Madrid: Dealing with Culture Shock and Rekindling Old Memories

I have been in a kind of culture shock ever since I got to Spain. It feels really strange being back in Europe after a year in the Americas.

I have fallen into a bit of a depression. Well, depression is too strong a word for it really and it is more of a feeling of having failed somehow. I haven’t failed; I have just changed things around a bit to get them to work better for me. However my brain has become fixated and Spain just seems so damned familiar (although Madrid isn’t that familiar to me at all; I haven’t been here since the mid-noughties).


When I went back to the UK after years in Asia, the first thing I noticed was the queuing. I had forgotten how much British people enjoy a queue (actually, it’s not so much that we enjoy queuing, but more that we have this sense of fair-play and a fear that someone is going to get a better deal than us). I was constantly forgetting and heading straight to the front, only to hear a chorus of tuts coming at me from behind (this being England nobody actually said anything directly, of course).

This time what I noticed was the traffic; cars actually stop at red lights for you to cross the road (the often repeated mantra of South America is: green means go, red means go faster).

Also, there’s the fact that it’s still daylight at 9pm.


This is the oldest restaurant in the world apparently (they have a certificate from Guinness Book of Records to prove it).  Allegedly, the painter Goya worked as a dishwasher here at one time and Hemingway pigged out here frequently in his day (literally; he was once said to have eaten 5 suckling pigs in one meal).

Madrid’s accommodation is surprisingly expensive in August; I did wonder what other idiots would visit a hot, sticky city like this in mid-summer. Turns out everywhere you go is full of British accents (the odd North American one too, but decidedly outnumbered by Brits). August is travel time for teachers, and I have met a good few British teachers this week.


The technique I used for exploring Madrid is similar to the one I use in Paris: I pick an area and I go there for the day and walk around and see what I find.


This is the oldest hotel in Madrid; the name translates as comb hostel.  Their big thing back in the day was that rooms came with a hairbrush.  This was quite a luxury item in the 17th century.  Like hairdryers today, these brushes were attached to the wall, to stop guests from stealing them.

My hostel was close to Lavapies.  This is a colourful multicultural area, with lots of restaurants, bars and small shops.  Whilst I was there they celebrated Dia San Lorenzo (10th August).  Flags went up, there was a short procession, some food/beer tents, a stage and some older residents dancing.


After a business has traded for 100 years, the city gives it this little plaque on the pavement outside.


I came across this little market in Chueca, which is now the gay area of Madrid (last time I was here it was a rundown part that nobody went to).  It is a less touristy alternative to the more famous San Miguel market. The ‘must try’ food of Madrid is bocadillo de calamares, or squid sandwich. Not quite as disgusting as it sounds, they were a bit expensive here but I managed to track one down near my hotel for €2.40.  Ok, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to have another one.

There are a lot of art galleries in Madrid, but I wasn’t in an ‘arty’ mood this time.  Sometimes I am and sometimes I’m not.  The galleries are free for Europeans after 5pm (see, something else we’ve voted away), but the queues are horrendous and I really didn’t fancy standing in the hot sun for as long as it took (you can go earlier in the day, avoid the huge queues and pay, of course).


The Royal Palace also has the free-after-five rule, although I avoided the worst of the queues by paying my 11 euros to go in.  Still very crowded, but worth the money I think.


My happy playa, which I now know is called Plaza De Santa Ana

One thing I did want to do was to find my happy plaza. I had no idea what it was called, but I remembered it from my last trip. The last time I was here was 2005 and I was not in a great state of mind. Going through a bad breakup with a boyfriend and also worrying about money problems, I came hoping that a change of scene might give me the space to see everything with a bit more clarity.

And it did.  I have vivid memories of sitting in the square in the late afternoon sun, Robbie Williams’ Tripping blaring out of the sound system, and I suddenly felt as if everything was right with the world; as if I were exactly where I was supposed to be at that moment in my life.

I walked back to my hotel full of smiles, feeling as if I had turned a corner in my life and everything would be different from now on. On the way back I got pick-pocketed; someone took my wallet containing around €200 out of my backpack. Such is life.

No encounters with pickpockets on this trip, luckily.

2 replies »

  1. Hello Sarah. This post was really interesting until we got to Robbie Williams! Trust me, from someone who was exiled in his home town of Stoke on Trent, he is worshipped like some kind of God. Sums the place up really. I have never been to Madrid. Went to Seville for the day and obviously been to Barcelona now, but I like the look of Madrid. However, I cannot imagine how hot it must be there now. It is strange to think you are nearer to home and you certainly have not failed; you have readjusted and all shall be well. Hugs and love and stuff xxxx

    • I’m partial to a bit of Robbie, as it goes. But it’s a secret so don’t tell anyone. Sevilla and Barcelona are both really expensive cities, and so is Madrid. But they’re nice places to go; that’s why they’re so expensive.
      It feels strange to me to be so close again. I’m not coping so well with it actually; I think I may have made a mistake coming here in August when there are no affordable properties. But I’ll think of something, as ever.

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