Running, Travel, & Notebooks

Chicago-bound, October 2019

Statistically, the odds are against me. I mean, only one percent of the world’s population has ever run a full marathon. And when you Google the word “marathon,” the word “grueling” tends to pop up a lot, which really conflicts with my love of everything that’s not grueling (like eating ice cream or lying in Shavasana pose in yoga). So, I guess it’s a good thing I’ve always hated statistics and distrusted search results.

Image may contain: Jenna Lee, smiling, sitting, outdoor and nature

Post-Shavasana Glow

In nine short months, I will be lining up at the start line in Chicago for a 26.2 mile journey. Yes, I’ve lived in Spain and tackled eight half marathons, but to date, this is most adventurous — and perhaps insane — thing I’ve ever done. As a reluctant athlete, nothing about running comes easily. Every step is work, and every mile takes more willpower than most people realize. My body wasn’t designed to run long distances, and I’m still in recovery from a nasty bout of Plantar Fasciitis and a heel spur. Couple that with tight hip flexors and a tendency to trip over my own feet, and it seems like a recipe for disaster. But one thing I am is stubborn. Somehow, I got it into my head that I need to this, and I fully intend on following through.

And when I finally line up at that start line on race day, it will be five years to the day from when I resolved to run it. This insanity started on a trip to Chicago to visit a friend in October 2014. We were roaming the city in true tourist fashion, with eyes wide and a camera dangling from my chest. When we finally managed to tear ourselves away from the infamous Bean, we ended up along the sidelines for the Chicago Marathon. Runners barreled forward or stumbled another step, while the loudspeaker boomed. Thousands of people crossed the finish line that day, and when you see people doing something seemingly impossible, it’s hard to shake the feeling that maybe, one day, you could do it, too.

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For those days of doubt, it’s also important to remember that some pretty unsuspecting people have run marathons. To name a few:

1)      Joe Strummer (lead singer of The Clash) (thanks, Lara)

2)      Freddie Prince, Jr. (former American heartthrob)

3)      Alanis Morissette (Now isn’t that ironic? 😉)

4)      Drew Carey (This isn’t made up, and the points do matter.)

5)      Edward Norton (Wait, I thought the first rule was that you don’t talk about it?)

6)      Will Ferrell (I know him!)

7)      Pamela Anderson (It wasn’t in slow motion, either).

8)      Oprah Winfrey (the Queen)

9)      Andrea Barber (Yes, Kimmy Gibbler ran a marathon.)

10)   Al Roker (a fellow SUNY Oswego alum)

And for those super tough days, I’m going to remember that I am running for Ronald McDonald House Charities. If you haven’t heard about the awesome work they do for families in need, you can read more here:

http://support.rmhc.org/site/TR?fr_id=1380&pg=entry

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My goal is to raise $1,250 for Ronald McDonald House for the race. If you like what you read about the organization, I would love to have your support! Feel free to pop on over to my fundraising page:

http://support.rmhc.org/site/TR/TeamRMHC-ChicagoMarathon/TeamRMHC?px=1364351&pg=personal&fr_id=1380

For now, I’ll keep training, little by little. Here’s to the next mile!

 

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The Peace of Wild Things

BY WENDELL BERRY

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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Dérive

Dérive
By Jenna Schifferle

The brook babbles

As the trees whisper;

One strong gust

As the leaves kiss her.

 

The air is warm and

Filled with lilac —

She left her life

Only a mile back.

 

Right up the road

Where the path twirls,

Near the pasture

Where they danced as girls.

 

A small stone cottage

Where a warm fires burns,

And kindness and compassion

Are the only terms.

 

Right by the stables

Where the horses neigh,

And children laugh

As they roll in hay.

 

But the woods are alluring

With their drawl,

And it’s nearly impossible

To ignore their call.

 

From somewhere above

Woodpeckers tap,

As the maples sweat

Their saccharine sap.

 

As she crosses the bridge,

The sun at its peak,

She catches a glimpse

Of a creature’s great beak.

 

It’s perched high

At the top of the brush,

Silent and calm

Not even a hush.

 

Its talons dig

Deep in the wood,

As it spreads its wings

And is off for good.

 

With one foot planted firmly out of a plane, your toes curled tightly over the edge of said plane, and that same knee floating freely in the air, you don’t have much choice but to jump. My instructor informed me earlier that day that when you’re more than 10,000 feet in the air and the wind storms loudly in through the open door, “no” sounds strangely like “go.” Perched high above the earth, the word “no” flooded my thoughts and echoed off my skull. Every inch of my body tensed with fear. Standing at the threshold, I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember why I wanted to do this.

