Tag Archives: madrid

1 Common Misconception about Studying Abroad Nobody is Talking About

Madrid has a slowly climbing hill on the west side of the city once you cross the ancient Puente de Segovia towards Puerta del Angel. There are cervecerías and lavaderías on the way up, places to drink beer and wash clothes. You can find locutorios too, dirty internet cafés that charge by the minute for a web connection. Walk another thirty minutes and you start seeing the remnants of an era where Francisco Franco ruled Spain. Drab buildings that all look the same tower over mullet haircuts and dog droppings littered along narrow sidewalks. Orange plastic walls next to rough stucco white buildings.

That’s where you’ll find the Conservatorio de Teresa Berganza next to the Lucero metro stop on line 6. Building seriously needs to be knocked down and rebuilt by American standards, so maybe it makes sense that I learned in that place that there is no such thing as a safe space.

I couldn’t get better without some discomfort.

My teacher’s name was Carlos G. Pérez de Aranda y Ramírez. Which is a mouthful even for a Spanish name. He was a music historian, bald with brightly colored green pants and a severe disposition and looked a little bit like Jean-Pierre Coffe, the very very French supermarket personality for Leader Price. I saw Aranda y Ramírez maybe three times the whole year. Which was fine since working with him was not the point of moving to Madrid, where I wound up dominating this music piece instead. But there I was with el Profesor as a saxophone player tasked with writing a paper comparing 19th century romantic composers. The things we do for a piece of paper..

My diploma from writing a paper in an unsafe space

If you can imagine a 100% caucasian gringo trying to wax Castilian academic from a family that didn’t go much beyond “hola,” “gracias,” and “enchilada,” then you have my Spanish background. There was the research, the editing, and the revision. I wrote that paperon a boxy PC in a suffocating apartment with the bonus feature of well-ventilated windows to bring in the dusty dry Madrileño air. My friends all laughed at that paper with it’s crazy spanglish grammar and awkward saxophone historian perspective, and that’s when I realized I would never be safe to express myself without exposing myself to criticism. Without getting some smirks. Without some WTFs along the way.

I couldn’t get better without some discomfort.


In September 2015, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt released their groundbreaking essay “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The authors describe a safe space as a location where “young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”

Safe spaces. The evolution of this word still surprises me because it suggests that my comfort as a student is the most important.

Safes space is becoming a loaded and confusing term. In 2016, journalist Oliver Bateman described safe spaces as “an area where subject matter is studied with a full awareness of the students’ own subjectivity kept firmly in mind.” This requires critical student thought in the full spirit of unassuming inquiry. Tressie McMillan Cottom at Virginia Commonwealth University would agree. A “safe space” is all about being safely uncomfortable in classand challenged by new ideas that conflict with previously held assumptions. These descriptions sound nice, but they don’t paint the picture Lukianoff and Haidt describe.

That’s because safe spaces are also intended to shield people from bias, criticism, and situations that might be found threatening. According to some prominent sociologists who wrote a great book on the subject in 2018, safe spaces result in the creation of victimhood culture.


But I don’t see safe spaces happening in other parts of the world, at least not in Europe. Learning moves in the spirit of Quincy Jones, who demands that “You’re supposed to use everything from the past. If you know where you come from, it’s easier to get where you’re going.” That means confronting the tough subjects and acknowledging their impact on current society. Professors don’t care about your opinions. They value your ability to comprehend previously accepted ideas and critically apply them

I lived in Spain for 12 months, which is long enough to realize that even your bed will be foreign when you go abroad. Air conditioning will be a luxury and the shower will be cold. The guys will have inside jokes about sex and local futbol players that you won’t understand. The girls will act in unexpected quirky ways that you couldn’t guess. You might find a cockroach in your room and thieves on the metro.

BONUS: And you’ll have the language ability of a 5-year-old.

Coming from Kansas as a straight white male, I lived in Spain as a definite minority for the first time in my life. And so the world was not made safe for me. People laughed at my Spanish. Teachers didn’t coddle me. But that’s where some of the greatest beauty in my life came. The opportunity to discover lifelong relationship with others, make beautiful music, increase personal discipline, and develop a new worldview of my making.

