Spain | Lil’ Girl, Big City


For me, Madrid is a perfectly sized city.

It feels bigger than San Francisco, yet smaller than Los Angeles, and includes a great metro, bus, and train system that connects all regions together, making it very accessible for those without cars. Because of its size, there were plenty of things to do and explore within the bounds of the city that kept me entertained on weekends where I chose to stick around town instead of venturing to other parts of Spain or Europe. In this regard, I think I easily adapted to Madrid because it was big enough to provide never-ending surprises, yet small enough that it did not overwhelm me with its depth or breadth of opportunity—and for my first time living in a big city (not on a college campus) it was the perfect mix of comfort and adventure.

While there are many memories from my time abroad, some are more well-documented than others. Overall, I think my photographs paint a comprehensive (yet not complete) picture of what the city has to offer and definitely reflect some of my most valued activities that helped me feel at home abroad.

Some of my favorite moments can be loosely grouped into the following three categories:


2. Art

3. Lil’ Things (Misc.)


Some people don’t think views are worth it, but some of my best memories are from looking down at a cityscape from above. I will climb mountains and scale buildings for that moment of serenity that comes from peering out over a landscape that is so vast you forget about people and think about how lucky you are to be alive 🙂

Paseos de Cercedilla

Hiking in Northern Madrid in Cercedilla one of my first weekends abroad was exactly what I needed to center myself after feelings of disorientation and overstimulation of the first week away from home.

About an hour away by commuter train from the center of Madrid, Cercedilla borders el Parque Regional Cuenca Alta Manzanares and features tons of trails of varying difficulty and landscape.

Armed with a bag of grapes and full water bottles, my friend Hank and I ventured through the woods, across creeks, and up hills to see the city from above. This place also has hidden gems, like a sundial and a rock fortress—all within a short trek from the trailhead! Just make sure to grab some snacks before making the trip, since the town is rather small and there’s not too many shops close to the train station.

Hank with grapes, a sign for a restaurant on the climb up to the top, the sundial, a sign for the national park, and finally the view looking down at central Madrid from the top!

Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen)

The next hike we took was to the Valley of the Fallen, close to the region of El Escorial. This landmark is rather unique, not only because it has a 500-foot-tall cross, but also due to its controversial history.

Many forget that Spain was ruled under a dictatorship for nearly 40 years. Francisco Franco first

came to power in 1939 after defeating the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He continued to rule until 1979, when he died of natural causes. Construction of the basilica and the monument of the valley, however, started immediately in 1940 and was meant to honor and bury those who died in the Civil War. Over 18 years later, in 1959, construction was complete. Today, Franco is buried there alongside the leader of the Spanish Fascist party, José Antonio Primo de Rivera.

The hike itself isn’t difficult, but the site is secluded enough that it’s quite an adventure to get there. Danielle and I decided to check out the monument on one of our days off, and had to catch a bus early in the morning headed towards El Escorial.

Naturally, we missed the stop the first time around since we didn’t know exactly where we were going, so we took a second bus headed back to Madrid from the end destination. Once we arrived at the entrance, the woman at the gate told us we had a 6-km trek ahead of us. Since we were excited to hike, we waved her off and told her that was no problem, and went on our way.

Turns out the entire “hike” is along the side of a road that leads directly to the basilica and the cross. Countless cars passed us by as we wandered by, passing random cemeteries and fauna in the process. When you finally reach the top, the cross and basilica are truly a feat to witness.

Even though the Valley of the Fallen is a constant reminder of Spain under dictatorship, its magnificence is hard to wave off. I’d definitely recommend seeing it for yourself (and maybe considering hitchhiking with a car on the way down to catch the bus…definitely faster than walking down the same highway again!)

Left: Danielle and I next to a sign warning us to keep an eye out for misc. woodland creatures. Right: The cross and basilica from the entrance to the site.

Parque de las Siete Tetas

Another beautiful view with significantly less walking is the cityscape at Parque de las Siete Tetas, a 40-minute metro ride from Sol (the city center). Although it boasts a rather peculiar (yet fitting) name, the park offers great views of the city from any of its seven hills, especially at sunset. A great place to have a picnic and relax with friends after a long day.

Círculo de Bellas Artes

Last but not least, the rooftop at Círculo de Bellas Artes is a more frequented destination by tourists and visitors. While there is often a long line to catch a glimpse of the sunset from the top, I’d recommend entering earlier and scoping out the art exhibits hosted in the building to get the most out of the entry ticket fee. This spot offers panoramic views of the center of the city, and while it is more touristy I still think it’s worth checking out!


Conde Duque Cultural Center

If you’re looking for a diversity of different art forms, Conde Duque Cultural Center has it all. I stumbled upon a really cool interpretive dance performance which focused on themes of human relationships and choices in a super unique way – all six performers had their shoes stuck in

place throughout the performance and were completely silent, relying on live saxophonists to guide them through their story. For only 10 euros, I was able to glimpse into Madrid’s dance scene.

Besides dance, Conde Duque features music, theatre, cinema, and more! With their always-rotating exhibitions, you can definitely come here more than once without getting bored.


If you’re looking for permanent collections, check out the Prado Museum for more classic art and the Reina Sofía Museum for contemporary pieces. As part of my “Images and Icons” class, we focused heavily on contemporary art and paid around 5 two-hour long visits to Reina Sofía. With such a large permanent collection, it’s impossible to see it all at once. But the good thing is that museums are free for students, so you can go any time you want!

A few pieces found in Museo de Reina Sofía, including “Spectator of Spectators” by Equipo Crónica on the right.

The Sorolla Museum also has an impressive permanent collection from Joaquín Sorolla, a Spanish impressionist painter from Valencia who died in Madrid. While the museum only features his works, it is unique in the fact that the space where the museum lies today is his real home from when he was living in Madrid.

Sarolla Museum


I found that the art scene is rather dynamic in Madrid, with many galleries and rotating exhibitions.

Close to the ACCENT Study Center there is a small space called White Lab Gallery that features artists for a few weeks at a time. It’s a nice space to relax and drink a cup of coffee and find new local art! Similarly, in the neighborhood of Lavapiés right across from the Muros (see next), is a café called Swinton & Grant with an exhibition space downstairs.

Left: Paintings at White Lab. Right: A peice featured at Swinton & Grant.

For the highest concentration of murals, head to the Muros at La Tabacalera. This project features 20-30 commissioned murals which rotate every two years, with the most recent installation being in 2016. Right inside the walls of the old tobacco factory you can wander the space and take in the constantly changing murals and tags. On the other half of La Tabacalera, there is a more organized exhibition that also changes every few months.

From left to right: An exhibit in La Tabacalera, murals from the Muros project, non-commissioned mural of Dalí on the inside of space.

The cultural center of La Tabacalera is also a great gathering space for different groups in Madrid. When exploring, keep an eye out for the schedules of many different music, dance, and circus groups, if not more! I got the chance to learn how to climb silks and play around on the trapeze by going to one of these open group sessions, and sometimes I even joined in on the bachata socials held in one of the dance rooms!

Last but not least, there is even an exhibition space in the Madrid City Hall. With nearly four floors of changing exhibitions, the space called Centro Centro features local artists and a diversity of mediums, incorporating audio, video, photo, and more. The exhibitions here are often informative and highlight different movements and cultural events in Madrid’s history.

Lil’ Things (Misc.)

While finding the best views and exploring the art scene are fabulous ways to get to know a city, the best gems are found just by wandering, and sometimes following the crowds.