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Taking the first step

Mike and I arrived at Pine Hill Airport at noon, ready to skydive for the first time in our lives. It had been my idea — a birthday gift I bought for him that excited me just as much as it did him.  We went through an hour of training, where one of the instructors explained to us how you should contort your body for the fall, where your hands should be placed, how far you should arch your back, etc. He took us inside the plane and demonstrated how the jump would occur, though I’m not positive why he bothered. When you’re faced with the actual reality of jumping out of a plane, everything you’ve ever been taught about proper technique quickly flees the scene, leaving you only with an overwhelming feeling of trepidation. Out of everything our instructor told us, the only thing I could remember was the reminder to breathe. That I could do. So as we ascended in the plane, I focused only on inhaling and exhaling and trying not to throw up.

Another instructor, Matt, was chosen to jump tandem with me, and for this, I was grateful. Out of the four of us in the plane: Mike, Matt, me, and Mike’s instructor (whose name I don’t recall), Matt was the only one talking. He talked about himself, asked about us, and did his damnedest to distract us. On the video he shot of us, Mike and I have looks of terror etched into our smiles. At one point, Mike’s instructor exclaimed, “Who the hell would jump out of a perfectly good plane?!” The devious smile on his face revealed his sarcasm, but the statement lightened the mood, though it didn’t manage to diminish our fear.

On our stomachs, Mike and I had two bears strapped to us — and no, not for us to hug as we cried on the way down. Western New York Skydiving partners with Canopies for Kids, an organization that provides bears to kids in hospitals. The idea is to sponsor a bear with a donation, and  then take it with you on your jump. Afterward, each bear is donated to children at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, along with a personalized note from the person who jumped with the bear that explains how the recipient now gets to cuddle with the bravest bear in the world. The goal is to give them a little courage while they are battling their illness, and naturally, I jumped (pun intended) at the opportunity to bring one of these brave bears with me.

http://www.canopiesforkids.com/

Back in the days when I had my own teddy bears, I consistently told my parents that one day, I would go skydiving; I would go bungee jumping; I would travel the world; and yes, I would even go backpacking through the Amazon. None of us were quite sure where this sense of adventure stemmed from — perhaps my brother who enjoyed launching dirt bikes high in the air while performing a multitude of tricks and racing his Mustang as quickly as possible down the drag strip without blowing the engine. During those early years, we had been close, and I idolized his need for speed.

But skydiving is a different kind of adventure. My brother loved — and still loves — everything fast and powerful, but he has never once expressed a desire to launch himself out of the plane from 10,000 feet in the air or trek through terrain filled with tarantulas and snakes and other deadly beasts. Why these adventures have always appealed to me, I’ve never fully understood. Regardless, I decided it was time to check things off my bucket list. I’d like to make a side note here, just to mention that I fully understand why people hate the concept of a bucket list. Number one, it’s a bit morbid: You create a list of feats you want to accomplish before you kick. the. bucket. The whole paradigm is framed by a person’s imminent death; the idea that you are going to die, and should thus create a list of things you should do before one foot gets sucked into the grave. Horrifying, right? Besides, shouldn’t we all be living our lives with care and caution, thinking about how we want to construction our futures?

The answer to that last question is yes. And no. I would argue that we should be consistently thinking about how we want to construct our lives, but maybe not with the care and caution that one would imagine. When you focus only on where you want to be, it detracts from the moment you’re in. This mentality glorifies living for tomorrow. And that is precisely why I love the concept of a bucket list: It is the opposite of this. Given that you actually start checking items off, having a bucket list inspires you to accomplish big ticket items. It encourages you to do the things today that you will be grateful for tomorrow, as opposed to focusing solely on the promise of tomorrow. When you remind yourself that life is short, you unleash a whole new way of living that is much more present-minded.

One of my friends from college, Melanie, went skydiving months before I worked up the courage to actually do it myself. She posted pictures online shortly after her experience. As she rapidly fell from the sky, the skin on her face tight against the force of the wind, a wide smile spread across her lips. As I mused about how happy she looked, I came across a picture where she held the palm of her hand out in front of her. Four little words stood out in bold, black ink: Courage to let go.

