos Dias, Madrid
The following is a post I recently sent to some of my former colleagues:
On October 4, 2012, I landed in Madrid. This time it was real – I moved here to obtain my International MBA at IE Business School. While I have only been here a few weeks, I will devote a little time to some of my initial impressions of the place.
For the most part, it is no different than any other city. People go to work, people eat, people drink, people shop, people party. But there are some things I have found particularly interesting.
In the United States (see Note 1 at end), foreigners often criticize us for only speaking English. Well, in Madrid, people for the most part only speak Spanish. No English, no French, no Italian. Just Spanish.
Which to me is particularly odd, for three reasons:
First, we’re brainwashed that people in the US are so unsophisticated for our lack of language skills. Fortunately my elementary/middle/high school instilled French in me since Kindergarten. However, in Madrid, at least, finding people who speak anything other than the most basic English is a struggle.
Second, and perhaps more odd, is that American culture and English is pervasive. Let’s begin with music. The top 500 American songs over the last 50 years represent about 98% of the music I have heard here. Be it a restaurant, cafe, on the street or in a car, the music ranges from Katy Perry to Gladys Knight to Dr. Dre. The street performers do their best rendition of our music, but the accent is never quite right.
KFC, McDonalds and Starbucks have a strong presence here (the last of which is extraordinarily expensive in Madrid). Many cafes have “Take Away” menus. Anything technology-related is in English (think Wi-Fi, Gigabytes, iPad, etc.). And simply walking down the street yields numerous English words on every block.
And yet, no one seems to be able to put a full English sentence together.
Finally, people here know more about United States celebrities and pop culture than most of our own citizens do. From the discussing latest episode to Breaking Bad, to questioning the latest poll results out of Ohio, people seem to very closely follow many aspects of what I had always considered to be “our” culture.
There is stark contrast between media reports and the situation on the ground regarding the economy. Before flying over the Atlantic, I was under the impression that the economy was on the brink of collapse, people were rioting in the streets, no one had money, the banks were going to lose my money, and I would have to barter for bread.
Well, for the most part, things seem to be pretty normal on the ground. People eat out, go to work, drink, shop, (and occasionally riot) just like they do in just about any other city. The economic troubles manifest themselves mostly subtly.
Most notably, there is an abundance of available housing. Truly an abundance. Almost every building has for sale or for rent signs. Rent prices are roughly one third of those in New York, perhaps on par with my hometown of Dallas (1 bedrooms for $800-1000). My rent is €575 ($750) for the nicest apartment I have ever lived in. I have two roommates in a recently renovated 3 bed, two-bath apartment with a balcony in Chamberi, somewhat like the Midtown West/Upper West Side of Madrid.
I have had very few meaningful conversations with native Spaniards, given the language barriers described previously. But, from talking to people, it is clear that individuals are struggling. Long time Madrilenos talk of how it is difficult to find jobs, those with work are not doing what they want to be doing, families are strapped for cash, retirement for older workers is no longer an option, and in an anecdote that resonates with me – it is way too easy to get taxis here. Just a few years ago, this was not the case. Alas.
All that said, if one were to merely walk around the streets and observe, society functions smoothly, despite the economic difficulties.
I am thinking about quitting my MBA program to go to med school, specializing in lung cancer. People smoke everywhere.
The fun stuff
There have been a few notable highlights thus far:
Real Madrid v. FC Barcelona
On October 7, just a few days in, I watched my first soccer (errr…football) game, El Clasico, at Spanish bar with local Madrilenos and fellow classmates. It was an awesome 2-2 match, two of the world’s most famous players – Real Madrid’s Christiano Ronaldo and FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi – scoring all the goals. Football taken as seriously as you might think. They are passionate.
Real Madrid vs. Mad-Croc Fuenlabrada
A week later, on October 14, a friend of mine in the program offered us front row VIP tickets to a game to see Madrid’s basketball team. By front row, I mean about 1 meter (yes, I’m Euro now [aside: I love the United States with all my heart, but seriously, we need to get on the metric system. Feet and inches are useless to the rest of the world]) from the court. Real Madrid crushed the local team. Not quite NBA quality, but definitely better than an NCAA game.
More importantly, we had free food and drink. Crepes, foie gras, jamon and endless cava for gout-inducing indulgence.
