Despite my best efforts, I arrived in Madrid absolutely exhausted, having lost a night of sleep to my inability to doze effectively on airplanes. Feeling depleted and lightheaded enough that a meal was necessary before I attempted to take public transportation to my first destination, Acalá de Henares, I shuffled blindly toward the scent of food, and found myself face-to-face with a digital kiosk for ordering at Burger King. Although I don’t remember what transpired next, in moments I was seated at a spotless table eating a chicken sandwich, a wonderful salad of tomatoes, assorted greens, and balsamic vinaigrette, and, as if it couldn’t get any more strange, a beer. This was definitely not what I had expected, and so the culture shock had already begun.
More importantly, with the fortification of these victuals, I bumbled my way onto a Renfe Cercanías (like a metro or subway, or for us Bostonians, the T) train that whisked me westward to Acalá de Henares with surprising alacrity and in the welcome comfort of stiff air conditioning. I emerged into charmingly narrow streets, got directions from a group of teens preparing for a rap-battle around a park bench, and found my way to my temporary dwelling, an AirBnb apartment owned by a charming Venezuelan family. I found their Spanish much easier to understand than the castellano on the streets, and enjoyed a good chat with them as I settled in. Just as I was planning out how many hours of sleep I could get if I was in bed before 9pm, I was informed that a craft beer festival was happening not far away, and that I simply couldn’t miss it.
Well, I thought, perhaps a bit of a walk will do me some good. So I headed out and followed the garbled echoing of concert loudspeakers to a nearby plaza, where I found crowds of people happily imbibing an assortment of fine looking beers amidst dozens of tents and kiosks. These, in turn, were plastered with the logos of local craft breweries, and filled with yet happier people loudly explaining the particulars of their specific creations while doling out generous glassfuls for a coin or two. At the northern end of the plaza, a rather peppy rock band played on a grandstand, complete with lights and smoke machines. I found an information booth, and there was able to purchase a small souvenir glass, with which I could sample any number of the dazzling array of brews stretched out before me. I bought a witbier for a Euro, and sat down on a bench to admire the nearby architecture, write in my journal, and enjoy the show.
The following day, once I had won my battle against jetlag and dragged myself out of bed, I enjoyed a stroll around the town, hoping to get a sense of the place before Fulbright orientation, which would begin the the day after. Wandering contentedly through beautiful, cobbled streets and admiring old churches and statues of antiquity, I learned two fantastic pieces of the Acalá de Henares’ history. The first: the town had formerly been the site of both a Roman and Moorish settlement many years ago, and the second: Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote among other great works, was born there (in 1547, no less).
Don Quixote de la Mancha and his creator were a combined motif in the city, featured prominently in graffiti, statuary, and murals alike. The baffling name of a major road in the city “Via Complutense” turned out to be a derivation of the latin name for the old Roman city, Complutum.
As if walking through a town steeped in history wasn’t enough, I followed my host’s recommendation and visited an archaeological museum near their apartment. This was utterly fantastic, and went into deep history; we’re talking back when this portion of the continent had a wet, tropical climate, and when most of Acalá de Henares was a massive wetland crawling with prehistoric megafauna like Gomphotherium, Mastodon, and sabre-toothed tigers. The historical lessons carried on through the arrival of hominids, development of hunting technologies, advent of agriculture, Roman rule, Muslim and Gothic rule, and medieval times. The information was staggering, and the exhibits beautiful and well organized. I managed to stumble my way into a group tour, which was as good a chance to practice my Spanish as it was to learn fascinating historical facts, for example the way that early iron tools were smithed.
I left the museum with my head spinning, and my handy notebook of Spanish phrases and vocabulary overflowing with new words and terminology I’d need to look up. It was quite a haul. I got a late almuerzo from the food trucks set up around the (still ongoing) beer festival, enjoyed more live music (this time including a band that featured ukulele!), and headed home to prepare for orientation the following morning. At long last, my Fulbright experience was about to begin.