As a mental health counselor, Melanie has seen what stress and anxiety can do to a person. In school, she helped run a club called Active Minds that aimed to break down stereotypes surrounding mental health. She volunteered for the Walk to Save Lives, a fundraiser that raised awareness about suicide and created a forum for survivors to share their stories. So when Melanie wrote, “Courage to let go,” on her hand, it had more depth than just letting go of gravity or letting go of the plane. Melanie’s simple reminder was that letting go of the emotions and fears that paralyze us is one of the most courageous acts that a person can accomplish. Whether it be preconceived notions we have about ourselves that make us insecure, traumatic experiences that have changed us, or mistakes that have haunted us, the most liberating act one can do is to simply let go.

In the end, the treasure of life is missed by those who hold on and gained by those who let go. -Lao Tzu #quote:

Easier said than done, no? For me, losing myself in these huge life experiences is a way of doing just that: letting go. Letting go of stress. Letting go of anxiety. Letting go of poor self-esteem. Letting go of societal standards and norms. Letting go of regrets, what-ifs, the should-ofs, could-ofs, would-ofs. Because when you are crashing to earth at 120 miles per hours, the last thing you’re worried about is how is you look or what people are thinking about you or that time five years ago when you should have said a few words to change a situation. None of that matters when you’re in free fall.

Free fall: Noun-The condition of unrestrained motion in a gravitational field; see also: motion. Motion: Noun-An act, process, or instance of changing place. By definition, free falling implies change. You fall from one spot to another, creating motion. What that definition fails to tell you is how liberating movement feels. Once I got over my fear of stepping through the plane’s threshold, I free fell for 36 seconds before Matt pulled the parachute. For 36 seconds, I did backflips and wrestled with a sinking sensation in my stomach that, contrary to popular belief, felt completely liberating. It wasn’t the kind of sinking feeling that comes from being upset or scared, but rather the sensation of butterflies you get before a first kiss or that little flutter in your stomach when you first lay eyes on the Roman baths or the Royal Palace or a beautiful sunset in foreign country.

After about 20 seconds, I was allowed to spread my arms wide against the wind, to show my own wise words: Carpe diem, Latin for “Seize the day.” That was my response to “Courage to let go.” Because that’s what letting go is all about: seizing the day.

 

Once our parachute sprung open and we jolted to a slower pace, Matt and I drifted toward earth like the leaves of a dandelion, swaying against the wind. From 6,000 feet, the view is incredible, stretching all the way from Albion, where we departed from, to Niagara Falls and Grand Island. The verdant trees created a thin canopy over countless houses and businesses. Through clusters of clouds, the sun shined dimly over the city, lightly highlighting the skyline.

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When we extended our legs in front of us for landing and my feet felt the earth once more, I radiated with life in a way that I never had before. I felt alive. Unhindered. Free. And for me, that freedom is worth all the strength it takes to get over my fears and tackle insane feats. So, my question for you, dear readers, is what will you do today that scares you?

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Half-Crazy: Why I Run

In retrospect, I knew it was going to hurt. Months of preparation and training had proven to be painful, even excruciating at times. But at mile 10, on the big day, I thought my legs might detach themselves from my body and jump into the nearest ditch. Luckily, by mile 11, they went numb, which proved to be the age-old dichotomy of a blessing and a curse. It helped the pain threshold, but made it difficult to keep my legs moving.

I’ve never been an inherently athletic person, so how I found myself tackling the immense task of running 13.1 miles is still perplexing to me. My life has always yoyo-ed back and forth between healthy habits and ice cream; working out and Netflix.

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Life is too busy, I’ve told myself repetitively.

I don’t have time to be one of those crazy runners.

When I graduated and got my first job, I started working out with a coworker, which was great motivation to stay healthy. I completed a few 5k races—the fun ones, of course—then endeavored to train for my first 8k. At the time, the idea of running five miles terrified me, and I had absolutely no idea how to train for it. I started running three or four days a week with no schedule, and I wasn’t tracking my mileage. At the start line of the LockRock 8k, my mind raced with doubts, and I knew I had underprepared.

Did I finish?—yes. Was it pretty?—no.

Coming across the finish line, I kept booking it pass the spectators and found the biggest tree I could find. By the time I was done with it, its fine bark was coated in that morning’s breakfast special. Talk about embarrassing. Half of me was proud that I at least finished; the other half wanted to limp as far away as I could and never come back; to ram my head into the ground and live in the hole that it created.