I haven’t enjoyed basketball this much since working as a ballboy during Dallas Mav’s 2003 playoff run. (Yes, I was a ballboy for the Mavericks for three years in high school.)
A Madrid mega-club. Sort of like an upscale Webster Hall for you New Yorkers. Bottle service here is relatively inexpensive, about €140 ($180) versus the NYC standard €300 ($400). We had a few tables going.
Oh yeah, we left the place around 6:30 am. And it was still packed.
The 1OAK of Madrid. Been around a while, but still has celebrity cachet. For my birthday, a few of my classmates arranged for us to have some bottles and tables at the place. Little did I know that we would have some of the largest bottles at a club I have seen in a long time. One guy bought two 4-liter bottles of alcohol for us. Insanity. And of course, sparklers. I’m a sucker for sparklers. Another 6:00 AM night, which seems to be the norm here.
While I have not done this, people actually went to some after-hours clubs, which close at 10AM. That’s a different level of fun than I’m used to.
Easily one of most fun birthdays I have ever had.
I am just coming back from a two-week vacation. I visited Lisbon, Barcelona, and all over Morocco. I will post an update later.
Obesity is not an epidemic here. Jamon (ham), in its finest form – Iberico – is exquisite. Bad food and fast food are prevalent, as it is in any city. Awesome food is also abundant, perhaps rivaling a city like Chicago but nowhere near the level of New York. People eat little and drink frequently. I’m usually full, rarely stuffed, constantly buzzed. Our school cafe serves beer. For €1. Water is also €1.
In general, there are a few standout items here:
First and foremost, the pastries. Holy moley, some of the fresh pastries here are unbelievable. Napolitana de chocolate may be the finest pastry ever invented. And the croissants here tend to have a slightly sweet, sugary glaze that surpasses the taste of even the finest Parisian bakery. This place is heaven for a dessertaholic like me.
Second, the ham. The worst jamon iberico would put Honey Baked Ham out of business. The best is sublime. Who knew cured meats could taste so good.
Third, the coffee. Slightly thicker and richer than the watery stuff that is Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. And if you want cafe con leche, the milk is steamed.
The rest – I am in the early phases of my culinary journey in Madrid, though as I eat interesting restaurants and interesting dishes, I’ll post them in the food section of my website.
IE Business School
Right. The school. That is why I am here, of course. Not the food, the nightlife, the friends, Europe, but of course business school. Well, for now I don’t really have much school yet. It is nice. Though that changes as soon as you read this email. Class starts Monday.
I have met around 75 or so people in my 350-strong class. They are from everywhere in the world – Tokyo, Beirut, Israel, Lagos, Costa Rica, Toronto, Cologne, New Delhi, Milan, Cairo – I could name two dozen other cities off the top of my head. They give a new meaning to diversity. It is not uncommon to have lunch where you hear English, Hebrew, Arabic, French and German in the span of an hour. And yet, they all seem to like hamburgers.
Moreover, the industries and job functions of the classmates are, for lack of a better word, diverse. Yes, there’s a few finance and consulting types. But that is more the exception than the rule. Some of my closest friends are steel brokers, engineers, purchasing managers, entrepreneurs, and many other jobs I did not realize existed.
Stereotypes…you can hold on to them. It is funny, because most students, at least on the surface, fulfill their country’s stereotypes. The other Texan wears cowboy boots. My Californian roommate has long, blonde, flowing surfer dude hair. The Japanese kids have electronics from the future. The kid from Cairo protested in Tahrir Square. The German guys are 6’7 and 6’8 and play basketball. And they love Dirk Nowitzski. It goes on.
And yet, we are all here.
Actually, the stereotypes only hold on the surface and people are far more complex, but it is funny to have a few of them confirmed. The people I have met thus far have been simply fascinating and awesome.
Some Miscellaneous Comments
-There are no paper towels in the bathrooms. Electric dryers only. I miss paper towels.
-No one owns a drying machine. You hang things outside.
-People, on average, dress well. I am upgrading my wardrobe. My sweater game is ridiculous now.
-New York could learn some lessons from Madrid’s subway system. It is superb.
-People go out late. I mean 10pm dinner is about right.
-The Africans that peddle fake merchandise speak Spanish. Though you can still haggle.
-The fake merchandise they peddle is of superior quality to that in New York.