On Sundays, Madrid hosts its very own public flea market called El Rastro in the La Latina / Lavapiés neighborhoods. It sometimes feels like the entire city is wandering these booths, bargaining for clothes, jewelry, household items, books, and more. The street performers love to capture the crowd during these busy Sundays, so even if you’re not looking to buy anything it’s still entertaining to wander around the block.

Me on a boat in Retiro Park!

Hanging out in El Retiro Park is always a blast. With a park so big, there are so many cool mini-destinations, such as the crystal palace, various sculptures, Retiro’s very own library, and of course, the lake in the middle of the park that is always filled with tourists, young couples, or ambitious youngsters on boats.

There are countless places to enjoy a peaceful, leisurely lunch, and hunting for the most affordable menu del día where you can get two hearty courses with dessert, a drink, and bread for 8 euro is the most rewarding experience for both your wallet and your stomach. 🙂

We once did an activity in Negotiating Identities that was like a self-guided tour of the city. By making up rules to guide this tour such as “at the next plaza, follow the first person you see who is using their cell-phone for 3 minutes, and then walk towards your left for 5 minutes,” for example, you can add spontaneity to your exploration and wander into nooks and crannies of the city that you may not otherwise have seen.

Either way – my main piece of advice for anyone going abroad, especially in a place as easy to travel as Europe: don’t let the excitement of being in Europe take you away from the excitement of your host city. While it’s great to travel outside of the country, there is also so much wonder held right where you choose to study. Three months may seem like a long time at first, but it’ll be over before you know it, so start exploring!



Nina Chikanov studied abroad in Madrid, Spain in fall 2017:

Spain | Hablas Español Bastante Bien, ¿No?


One of my main reasons for studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country was to improve my Spanish language proficiency.  

After taking four years of classes in high school, I was highly considering adding a Spanish minor to my degree in college. I wasn’t committed to it, so I didn’t declare the minor right away; unfortunately, with a Computer Science & Engineering curriculum (typically 4 STEM-based classes a quarter), I didn’t think it would be feasible to commit to any other course-load. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do, but for me, I didn’t think the extra stress was worth it. 

So…to make up for the fact that I wouldn’t be taking any language classes at UCLA, I started thinking about going abroad. The Contemporary Spain program in Madrid was perfect for me in this regard, as I could take my core GE classes in English and place into either beginner or intermediate Spanish classes. On top of that, I had the option of staying with a host family (read about my homestay experience here), which gave me more opportunities to fully immerse myself in Spanish language and culture. 

One of my first cafés in Madrid

When I first arrived, I was definitely rusty. The last structured Spanish class I had taken was AP Spanish in my last year of high school (2 years ago at this point – crazy!) I could basically only speak in present and limited past tenses and forgot a lot of other grammatical details about the language. It was enough to get by and order a café con leche (very important), but my mistakes were constant and sometimes prevented others from understanding exactly what I meant. Moreover, I had to think extremely carefully before speaking.

In terms of listening, I think I could better understand what was being said to me than I could successfully relay information to another person. While I didn’t fully grasp everything, if people were speaking at a slightly slower pace than normal, I could pick up on what they meant to say.  

Intermediate Spanish classes helped refresh and build on the grammatical structures I had lost. I was reminded of when to use imperfect instead of indefinite, brushed up on some vocab, learned the tough concepts (subjunctive…yikes) and more. It gave me regular listening, speaking, and writing practice and was definitely necessary to kick me back into functioning Spanish mode. 

My friend Hank and I speaking with some girls on the club soccer team at Universidad Complutense Madrid. This was a part of Spanish-class field trip to learn more about university life in Spain!

My host family mostly helped for in-person real-time situations. If I was struggling to ask a question or phrased something completely wrong, they would correct the phrase or provide the appropriate words. This way, I was able to practice my Spanish outside of a classroom setting where the context was more unexpected. 

Outside of those two sources, I mostly practiced my Spanish in stores or at language exchanges. I also met native Spanish speakers through activities like soccer, Jewish functions (read), during nights out, or even randomly during the day at parks and other social locations.  

Leila, Sophie, and Shivani at a language exchange in Chamberí

Essentially, I tried to speak as much as I could every day. I found Madrid to be the perfect city for improving my speaking fluidity since people will (for the most part) continue speaking with you in Spanish even if they know English well (unless you’re completely lost).  

While not everyone would correct me as openly as my host family, it was still helpful to see the reactions and read the body language of people in real-time conversations. 


 Living in a country where Spanish is the official language is definitely the way to acquire proficiency. It still took a lot of work on my part to improve, and I even know some people who managed to get by in Madrid with very limited Spanish. But I’m glad that living abroad for four months made me more comfortable with Spanish and helped me get over my initial hesitancy to speak a foreign language. To become fully fluent, however, (starting at the level I did, with 4 years of background in high school) would probably take me about a full year of living abroad, if not more.   

For now, I really hope I don’t lose the progress I’ve made. I plan on reading news in Spanish and watching Spanish TV shows when I can (definitely in Spanish with Spanish subtitles), as well as practicing more frequently with my Spanish-speaking friends. 

Abroad definitely gave me more motivation to keep up with a language and showed me the practicality of being bi/tri-lingual, even if learning a new language sometimes resulted in losing some vocab in old ones.  

Hasta pronto,  


Nina Chikanov studied abroad in Madrid, Spain in fall 2017:

Spain | Una Comunidad Increíble


The first few weeks of study abroad were pretty rough for me. Besides losing my luggage and arriving a week later than others in my program, I struggled to adjust to my new lifestyle on campus. Since my classes were held at the ACCENT Study Center instead of a Spanish university, I found myself missing the hustle and bustle of campus and all my various clubs at UCLA. 

I consciously knew I was giving up all commitments for one quarter by going abroad, but I didn’t realize how hard it would hit me to not have these established communities to fall back on in Madrid. 

At first, I wished that we could take classes on a more integrated campus with a mix of different students outside of the UC-system, even though my Spanish proficiency was not nearly high enough to take my GEs completely in Spanish. Soon, though, I was able to find communities to fill this unexpected void. 

  1. Meetup Pickup Soccer Games 

One of the things I missed most from home was playing soccer regularly. A couple of others in the program would opt to go play pickup at Parque Santander close to the apartments, but these matches were usually organized spontaneously and were played on any random space we could find – dirt, sand, grass, etc. (Protip: if you don’t find an open field, don’t assume that every nice-looking patch of grass is fair game…we had a great time telling local police that we ended up inside private office facilities because we wanted a space to play #ballislife) 

Anyway…these games were a ton of fun but I missed out on a lot of them if I had already planned things for the afternoons before the games were organized. The fields were also closer to the apartments than my homestay, so it made it harder for me to spontaneously go out and play. 

I also really wanted to break out my cleats. After all, I lugged them all the way from the States for a reason! (No regrets) 

Someone suggested I try out the app called “Meetup” to find more organized pickup games. For some reason I had this idealized vision that I could just walk outside and find Spaniards playing fútbol – this might’ve been the case in some regions of the city but I guess I didn’t know where to look or what the good times were to look – or I just watched too much TV where every Spaniard was born with a soccer ball attached to their foot. So clearly this expectation was not my reality. 

Action shot of me going into a tackle during a pickup game.

By searching for pickup soccer games on Meetup, I at least gained validation that such games existed and happened weekly. These particular matches were co-ed, bilingual, and happened every Sunday from 5-6 PM or 6-7 PM. Each game was 7 versus 7 on a short-sided turf field and cost €5 for the hour. The group even went out to a cafe after the later match to eat, drink, and relax.