None of it could have happened in a safe space. So if you’re headed abroad, here are some tips for integrating into your new adventure and embracing unsafe spaces:

1. Acknowledge everyone you meet. From the grocery cashier to your neighbors and classmates. You will need friends, and you will have only one chance to make a first impression. Make it positive by smiling and speaking their language even if you aren’t fluent yet. Failure doesn’t matter.

2. Be a chameleon. Chances are you will stick out like a sore thumb, so figure out how other people dress and adapt accordingly. Live like your surroundings and embrace the extraordinary exposure to the unsafe space that creates an alternate personality in you and astonishes friends back home.

3. Use learning services. Sites like StudyGate keep students grounded in the details of their learning no matter where they are located. You can easily find a tutor to learn with and stay accountable in your local commitments. Then double down by discussing the concept from your new perspective.

Makes learning constructive no matter what type of learning space

Only when we encounter pressure do we discover who we really are. So if you aren’t in a safe space and headed abroad, count yourself lucky. You’re in a position to grow.

Nine Months in Spain: A Reflection

It scares the bejeezus out of you just to think about it. You look over the rock and see the deep blue Mediterranean 20 meters down. You hear the wind and you feel it pressing you to jump. But you don’t. Why risk it? The fiery golden orb is setting on the horizon and the salt will only make you itch later. But the water keeps calling…

On September 21st 2010, I got on a plane from Chicago’s O’Hare International and moved myself to Madrid. I had just played the front half of a recital in St. Louis the day before and caught the bus from Union Station up to the Spanish Embassy to collect my visa conveniently located in the middle of it all on Michigan Avenue. I was fortunate enough to meet up with my new friend Ensemble Dal Niente director Ryan Muncy in Evanston and catch up with newbie Northwestern law student Esther King. Life, of course, was already changed. My sister had just got married, and my mom the year before. I had recently opted not to marry.

The move itself wasn’t so bad. I tell everyone the worst part of pulling the whole thing off wasn’t coming up with the money to do it or going through the 10-step background check, health insurance nightmare and anything-else-they-can-come-up-with visa application, so you had might as well know too—it was the mental game. You know what I mean, talking yourself into it and believing in yourself and all that crap. Turns out people’s comfort zones are a lot more confining than they realize. Once you get out of it though, the light turns on to the fact that the way you think about what you think about means everything.

I walk around and admire the view, but I’m really just trying to delay the jump. There are some gorgeous girls, serious knockouts, down below watching me, which of course makes me all the more nervous. I try and put on the cool act as if I don’t notice their alluring eyes directed towards me. There are some local teenagers off to the side chatting so I go ask them if the water is deep enough to jump, which is of course another ridiculous act. Who gets lit up if they’re wrong after all!

Getting along with everyone in life is completely overrated. I met this one expatriate through idealista.com (like craigslist for Spanish housing) from Ecuador. He seemed really chill and was an amateur musician, which I thought was totally cool but he turned out to be 100% plastic. I ended up moving in with him for a roommate. It wasn’t until later that I learned you can’t fight through people’s scripts, especially when it means treading on their social turf and dating other girls without permissive social gestures. Speaking of social gestures, why is it that people from the MidWest have such enormous personal bubbles? It seems to me whether you’re a professional twenty-something or an elderly statesmen, all of us feel the desire to interact with other humans. I just think touch is a normal part of that, that’s all. It doesn’t have to be sexy or crude when a guy kisses a girl on the cheek in greeting or a man pats the shoulder of another in passing. It could be a sign of friendliness or even warmth if you can imagine that.

When studying an art form like music, the process of practicing begins to break down over time. You question basic fundamentals. Your shoddy habits relapse. You might even burn out for a while. In the process you probably will get frustrated, annoyed that things don’t have a microwave-setting solution. What I’m trying to say is that when you study an art form you’re partially studying yourself. Your expressiveness, warmth, and genuineness (or lack thereof) come out in the way you present your art. When you finally realize that, it transforms who you are. And then you really start to make the music.