-Madrid has the worst set of crosswalks I have ever seen in my life. Seriously.
-Beer and water are the same price. Which do you think I consume more often?
By no means am I an expert in Spanish culture or Madrid or my super-diverse student body. But I am learning, immersing myself and doing the best I can over here. I wouldn’t say this is a transformational experience – I think I will be pretty much the same person I was before coming here. I will, however, have a much better understanding of living in a foreign country, of culture, of people, of the world. And I look forward to going deeper into the rabbit hole, taking the red pill, seeing how interesting I can make my time here. (Note 2)
(1) My MBA program includes people from everywhere around the world. As part of that, it is no longer sufficient to say I am American or I am from America. That implies all of North and South America. So now, I try to refer specifically to the United States.
(2) This is a reference to The Matrix. Laurence Fishburn, anyone?
February 8, 2013 – Madrid, 3 months later.
My life in Madrid has become normal. Buildings look familiar, the morning routine is the same, people on the street I know by name. It is becoming my life, my everyday.
The mornings are confusing. I wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast and listen to Adam Carolla. I walk out the door, as I have 100 times before. Then it hits. My neighbors say “Hola, buenas.” I am in Madrid.
I often have to stop. Think. Remember that I am here, now. I am walking, living, studying, being in Madrid. I am presented with this fascinating opportunity, and it will be what I make of it. While my Spanish in a few short months has drastically improved, I still have much to learn. I could easily live here without problems and not learn a single additional word of Spanish. But that would be unsatisfying.
School is, for the most part, uneventful. I thoroughly enjoy my classmates and most of my professors. While there is large quantity of work, I have not found the nature of the work particularly challenging. That is not to say I am going to be the top student in every one of my classes. In fact, that is low on my list of concerns. I am merely focusing the majority of my attention on the classes and skills I want to improve and refine. And of course, becoming friends with my classmates from every corner of the globe is far more valuable from an educational standpoint.
I have several miscellaneous comments, mostly culinary (seriously, do you think I would write about anything else?):
As a fan of interesting and diverse cuisine, Spanish food, well, is not really doing it for me. I am currently trying to figure out how to not eat tortilla, jamon, tomate, patatas, and other similar items every day. They don’t like vegetables, the orange juice is easily the worst I have ever had, and the flavor profile of the everyday Spanish food is not, from a culinary standpoint, interesting.
But the burgers…
I do have one caveat to the above. Madrid has unquestionably the finest hamburgers I have ever had. By far. In fact, as I write this, I made a homemade burger for myself, just to see if I could replicate the meat’s greatness. In Spain, there is this meat called carne picada ternera blanca, which is basically ground veal. It is much lighter in both color and density to traditional American beef, but more flavorful. And it is heavenly. Even well done burgers with little seasoning are, as I like to say, exquisite. At a restaurant, it is even better. It’s one of those weird, extra satisfying pleasures of being here. A Taco Bell beef burrito aint bad either.
Continuing on my culinary comments, Madrid has a vibrant gin and tonic scene. Some otherwise average bars have come up with some creative combinations for the classic drink, incorporating fresh fruit and other treats. The mixology culture in general is far inferior that the major US cities, but the gin and tonics are on par with the best I have ever had.
Another culinary story, and it is a bit long so I apologize. But, I have to make fun of my Italian roommate. [Note to AJRB if you ever read this: I love living with you and have no complaints. I just find your eating habits to be ridiculous.] One evening, I come home to see a large pack of hot dogs in our refrigerator. It was a bit of an odd sight, as I had not seen a hot dog in my few months here. Naturally, I thought my Californian roommate purchased them, but after a few minutes of searching, I was confused because I did not find any hot dog buns. I questioned my Cali roommate about it, and he said the Italian roommate purchased the hot dogs. Adding to the curious hot dogs, they were about 3/4 the size of a normal US hot dog. Naturally, I assumed the Italian was going to add it to his pasta.
Later that evening, we were all gathered at our circular dining table about to eat the various meals we had prepared. The Italian brings in his plate. On it: 10, yes 10, of those weird-sized hot dogs, fried in butter, sliced lengthwise, with a piece of cheese on top, and a sunny-side up egg. No buns, no sauces, just butter-fried hot dogs with a fried egg and sliced cheese. And on the side: a kiwi and chocolate pudding.