Group photo after one of our games 🙂

Getting out and playing at least once a week whenever I was in Madrid for the weekend allowed me to meet so many cool people from all over the world. Students, teachers, locals – all united by love for the game. I even picked up on some soccer terms in Spanish that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise (e.g. atrás tells someone to watch their back, sube tells someone to advance up the field, etc.) 

Leila and I at Sukkot reception at CJM

  1. CJM Dinners & Holidays 

The next community I found gave me an outlet for Friday night dinners and annual holidays. Through an organization called Kahal, I was connected to CJM (Comunidad Judeo de Madrid) for the high holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as well as Sukkot and Hanukkah. 

 I always love connecting with other Jews around the world because I feel like we have an immediate sense of connection by virtue of our religion and our culture. 

Spanish Jewry has an especially complicated history because of years of persecution and complete expulsion in 1492 by the Edict of Expulsion signed by monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. As a result, the community is a lot more traditional than mine at home and is not nearly as big or diverse as the American Jewish community, even though it is once again starting to grow. 

Regardless, after going to a few dinners and meeting other Jewish students studying abroad in Madrid, as well as other native Madrileños and many who came from Latin America and other countries, I felt completely comfortable. After the main dinners, we would join in song; it was really comforting to listen to these tunes even though the melodies were not completely familiar. 

A panoramic of the guests at dinner!

One woman I met through the Jewish community invited me over to her apartment for a potluck with her friends one weekend, and that was also a real pleasure to meet people in a relaxed setting revolving around food, friends, and conversation.

In fact, because of her hospitality, I made friends with one of her pals who later taught me how to snowboard in an indoor snow zone in Madrid! 

It was an awesome experience, and if not for these communities I would not have had as many opportunities to learn about cool places in Madrid or fun activities to try. 

. . . 

Community exists everywhere. I definitely crave it and I think finding those two groups enhanced my Spanish experience exponentially. Not only did I meet people outside of my immediate program, but I also got to connect around a common interest and integrate myself better into Spanish life, if even for a little bit 🙂 

So – if you’re feeling a bit lonely abroad, I assure you that community is the key. For me, I tapped into my love for soccer and my connection to Judaism, but there’s so many other groups out there waiting to welcome travelers with open arms. 

Con un abrazo,

Nina Chikanov studied abroad in Madrid, Spain in fall 2017:

Spain | Hidden Treasures of Madrid


As mentioned in my general course reflection (read), the classes I took abroad gave me a unique opportunity to learn from the city. I actually think that I know more about Spanish history now than I do about American history—which may be a bit embarrassing—due to the level of cultural understanding needed to fully engage with the subject material in the courses.

In the case of my class, “Negotiating Identities in Madrid: Gender and Sexuality in Urban Space”, the most relevant event to understanding contemporary Spain is the global economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent construction boom of the Spanish housing / project market.

In the wake of the economic crisis, Spain was in the process of rapid construction – all of which suddenly halted and resulted in abandoned housing developments, projects, unfinished roads, etc. (if you’re interested in seeing how this unfolded visually, check out this website that compares satellite images from different Spanish villages before and after the boom…pretty wild).

Basically, there was a lot of unused or abandoned space, and because of the economic crisis there was an uprising of frustrated people. The political climate was buzzing in Spain and in Madrid around the time of the crisis, and years of witnessing the unemployment rate rise under seemingly delayed governmental responses culminated in the reclaiming of public space by various citizens’ initiatives on May 15, 2011 in Sol (Madrid’s city center).

The centerpiece of Puerta del Sol

While I don’t want to focus too much on this event, 15M (wiki) is significant to Madrid’s culture and was an important turning point for how communities organize and reclaim public space today. After 15M, even more groups came out to reclaim the unused public space for their neighborhoods and communities, many of which were alive and functioning during my semester abroad.

Out of these neighborhood spaces, my favorite one to hang out in was Campo de Cebada, located conveniently close to my homestay in Barrio de La Latina. Coinciding with the beginning of 15M, Campo de Cebada opened its doors officially on May 15, 2011 and repurposed a courtyard that was originally meant to be a multi-purpose sports center before the construction halted.

A demonstration referencing the events of 15M in Sol

The neighbors who crafted this space were inspired to reclaim it after an intervention by the “La Noche en Blanco” initiative that temporarily transformed the plaza into a rainforest with an open pool. After the intervention was taken down, many wanted to continue using and enjoying the

space and wrote a series of demands requesting public right to the space until the City Council offered plans for new community facilities. This re-appropriation, therefore, stemmed from an inherently legal manner, where the neighborhood collective agreed to recreate the space as soon as construction was ready to renew.

In the meantime, they installed a public garden, made places for people to sit out of recycled wood and materials, championed a rotating leadership system led by general assembly, and avoided any exchange of money or formulation of a commercial space (meaning that most contributions to the space were material or service-based instead of monetary).

The inside walls of the plaza are covered by constantly changing murals and large artworks. There is a basketball/soccer court in the middle of the space and a central wooden barrack that slightly resembles a treehouse. While there were no theatre performances in the Fall, the plaza also hosted makeshift outdoor performances for the community in the past and even held TEDx Madrid within the space.

Over the past four months, the plaza served as a casual hangout spot for me and my friends, fostering a care-free, welcoming, cheerful atmosphere. It was comforting to know that for the short amount of time that I was in the Madrid community, there was an alternative space for me to exist and explore outside the hustle and bustle of the center.

Unfortunately, Campo de Cebada reached the end of its lifespan towards the end of my semester abroad in December of 2017 to make way for the newly planned sports pavilion in the same space. They invited those who could to take a plant from the community garden home with them as a way to keep a little piece of the movement with them. Although I could not physically keep a plant, this plaza forever has a place in my heart and in my Madrid experience.

Another favorite neighborhood space is called Esta es una Plaza! (EEUP for short). Their history is a bit more militant than Campo de Cebada, as they seized the empty plot of land before requesting a temporary permit to the space. They were actually forcibly evicted many times over their lifespan before finally reaching an agreement with the city, who initially did not want anything to do with them. With a bit of struggle, they pushed through to create the space in existence today, which previously was an empty dirty path in between apartments. Effectively empty space.

EEUP differs from Campo de Cebada in the fact that it is less defined by the murals on the internal walls (even though these are also present and pleasantly interactive) and focuses more on the gardening aspects and the family spaces. There are multiple swing sets set up, a space for donated books and trays, and a large center table with an overhang that provides shade. The demographic at EEUP is definitely more family-based whereas Campo de Cebada is a wider mix with many young people.

Top: Non-commissioned art on the walls of the warehouse. Bottom: An exhibit from the commissioned section of La Tabacalera

For activity-based hangouts, I frequented La Tabacalera, an old tobacco factory repurposed into a self-cultural center and a managed government-sponsored promotion of art. I could probably go on forever about all these spaces, but my favorite aspects of all of them is the intent behind them.

They were created with the intent of reclaiming the right to the city – or taking back use of public space from higher authorities (such as the city government) and giving it back to the local communities – and governed by a rotating, democratic assembly that promotes an even distribution of power, to keep with the open nature of each space.

These projects created pockets within the city that have a unique personality. They are welcoming, comfortable, innovative. They spark discussion and bring people together from all walks of life. They exist for the enjoyment of the community and they are upheld by the passion of its members – and I think that is something so beautiful that should be present everywhere.

Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in the “UCLA bubble” for the past two years that I cannot bring to mind any similar collective or projects in Los Angeles. I have never experienced anything like this before coming to Madrid, so I am unsure if these collectives are unique to the crisis or unique to large metropolitan cities in general. However, if these collectives exist anywhere near me, I would love to learn more and get involved.

