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  • I landed in Madrid late morning to the disbelief that I had made it to Spain after so many years. Studying the language and culture since early grade school, the place had such an air of legend I found myself impressed that it really existed.

    As I collected my luggage and headed for the exit of the airport terminal, I took in my surroundings earnestly—and alertly. As a part of southern Europe, Spain is known for its pick-pocketers, so I couldn’t help but feel threatened—I’d never been on my own like this before. The language is what stunned me most. For the first time, I understood what it felt like to be a speaker of a minority language. I thought to myself in English, and I read my phone in English, but I felt submerged in the guttural sounds of Castilian Spanish. I couldn’t help but feel starkly foreign.

    I had arrived in the capital city two days before my study abroad program was scheduled to begin. Having just escaped New York’s first snowstorm of the New Year, I could not have been more relieved to break the monotonous, semesterly cycles of university life. A bit lost in my upperclassmen years, I decided it would be best to go on hiatus at Maryland to breathe in fresh experiences abroad. I was excited, scared, and carrying some hundred pounds of luggage with me. I kept everything as close to my person as possible, just as travel websites like USA Today advise, and headed for the bus that would take me to the center of the city.

    On the bus, I struck conversation with a family from Oregon, comforted to be speaking my own familiar language in a foreign setting. As they told me about their travels, I was soon stunned to be in the center of the city. The bus took us through Plaza de Cibeles in front of Palacio de Comunicaciones, a large, beautiful building, elaborately carved to accommodate flowers and vines of white marble. Stone emblems adorning the entranceways and façades spoke to the majesty of Spain’s culture, and commanded respect for the city’s baroque architecture.

    Once I got off the bus at Atocha Station, however, I was disenchanted to see strewn garbage, homeless men, and dead pigeons that littered the benches and streets. Carrying my two suitcases and feeling nervous again in such an unpromising area, I crossed the street to grab a taxi and find the safe haven of my hostel. Soon enough, I had my first run-in with a gypsy. I was trying to hold off on my own preconceived notions of gypsies. They’re an inherent part of Europe, a nomadic people reaching as far as England, according to History Today. This woman failed to convince me to break perceived stereotypes. The old woman came hobbling down the sidewalk. Despite the cold January chill, she was dressed in floral shawls, and I noticed she was barefoot, her feet filthy and swollen. Her hand was out, gesturing for money, and as she came down the way, I was sure to keep my head down, expecting her to pass me by as I figured out where to go. But this was not New York, and especially not DC, where beggars ask for money almost absentmindedly. The woman knew I was an American traveler. I had no interest in taking out my wallet in front of her, but she would not leave me be.

    “I am an old Romani woman,” she said in Spanish, “I have no shoes, and you can’t give me a few coins?” I started to panic, not sure how to get the woman away without giving her money (I only had euro notes). I decided to play her observation to my advantage. I told her I only had American money, and at that, her hand flipped over in a dismissive gesture. She moved along, off to pester the next travelers she could find.

    Now very determined to head to the safety of my hostel, I grabbed a cab. It took me off the main streets of the city, and soon I found myself in small, cobblestone lanes the sedan passed through snugly. The cabbie, a very friendly man who told me I was in Old Madrid, dropped me off in front of a large wooden door. I checked in, and finally found myself in my room, a very small, very European-style space that overlooked the narrow street below.

    Eager to explore my new city, I took off to wander the streets. My mother’s paranoid advice to stay in my hostel after the sun had gone down echoed in my head. I stepped outside into what I would come to know as the center of Madrid. I was adjacent to Puerta del Sol, the central plaza of Spain’s capital. Calculating euro prices into American dollars, I wound through the small network of cobblestone streets, deciding on a place to eat.

    Eventually, I came to a three-way fork, and standing in the intersection was a small elderly woman. She made eye contact with me, and I thought she was going to be a sweet English lady asking for directions. She approached me, but immediately came too close, standing in my intimate personal space.

    “Lo quito todo por ti.” I stood there appalled as I realized the old woman was a prostitute. I immediately walked away, too far out of my comfort zone to think any way except instinctually, but the woman stood there on the corner, staring at me and continued walking towards me. I ran into a random Irish pub, Dubliners, enjoyed a sandwich and beer, and hastily made my way back to my hostel. I’d had enough harassment for the day, and I didn’t want to know what would happen in the dark, cramped streets if I didn’t know where I was.

    Eventually, I became accustomed to the harassment of the beggars and solicitors, sexual or otherwise. I laugh about the discomfort I felt on that first night. Once I found confidence in asserting myself against the persistent madrileños of urban Spanish life, I felt free to explore such a wonderful city.

    Then, some time later, my phone was stolen.
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