Universidad Complutense de Madrid
I can only imagine the sense of nervous apprehension felt by many international students as they wave goodbye to their families and board a seemingly endless flight to begin their course at Warwick. As for me, I was only taking the 2 hour hop over the channel, and a bit further, to Madrid – my base for the next nine months – and nerves were definitely dominating my emotions. How would I cope without my family and friends? Was my level of Spanish really good enough? Where would I stay? Would I meet a good group of people? Would being a vegetarian be a problem in Madrid? Was I making a mistake leaving Warwick when many of my closest friends were entering their final year? It turns out I needn’t have worried – for family and friends, there is Skype; my level of Spanish (B1 by Warwick standards) was quite a headstart; finding accommodation from the UK was definitely not easy but upon acclimatising to the new city, everyone found a comfortable home; meeting people is easily facilitated by the intensive Spanish course prior to the academic year; with a bit of forward planning and culinary skill, food was no problem; and I’ve rejoined a surprising number of friends upon my return to the bubble.
Daunting as it was to begin with, the year was most certainly exciting with numerous rewards presenting themselves in many different guises.
My first thoughts upon touching down at Madrid’s Barajas airport were that I was finally past the point of no return. I was there to stay; I say this with an element of apprehension. Naturally the immediate focus turned to finding somewhere to live, since applying to the university’s own accommodation service over the summer had proved unfruitful.
Finding a place to live is perhaps one of the most stressful and demoralising parts of the year, which is a shame being the very first experience for most Erasmus students, so I shall start with some basic advice. Firstly, the normal protocol for renting a flat involves an informal “interview” with your potential flatmates or landlord. Don’t be daunted by this, it is nothing more than making sure that you will all get along – you will often find flats who are looking for an English-speaker in order to improve their language skills. Secondly, I recommend that you find and pre-book a hostel for your first week in Madrid whilst you find somewhere to live. It can often take up to two weeks to find suitable accommodation so be prepared to extend this. I personally checked into a hotel for 5 nights before moving into my flat. Thirdly, be prepared - most students will arrive with a list of flats from either easypiso.com or idealista.com – there is nothing worse than not knowing where to start your search. You won’t find estate agents very helpful, as they all ask for proof of employment and a 12 month contract. I was lucky enough to get a list of approved landlords from the university, and worked my way down this. I saw about six flats before making my decision. Alternatively, there are numerous adverts posted around the campus. Fourthly, get a Spanish mobile phone. I started with the Orange network (pronounced oh-raaanj by the Spaniards), however, I later discovered that there are cheaper networks too, for example Yoigo. You will need this to contact the flats and to avoid racking up £100s in bills. A local contact number is also useful to have as you start to meet your Erasmus peers and make friends who you can go out with. Finally, where possible, try to live with at least one Spanish-speaker. It is easy to note the difference in fluency at the end of the year if you don’t, as Erasmus students are often more comfortable speaking in English.
That mountain of advice appears daunting in itself. In truth, it really is a matter of immersing yourself and being patient. I don’t know of anyone who wasn’t happy with the flat that they eventually found. My personal living arrangement was slightly peculiar in that I didn’t live with students. I found a room with a retired Spanish gentleman, named Jorge, in a relatively central part of Madrid known as Chamberí. On the face of it, this may sound like a strange arrangement, but for me personally it held many advantages. My flatmate acted as my enthusiastic guide around Madrid, pointing me in all sorts of useful directions across my new city as well as uncovering some hidden historic gems, and he was very keen to help me improve my proficiency in Spanish. As a relatively quiet individual, I also cherished the ability to escape from my unfamiliar surroundings at the end of the day in the privacy and quiet of my bedroom.
Of course, this arrangement didn’t prevent me from enjoying the nightlife of Madrid. I am sure that there is no need to explain the appeals and quirks of Spanish nightlife – dine late, go out later and don’t come back ‘til the sun rises and the Metro opens. Another great feature of my flat was proximity to public transport – there were at least 4 Metro lines within a 5 minute walk and several buses too. Either the Metro or the bus could get me to campus in just over 15 minutes.