I do not feel at all well-integrated into the larger LA community as of now – my life is on campus. But lacking the campus in Madrid gave me the opportunity to explore the city without a real home base, and as a result, I stumbled across beautiful displays of collaboration and community stemming from a place of desire to craft the city from a grassroots perspective.

I want to go out and explore LA for many reasons, but Madrid’s neighborhood collectives and its overall spread of “hidden gems” have given me one more important reason to explore. It also

makes me wonder which spaces in my life could be repurposed into something else. Where is the dead space, and how can I make it better?

The Negotiating Identities class in general has given me a lot to think about in terms of the roles of public and private space, diversity within groups of people, and overall accessibility to spaces and events. These neighborhood initiatives are a perfect example to show that beauty is born out of crisis. The power of the collective is strong and unique — and as long as there is a group of committed individuals with a shared goal, these initiatives will continue to pop up again and again.

Looking forward, I think I’ll return to LA with a heightened awareness of the urban environment and a coupled ambition to make the city my learning space and my playground.

Gracias por su atención!

Hasta la próxima, Nina

Nina Chikanov studied abroad in Madrid, Spain in fall 2017:

Spain | A STEM Major walks into a Humanities class…


“I’ve never thought this critically before in my life,” I found myself saying to my friends whenever we discussed how our classes were going abroad.

As a Computer Science & Engineering major, the majority of my courses over the past two years have been highly technical and STEM based, with a sprinkle of general and management classes thrown in. This is primarily due to the unique course requirements within the engineering school, if not specifically within CSE. With no language requirement and only five mandatory General Education courses, as well as the average of 4 classes per quarter needed to graduate in 4 years, there’s not too much time to expand beyond technical classes, at least based on my own study plan and goals (e.g. not impossible expand, just not in my case).

Coming abroad, in that regard, not only presented diversity of lifestyle and all the differences that come with living in a new country, but also offered me diversity in course selection.

This semester, I took four classes:

  1. Intermediate Spanish (note: I won’t be focusing as much on this course in this particular blog post, as it is a language class that is not required for my degree)
  2. Negotiating Identities in Madrid: Gender and Sexuality in Urban Space
  3. Immigration, Ethnicity, and Nation in Contemporary Spain
  4. Contemporary Spain through Icons & Images

Although I took two general classes before coming abroad (LING 1 and AN N EA 15), my mentality towards those courses was to use GEs as a “break” from STEM-based classes. Therefore, I still found myself prioritizing my major courses and consequentially did not delve as deep into each GE as I could have.

Therefore, I think taking an entire course load of non-technical classes at the same time gave me the unique opportunity to delve into and explore all the topics with full attention, instead of having them at the back of my mind.

Given the circumstances, then, let’s return to my opening thought: “I’ve never thought this critically before in my life.”

Arguably one of the best things about an engineering degree is the lack of essays. I cannot stand writing essays. I am perfectly content working way at math problems for hours instead of worrying about sentence structure, content, and analysis. But after spending the past four months writing essays and doing readings (so…many…readings), as well as integrating study visit experiences into my writing, I realized that the engineering brain does not always touch the critical, argumentative side of the brain that sorts through information to synthesize an argument during the writing process.

Top: Exhibition at Centro Centro in Palacio de Cibeles that we visited for a Spanish study trip. Middle: Museo Sorolla – art study visit. Bottom: Library in Lavapiés – Negotiating Identities walking tour.

We (engineers) are good at finding patterns by repetition and figuring out why things break sometimes (extraneous semicolons are the worst, am I right?) There is normally a set scientific theory or rule that should apply, there’s methodologies and algorithms that work better than others, and usually logical step-by-step process helps sort out issues.

The best way to study for STEM-based classes, in my opinion, is practice. Memorization is necessary for some things but only goes so far. I am primarily focused on finding solutions or reaching an end goal. While there are many ways to solve a problem, there is normally one optimal outcome.

This is where my classes began to mess with me. Behold: ambiguity.

First off, the number of readings presented as a supplement to lecture overwhelmed me, especially in the first few weeks. For each lecture (twice a week) there was at least one article or scholarly source assigned to read outside of class time. For Negotiating Identities with Jon, these sources directly played into class discussions. Keeping up with the reading (for the most part) was challenging for me, as I haven’t trained myself to read quickly, so time-management presented some issues. Furthermore, the guiding discussion questions were not always obvious (critical thinking!!) so a bit of synthesis was in order.

For Contemporary Spain through Icons & Images, our main sources for synthesis came from museum visits and were supplemented by readings. This was one of my favorite classes due to frequency of visits to Museo de Reina Sofia and other city museums, since we were able to contextualize the techniques and movements with prime examples alongside our professor.

Top: “The Four Dictators”, Arroyo (1937) – as seen at Museo de Reina Sofia. Bottom: “Spectator of Spectators”, Equipo Crónica (1972)

In fact, all of our classes incorporated some sort of study visit, which provided an interesting way for us to engage with our environment while exploring scholarly topics.

In Immigration, Ethnicity and Nation, for example, we visited a center called ACCEM that provides temporary housing services for migrants in Madrid and were able to peek into the lives of those struggling to make it in a new land. During a walking tour of Lavapiés, a neighborhood of Madrid with a higher concentration of immigrants (which also happened to be the neighborhood I lived in: read about my homestay experience here), we also had the opportunity to speak with people on the street about their experiences with immigration and integration in Spain.

As part of Negotiating Identities, we paid a visit to COGAM, the LGBT+ collective in Madrid that is also the main organizer of HIV/AIDS activism in the city. It was particularly neat for me to hear from the organizers in a panel, especially due to my involvement with the Pediatric AIDS Coalition at UCLA and our efforts to bring HIV/AIDS activism to campus.

COGAM at World AIDS Day at the Puerta de Alcalá next to Retiro Park in Madrid

We even had outings in Intermediate Spanish, one of which led us to explore university life in Spain at the Complutense University of Madrid, one of the top universities in Spain, and compare and contrast our own university experiences with those of native Spaniards

These sorts of interactions with the city and local organizations gave me a deeper understanding of Madrid and contextualized many of the concepts we discussed in class. This is something I wish I had in LA, as I don’t feel particularly connected to the community off-campus. 

Moreover, the study visits provided inspiration for the research I conducted for my final paper in each course. 

In Icons & Images, I chose to analyze Muros Tabacalera, a project commissioned by the city of Madrid on the walls of the Tabacalera, a cultural center and art exhibit in my neighborhood. Since its inauguration in 2014, the selection of murals in the project has changed once, in 2016. Through my research, I compared project topics, styles, and relevance to the city of Madrid. In this way, I was able to use the city as my example for my paper. 

The 2016 installation of the Muros project outside of La Tabacalera

In Negotiating Identities, I chose to focus on neighborhood initiatives and grassroots movements in Madrid, drawing inspiration from Spanish economic history and the site called Campo de Cebada in the La Latina neighborhood. Once again, the study visits acted as a source of academic inspiration. 

Campo de Cebada

Researching for three 10-page papers at once was incredibly time consuming and overwhelming, but I’m glad my classes gave me the freedom and liberty to learn from the city and look at it from different lenses. As a result, I learned so much more about Madrid and its communities. 

Overall, while the classes were challenging at times in terms of workload, they were incredibly rewarding and challenged me to view my surroundings with a critical lens, something I want to try to do more of when I return to Los Angeles. 