I’m already bloody sunburned out of my mind, why do I want to risk smacking my body on the water to make it even worse? My buddy over there brought his camera, so I’m thinking he could take a nice picture for facebook and all, I’ll flex my muscles (for the ladies) and pretend I’m not trying and then we can go back to the hostel and get out of this hot messy summer day. The wind keeps pushing at me. The salt water wafts up from the rocks breaking on the surf below. After all, we have the castle tour alongside the coast tomorrow and I certainly wouldn’t want to miss that. Wouldn’t hurt to meet up with those girls either later on.

There is no message more disturbing for a single guy than an unexpected pregnancy. Imagine, you’re checking out the mall at the Mac Store idly browsing your facebook when your ex sends the dreaded message: VAS A SER PADRE. It puts you a pasty pale as white as a t-shirt that has been washed with the colored clothes too many times. Then of course there is the analysis, the what if’s, and the-how-the-hell-did-this-happen rhetoric (use a condom people). Then comes the understanding that no matter what happens in life, this is the only one you have. There’s no silly pause or restart button. You learn to live with yourself and fight in yourself to create a new you and a new direction, one that is genuine and musical and perhaps even poetic and doesn’t hide authenticity for fear of hurting feelings or disappointing them. That’s when people really get close to the edge. Of course, the process of getting to that point is slightly hazardous. I imagine there are many who never find it their whole lives. I don’t blame them. Its hard.

Later on you learn the hair-splitting differences between frustration and resolve and especially protection and deception. And sometimes you pay the price, life returns the black eye right back at you. And in eating the dirt  you learn that life and music are often one and the same—effective communication of one hinges on the authentic experiences of the other. Hanging out on my flat in Madrid the last night in Spain with friends was one of those heavy surreal moments where you are hyper-concious of every experience. The air is thicker and the time moves slower yet your mind records everything. You want to hang onto each word of every conversation, the resounding laughs, a final kiss, and all the last notes. People always think you can recapture those kinds of moments, but you can’t. They’re unique and you have to grab them while they’re there before they float away.

There I was, flailing, falling. My arms commanded me to wave in the air but I wouldn’t let them, they were willed forward to burst the glassy indigo. On I kept flying headfirst and headlong thinking and then choosing otherwise. Entering the water. The exhilaration, the challenge, leveled. You feel your ears roar, the bubbles surround you, the warm sea air in your hair. You look up joyfully to smile and wave. Everything is going to be OK.

This is a recording of my dear friend Fernando, some of those final notes I heard in Madrid: https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=10150311920495820&comments

Madrid and Midwest America: A Comparison and Contrast

Life in Madrid is in certain ways the same as life in Kansas City or Tulsa. People like to go out to eat and socialize. The bar or cervecería (from cerveza which means beer) functions as an important gathering point for adults of all ages. We rally around our favorite soccer team, Real Madrid, although it has a cross-town rival to contend with named Atlético Madrid. You will see people in the Metro who dress up nice and carry Bibles going to church on Sunday mornings.

Madrileños (people from Madrid) also worry about the economy and get upset and blame the president for their problems. Many people are upset with the government. They are concerned about Gadafi and Libya to the point of sending fighter jets across the Mediterranean to support the rebel cause. They honk in traffic and can drive agressively. They love the outdoors and enjoy hiking, even skiing in the mountains surrounding the region. Speaking of skiing, they have malls as well, one of which has an indoor ski park. Certainly, our Midwest equivalent would be the Rockies.

Spaniards enjoy music of most kinds from jazz to classical to techno to contemporary. Just about all of the fine art institutions and music groups are supported by the government, no Sam Brownback free enterprise music foundations here. Most Spanish musicians I talk to say the greater public could care less about classical music and jazz. I had a conversation with a music critic who told me until very recently you could get a Spanish doctorate in history without ever studying music or knowing who Monteverdi was with the first great opera, Orfeo. That said, I see a greater esteem for the arts than I do in my own home. Maybe it is symptom of ¨the grass is greener on the other side¨ syndrome. Techno music is hugely popular, and is the music of choice in discotecas. Justin Bieber is imported with gusto, but I can´t say the same for Jay-Z and rap. He is replaced by a strong Arab sub-culture here with hookah bars (not to be confused with hooker) and Ragheb Alama.