The first few months and some more practicalities
Flat hunting and buying a mobile are just the first in a list of practicalities for a successful year abroad. Attention turns next to money. This is an extra hurdle for us British folk, as we are from one of the few non-Eurozone countries. Most people chose to set up an account with Santander upon their arrival in Spain, which involves a one-off fee to transfer your Sterling to Euros, but is thereafter fairly straightforward. But once again, not being one to follow convention, I found another way. I set up an account with Lloyds International (based on c/Serrano) who are the Spanish arm of Lloyds TSB, primarily aimed at expats. The advantage here is that there are no fees to transfer money from a UK based Lloyds account to the international one. The Erasmus team at Warwick are generally quite helpful in ensuring that your grant reaches you in time, but it is worth having enough Euros to get you through the first week or so.
The next thing to arrange is your youth travel card – the Abono Joven. This allows you to buy monthly travel passes at roughly a 50% discount, and is definitely worth it for unlimited bus and Metro travel, getting you to and from university and around the city. Note that the Metro de Madrid is currently migrating to a contactless system (like London’s Oyster) and so some of this information may be out of date. You will need to take a passport photo and a copy of your passport (proof of age) to your local Estanco (these are the red tobacco shops, from where you can also buy postage stamps). You will have to complete a form, and can collect your pass in around 10 days. Make sure you remember which Estanco you used!
Practicalities aside, we turn to the university experience, which starts with the intensive Spanish course. The idea of starting your year with a Spanish language test is something which strikes fear in the minds of the hundreds of nervous Erasmus students waiting in the lobby of the Facultad de Derecha (the Law Faculty). Almost magically, people seem to form groups of nationalities to aid communication between them. There is a nervous silence as the exam room fills and papers are distributed. You rush through the exam, wait a while, get bored, hand in your paper early and leave the room wondering what all the fuss was about. After all, the test is really about judging your language ability so you can be placed in the appropriate Spanish class – and given that many students arrive with less than two weeks of Spanish experience, we tend to have a relative advantage. The intensive Spanish classes aren’t so intensive either. It’s a great environment in which to get to know your Erasmus peers, make friends, and learn some really useful day-to-day and colloquial Spanish, as well as get some much needed fluency. If you still haven’t found a flat, there are often groups of students looking for an extra person to share with. I strongly recommend attending these classes if you can.
The real challenge comes with the start of term, and the maths lectures. You should have a good idea of the modules you want to take before arriving in Spain. Clearly, it is important to take modules which lend well to your fourth year at Warwick. I somehow managed not to submit a learning agreement prior to my arrival, but for the sake of less administrative hassle, I recommend getting this done in advance. I took five modules in the first semester, and four in the second – this was almost certainly too much. I recommend taking four modules in each semester.
A Mathematical Challenge
On my first day in the Facultad de Matemáticas, I met Clara, the Erasmus secretary. We spoke in Spanish, but her proficiency in English was very helpful. She was able to point me to several references on the department website to find out about classroom allocations, and other useful bits and bobs. And with that, I was all set to begin the year.
The immediate impression upon walking into the class is that it is like being back in school – and the impression is largely justified. Class sizes could range from anywhere between 2 students and 35, and there was prevalent tendency to ask the teacher for further clarification and to do exercises during class time. This method of learning takes some time to adapt to, but if you do put in the work to stay up to date (granted, that is easier said than done) it is a reasonable aspiration to keep up with the class.
Of course being new means you arrive early to make sure that you’re in the right place. You arrive to a relatively empty classroom and your fellow students slowly start to trickle in. One of the first things you realise is that you’re joining a group of students who have already been together for several years and formed their own friend groups. Since they have just returned from summer holidays, they are all busy catching up whilst you sit nervously waiting. Here presents the first challenge – to break into Spanish friend groups. Your success will be very dependent upon your character and the students in the classes that you join, but do not fear – there are many more opportunities to have a good social prospect, more on that later.
The second challenge presents itself as your teacher arrives, most likely speaking at an incredible speed with an unclear regional accent. You pay close attention to try and follow the class, with the inevitability of losing your place at some point. The challenge is different depending on your individual level of Spanish. For me personally, I could generally understand the teachers, but I wasn’t able to process the information fast enough (particularly the subtleties) to write it all down as well as understand it. This meant I was left with some very incomplete notes. It turns out that most of the Spanish students are very friendly – whilst you may struggle to have a long meaningful conversation with them, they are always willing to help you understand and borrow notes.