Study abroad was a different sort of academic challenge, and I am so extremely grateful for the passion of my professors and the challenges presented to me. I had to adapt my study habits to fit new material and I am a stronger intellectual because of it. I hope to keep stimulating the non-technical side of my brain and keep pushing myself to grow. 

Me and my professors at end of year banquet.

Nina Chikanov studied abroad in Madrid, Spain in fall 2017:

Spain | My New Spanish Family: Living in a Homestay


With the aim of improving my Spanish and getting the most out of my abroad experience, I jumped at the chance to stay with a Spanish family. I didn’t really know what to expect coming into it, besides the fact that I didn’t have to buy my own shower towel and that breakfast and dinner would be provided for me every day. In fact, we had no idea who our host family was or what area of Madrid we’d be living in until program orientation once we arrived in Spain.

Turns out I’d be living with a family of four – Pura, David, and their kids Sofia and Pedro, aged 16 and 19 respectively. Another American student from New York named Jasmine was also staying with us in the other free room in the apartment. The location of my homestay ended up being really convenient for exploring the city as well as commuting to school or other areas of Madrid every day. I lived right off of a metro stop on the blue line and about a 10- minute walk from Sol – the center of Madrid – and a 20-25 minute metro ride from the study center in Chamberí. This was the neighborhood of Lavapiés, which I soon grew to know and love.

On the top, flower stands outside of the metro stop closest to my homestay. On the bottom, flowers I got for my host mom and her daughter on their birthdays.

As soon as I arrived, my host mom showed me to my room at the end of the hall. The whole unit consisted of 4 bedrooms, 1 master bedroom, a living space, a kitchen, and two bathrooms. While the apartment wasn’t super big, it made good use of space and was a nice place to live in the middle of the city.

My room came with a wardrobe with two drawers, hangers, and a top shelf as well as a desk, twin bed, and place to store extra blankets. The amount of storage was comparable to what I had in my dorm room at UCLA with slightly less drawer space. There was also space under the bedside table with shelving for books and space for a couple pairs of shoes. All in all, I had plenty of storage space for my things :-).

The best part of my room was that the window opened right out into the street – I definitely took advantage of this during the warmer months when the weather was absolutely spectacular.

I soon also found out that Madrid never sleeps, and being in an apartment in a rather trendy area close to the center of the city meant dealing with some rowdy (but goodhearted) people at night who thought they were destined to be on the next Spanish Idol – good thing I can fall asleep easily☺

I also had access to the bathroom next to the main entrance. It was smaller than the one I was used to at home and in the dorms, with enough room for a toilet under the sink, two storage cabinets, and some bins pinned to the wall, as well as a shower (box).

I’ve never really seen a shower box before, and this one came with a shower-head that was in no way attached to the wall, meaning I had to hold it with one hand while washing with the other. There was enough space for my body, but it was a bit difficult to move fully around with the allotted space. But again — there was space for everything I needed…it was just a tighter squeeze than usual 😛

I also had to be more mindful of my water usage, turning off the tap whenever I didn’t absolutely need it, since water is apparently more expensive in the city (as is electricity – this means turning off lights in rooms when not necessary and unplugging chargers from outlets when leaving the house). However, Madrid tap water is some of the freshest water I’ve ever had, so filling up my reusable water bottle was never a problem.

In terms of kitchen-use, getting tap water from the sink was basically the only thing I could do in the kitchen by myself. Since my host family prepared meals for me (even though breakfast was typically very minimalistic and included tea/coffee with a pastry, toast, or cereal), I wasn’t allowed to store food in the fridge or use the oven or stove.

For the most part, I didn’t really need to use the kitchen anyways since I ate lunch outside of the house in between classes, but I felt restricted since I couldn’t make myself tea as regularly as I normally do and lunch had to be bought the day of instead of prepared the day before. I wasn’t completely restricted from tea, but I had to ask my host family to boil water for me instead of doing it myself, which seemed a little unnecessary for such a trivial task.

Otherwise, I was expected to make myself part of the family and abide by already-set household rules. This meant laundry day was set on Fridays and all dirty laundry was to be placed in a bin and left out before I left the house for the day or for the weekend. Dinner was also set for 9 PM for me and Jasmine and would always be provided unless we notified our host mom that we wouldn’t be eating at home that night.

The set time – while late by American standards – was very typically Spanish and fit my schedule well, giving me enough time to run errands or explore after classes.

While it would vary day by day, dinners were also the most social part of my day with my host family. I found myself having long chats with Pura or David (my host parents) over meals and catching up with Sofia and Pedro (my host siblings) at times also. It was nice to interact with Spaniards my age since I could pick up certain slang from them and learn about relevant things that teenagers talked about nowadays in Madrid. They were also interested in my life at home and would ask me questions about California and my lifestyle, for example.

They also tried to help me out with my Spanish-speaking abilities and would answer any random questions I had. While we weren’t the best of friends, we definitely had some good laughs and bonded over mutual experiences.

I also really appreciated living with another American in the same homestay. Since starting college, I’ve always lived with roommates – so this was a similar situation. It was nice to have an English-speaker to share all the moments that I couldn’t yet properly explain in Spanish.

Jasmine was also there for the spontaneous midnight runs to the nearby alimentación when I was craving Oreos as well as the slightly more planned menu del día weekend meals.

We also bonded over the shared experience of getting locked out of the apartment because of the fidgety door, and we definitely lost socks to each other over the 4 months of living together.

While the homestay definitely exposed me to Spanish culture and helped me with my language development (not to mention saved me the meal prep time for dinner and let me explore traditional Spanish foods), the immediate sense of community that those living at apartments experienced was not initially present here. This isn’t to say I never hung out with those in the apartments, but I did have to coordinate meetups more often than I would have if I lived closer to them.

Regardless, I don’t regret my homestay experience at all. I don’t think my independence was in any way compromised by living with a family either. In fact, they encouraged me to go enjoy Madrid nightlife and explore other parts of the country, Europe, and surrounding areas (my host mom loved Morocco and gave me very excited recommendations when I visited).

Being with a family also helped create a cozy atmosphere. Of course I felt homesick at times, but having someone around to chat with made me feel more at home. ☺

All in all, I think homestay is a unique experience that all those going abroad should highly consider, especially for purposes of language development and forcing themselves out of their comfort zone. Living in a city apartment gave me an excuse to really get to know my neighborhood and do a lot of solo-exploring. The same element that made it difficult to hang out super often with those in apartments also made me more independent and fueled many of my solo adventures.

Lavapiés and Madrid have my heart, and I now have a family to keep in touch with abroad as well as a new American friend from New York to visit, whom I wouldn’t have met or bonded as much with otherwise.

David, me, Pedro, pura, and Sofía in the kitchen of my homestay☺

Gracias a mi familia Española por todo, y gracias Madrid. There are difficulties and nuances that come with a homestay, but the benefits far outweigh the strains.

Nina Chikanov studied abroad in Madrid, Spain in fall 2017:

Spain | The Art (?) of Spanish Bullfighting


On September 28, 2017 I saw my first (and most likely last) bullfight at the Plaza del Toros de las Ventas in Madrid. A few days beforehand, my program organized an informational conference to explain the history of the fight and introduce us to the different people and phases we would see during the event. (Skip to “Reflections” if you are already familiar with bullfighting procedures, history, and terms!)

A Brief History

Bullfighting in Spain has origins as early as 711 AD, when a bullfight took place to honor King Alfonso VIII. The bullfight at the time was not the same one that takes place in Spain today, as the fight was reserved for selected members of the Spanish aristocracy / nobility and took place exclusively on horseback rather than on foot. In the early 1700s, King Philip V prohibited nobles from taking part in bullfighting, as he believed it created a “bad image” in front of the common people. Despite this ban, commoners continued to practice the sport on foot. Almost a century later, the present version of Spanish-style bullfighting was introduced by Franciso Roméro in Ronda, Spain at the beginning of the 19th century.

