Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Journey: Finding your feet

These first couple of entries are going to be information-heavy, and probably a chore to read, but knowledge is power! I'm going to start writing about life and happenings and recommendations once all this is out of the way. (Plus I need to buy a new memory card to provide pictures, I don't want to cause text-queasiness.) Needs must, people, needs must.

Setting yourself up for a year (or half a year, or 8 weeks, whatever your year abroad requirements) turns out to be a lot harder than you imagine. There are things you just don't think about, while you're sat at home with the knowledge that, yes, in September you'll be traversing the land to foreign parts, but you can never quite imagine what it's really going to be like. There are a lot of cultural differences that you have to battle with from day one, so prepare to be exhausted.

From what I remember of my preparation process, it consisted of a lot of messages to and from the one girl I know in Madrid (Elena, a lifesaver) and trawling through websites with tenuous links to the Autónoma university to find people who needed an extra flatmate. There was very little asked of me before I actually made the trip, other than filling in a Learning Agreement which I had to get signed by my tutor in Manchester. To be honest, I found myself straying dangerously close to the "it will all be absolutely grand eventually" line.

Ominous as that sounds, I have to say I've been lucky. It's a shame I can't say the same for my friend Ollie, who turned up in Paris just under a month ago with his mum and a severe lack of planned things; all told, Ollie found himself back at home a couple of days later to avoid homelessness, where he managed to take a few steps back and find himself a place to live before doing a re-take of his bon voyage to France.

Arrival in Madrid: A torrent unleashed!

Luckily, my first few days in Madrid were spent at Elena's house. I had been contacted (via the ESN UAM website) while still in England about joining up with a pair of students coming from Salamanca and all I had to do (again, with Elena's help) was meet with the owner of the flat, where I am now in Begoña, and sign a contract. Sorted.


Smutty, altogether unpleasant truths began to emerge, however, as I realised there really is a ffflipload of stuff you have to do to be able to blend in with locals, or generally survive. Each revelation prompted new confused faces and meaningless burbling.

- Getting About

"You're going to need to buy an Abono Joven," said Elena, cheerily.
"Ummm... Yeah. Bono-What?" And so it goes.
  • Googling [your destination]+[transport] is a good place to start. When I first tried I did manage to discover something about the Madrid Metrobus ticket, it costs 9 and you get 10 journeys, and you can buy it at any Metro ticket machine. Easy as pie. Obviously you only save €1 when buying this, because each individual (sencillo) ticket costs €1, but it's useful to have on your person so you don't waste time rummaging for change, holding up the people behind you like a dirty foreigner. 

  • If your head's really in the game, though, you'll want to get an Abono. 

The acquisition of this elusive travelcard will confront you with a testing, annoying journey; don't be perturbed. This is what it looks like:

The orange card is the Abono Joven, a young person's card, which you can apply for until the year that you turn 22. Then there's the red Abono Mensual, the layman's card. It's about €20 more expensive but if you're getting on a bit, you lose out on a lot of things!

Now, a few ground rules and simple instructions.

- Do NOT expect Spanish information websites to be accurate or in any way helpful. These are designed to confuse you.

- The place to buy an Abono is a Tabaco. This is a common type of shop that sells cigarettes, stamps and the like, you're never far away from one of them, so don't be afraid to ask someone where to find it (although I asked a number of different people who gestured vaguely- it took me two weeks to work out where it was.) The Transporte Madrid website says you can buy the Abono at large train stations but I maintain that it is simpler to go to a Tabaco and fill out the form they have there.

- Don't forget to check which zones you'll need to be travelling in! Zona A covers central Madrid, and my Abono stretches to Zona B1, which is where the Cantoblanco campus is.

- Bear in mind that Abonos seem expensive at the time, but I worked out with my really fantastic maths that an Abono at €33,50 a month works out cheaper than €1,65 twice a day, 5 days a week. Yeah, proper clever, me.

-Tickets that you buy every month are valid from the 1st until the final day of the month, not like everywhere else where a ticket would probably be valid for a month from the day you buy it. Unfortunately, that's the way the Spanish roll.

- One other thing to take into account is that, once you apply for the main Abono card (which comes without the ticket valid for that month), it takes some 20-ish days to arrive. You can either pick it up at the shop from which you order it, or have it sent to your address.

How to get hold of your money (without having someone take a sizeable chunk of it for themselves)

The fact of the matter is, you're very rarely going to be able to access large amounts of money abroad without incurring some kind of charge. Nationwide are amending their Flex Account next month (November '10) so that what used to be a debit card that incurred no charges for transactions and withdrawals abroad will now include a charge, but it's still a bit cheaper than other banks in the UK. 