The Californian and I looked at each other, confused. It was perhaps the most disgusting meal I had ever seen someone from a developed country prepare for himself. And watched him scarf down the whole thing. Sober. It has since become a weekly occurrence. Every time I see it, I gag a little bit.
Ah, of course, one last culinary story. In my workgroup, we have seven students including myself for any group projects. We all come from different countries, including Russia, India, Switzerland, Colombia, Japan, Argentina and the US. One afternoon we went to a Japanese restaurant as a group. To the uninitiated, Japanese food can be quite tricky. Sometimes you just kind of have to eat and not ask.
Well, the Indian in our group had a very strict diet. Of course no beef, and equally important no pork. Chicken is OK. Unfortunately, fried chicken and fried pork are very similar. I think you know where this is going. The Indian unknowingly ate a pork dish. When we realized what was happening, we didn’t know what to do, other than let him know. Everyone was embarrassed and uncomfortable – we just fed an Indian person pork for the first time in his life. This could be bad.
We made it though the lunch, all very embarrassed, really not sure of what the fallout would be. We just avoided it in conversation for a while. Oddly, a few weeks later, the Indian proudly declared that he now eats pork regularly. He thought it was delicious, in retrospect. Who knew?
Of course, Lucky Charms
Generally speaking, the little things here are the hardest. When something – a smell, a taste, a sight – reminds you of home. One of my Argentinian classmates brought some chocolate, which had a weird marshmallow coating. It tasted just like Lucky Charms. (See http://donotbeboring.com/musings/2011/5/22/the-downfall-of-lucky-charms.html for my thoughts on Lucky Charms) This got me thinking – I haven’t had raisins in ages. I miss raisins (and Raisin Bran). They aren’t inherently good, but sometimes just the simple taste of a raisin is pleasurable. Three stores later, I found my raisins. Golden, juicy and delicious. I had never been so satisfied to just have a raisin. It was like some rare, foreign delicacy, better than even the finest caviar.
That’s mostly it for now. In the next couple months I have 5 or 6 trips around Europe, so hopefully I will have something insightful to say then. I don’t want to sound cliché, but being here has made me realize how great my country is. I have never been so happy to have grown up in the United States. The people, the culture, the military – everything. I am not necessarily in a hurry to get back, but I’m damn proud to be an American.
June 11, 2013 – Halftime – 7 Months in Madrid
A message to some former colleagues:
I am almost 7 months into living in Madrid. The most interesting thing for me is that it no longer feels temporary – the newness has worn off, and I feel truly settled. I have a regular routine. Few things are a challenge in the way they once were. There was a time when I was very self-conscious about being an outsider. It felt as if everyone was staring at the tall (relative to Spaniards) African-American guy who spoke funny Spanish. Well, they are still staring, and I still speak funny Spanish, but I have accepted my shortcomings.
I have received more and more insights into Spanish culture. Most things are not worth noting here, but the more I learn, the more I appreciate the United States. The American Dream – there mere existence of such a concept – is incredibly powerful. And it is simply not replicated in Spain. The more people I talk to, the more I understand why people from all over the world want to come to the USA.
School is going well. I will be finished with my MBA in December, at which point I must decide what to do next. I am giving myself until August or so to focus on life here, and then will do some serious thinking about the next steps. But safe to say, I miss New York. “I want to wake up in that city…”
Since coming here, I have averaged about one new country a month. Outside of Spain, I have visited London, Budapest, Amsterdam, Prague, Geneva, Lisbon, and Marrakesh (and several other Moroccan cities). Naturally, I have had Michelin-quality meals in almost every one. I still have much to learn about Spain itself, though I have had the opportunity to see Barcelona, Bilbao, San Sebastian (If I ever disappear from the world, you will find me in San Sebastian. Not joking.), Segovia and Valencia. I do find the experience of learning new cultures and visiting different cities intellectually fascinating. Oh, and completely random, but I ran a marathon a few weeks ago because I enjoy eating in Europe too much.
Beyond that, the toughest parts of school are over. I have more flexibility in my schedule and studies, which will be much needed. I have a summer project through the school where I will investigate the intersections of the art world and wealth management, looking at the various business opportunities in the area and how art functions as an asset class. And then, in 7 more months, at the end of December, I am finished. Just like that.