The 3 Stages and Roles of the Fight

The entire event lasts for around 2 hours, including an opening ceremony and 6 separate bullfights. Each matadero (bullfighter) has 6 assistants who make up a caudrilla (entourage), and each group fights two bulls by the end of the night. The separate fights are broken up into three stages, each of which makes it easier for the matadero to kill the bull. The entourage knows when to transition from one stage to the other by the sound of a bugle that rings throughout the stadium.

  1. Tercio de Varas (The Lancing Third)

Once the bull * is released into the ring, the banderillos and matadero test out the ferocity of the animal in the first third by teasing it with the capote (pink and gold cape). Essentially, a group of men wave their capes to make the bull charge in their direction before hiding behind a small barrier close to the edge of the stadium once the bull gets close enough. The matadero will then test the personality of the bull by making a few passes with his capote.

Next, two picadores (lancers on horseback) come into the arena. They stab the bull in the nape of its neck with a vara de detener (pike) in order to weaken those muscles and draw blood. This step in the process forces the bull to hold its head slightly lower during the following stages, which will ultimately enable the matadero to kill the bull cleanly during the third stage of the fight.

*  The Spanish Fighting Bull is a special breed of bull known for its combination of aggression, energy, strength, and stamina. They are bred in large ranches in conditions as close to how they would live in the wild as possible. Since they typically reach maturity later than breeds of cow used for meat due to their muscular physique, bulls used in the fight are 4 – 6 years old. (Remember that these bulls are a special breed — this fact is used by many to justify the fight).

2. Tercio de Banderillas (The Third of Banderillas)

In the second third, each of the three bandilleros (men with colorfully decorated and short darts) stick two banderillas (the darts) in between the bull’s shoulders. This third further agitates, angers, and weakens the bull.

3. Tercio de Muerto (The Third of Death)

The final stage is a standoff between the bull and the matadero armed with a muleta (red cape) and espada * (sword). The bullfighter draws in the animal with his cape, trying to get as close to the bull as possible while guiding it around him. This ritual continues to tire out the bull and is considered the primary art form of bullfighting, as many claim that the movement of the bullfighter coupled with the danger of proximity between the two subjects shows the intimate relationship between human and beast. Ultimately, the matadero tries to maneuver the bull into a position where he can (ideally) cleanly stab the bull through the shoulder blades and into through the aorta and the heart for a quick death.

* The bullfighter originally starts with a wooden sword, since it is light and easy to maneuver, and then switches it out (with the help of his mozo de espadas, or sword page) for a real blade once he is ready to end the fight.

Closing Ceremony

After the death of the bull, three horses bring the corpse around the perimeter of the stadium towards the exit, and the sand is prepared for the next match.

Rituals & Prizes

Sometimes, although very rarely (especially in Madrid, since the stadium is one of the most prestigious out of the the four stable rings in Madrid, Sevilla, Granada, and Aranjuez), a bullfighter performs extremely well (see: has good technique, cleanly kills the bull) and is rewarded with either one ear, two ears, or two ears and the tail of the bull. Even more rarely, the matador will be carried out of the stadium by the crowd. Receiving any of these prizes is a high honor, and is ultimately decided by the president and the spectators.

At the end of a fight, if a matadero performs particularly well, supporters will stand up and wave white handkerchiefs to signal to the president that they think the fighter deserves a prize. The president takes this into consideration and then makes the final decision.

During the fight, there are also certain signs of approval or disapproval from the crowd. The way a spectator claps/whistles for the matadero determines their mood. Claps of approval are normally quicker and shorter, while claps of disapproval have longer pauses in between and sound more hollow. From my experience, the latter form of clapping occurs if:

  1. The matadero does not get close enough to the bull while making passes with his cloak.
  2. The picadores or banderillos do not pierce the bull in the proper area of its back when inserting pikes or darts.
  3. The matadero does not successfully hit through the heart of the bull the first time, resulting in a prolonged death.

Overall, angry claps/whistles condemn sloppy or improper technique of the matadero and his entourage.


Before September 28, I never saw man kill an animal with my own eyes. We were forewarned that six bulls would die during the fight, but hearing about it and seeing it are two completely things.

Watching the first bull fight was especially horrifying, especially since I did not expect poor technique from the matadero.

The bull ran out into the center of the ring at full speed, immediately chasing the first capote it saw until the cape suddenly disappeared behind a wall. Confused, the bull wandered until it saw another capote and ran after that one, just to have the same happen as the man ran behind the wooden shield. Sometimes, the bulls were smart and tried to get around the wall to pursue the moving object, but their horns were too wide to fit in between the crevice of the guard and the wall. I could only imagine the bull’s frustration when it thought the target was within reach, then suddenly disappeared without a trace.

When the picadores came out with their pikes and stabbed the bull in the nape of its neck, most bulls rammed straight into the horses that the picadores were riding. After some seconds of struggle, they would wait for the man to remove the pike and run towards the next cape they saw. After the hit, you could clearly see the blood matting the bull’s skin, even from the top levels of the arena.

The insertion of the six decorated darts by the bandilleros thankfully was over with quicker than the hits on horseback. By this point, though, you could see the bull obviously breathing harder, its stomach heaving with every breath. It was struggling but persevering to fight nonetheless. At this point I realized how majestic this animal was. To endure such pain showed its strength, its personality, its desire to live.

The final third, with just the matadero and the bull was the most problematic for me. This third is also the third that is most important for the matadero score-wise. It does not matter how bad his technique or the technique of his team is up until this third. If he doesn’t show mastery in the final third, there is no chance of acquiring the coveted prize of the ear.

The relationship between the matadero and the bull in the final third was described to me beforehand as an art, not also because of the elegant movement of the bullfighter, but also because of how man could control beast in this section. The closer the proximity between the fighter and the animal, the higher the stakes, the higher the appeal, the higher the artistic value.

I acknowledge that there are some artistic characteristics in the movement of the matadero, since he moves as if he were the lead in a dance and the bull his partner. It does seem elegant, and if the bullfight solely consisted of the part where the fighter and the bull dance with each other, I would likely hold different opinions. The problem, for me, comes from the attitude of the bullfighter.

If he controls the movements of the bull well enough to warrant loud “Olé”s from the crowd, the matador presents himself very pompously. He approaches the bull slowly and tauntingly, arching his back and leading with the muleta. In a series of movements that may be best described as erotic, the matador exposes himself in front of the bull, flirting with the idea of death and asserting his dominance over the animal at the same time.

Some people call this a display of courage. They point to this third when they describe bullfighting as an art. They savor the omnipresent danger that exists in the possibility that the bull may gore the bullfighter at any moment.

Personally, I see bullfighting as man’s attempt to control, manipulate, and assert his dominance over nature. The human race is by no means the strongest out of all the creatures that exist in the world. But as intellectual beings, we’ve built up an idea of superiority in our minds. Man is superior to all other things. Man is capable of thought, therefore man is in charge of the world. All things on Earth and beyond should bow to man, for man is supreme.

Through the matador‘s pompous approach to teasing the bull, we see this ideal of superiority shine through. But even in the context of bullfighting, our assertion of dominance is a hoax. Without the first two thirds of the bullfight, there is no way the matadero would stand a chance against the majestic creature before him. Only after sufficiently weakening and tiring out the bull does he stand any possibility of winning. And when this chance is given to him, he taunts the bull like an arrogant school-kid.