Anyway, no need for an information overload (feel free to comment if there's anything you're dying to know), banking is hardly riveting fare. Here's how I avoid being penniless:

- I opened a Thomas Cook Cash Passport
So far, so good. It seems to do as it says on the tin, i.e. you can top it up via debit card on the phone (which can incur 'cash advance' fees, booo) or via an account linked to the card on the internet. You can't use it as a debit card, only to withdraw cash, which incurs a small charge each time. I withdraw larger amounts around the time when rent/bills are due so that you're not paying needlessly for irregular withdrawals.

Note: You also get the option of having a replacement card, free of charge, in case the other is stolen or lost. The online account that holds your money is transferred to the new card and the old one becomes obsolete. Hopefully, I won't have to test this process. Touch wood!

- I also opened a Santander 4B Bank Account
Again I remember some people seeming to take their time over this; you'll get used to it. A passport photocopy and proof of Erasmus placement is needed to open this account, which is a university-aimed one, thus doesn't charge you anything for 'maintenance' (of a figurative account in an ether of other figurative accounts, I don't know, I don't know, it's just the way in Spain!) unlike some other bank accounts. 

At first I thought I'd be using the bank account to make transfers from my home bank account(s) so that I could use Santander as I would the Royal Bank of Scotland, but SWIFT/BIC international transfers are a pain to set up and cost you upwards of £20 a pop, so instead I withdraw large sums from the Cash Passport and pay for other things in cash. That said, I haven't used the bank account yet, although I have a debit card for it, and so far the only thing it's used for is paying the monthly internet for our flat.  

Note: I do also sometimes use my debit cards from home to pay in shops. I think these transactions incur a 2% charge per transaction from RBS, and although at the moment Nationwide doesn't charge anything, I think their new charge will be something similar. Either way, this is doable, but not recommendable.

The Mobile Phone: A temporary expat's worst nightmare

Yup. I'll be frank, I'm still largely in the dark about this issue. There are various 'cheap' Pay As You Go SIM cards available from Orange, Vodafone, Movistar etc. and then the smaller companies like MásMovil, PepeMobile, Yoigo, but these tend to have a lot of hidden costs for things that really don't seem very necessary at all. Example:

  • My Orange Tarjeta Básica claims to charge me 9 cents/minute between certain times. Texts are 15 cents. Minimum top-up is €5 a month- sounds grand! 
No. Just, no. Somehow I managed to top up €30 in a few weeks because the credit just kept disappearing. I wish I could explain but I just think it's best to let this particular subject develop a little more, so that I can tell you about it when I actually have a clue what I'm on about. Just rest (quake) assured that you will be frustrated and angry and confused as to why using your mobile cannot be simple here, and there is nothing you can do but try your best not to spend all your money on this.

Similar emotions are inspired by Spanish Internet:
But it's much less in-your-face infuriating. It took us about a month to have it set up because there was a problem with our line connection, then the internet-man had to come back in 5 days for no apparent reason, which turned into 10 days, then we had to wait for the router to arrive, and so on and so forth.

The biggest problem we seemed to face was finding affordable internet with short-term contracts. In the end we found a deal with JazzTel which works out at about €13 each per month for 20Mb speeds. It's not bad, but it's not blindingly cheap either. I recommend you try and find a place that already has internet capabilities installed, it saves so much hassle, oof.

After all that...

...There are still some things that would be useful to know.

  • It is so helpful if you make a few photocopies of your passport. I keep one in my bag all the time because you have to show it every time you want to pay for something by card. 
  • A simple one, but drivers don't take kindly to €20 notes and above. Once, this guy just gave me the bus money in change. Embarrassing!
  • Oh yeah, also, the €50 note is quite common here. Unfortunately, the only places you can use it are at bigger shops because everywhere else simply doesn't have enough change. Get rid of them when you can!
  • The big kahuna: Make an effort to speak the language! You will be afraid, but if you speak slow-ish and think your way through it, you can have a giggle (probably at your expense, but nevermind) and as such make friends. I still have no idea what the doorman of my building says, but the most important thing is, he says it with a toothy smile. Aw.

Just writing about all of that has brought back painful memories of all the palavas (pavlovas?) I've waded through to gain access to all the basic things I'm used to having it home, but then after all that, I have to point out that it's still all part of the experience, and to be honest it feels a lot better to've achieved something when the heat of the moment has passed. Also, the truth is that the secret lies in the research. I felt clueless because I was a lazy scrote, so I guess I am forever indebted to the people that helped me when I decided I could be bothered to be bothered. Now most things seem to be in order, it gets easier to maintain.

