Studying Abroad in Madrid, Spain: This is a guest post on studying abroad in Madrid is by Samuel Greenberg of New York University
“Never miss an opportunity schtup…even if it’s with a shikseh”. I was somewhere around the age of ten when I first remember hearing my grandmother deliver this martini soaked, horribly politically incorrect proclamation; however, it was not to be the last. I was sitting at my grandfather’s piano, banging out a rather simplistic, and yet very much stilted version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, for what in the minds of all listening must have seemed like the hundredth time that day. I stopped playing abruptly and wheeled around in the short leather bar stool-turned-piano bench. “Nanna, what’s schtup? And what’s a shikseh?”
To this day, I can still remember the mirth of my grandmother’s cackle as she prepared to, in vivid detail, answer my question. My virgin ears were to be saved, however, by my mother’s sobriety and nose for dirty language; indeed, it would be another few years (until some of my earliest viewings of Woody Allen’s work, at least) until I would understand my grandmother’s statement on a superficial, if not symbolic level.
You, the reader, may be wondering to yourself: “what does an amusing, but altogether bizarre anecdote highlighting the perversity and borderline racism inherent in Samuel’s late grandmother’s daily conversation have to do with his experience living in Madrid”, or something to that extent. Well, I’m getting to that. Hold your horses, as my mother would say (I’ve often found the dichotomy betwixt the wholesomeness of my mother’s “folksy” sayings and those of my grandmother, her mother in law, to fall on the far side of farcical). But I digress.
The reason I rehash this rather embarrassing incident, long passed into Greenberg family lore, is for the simple reason that I very closely identify it with my decision to study abroad in Madrid. This past April, my grandmother lay dying in an overly lit, rather sterile-smelling hospital room New Jersey; as the final defeat in her tenacious, years-long battle with lung cancer quickly approached, she instructed my haggard, unshaven grandfather to bring in each family member who remained at the hospital. Among other things, my grandmother asked me about my plans for the upcoming year. Although we were fairly close (I was the only grandchild living in her spiritual, if not always literal home of New York City), she had in recent weeks become disoriented, often asking the same questions at every visit. I informed her (for what was, in this case, literally the tenth time), that I would be taking the semester off in order to travel to Israel, rest, and reboot.
My grandmother, never a fan of Israelis (or anyone, for that matter, who had the capacity to dish out as much or more sass than she), asked me why, of all places, I would choose to go to Israel (where I had already traveled), when there were so many other places that I, always a tenacious traveler (exploring new places and cultures is one of my favorite things in the world) wanted to live. My answer was honest; I had endured a very difficult year, and I wanted to go somewhere neutral, somewhere I knew people, somewhere I could be bored. My grandmother’s reply was unexpected, and yet entirely necessary: “Never miss the opportunity to schtup…”. I heeded my grandmother’s advice, and soon applied to study and live in a place to which I attached no preconceived notions, mental picture, or cultural expectations: Madrid.
Although the excitement of being in Madrid wore off for me after a few weeks of my arrival in the city (which left me feeling rather lukewarm about its value), Madrid began to grow on me an inordinate amount in a rather short span of time. Originally, upon my arrival, I had felt that Madrid was, as I said, a lukewarm city; it seemed to be an almost “cultural” place, but not quite. The same rang true for me regarding Madrid’s food and art, which I wrote off almost completely as either bad imitations of French fare, or home-made but unappealing altogether. Knowing something of Madrid’s history, I attributed this perceived phenomenon to the fact that Madrid had sprung up as an “instant city” and so didn’t develop true culture of its own.
However, this judgment was premature, one made by looking at Madrid through European standards. And, as every class about Spain EVER will hammer into your head, Spain is not a European country. It tries to be, as it has tried many times throughout history, but Spain isn’t European, nor is it is Muslim, or Jewish, or fascist, or communist, or religious, or secular; Spain is all and none of these things, and so in its never-ending surreal existence, Spain is uniquely Spanish. And Madrid, nearly completely untouched by any outside influence either American or European (as the seat of the Franco government and situated as far from all borders as possible, with almost no tourist attractions), is the most entirely Spanish place there is.
Madrid is not an international city in the sense that London or Paris or even Barcelona is; to be in Madrid is to be nearly entirely immersed in Madrileño culture. Although there are some facets of this culture I love (most easily summarized by my favorite Spanish saying, related to me by the heavily-mustachioed mouth of Professor Suarez-Galban: “Estadounidenses viven para trabajar; Madrileños trabajar para vivir” – literally, “Americans live to work, Madrileños [those who live in Madrid] work to live”), and some facets of the culture that I dislike (the lack of good beer, the seeming inability of Spaniards to eat anything other than pork and bread, with the occasional dollop of mayonnaise, although Spanish food has too been growing on me recently), in the final stretch of the semester, one thing has been made utterly clear to me: I love Madrid.
I love every beautiful, surreal, pork filled moment in this city, and I am very sad to have left it. I’m so very glad that I didn’t miss the opportunity to live here, even if Madrid was, at least before, unknown and foreign to me; because now, more than a little bit, it’s home.
 For those who have neither a knowledge of “conversational” Yiddish nor Ashkenazi Jewish relatives/friends, I would recommend a google search in order to define the terms schtup and shikseh, as I worry that my direct help in doing so could render unfavorable consequences to both my academic future and personal reputation.
Photo courtesy of Ed Schipul via Flickr (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0).
About the Author: Samuel Greenberg is in his fourth year at New York University. He has taken full advantage of NYU’s vast study abroad opportunities, having lived in Madrid, Spain, and Prague, Czech Republic, for the past year, as well as traveling to London, England, the summer after his freshman year.
Check out the video below, full of reasons why you should visit Madrid, Spain!