Code Switching and Other News (Madrid, Spain)

Remember when I said that people like to stare in Madrid? During orientation, one of the Spanish assistants in the CIEE Global Institute explained that it has nothing to do with us and that the Madrileños just like to stare. Turns out there’s a lot more to this story then she led on. Moises, a student in my program, is doing a full year in the Liberal Arts Program; therefore, this is his second semester. He’s from the Dominican Republic and has a different accent and colloquial terms from a Spaniard. He’s very tall, brown skinned, and has beautiful, curly black hair. People always stare at him with a little bit of a feeling of alarm because he looks “foreign” and “unpredictable.” When he opens his mouth to speak Spanish, he is told that he speaks bad Spanish. Spanish classmates don’t want to work with him because he’s different; because he’s black. I am also stared at with looks of exotic wonder and a feeling of distrust. Racism exists in all parts of the world and is inescapable for black and brown people around the world.

I am “otherized” back home in the states as well. It doesn’t make my experience in Spain any easier; however, I already have tools to deal with covert racism. There are only four black students in my program, including myself. One of these students has witnessed a white Spaniard call the police on an African immigrant in the most diverse neighborhood in Madrid, what we call in the states a “high risk,” or “bad” area.  The same student overheard a Spaniard say that he spoke Spanish “like the Cubans” or a “slave.” This is not what I want to report on about my daily life in Spain, but it’s an important aspect of my life — not a political debate or a conversation about race. It’s a reality that racism exists everywhere and as a person of color, I don’t catch a break from it. During my time here, I’ve made a friend who is a black Madrileña. She is a Spanish citizen and grew up in Madrid, but at the end of the day she does not get to exercise her full rights as a citizen and is made to feel like an outsider. Some of her black friends from various backgrounds are running for office because they are Spanish citizens and will fight to be treated like it.  

Differences in culture and race are a big part of my reason for studying abroad in Spain. Over the summer, I was not able to learn a lot about this aspect of life because I was only gaining perspective from white Spaniards. They told me that the U.S. was worse, but I would also see the way some looked down on the African immigrants and the gitanos (gypsy) or Roma people. I knew there was more to this story, so I came back to find out. I will continually talk about this topic as I gain more insight and perspective. I can tell you now that Spain is very much in the “I don’t see color” racial identity stage. This is the idea that if we do not acknowledge the difference, there can’t be racism. As many black (African Americans)  people would say, “ das a bol face lie” which means that they know this can’t be true. If they did not see color, why do they feel uncomfortable around Moises, Brian, the African immigrant, and me?

On a lighter note, I have plenty of other daily experiences to share about my life here in Madrid as well. I’m going to break this up into categories to make it easier to explain. Also, I talk about these things and more in the video below.


They are a lot cheaper here than they are back home. Things are never sold in bundles or as deals like “10 for 10 with the 11th item free” or “Buy One, Get One Free.” Everything has a pretty set price and it’s marked down when its going out of season or is popular for a special time. I go grocery shopping every two days at least. As you could imagine, this is a hard concept for an American to wrap her head around. My mom would go shopping every Saturday for 1-2 weeks worth of groceries. It’s a huge change. At first, my housemates bought the items that we all needed to share as a house, which I recommend because it saves money and time. The first two weeks I was just guessing, but now I know how to shop for myself. The trick is to buy what you need, and  maybe one or two things that are simply for your enjoyment. Don’t buy anything more than what you need until it has run out, or else, it will spoil quickly because the food is not made with preservatives like in the U.S. Bread is baked fresh daily, so you should buy pan, a baguette, every 1-2 days, but have backup pan bimbo, a loaf of bread. I will have this down to a science in a month, so wait for my update haha.


