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World class

A semester in Madrid

Michael Polark (left) at El Valle de los Caidos outside Madrid. Michael Polark (left) at El Valle de los Caidos outside Madrid.
By Chris Murphy
Globe Staff / November 8, 2009

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Michael Polark, a senior majoring in economics and Hispanic studies at Boston College, spent five months at La Universidad Complutense de Madrid last semester. Though he has studied Spanish for five years, Polark found a daunting language barrier. He quickly learned to ask lots of questions and immerse himself in the local culture, where numerous dialects, slang, and passionate conversations about politics sometimes complicated the situation. Read his travel blog at michaelpolark.wordpress.com.

HUB OF HISTORY: “Madrid is the cultural, social, financial, political, and art center of Spain. It is rare that any city can lay claim to all of those titles, but Madrid accomplishes it with ease.’’

TRADEOFFS: “I lived in a residencia located on La Gran Vía, the main street that runs through the center of Madrid. We had our own bathroom, which I have never had while at BC. The Wi-Fi was horrible. On the upside, there were workers who cleaned our room once a week.’’

CREATURE FEATURE: “La comida [lunch] is the most important meal of the day. People drop everything at 2 p.m. and make time to eat, chat, and pass time with good friends. The bocadillos [little sandwiches of serrano ham and tomatoes] are incredible. Dinner usually features paella or some variation of rice, chicken, and fish. I did not take well to the fish. You get the entire creature, eyes and all. That takes a little getting used to.’’

CHEEK TO CHEEK: “When meeting a girl for the first time, it is common to offer the two-cheeked kiss. Of course, this depends on the girl. I learned not to offer the ‘two-cheeker’ when I met someone at first and instead go for the handshake. But it was super awkward when the girl offered the two-cheeker and I went in for the handshake.’’

LAISSEZ-FAIRE: “It is acceptable to never attend class, study for the final exam, and receive a passing grade. The teachers do not take attendance and it is not uncommon to have 20 people in the class on a daily basis and have 50 show up to take the final. But when it comes time to study for exams, the majority of the students buckle down and cram.’’

MUSIC FOR ALL: “They love their American music. In Madrid, VH1 is the most watched TV channel. The discotecas are extremely popular. It is not uncommon to leave for a night out on the town at midnight and not return until 6 a.m. Kapital (www.grupo-kapital.com/kyoung), arguably the most famous place to dance the night away, is a seven-story nightclub in Madrid. Each floor has a different DJ and a different music style. There is something for everyone.’’