Under different circumstances, man is not more powerful than beast. And for this reason, bullfighting is a pure manipulation of nature to perpetuate our dominance over Earth and its creatures. It may be the largest display of ego I have ever experienced in my almost 20 years in the world.

You may have noticed that I use the term “bullfight” often without any qualifiers. Should I call it “the art of bullfighting” when the artistic bit of the whole spectacle serves to bolster our egos and our perceptions of dominance? Should I call it “the sport of bullfighting” when the competition is unfair and the trophy is death?

I’ve been struggling to find some appreciation for the cultural importance of the bullfight for Spain. A country’s culture should reflect the values of its people — I do not think that the values of modern Spaniards at all match those exhibited in the fight.

The most grotesque display of power comes at the end, when it is time for the matadero to stab his sword straight through the bull’s heart. If done properly, the bull should die in seconds. However, this is rarely done as it is intended to be, and the animal can suffer for minutes more, having to endure undue stress in the last moments of its life. During the entire process, the matadero stands proudly in front of the bull with his arm up, as if paying his final respects. He did it. He challenged nature, and he won.

I went to the bullfight because I was intrigued. I stayed through the whole thing to try to grasp a deeper understanding of the tradition and the culture. By the end, I was focusing solely on the technique of the matadero, hoping that he would have proper form and avoid causing the bull any more suffering than it had to endure.

I saw 6 bulls die on September 28 and I know many more have died on the same sand. Supporters of the bullfight see the death as a rite of passage. Since the Spanish Fighting Bull is a special breed of bull, supporters argue that this species would die out if it were not for the bullfight. I wonder, though, if 4-6 years of a “good life” is worth the 20 minutes of exhaustion, spectacle, and pain of the bullfight. For me, it’s definitely not. By keeping this breed alive, we are fighting against the natural order of the world. Death is bound to happen, but bullfighting glorifies death at the expense of nature.

If nothing else, the experience provoked some interesting thoughts:

  1. Why are humans so mystified with violence? With death?
  2. Does culture perpetuate atrocity? At what point do modern values overshadow ancient tradition?
  3. Does cultural change only occur with the maturation of a new generation?
  4. Should I feel the need to become a vegetarian? What is the core difference between killing animals for spectacle versus for consumption for me?

I don’t regret going, yet the lives of those six bulls burden my conscious. I wonder when the eradication of the bullfight as it exists today will come and how the views of the world will be different when it does.

Nos vemos pronto,
(We’ll see each other soon)

Nina Chikanov studied abroad in Madrid, Spain in fall 2017:

Spain | First Things First


September 4, 2017

Over my first few days in Madrid, I quickly identified some first week essentials to help me settle into a new country.

  1. Phone Plans
  2. FOOD
  3. Toiletries / Electronics
  4. More shopping areas

Phone Plans

I purchased a phone plan from a European provider primarily so I could use Google Maps to navigate the streets J. However, I have friends who opted to bypass the phone plan and rely primarily on Wi-Fi and asking for directions, which has worked out pretty well for them thus far…so it’s up to you what route you want to take!

If you do decide to get a phone plan, ACCENT staff typically recommend heading to The Phone House to purchase a SIM card if your phone is unlocked since they typically have a wide variety of options. They have multiple locations around Madrid, but I went to the one nearest to my homestay in Sol (address: Calle de Preciados, 19, 28013 Madrid) to check out the different plans.

At the time, the Phone House only had plans from Orange, but I had heard from friends that Vodafone and República Mobil were also popular options and wanted to look around a bit more. Across the street at El Corte Inglés, you can find every cellular provider on one floor of the store!


For 20 euro, you get 7 GB of data and 80 minutes of call time. Roaming is also included, meaning that the SIM card should work in other countries in the EU. While there are options to get 5 GB and some minutes for 15 euro and 3 GB and less minutes for 10 euro, the first time you purchase a card they require that you buy the “biggest option” for 20 euro. At the beginning of every month, you can reload with either the same or a smaller plan online, in store, or over the phone.

I also recently found out that the aforementioned plans are only good for the first month! After that, the plans reduce by half to become 3.5 GB for 20 euro, 2.5 GB for 15 euro, etc. You can always change providers after a month if you decide to though!

For 20 or 22 euros a month, you get 7 GB data and 60 minutes of calling. I’ve heard that Vodafone is similar to Orange in terms of Roaming plans for other countries in the EU!

With República Móvil, you benefit from 15 GB & 100 min calling for 20 euro a month! From a friend’s experience, the plan did not immediately activate outside of Spain (roaming) but after calling customer service she made it work outside of the country. I didn’t opt for this plan because I thought 15 GB was excessive and was worried about the possibility of it not working outside of Spain.

Regardless of which phone plan you choose, all of them should activate immediately after you enter in a PIN and configure your phone again. The entire process took less than an hour and so far, I’ve only used 2.5GB for 3 weeks…so needless to say 7 GB is a little much for me for the month, but it’s always good to figure out how much you typically use and then update the plan accordingly.

Food 🙂

My homestay family gives me breakfast (around 9 AM) and dinner (around 9 PM)…but that means I’m mostly on my own for lunch around 2 – 5 PM (not necessarily a bad thing! Spanish food is yummy!)

The first few days I was on the hunt for delicious, authentic Spanish cuisine and stumbled across The. Best. Thing. Ever. Menú del día. Typically, the menu of the day lets you select two dishes from a preset menu and includes a drink, bread, and dessert on top of the two entrees. So far, I’ve seen menus that are as cheap as 7 euro and as expensive as 15 euro, depending on how touristy the area is. The meal is also more expensive in some places if you opt to sit outside instead of at the bar.

For my first full meal in Spain, I found a place off a side street near Plaza del España with a 10.50 euro menu (13.50 when sitting outside) and decided to splurge.

First course, bread, and drink with the menu! They also brought me a tapa (small plate) with my drink of a piece of bread with tomato spread…but I ate it before taking the picture 

Secondary course of Menú del Día: chicken and potatoes

Dessert included…flan!

The menu is definitely the way to go if you’re really hungry and want to sample a large variety of foods while getting the most bang for your buck. You will leave happy and full (maybe too full), I promise you! Also take note that at any sit-down establishment in Madrid (and Spain in general), they do not bring you the receipt until you ask for it. This means you can sit and relax for hours after your meal if you want, and they likely will not ask you to leave unless they’re closing soon. J

While eating out is delicious, it gets a bit pricy to eat out every day. To save some money, I typically only splurge on a full meal a couple days a week and head to the other alternatives for grab-and-go around town other days.

At a supermarket like Mercadona or Express, they have pastries, prepackaged salads, bread, fruits and veggies, yogurts and more for a quick bite! My typical lunch consists of a grab-and-go salad or wrap, a peach, and yogurt, all for around 3-4 euro, sometimes less! There are also options for tapas for around the same price (I recommend 500 Monteditos…they have a lot of inexpensive and tasty options, and there are a ton of locations around Madrid!)

4 Euro meal at 500 Monteditos: Nachos to share, 2 sandwiches, and a drink!

Definitely make sure to save a day or two to try all the menus places have to offer – hot food and good conversation can’t be beat!

Misc. Toiletries / Electronics

I grabbed some power adapters for my electronics (laptop, phone) when I got here, since Europe doesn’t agree with the style of US plugs J Luckily, these are available at the nearest Bazar (Spanish equivalent to a dollar store with a random compilation of snacks, toiletries, school supplies, and more!) for 2-3 euros each. I would recommend buying more than one adaptor initially since one of mine somehow broke after 3 uses…good thing they’re inexpensive!