Hopefully this is the end of the negative! We're yet to make it to university, but, babysteps. After that I promise it's all sunshine, sangria and Madrileñan adventures. ¡Hasta pronto!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Mañana, mañana!

So, hopefully a first post of many.

Technically I'm a student at the University of Manchester, BA in English Language and Spanish.

Culturally I'm an Erasmus student at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, studying a mish mash of subjects for 14 hours a week- the rest of the time I spend going on adventures, whether it be exploring the city for green places or meeting people from various corners of the world.

I've been here for a month and a week (5 weeks today, actually), and so far, although I feel more synchronised with the way of life here than I did in the beginning, I don't feel I've documented much of anything that I've done. For shame! The experiences of settling into the university and meeting people, the multitude of complications with really basic things such as acquiring a bank account or setting up an internet connection, or even just pushing myself to speak Spanish have all been things that I've found surprisingly (embarrassingly?) hard to do, thus I feel the process deserves some kind of written-down acknowledgement, of failures and triumphs and the best tapas.

The basics

Name: Anisa
Age: 20, nearly 21

Why Madrid?
I'd been here before and remembered the water fountains and the kind of sepia colouring that seeps into everything. That and I knew a friend here. Thinking back to when I was deciding what to do for my year abroad, I think I jumped on Madrid because it was the only thing that held anything familiar for me. Perhaps the idea of the year abroad is to try new things, but it was such a big thing that I couldn't resist the pull of something that I could already imagine.

Are you glad you stuck with it?
Yes! Madrid is by far one of the most beautiful places I've found myself in in my life. There is some kind of energy to the city that never dies down. Sometimes the Spanish people can seem a bit frosty, but to be honest the ones who I am around the most are unerringly friendly. The main thing that I tell people would improve the quality of life here is if the University's communication channels were better (and I'm a bit of a studious one- an empoyona). When it comes down to it, to be a student in Spain, you have to work out a lot of the details yourself, and these channels aren't necessarily as effective as those in your home country. There is a lot of "mañana mañana".

But it's so close to home! Couldn't you have chosen somewhere else?
Only a measly 1,249 miles away- but it suits me very well, indeed! Unfortunately, I don't speak or study Italian (or have any intention of doing so, strange-sounding language), so I couldn't choose to go to Florence or Naples... The bolder woman in me toyed with the idea of choosing Cuba or Argentina, but something took me by the shoulders and steered me back to Europe. I don't regret the closeness to home- it's very convenient. I'm still excited by Madrid, so there must be something for me here.

Scariest stuff so far?
The language, without a doubt! It seems to count almost for nothing that I've been learning it for, what, 8 years? I get a lot of positive feedback when I do speak, though, so I feel bad most of the time if I don't make an effort. It's also given me the jitters any time I've had to present myself to new Spanish people who I know I'm going to be seeing a lot (and hopefully testing my Spanish mettle with), like my flatmates. Rodrigo and Elena are a pair of the nicest people in the world, I am swimming in luck for being able to live with them.

And the best stuff?
Oh, there is so much! There is some kind of independence that comes from doing something like this that you just can't put a label or a definition on. The oddest thing is, it doesn't feel like independence yet, because so many things seem like a battle, it's impossible to feel 'free'- but I know that when I finish the year and I look back on everything that I've done, especially the stuff that shoves me, shuffling and mumbling out of my comfort zone, I'll have a better perspective.

Of course, there are a lot of other perks to being in this corner of the world, the melting pot of people (a surprising proportion of which seems to be made up of Germans), the parks, the museums (particularly the Reina Sofia), the food, oh the food! (There are vegetables here the likes of which you cannot imagine, peppers and onions the size of my head, which is sometimes known for being abnormally large) I could mention the tall, dark and handsomes but their reputation precedes them, all over the world. And so it goes.

So, what's on the agenda for this blog, then?
All I know is that mother's wisdoms about jumping in head first and making the most of your opportunities are being tested to their utmost here, and I've found myself wanting to offload such a huge mezcla of information and reactions, thoughts, complaints, experiences and so on and so forth, and as the semi-willing members of my family at the ends of the Earth can't stake out on Skype, I feel this is the best way to do it. I want to post photos of things I've seen, reviews of places I go and document my experiences so that I can have something to refer to in the future or just have a record of everything that I do. I want to really try at this, because it's solid and valuable to me.

I will be thinking about what to put in this, and from here on out taking mental notes of the day to day, so perhaps we'll get some content on the go, if comments and questions are provided I might have some inspiration...? Mañana, mañana.