This week, as I walked in to one of my favorite cafes in Malasaña (a trendy neighborhood in Madrid), one of the owners was leaving. “Hola guapa!” she said to me as she pulled her coat on, then turned to her husband “un cafe con leche” she told him. I was so stunned by this that I couldn’t think of anything to say other than “gracias, hasta luego!” even though she was clearly still standing in the café, and I had just walked in (so no one was actually leaving).
At the end of last semester, and in the past few weeks, they had brought my coffee without me having to order it, but there was never much recognition of my regularity at the cafe. I pulled out my computer and started working, but as I sipped my coffee I thought about what this means. Does this mean I’m a local to Madrid? Maybe. Or am I just a frequent flyer at this particular cafe?
I don’t have any place that knows my order in Boston, and certainly not in St. Louis, but I consider myself local in both of those cities. Clearly, being a local is more than just a barista knowing your order, but as the new semester students grapple with their newfound locality in Madrid, and I deepen mine, I’ve reflected on exactly what it means.
The program drills it into our head that locality is comprised of three tiers: rituals, relationships, and restrictions. In other words, where do we: perform our daily, weekly, etc. rituals; have and form relationships; and not feel restricted. Obviously while abroad, we are physically living our rituals and relationships in Spain, and feeling (or not feeling) the restrictive impact of our identities here in Madrid; but I maintain that there is another component to locality: a mental component.
It isn’t enough to just spend time in a new place in order to understand it. You must engage with the people and the culture, and challenge yourself to appreciate how they live. Because we often have biased or prejudiced ideas about how people should live that are based more on our own lives in our own countries rather than the reality of another culture, this is the hard part; but it is what takes us from visitors or tourists to genuine locals.
By actively challenging ourselves to participate in Spanish culture we all get the most out of our time abroad by simultaneously learning about Spain and learning about ourselves. This doesn’t have to be through huge changes in our daily lives, but can be most importantly found in the little things like slowing down to follow the Spanish pace of walking (and life), or making the effort not to automatically back away when a Spaniard stands close to have a conversation. It’s truly all about bridging the gap between where our comfort zone ends and our limit is. By extending ourselves just a little bit out each day, it’ll get a little easier every day, and then suddenly, one day, you’ll realize you do feel local.