For shampoos, conditioners, and other toiletries, a Bazaar has some options, but a supermarket often has a greater variety. There are so many options in terms of general stores so I found what I needed close by! In times when my search proved to be futile, ACCENT staff were extremely helpful with recommendations J

More Shopping Areas

(yay wallet! $$$)

Along Calle del Preciados in Sol

Sol is the center of Madrid and has an overwhelming number of places to buy clothes, shoes, electronics, household items, and more! Gran Vía, the center of shopping near me, is just a 5-10 minute walk from Puerta del Sol and has all the large Macy-esque multilevel shops that your heart desires. If you’re looking for smaller shops, there’s a strip of stores and restaurants off of Tribunal metro station as well.

Puerta del Sol: beginning of shopping areas past the plaza

Luckily, the end of August into the middle of September marks rebajas season (read: MID-SEASON SALES!!!) Lots of things are 10-70% off…so treat yourself to something nice. You’re in Spain and that means dressing like the Spaniards do (which is more business-casual business-chic than we usually dress in the United States)!

Those are the four categories I found I wanted more info on within the first few days of arrival to Spain…so hopefully that helps orient you! Don’t worry, everything is within reach. 🙂

Hasta la próxima,


Nina Chikanov studied abroad in Madrid, Spain in fall 2017:

Spain | ¡Buen viaje!


September 2, 2017 – September 3, 2017

¡Hola compañeros! My name is Nina, and I’m here to guide you through all the nuances and memories of my study abroad experience with UCEAP’s Contemporary Spain Program at the UC Center in Madrid. 🙂

Bright and early on September 2, my parents drove me to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where my journey begins. With a final destination of Madrid, Spain, my itinerary also included stops in Boston and in Lisbon with some layovers in between. Needless to say, I had a long journey ahead of me, but I was excited nonetheless. After months of telling friends and family that I would be spending a semester abroad in Spain, the time had finally come to make the trek.

I tried really hard to fit all my clothes and shoes into a carry-on sized backpacking bag. I mean I really, really tried. But after consolidating articles of clothing and trying to pack for a month of heat (all of September) as well as three months of cold (October – December), my mom and I decided to fit the backpacking bag into a larger suitcase and check the bag instead for less hassle. Even though I would probably need to get rid of some clothes and the suitcase before my planned European backpacking trip after the end of the program, that was a problem I was willing to deal with in December.

The first thing I had to do was check into my departing flight from Seattle to Boston. I flew with JetBlue and for some reason I had not been able to check-in online the night before. They told me that, since I was travelling with an American passport and did not purchase a round-trip ticket, they needed some verification that I would depart from Spain before they checked me in. Apparently, a plane, train, or ticket for any other form of transportation showing my exit date from Spain would work, but travelling with an American passport requires that you have proof that you will not stay in the country forever.

Thankfully, I had made plans to leave Spain for Fall Break (you get one week of break!!) and showed them my plane ticket that would take me out of Madrid. I’m not sure if this is a common experience for everyone, since many of my friends had no problem checking in. However, in order to avoid the hassle, I would suggest either booking a round-trip flight or buying a ticket to leave the country prior to leaving the United States.

The flight from Seattle to Boston was around 6 hours long and was otherwise uninteresting. I had a layover of about 2 hours in Boston, which gave me enough time to grab a bite to eat before my next flight to Lisbon with TAP Portugal. Before boarding the connecting flight, an attendant checked my passport one last time and verified my final destination. Then, I was off! One flight down, two more to go!

This airplane was bigger than the domestic one, by virtue of international travel. However, there wasn’t that much space underneath the seats so I threw my school-bag in an overhead bin and was very glad that I had checked my bags for the journey. This flight also took around 6.5 hours, for a total time of 12-13 hours in the air since I left Seattle. Since this was a night flight, they fed us dinner on the plane 🙂

When I stepped off the plane in Lisbon, I had one more connection to catch straight to Madrid. However, the layover in Portugal was very short and left me with thirty minutes to go through customs before boarding started. Yes, you have to go through customs after your flight from the United States into Europe. This is the only time they check your student visa and put you through a border check. If you fly straight into Madrid, it’ll most likely happen there, but if you have a connecting flight somewhere else in Europe beforehand, be prepared for a long line to enter the country.

So…ready for a plot twist? I missed my flight from Lisbon to Madrid because of the long customs lines and short layover (nooooooooo). Even though I asked the workers at customs to let me go in an expedited line, they prioritized other flights over mine while reassuring me that there was no way I would miss the plane. By the time I passed through customs and another round of security, the gate for my flight was already closed and there was nothing they could do to get me on the original flight. When booking your flight, try to ensure at least 2 hours of layover, especially if connecting straight from the United States to Europe.

The next direct flight from Lisbon to Madrid left at night and would arrive at 9 PM instead of the 9 AM original time. Since I had plans to meet Raquel at the UC Center (also called the ACCENT Madrid Study Abroad Center) for orientation before classes, I wanted to get to Madrid as soon as possible. So, as a workaround I was rebooked for a flight with Iberia Airlines to Milan that connected straight to Madrid by 6 PM. In the meantime, they reassured me that my checked luggage would be sent straight to Madrid and I was given a 6-euro voucher to get breakfast before my next flight.

After 4 separate flights and unnecessary layovers, I landed in Madrid in one piece! Whew! When we landed, I went straight to baggage claim to look for my luggage. Surprise, surprise, it had not arrived to Madrid yet. I filed a missing baggage report with the Iberian Airlines help-desk where I gave them the address of the ACCENT Center and my e-mail address to contact me. They said that once my baggage was found, it would take 2-3 days to send it to the address I provided.

Make sure to ask what kind of policy the airline has for lost baggage. I later found out that Iberian Airlines will reimburse up to 50 euros a day for any clothes, toiletries, or other necessities you need to buy while the luggage is missing. (Update: they delivered my bag 10 days later…still waiting on the reimbursements J)

Additionally, pack an extra outfit (including underwear and socks) along with travel toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, contact solution, contacts, glasses, etc.) in your carry-on in case your luggage disappears for a little bit. While you can buy what you need in Spain, it’s better to have a base set of necessities with you. Even better, try to fit everything into a carry-on bag if at all possible, especially if you have multiple layovers before your final destination. That way, you’ll be sure to have what you need as soon as you arrive.

To get to the ACCENT center, I took a taxi with a flat 30-euro rate from the airport to anywhere in Madrid. Since I arrived a week later than everyone else, Raquel and I took care of all the logistics in one go instead of over the course of two days. I also missed the walking tour of the area, but since then have done plenty of exploring on my own to get situated J

Armed with tons of pamphlets with information about homestay customs, how to save money during study abroad, a language “quick guide” with handy Spanish phrases, a map of the city, important dates, and more, I made my way to my homestay location with the metro. UCEAP provides everyone on the program with an all-expenses-paid transport card that works for metro, train, and bus within Madrid – a true lifesaver!

Naturally, with no cellular data and no sense of direction, I started walking in the completely wrong direction as soon as I exited the Metro…but 30 minutes later I was greeted with open arms by my host-mom, Pura, and fed a delicious Spanish dinner of chicken and potatoes J I guess the good thing about traveling for over 24 hours is that I completely missed jetlag and got accustomed to the 9-hour time difference between Spain and California right away!

Hopefully you gain some vital travel insights from my struggles…I know I’m definitely more prepared for next time I travel!

More stories to come soon 🙂

Hasta luego,


Nina Chikanov studied abroad in Madrid, Spain in fall 2017: