Although summer is not over yet, students arrived to Madrid to start their semester abroad. As soon as they were welcomed at the airport by the CIEE Madrid staff, and taken to their homestays, the group showed their excitement for being in such a vibrant city like Madrid. As an icebreaker, students came to the Study Center to meet each other and participated in a fun activity to get to know their respective hosts better. The game helped them discover some things they have in common to make them feel closer to who their family will be while in Spain. Orientation lasted a week balancing sessions on different useful topics and free time for the students to rest and adapt to Spain's way of living. The group received great support from the CIEE Spanish Student Network who acted as their first contact with people their own age, providing them with tons of tips about the city, academic life, nightlife and local customs.
Among the activities CIEE offered to the group in these first days, students especially liked the time spent in the Sabatini Gardens with their hosts. The group visited these beautiful gardens which are part of the Royal Palace, giving them a new opportunity to spend time with their hosts outside of the house, getting to know them better and sharing good experiences with them.Their favorite activity was, without a doubt, the cooking class. The idea of learning how to cook Spanish tortilla or learn the basics of a good paella were very enticing for the students who are always ready to try new dishes. Separated into different working groups, students became chefs for a day before eating what they prepared in the most exciting lunch to date this semester. Introducing them to local traditions was part of Orientation too, and thus, bullfighting could not be missed. However, the aim of CIEE is to be respectful with everyone's beliefs and ideas and instead of taking student to watch an actual bullfight, they visited the bullring to learn about the tradition, but they also heard how bullfighting is viewed in Spain in different areas. For some students this was a surprise since they believed bulls were not killed or they thought that everyone in Spain were fans of this ancient tradition. However, the activity helped them learn about the fiesta from an un-biased point of view and let them form their own opinion about it.
The tour of the university campus was part of this week too. Students need to get familiar with the campus and the location of the different services offered there. As a way to provide them with a first taste of the university cafeteria, we organized one of the favorite activities for the students: a group lunch there, where they started to get used to eating meals without ketchup and order without waiting in a line.
After these initial days in Madrid, there is no doubt that students are ready to live the study abroad experience in Madrid.
Alvaro Escribano, Director of the International School at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, inaugurated the academic year at an event where American students were the protagonists. This event counted with the presence of David Gil, director of International Programs at the institution and Mrs. Jane Strai from the American Embassy in Madrid who talked to the students about the services provided by the Embassy to its citizens abroad. The university clubs and associations presented the different activities offered on campus that students can join to enjoy their spare time between classes, which is an excellent opportunity to make new friends. After the official inauguration and welcoming of students, they were invited to a social gathering where they could chat with professors and meet other students.
With the start of the semester, recommendations on emergencies and safety are a must. CIEE is very concerned about the safety of its students and it does not spare any effort to provide as many recommendations as needed to ensure a safe stay to students. Not only do we have presentations on how to live (safely) in Madrid or emergency protocols, but we also held a two-hour workshop on bystander intervention.
Being alone in an unfamiliar setting can put students at risk and that is why CIEE insists on practicing intervention, to remind students of the importance of supporting each other, especially when they go out at night. Following a series of activities and watching some interesting videos with illustrative examples, students were introduced to different ways of intervening in ambiguous situations that might be the result of local customs but not exempt of a preventive intervention to avoid major issues.
Some students have had similar workshops on their home campuses as this is becoming a widespread practice in the US, but they mentioned that it was very interesting, and enlightening, to go to this type of workshop in a foreign context. Some students had never experienced a workshop such as this and were very thankful for opening their eyes and alerting them of the possible risks they can face and ways of preventing them by collaborating with all participants.
The old city of Toledo welcomed the group of students on a Friday morning. As soon as the group exited the station, the impressive old town was in sight bringing lots of questions to their heads: the idea of a city founded in an ancient time is the best incentive to want to visit it. The first stop was at the old Roman bridge of Alcantara over the Tajo River where traces of Isabella and Ferdinand introduce the visitor to a trip to the past. Other stops included the old hospital of Santa Cruz (now a museum of religious art) with its beautiful entrance, the Plaza de Zocodover (where the Muslim market took place), the Alcazar, or Fortress, with its four different facades, and the 10th century mosque next to the city walls.
The Cathedral left the group speechless with its impressive Greco paintings, the wooden choir chairs and Narciso Tome's 18th century decorative motifs. They learnt about Toledo's main tradition (Corpus Christi), the use of the chapter room or the reason behind every altar piece. We visited the Museum of El Greco located in a reproduction of his own house, and the Museum Sefardí, one of the remaining synagogues that now houses the Spanish Jewish Museum. The Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes also completed a visit to a past known for the co-existence of the three main religious cultures during the Middle Ages: Christians, Jews and Muslims.
EXPLORING MADRID: LAVAPIES NEIGHBORHOOD
Could there be anything more attractive for a group of young students than learning about the newest and most vibrant initiatives in town? That's why we invited the group to tour the thrilling area of Lavapies, the most typical neighborhood in the city that is becoming the center of the artistic scene in Madrid. Touring the streets of Lavapies we had the opportunity to discuss recent phenomena such as the ethnic diversity as a result of being the home for many different immigrants of varied origins, and the gentrification of an area that gained a terrible reputation 20 years ago and now is the most attractive area of the city to live in.
Students had the opportunity to visit an urban garden too, an initiative of the neighbors in the area to offer their children an alternative way of living in the city: tomatoes, lettuce, rosemary, and lavender are planted next to playground areas and communal spaces that welcome all kind of visitors. However, what the group liked the most was the visit to the old Tobacco Factory. A few years ago, a group of young artists occupied this abandoned building to create a space for collaborative initiatives: free music and dance workshops are offered daily, together with free concerts, a second hand clothing trade, a crafts market, and, mainly an underground area where artists can develop their artistic interests. They met a recycling artist and listened to the rehearsal of a music band, and on top of that they took tons of photos of the hundreds of amazing graffiti that decorate the space.