That said, the contrasts are much clearer to point out. Spanish politicians do not debate. They insult. Here´s how a chamber discussion will show up on TV: The news anchor on the government station will quickly mention the given issue at hand before the scene scrolls to the chamber, kind of like previewing a scene before a movie. The speaker of the PP, which is the Spanish version of the Republicans, will say something blatantly derisive about the way President Zapatero is leading the country down the drain, to which his associates may or may not cheer and applaud. Then Zapatero will get up and speak into his own microphone (all the figureheads have their own microphone) and point to a statistic talking about how bad things were before his party took control. The izquierdistas will smile and nod and cheer even more loudly while Zapatero wags his finger in the air. The President always has the last word.

Madrileños also love to go on walks. There is a huge abundance of parks in the surrounding area. Since summer temperatures can top 40 degrees celsius now is the perfect time of year to take advantage of the cooler spring season. Being one of the largest cities in Western Europe makes Madrid a de facto tourist destination and you will often hear people speaking English on the streets. It is a melting pot city full of people from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Morocco, Yemen, and America.

My particular neighborhood is quite odd. Definitely outside of the main tourist center of the city, it has the ambiance of a 1979 urban metro area. Admittedly, I have no idea what that would feel like being in my mid-20s. But I find it odd and slightly alarming the way people dress. Teenagers love to wear Converse with suspenders. The pony tail is still cool for guys. And the mullet, oh my goodness, the mullet. That has got to be the single worst hair style known to mankind. There is one particular professor that dresses in a green jacket with gray pants and cat-eye glasses, something I swear he got the idea for wearing out of my mother´s high school yearbook. If it wasn´t for the locutorio (internet café), things truly would feel like a time machine in this neighborhood. Mind you, the center of Madrid is quite modern with all the trappings of a cosmopolitan city. But I´m willing to venture that there are many more districts like mine where all the neighbors go and buy from the butcher and the baker for their food, the locally owned hardware store for odds and ends, and the jewelry store for their new watch battery. Walmart does not exist here. That took me a while to get used to.

Spain simply has not developed as much or in the same ways as the United States. People still operate with an authoritarian attitude in the workplace. There is little concept of a teamwork atmosphere. Some people I know would lay that at the feet of Franco and the dictatorship he wielded over Spain for a large part of the 20th century. Spain simply was not open to change and outside influence in the sense of competitive innovation and creative designs. Maybe that is just a Silicon ValleyWall Street concept. Now Spaniards live in a world where 1 of 4 people are drawing a welfare check and 20% of the population is effectively unemployed in a largely socialist system.

Spain is also unique in the way it operates in regards to matters of faith. It is officially a Catholic state, but one has to look deeper than the name. Coming from the Bible belt of the Midwest, I see very little spiritual or faith based influence here in the city. As I said before, it´s not to say I don´t see people who may go to church or read a Bible on the Metro. What I see is that the vast majority of society operates in a paradigm in which God does not exist and Catholicism exists on a similar plane as Greek mythology is understood for Americans. Ralph Waldo Emerson said the religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next, and that is what I see happening here. People here are more interested in Dan Brown and the DaVinci code than going to mass on Sunday. We still have the Holy Week and Easter. We have school holidays in honor of a patron saint. That is where it ends and the rest of life begins.

The differences between life in the Midwest US and Madrid are not clearly understood at first. You are in a new city and trying to soak everything in, make sure you don´t get ripped off, working to learn the bus lines, streets, and Metro system that connects your part of the city to the rest. You speak the language badly and making it from point A to point B is a minor success. It is only after you spend the time to listen to the people and their concerns, understand the news broadcasts and relax in building friendships alongside a group of people with whom you have little more in common than being at the same place at the same time that you begin to understand life in all its intricate details. And in doing so, you begin to understand your own self a little bit more.