It wasn’t until I found myself wandering aimlessly through an ocean of spectators that I became infatuated with running. One of my friends from college moved to Chicago for law school, and while taking in the sites of the city, we got swept up by the Chicago Marathon. Thousands of people flocked to the course with shouts of encouragement on their lips; they were alive with excitement and their hands clasped signs that declared: You are unstoppable! Or Run like you stole it!

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The energy intoxicated me; the shouts were hypnotizing. But nothing made me fall in love quite as much as the expressions on the faces of the runners. Their faces contorted from ecstasy to fatigue to pain and back again, but each runner moved forward, regardless. When they crossed the finish line, some of them collapsed into the arms of their loved ones; some fell straight to the ground; and others reached desperately for water and food. Regardless of their reactions, all of them seemed divine at that finish line, their faces placid with the knowledge that they completed a feat most would never dream of in their lifetimes. To me, it seemed like a grand metaphor for life, a testament to human resilience—to be able to push yourself toward your goal when every muscle in your body begs you to stop, to be able to keep moving forward when your face so clearly screams with exhaustion—that is what being alive is all about! In that moment, I vowed to be one of them: exhausted with triumph, too depleted for negativity.

I was going to run a half marathon.

So, I started training. Slowly, of course. Progress was grueling: three, four, five miles, always intermingled with short stretches of walking. When I gained a bit of confidence, I started telling people about my plan, including my college friend, Dave, who not only encouraged me and gave me advice on the training process, but vowed to run it with me—even though he lives in Syracuse. With newfound resolve, my excuses became fewer, and my runs became longer. I woke up early on Sundays for long runs, and started needing to walk less. I explored new trails and quickly learned each and every five-mile path from my house. Doubts still weighed on me, though: Could I really do it? My training schedule was always behind, and I was nursing some pretty serious blisters that set me back in my training. Dave always swiftly shut each concern down, and eventually, I made it to ten miles, though it wasn’t the prettiest ten miles I’ve ever covered—the last few miles were still littered with stretches of walking and a whole lot of sweat.

Leading up to race day, I read articles on techniques you can use while running distances and came across one that suggested I focus on something different in each mile to break up the run. So I took this idea and shaped it into a game to motivate myself. For each mile, I vowed to dedicate the run to someone I cared about. I needed thirteen point one reasons to run this race, so I found them.

On the big day, I found myself scrambling to use the port-a-potty twenty minutes before the race, and the line was backed up for nearly a quarter mile. By the time I finished, I was scrambling to find Dave near the 10-minute-mile marker and was terrified that I would be running the race alone. Whereas the boisterous voices at the Chicago Marathon had energized me, the chatter at the Buffalo Marathon made my nerves stand on end—there were so many people. Luckily, Dave’s bright orange hoodie eventually caught my attention, and when the sign was given, we were off to a crawl, hindered both by the crowd, and my own fear of running out of energy early on in the race.

Finally, we fell into a rhythm, and I let my game begin. Mile one was dedicated to my grandmother, a fiercely stubborn and relentless woman who recently had her leg amputated and was bound to a wheelchair. As my feet pattered over the pavement, a memory came to mind of a trip my family had taken with her years back when I was a teenager. At the time, she had been using a cane to help with her balance, and my parent and I were going to play tennis. She hobbled along with us, and we snapped a picture of her gripping a tennis racquet in one hand and waving her cane in the air with her other. That picture found its way into one of my photo albums at home, and what stands out most is not the absurdness of her playing tennis with a cane, but, rather, the joy in her face that testifies that the woman never let life’s limitation keep her down. As I rounded up that first mile, I knew that she would love to be in my shoes.

I dedicated mile two to my other grandmother who struggles daily with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Despite her confusion and lack of short-term memory, she still holds fast to cherished memories that happened over fifty years ago that have shaped her into a spunky, lively, and strong woman. I dedicated mile three to both of my parents, whose unwavering support brought me to the realization of so many of my dreams. Mile four was dedicated to my best friend, and sister; mile five to my brother. At mile six, I thought it fitting to dedicate my run to my grandfather, a Korean War veteran. It was after all, Memorial Day weekend. Each subsequent mile followed suit, with a dedication to someone who helped lead me to where I am today.

My most important mile, mile 13, I saved for someone truly dear to my heart: my grandpa Mozer, who died in September 2001. I still remember all of the stories he told about snow-shoeing through Alaska with his pack of dogs and about great battles he valiantly won against strangers. He was the reason I fell in love with storytelling, and his memory gave me fuel in my last full mile. It also planted a seed for one of my next races, where I will dedicate the whole 13.1 to him and my best friend’s father, who both lost their battles with cancer.

