Study abroad in Madrid, Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Posted by: Students Worldwide

Published on: 12/11/2021

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Arriving in Madrid (linguistic struggles and settling in)


It only really hit me that I was actually going to be living in another country for 10 months when I landed in Madrid and took a cab to my apartment. I remember feeling somewhat lost at the start of the journey. I think that I lost confidence in my Spanish speaking skills as I was not used to being in an environment where I was surrounded by native Spanish speakers. I can assure you that speaking Spanish in front of your class mates at school or University is not quite the same as actually practising your Spanish in front of native speakers. I think I was intimidated by the fact that what I could be saying was incorrect, or that I would embarrass myself as a result of this. I kept questioning my abilities and I felt very discouraged to speak to anyone at all at this point. However, stepping into these types of pitfalls during my study abroad is simply part of the journey and the intercultural learning process. I had to keep reminding myself of this in order to change the way I felt about speaking to people. In this presentation, I will be talking about the challenges that I faced on my study abroad, and how I overcame these challenges. I will also talk about the pros and cons of living in another country, and how the year has affected my outlook on life.


After around two weeks of living in Spain, and still no sight of the start of the semester, I started to become accustomed to my new life. My friend who was with me in Madrid, and who also came from Sussex, had family friends in Spain who we had spent most of our days with at the beginning of the year. They were all Spanish, and they made us feel very welcome. I think that this helped greatly in terms of my change in attitude in terms of feeling unprepared and embarrassed to practice my Spanish. I feel like I became used to la vida madrileña pretty quickly. It was quite an adjustment, yet at the same time the process was easy because Madrid had a city feel just like home (London). I had to learn how to navigate the city which required me to become familiar with the metro… which is a lot cleaner and less claustrophobic in comparison to the underground service in London. I had to practice using different words and phrases to get by, that at times I was not familiar with beforehand. There are Spanish words that might be taught in schools that Spaniards might actually find strange to use, for example, the word ‘aseo’ is a rarely used term for ‘bathroom’.


Art and Culture


There is an abundance of art and culture that resides in Spain’s capital. During my year abroad I visited various art galleries and notable landmarks. Madrid’s impressive collection of museums exhibit centuries of emblematic Spanish art which enriches its culture and educates people. The galleries that I was fortunate enough to visit include Museo del Prado, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofía. I was able to see the infamous Guernica painting by Pablo Picasso and La Maja desnuda by Francisco Goya. My favourite gallery of them all was Museo Sorolla which features work by the artist Joaquín Sorolla, as well as members of his family such as his daughter Elena. The building was originally the artist’s house and was converted into a museum after the death of his widow. I loved his style of work and the fact that a lot of his paintings were of his family members. Additionally, the city holds culture centres devoted to promoting local exhibitions of all sorts. Besides visiting these impressive establishments, a group of friends and I would also take day trips to smaller historical towns just outside of Madrid. We visited Alcalá de Henares, where there is the Cervantes Birthplace Museum, also known as the former home of the celebrated author of “Don Quixote.”. Toledo was next on the list, this is a city that retains unique historical character. We went El Escorial to see the infamous Monasterio del Escorial. Lastly, Manzanares el Real is where we went hiking through the northern mountains of Madrid.


Art and Culture


I think that it is important to mention the internationalization of culture in Spain. After spending my school years learning about Spain’s history, I was not surprised to learn that Spanish culture has increasingly become part of a homogeneous, heavily American-influenced international culture. Although the Franco regime sought to preserve what it understood as Spain’s long-standing traditions and to impose strict Roman Catholic morality on the country, is it fair to say that the economic policies of the 1960s opened Spain up to foreign investment and also invited foreign influences. Therefore, undermining the government’s desire to protect or isolate Spanish culture completely. For young people the most significant aspects of international culture are rock and contemporary dance music, both of which make up a considerable portion of the music that you will hear played on Spanish radio stations. Dance clubs on the island of Ibiza in the 1990s also became a hotbed for techno music – which is, from my experience, the most popular music genre played in the nightclubs in Madrid – with reggaeton following very shortly after.


Academic experience

I had the opportunity to experience contrasting versions of the education system on my year abroad. The basic differences between the higher education system in Spain and the UK one are as follows:


  • 1. lectures are not recorded at Spanish Universities, this was a shame because I think that it is helpful to have access to recordings for exam revision
  • 2. Spain has more contact hours – this made Uni feel more like school as I would end up spending entire days at the University
  • 3. Essay writing is the most common form of assessment in the UK (at least for my degree). In Spain I found that group work was a lot more popular, as was being assessed on other things such as debate forum submissions on the Uni website, attendance and participation
  • 4. Spanish universities do not have ‘reading weeks’, their terms are also longer therefore you get far less time off in comparison to UK university
  • 5. The teacher-student relationship feels a little closer in Spain



I think that there are pros and cons to both education systems. Personally, I think it is nice to have the option to keep yourself ‘below the radar’. Therefore, I would say that I prefer the UK university system, but of course everybody has different preferences.