This series of events continues for the first couple of months, with gradual improvements in all areas. You begin to understand the teachers better, follow more of the classes, have better conversations with your peers and feel much more confident in your Spanish abilities. As December arrives, you are met with the shock of exams over the horizon with very little time to prepare. For this reason it is really worth putting in a bit of work throughout the year to keep up to date, whilst of course balancing the fun and cultural aspects of your year abroad. Back on the topic of exams, there is a little room in the corridor next to the photocopying room called the “Delegación de Alumnos” where you can find a cabinet full of past papers which you can copy. Just be aware that exams are very individual to your lecturer, so may vary over time as teachers change. The exams themselves are much more informal in their setting to Warwick exams, with a general attitude encouraging the ability to resit later in the year, or even in future years. Of course, for Erasmus students this option is generally not available. In a particularly strange example from the second semester, my teacher turned up without any exam papers and simply wrote out some questions on the blackboard from memory. In the Spanish system, exams are graded out of 10, where a 5 is a pass and above 7 is considered a good grade. It is helpful to note that Warwick will take into account the language barrier in converting your grades – though at the time of writing I am still awaiting my official conversion.
Moving to term 2, there were dramatic improvements on several fronts. The opportunity to start fresh modules means that you can apply the lessons learnt from the previous semester and follow the courses from the beginning. You are able to interact much better with the dynamics of the class, and are more confident in your ability to integrate with other students. This latter point was particularly important to me as my closest (non-English) friends from my year abroad came from one of these classes. Whilst the option is not available at Warwick, many Erasmus students will join for the second semester only. This presents further opportunities to build friend groups, but also provides a platform for you to convey your experiences and help the new students. I highlight this because it was at this point where I truly realised how much I had gained and adapted over the year.
At times, particularly over the first semester, it is easy to question your decision to take a year abroad –in the sense of enjoyment, comfort and mathematical success. The second semester really reinforces your reasons for going abroad – helping you to open horizons, appreciate a different way of doing things and making the most of new opportunities.
Life as a Madrileño
Of course there is plenty to a year abroad beyond Mathematics, and how you structure your year really depends on your preferences. I won’t dictate too much about life in Madrid, because there are infinitely many ways to structure your time abroad. I personally wanted to embrace the idea of living in a foreign city and really immerse myself into living in Madrid. However, there are plenty of opportunities for variety – whether you like travel, dance and culture or have a thriving social life. Whichever of these streams fits you best, I strongly recommend you join ESN – the Erasmus Student Network. They offer a membership card for just 5 Euros which gives you discounted access to organised tours across the Spanish provinces, local and cultural activities, and of course nights out. Whilst I was not actively involved with ESN, I can be sure that it is a great way to meet new people and really make the most of your year abroad.
Beyond all that, Madrid is a great place to live. As far as capital cities go, it is a relatively small one – generally you can walk anywhere, although of course there public transport system is exceptional too. The clubs and bars are all very central and accessible. You won’t find any big shopping malls, but all the big brands can be found on Gran Vía. As for grocery shopping, in addition to local stores, there are supermarkets such as Día and Carrefour. And, the rest of your experience really is down to what you make of it.
My year in Madrid came to a slightly premature end, due to an internship I had lined up for the summer. In order to secure this internship, I had to travel between London and Madrid over the winter months for interviews. It is worth noting that most companies are willing to pay for these flights, and a hotel if you need it, so your year abroad will not disadvantage your long term career aspirations. Of course, the experience itself is very much an advantage. Apart from simply getting less time in Madrid, the downside to this internship was the requirement to sit my exams whilst working. Two of three lecturers were kind enough to allow me to sit the exams in Warwick (whereby they would send them by email to the exams officer), and I flew back for the final exam and a little despedida with my Spanish and international friends.
As I left Madrid for the final time, I left with mixed emotions. Whilst there was no doubt that I was glad to be back in familiar English-speaking and family-oriented surroundings, I also knew that I would miss Madrid. In particular, I would miss the freedom of independent city life, the laid back lifestyle and the friends I made abroad.
As an overall experience, I feel that I grew in confidence, independence and language proficiency. Furthermore, I have no regrets for taking a year abroad. Whilst stepping out of my comfort zone seemed like an almost insurmountable challenge, I am still reaping the rewards that came with it. I have mentioned many challenges that I faced, and I faced each one head on growing and learning with each experience. Sat in the comfort of my halls accommodation at Warwick, reflecting on an incredible experience, I am amazed that more people do not take this opportunity. And whilst settling back in the isolation of Warwick was somewhat of a strange experience, I feel that I am already better placed to take advantage of this academic year and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for me.