5 Differences I’ve noticed as an American visiting Madrid
Madrid is peaceful, but not in the way I’ve come accustomed to understand the word. Not peaceful like a solo walk in the woods, or a home without children for an afternoon, but more like calm, the vibe is calm, busy yet somehow not. Here’s a list of 5 things that I’ve noticed are different in Madrid versus most major US Cities.
- Traffic flows but in a way that makes sense — Oh there’s traffic, but not in the aggressive motorists versus everybody else mindset present in the US. Bicyclist, pedestrians, cars, taxis, and scooters are engaged in a beautiful waltz, there’s minimal if any honking, a lack of aggressiveness, a unspoken belief that perhaps everyone has the right to the road, motorists seem at peace with waiting a few seconds more because tourists are lost or bar patrons have extended their celebrations a few steps into the calle. Madrid specifically enacted a low pollution zone mandate in 2018 called Madrid Central, which limits cars to inhabitants of the neighborhoods, taxis, emergency vehicles, special exemptions for the elderly and public transportation. It’s an effort to increase the use of bicycles and to make it easier for pedestrians to get around, it’s certainly working. Here’s a link to learn more . Walking or biking in most major US Cities is dangerous, motorists don’t share the road, they speed by bicyclists and fail to yield to pedestrians, the police often use their lights and horns to ignore traffic signals or to harass residents to move, even in non-emergency situations, but not in Madrid Central. Here you can feel free to lace up your shoes and leisurely stroll, free from most pollution and abuse from motorists.
- Pace of Life — Who’s in a hurry? Not Madrileños (residents of Madrid), everyone seems to get to where they need be without the constant hurry Americans are accustomed to. I’ve seen more stress in the parking lot of the neighborhood Yoga studio in the US than from the average person in Madrid. Line to get coffee, no problem, waiting at the grocery store, it’s nothing…. life is slower, more calming, better I think. In the US if you were at your local Starbucks waiting in line and you noticed a family in front of you, struggling to order in a foreign language you’d likely witness rolling of eyes, furious checking of iPhones, and loud exclamations of “I don’t have all day”, but not in Madrid. People are patient, everyone will get where they need to be and the extra minute or two of waiting isn’t a big deal. In the US, it’s hurry up and wait, in Madrid, it’s why hurry? It’s a beautiful way to live, why drive and get there in 5 minutes when you can enjoy walking and get there in 20, it’s a completely different attitude about time, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
- Meals are appreciated — Growing up mealtimes were 7am, noon, and 5/5:30 pm, especially the weekdays and granted I grew up in the Midwest, so there’s some regional differences across the US but above is fairly standard. In Madrid, not so much, early risers can grab a coffee or juice, then a couple hours later grab a croissant or another sweet baked good, nothing large, no massive omelettes or stacks of pancakes, just enough to give you some energy and keep you from being overly hungry. Lunch may not happen until 3pm, although 1 to 3pm seems the standard. A 3 pm lunch, my father-in-law would have a stroke! Lunch is at noon, not before, not after, anything else is nonsense, but we’re talking about a man who I don’t think has ever enjoyed brunch in his whole life, ever! You’ll often find restaurants and shops closed after 2:30/3 and not opening back up until 6 or 7 pm. Lunches are leisurely, servers aren’t harassing customers so they can quickly turn a table, you literally have to request the check, they will not bring it to you. Want a 5pm dinner, not going to happen, you may find a bar that has some small tapas, but a proper dinner, you’re going to have to wait. Dinner begins about 8pm, but really doesn’t get going until 9:30 or 10 and can be as late as Midnight or 1 am. People enjoy their meal times, I don’t think we’ve had a meal in Madrid that lasted less than an hour, it’s a leisurely pace, not an assembly line striving to get as many customers through the door as possible. Think it’s not different in the US? Try this, next time you order, set a timer on your phone, I bet your food arrives in under 15 minutes and you’re out the door in less than 45.
- It’s Quiet — People simply aren’t loud. Have you ever walked in a park in the US, or at the mall, or around the grocery store and everywhere you go you see people talking loudly? You can literally hear every word of their conversation because their phones are on speaker. It’s like Americans feel the need to be seen AND heard, as if their conversation with their spouse, boss, sister or cousin is somehow of interest to everyone around them. Not so in Madrid, even at bars there’s a subdued tone, people are enjoying themselves, but they don’t feel the need to be ostentatious. I was walking through one of Madrid’s many parks, Parque del Retiro (as a side note, you must check out the parks if you’re ever in Madrid) and while there were thousands of people enjoying the park, there was no yelling, no loud music playing, no groups that decided their enjoyment supersedes others. People were considerate of others, but without having it dampen their enjoyment, see America, it’s possible! Madrid as a major metropolitan area with over 6.5 million inhabitants is busy, but it’s not loud, it’s calm, it’s quiet, and it’s wonderful.
- People are friendly — I always like to say, I’m not necessarily nice, but I try to be kind. Being nice is the shallow smile and asking “how are you” without caring what the response is. Nice is saying, “bless their heart” in the South, and if you’re from there you know exactly what that statement means. Being kind is asking someone where they’re from, and listening, trying to speak other languages to help a foreigner or being patient when you’re trying to find the right word in Spanish but clearly not succeeding. We’re traveling with our 4 year old daughter and almost every store we’ve been in has offered her a lollipop, not to sell, just as a gift, what child doesn’t like a lollipop! Spaniards are helpful, people smile genuinely, they ask you how you are, how long are you staying, they go out of the way to help you find things, or point out the best deals? I’m not saying Americans aren’t kind, it’s just different, it takes more time in the US, people don’t seem to want to be kind, like it’s a finite commodity and if they’re too helpful to a stranger they won’t have enough left for people they actually care about. It’s a noticeable difference in Madrid versus many other cities, not only in the US, but travel to Paris for instance, I’m not sure you’ll leave feeling the Parisians are “kind”.
These 5 differences I’ve noticed are my experiences, perhaps if you visit Madrid you’ll have a different impression, but I would encourage you to visit. Traveling is the world’s greatest teacher and I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes — “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”
– Jawaharlal Nehru