I spent a lot of my time exploring the city, experiencing some of the most famous sites and eating at some of the nicest restaurants and cafes. However, though I wouldn’t consider myself a fussy person, it was hard to come across very good food at the beginning of the year. I don’t think that it helped that I don’t eat any meat, especially as Madrid is famously known for their Jamón. I also rarely eat bread at home, so it was hard to adjust to this diet which felt like it consisted of a lot of meat, and bread… in my opinion. However, after a few trial and error scenarios and a few suggestions from friends, I had a long list of my favourite places to eat. Foods that will always remind me of Madrid are definitely – Churros con chocolate, Pincho de Tortilla (Spanish omelette), and croquettes. The food culture in Spain is also very distinct from that in the UK, where we typically eat three meals a day with a possible snack in the afternoon. In Madrid, one might have a light breakfast early, a small late morning breakfast again, a big lunch, a snack in the evening and then dinner very late at night. This was something I had to get used to, as at home I would never eat my dinner past 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening.



There is a big party culture both in the UK and Spain. Although drinking from a reasonably early age in the UK is common, access to alcohol and nightclubs for the underaged is far stricter here in England than in Spain. In Spain, young people go to clubs, as do adults. Madrid clubs are pretty intense too as you enter the club a lot later and then they normally stay open till 7am. Drinking is very social in Madrid, and it is common to greet friends with a double cheek kiss when you meet up and depart. Instead of pubs on every corner, there are bars. Also, the concept of personal space is significantly smaller than in the UK, so I had to learn to not be too offended at being absorbed into a large crowd at bars and clubs. Oh, and Botellón really does exist. I got the chance to go to a Botellón at the very beginning of the year abroad with some locals and it was a pretty fun experience.

Another thing about the Spanish lifestyle that really stood out to me was punctuality. Being punctual is something I’d often embellish on my CV and take pride in (after all, I’ve been practising for 21 years). Here in Spain though, after failing to accidentally be late like the rest of the Spanish population, I found myself planning to be late. If I was told that we had to leave the house at 10am, I would tell myself to be ready for 10:15 so as to not appear overly keen or uptight when I’m stood waiting for a quarter of an hour! A few more things I noticed about Spaniards:

  • 1. because of their naturally extroverted manner, Spaniards can come across as foul-mouthed in terms of their public demeanour
  • 2. Another is the perception of and value placed on compliments and flattery, which can often cause confusion. In any other country, certain types of courtesy typical of Spain would be strange and possibly regarded as rude. But this is because a compliment in Spain performs more a function of friendliness in a conversation rather than being a form of flattery. Therefore as a young woman, you wouldn’t need to blush if the waiter had addressed you as “reina” (queen) or as “guapa” (pretty) because in that case, he is just being polite
  • 3. Silence is a rare occurrence at a Spanish meal
  • 4. They are a lot closer to their families than us Brits… they speak to their families everyday

Moving on… the highlights of my trip were: the woman’s march, the 8 hour hike along the mountains in Manzanares el real, going to one of Madrid’s ‘Brunch in the Park’ festivals, and meeting some of the loveliest people from different corners of the world (France, Germany, Poland, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Italy…) who I’m still in contact with to this day. Not only was my study abroad a good opportunity to learn about Spanish culture, but I also learnt a lot more about cultures from different countries as well.


And finally… Challenges, lessons learnt, regrets

As I mentioned previously, I struggled with building the confidence to practice my Spanish initially, but as time went on, I gradually got there. From saying small things to people in supermarkets, to sparking up a full conversation with new friends. Another big challenge for me was getting used to not having my family a short distance away. Living in a complete different country for the first time can be very tedious. But luckily, the friends I made there made it a lot easier. At the end of the day, a lot of us were all in the same boat, studying in a new country… I also think I’ve gained a new form of independence and I have learnt how to rely on myself during lonely times. I think I did a lot of growing-up in my time abroad, I have a stronger concept of who I genuinely am and want I want out of life, and what I want to achieve in my lifetime. I have so much more confidence in myself, and know that I can virtually do anything if I am passionate and motivated to do so. My year abroad changed the way I view money, and the way I view learning. I no-longer believe that learning only takes place inside of a classroom. I can also say that I have the travel bug now for life.



Amidst all fun and exploring, I put an emphasis on school. After all, I was studying abroad, not just there for a long holiday. Adapting to University in Madrid was definitely one of the hardest things about the study abroad. There were substantial differences at my University in Madrid. Some of these differences worked in my favour, others did not.



Two things that I wish I had known/bared in mind before going to Madrid would be:

  • 1. Time passes very quickly. Make the most of it and put yourself out there.
  • 2. Don’t be afraid to make language mistakes.

And finally, as we all know, study abroad programmes were disrupted abruptly due to the COVID-19 outbreak. My study abroad, like all others, had to be cut short and therefore I did not spend as much time in my host country as I would have liked. It is disappointing because I think after returning to Madrid after Christmas it felt like I was more settled in and I was really looking forward to the last few months. In these final months my friends and I had planned to visit other cities in Spain. Because we had the Easter break and more public holidays coming up, and as the weather was just getting better, we felt like those months would have been the perfect time to take these trips. Obviously it is what it is, and I can only be grateful for the months that I did get to spend living in Madrid. I will certainly return in the future.


Credit – Ananda Szerman

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