For the past few years, I thought that I was just horrible at cooking and shopping for groceries. However, I’ve learned here in Spain that the only thing that I was missing was an opportunity with a sprinkle of motivation. I’ve lived on main campus the past three years, and for two of them in Kollen Hall. Have you seen the size of the kitchen? Can you imagine all 250 residents trying to cook even one meal a day in that kitchen? Yeah, impossible. I was always thankful for my meal plan, but it felt like a crutch at the same time. I wasn’t able to make decisions on my own about what I should be eating and I didn’t have the opportunity to gain confidence in the kitchen and cook for myself. I realized that I know a lot more than I thought about food and cooking. All those years in the kitchen with my mom and watching her cook have paid off. I do know how to make things, and it isn’t to hard for me to learn something new or make something up with Spanish ingredients. I have to adapt to the kind of produce that is available for the season and that can be grown here. In the U.S.,  you can find anything because of our high use of preservatives and imported produce. Spain is a main producer for a lot of produce in Europe, however, it still has seasonal and regional restrictions. Also, I took a Spanish cooking class to learn how to make some of my favorite Spanish meals, such as paella (a seafood rice dish) and tortilla de patata (potato omelette)!


We don’t have a dryer. How do we dry clothes, you may wonder? I noticed this over the summer, too. Spanish people will normally only have a lavadora, washer, and dry things on their clothes line on the balcony. Yes, even in the winter. To be honest they don’t have a real winter. But, don’t tell them I said that. They think it’s cold haha. But that’s all I have to report on laundry.


I take the metro everywhere with a monthly pass called an abono. I love it! It’s one of the things I missed when I got back home to the U.S. after the summer here in Europe. At 16, I was so excited to drive. Fast forward five years, I am always asking other people to drive for me. I love catching a ride on the metro and cercanias, a faster train for long distance outside of the city. I even took a ride on the bus the other day for a class field trip. I’ve always been horrible at public transportation in the states because I never had to learn it. Honestly, if you don’t live in a big city, you don’t learn and you don’t have a good system in your town. However, my summer in Europe gave me so much confidence and now I can handle anything. Even when I don’t know the language. Speaking of which, I’ve planned a trip to Portugal for spring break. Can’t wait!


Everything is in Spanish. Okay, this is why I chose the program. I wanted the challenge and to improve my Spanish in this way. In the future, I plan to do research in a Spanish speaking country so this is perfect! I was surprised by how quickly I adjusted. The moment I began taking notes in Spanish was the moment I felt so accomplished in my Spanish language abilities haha *flips braids over shoulder*. My reading comprehension takes me a bit longer than in English. I’ve learned that a lot of my bad habits in English and American style learning have crossed over and I’ve had to reevaluate the way I study.  For example, not taking notes because “I can just remember,” does not work for me here. I am more inclined to take notes for memorization of important themes. This helps a lot with learning in another language. It’s hard for me to recall information in Spanish because my brain hasn’t gotten used to having to do it. In the moment of instruction, I understand everything and I make great connections in Spanish; however, later my brain has turned the comprehension into English. This is to say I can’t remember it perfectly or exactly in Spanish, although I learned it that way. I expect this to improve over time. All of my classes are in Spanish, but only one is a direct enroll with Spanish students. The professor speaks at a normal speed, which I understand, but if I take a moment to multitask, such as taking notes while listening to the lecture, I only catch a few words of what he’s saying. I’m going to start recording the lectures. Passively listening in Spanish is not my strong suit yet. My other classes are with other international students who are not native Spanish speakers. The professors speak at the same speed, but will stop to make sure we comprehend. It is a lot easier to speak in these classes. Not because I’m self-conscious in my direct enrollment class, but because I don’t speak as fast as a native speaker yet. My Spanish classmates speak so fast and sometimes really low or they have a different accent I don’t understand really well. These are challenges. However, I expect it to get easier over time.

Phew! I have so much more to talk about. I’ll have to update you next week. Stay tuned!

Published by Cherish Joe

Class of 2020 CIEE Madrid, Spain Studio Art, French, Spanish

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