 

(If you would like to donate to my Team Cure Challenge, you can find my page at: http://teamcurechallenge2015.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=1136332&supid=423748822. Every little bit helps and is greatly appreciated!).

 

The final .1 of the race, I had to dedicate to Dave, for all of his support and encouragement, and for helping me achieve more than I ever thought possible of myself and my body. There were times when I wanted to quit, but he never let me. The entire trek was made possible—and much more pleasant—by Dave’s words of encouragement.

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I was kicked at mile 10, but somehow, I kept moving forward. The signs along the trail helped. When someone tells you: You Look So Skinny Right Now! or My parents are doing this, and they’re old!, you tend to find motivate to push yourself even more. When I saw the finish line, I found strength in myself to haul as fast as I could across the finish line. As my feet halted to a stop at the end of course, my exhaustion was replaced by disbelief and pride.

When they placed the finisher’s medal over my head, it wasn’t the feat itself that I was most proud of: it was the thought of the people in my life who transformed me into who I am today. It is because of them that I have the strength to wake up each day and work toward my goals.

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I’ve never felt more fortunate or blessed than I did at that finish line. And that, dear readers, is why I run: because when life threatens to buckle underneath you, you need to learn to spring back up and book it to the finish line, especially when it hurts the most.

Also, the cool finisher’s medal helps a lot.

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Today is the one-month anniversary of my trip to Madrid, which means I’ve officially been home for just as long. Apart from a few cultural factors, it seems almost like I never left the U.S. but rather just fell asleep and when I woke up, my dreams lingered. The only difference is the dreams are actually memories. It’s so strange how quickly life fades into that word: memory. I have all these images floating around in my head of Madrid and such a strong recollection of everything that happened there, that it contrasts with my current reality. I suppose, however, that’s what memory is: a series of distinct images strung together with the ghosts of words and a feeling of nostalgia.

One month ago, I touched down in New York City, exhausted and disillusioned by my travels. A painfully long layover and a quick flight later, I was reuniting with my family and Zack. Despite my dismay at leaving Madrid, there was nothing quite like the sight of my family waiting for me just beyond the gate. Mel, Dawn, Dad, Joey, Mom, and Zack were all seated on the other side of the glass divider and when they saw me, their eyes lit up, and they rushed to meet me. I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t even know who to hug first. On a side note, hugs: VERY American. I’m not talking dos besos, or quick embraces, I’m talking full-on body squishes, taking someone and literally squeezing the life out of them. Those are the kinds of hugs I missed so much while I was abroad, and in the airport, that’s exactly what I got, along with flowers, iced coffee, and Blistex (thanks America for fixing my dried lips). It doesn’t matter who you are, nothing compares to the feeling of coming home. Whether you’ve traveled from China to Alaska, Canada to Argentina, or, in my case, Spain to New York, it’s always nice to see the ones you love again.

Flash forward to today and the excitement of being home is starting to settle into a comfortable rhythm that was ultimately inevitable. On Monday through Friday, I wake up and work eight-and-a-half-hour days, eat American food, and sleep normally (that one took me a while to adjust). Lather, rinse, repeat. Every now and then I get the random munchies at ten p.m. when I would be eating dinner in Spain or I get the urge to respond in Spanish when I accidentally bump into someone in public. Beyond that, though, I had more pride than ever before on the 4th of July and actually knew for once in my life what it meant to be American. I’ve been seeing my friends and boyfriend as much as I can and am currently looking forward to spending a week down in Florida (heck yes to keeping the travels going!). I’ve been pinching pennies to payoff some of the debt I incurred abroad and now know the meaning of being poor. Merecía la pena!

I do miss walking the streets of Madrid and eating crepes in La Puerta del Sol and I do miss my café con leche every morning. I miss practicing Spanish every day and hopping on a plane to France for the weekend and staying up until 5 a.m. with Crystal eating our Palomitas  de maíz  while watching terribly-dubbed television. On the flip side, I’ve been fortunate enough as to go kayaking with my dad, stay up until 4 a.m. with my roommate eating Mighty Taco and talking about life, and sit in a parking lot near the airport with my babydaddy just watching all the planes take off to some  unknown destination. Life is a checkerboard of good and bad living simultaneously together. Without one, the other would be spotty and parts of it would seem empty. Equally, when you leave something behind, there’s always something else waiting to happen, and that’s what I’m looking forward to. Memories happen all the time, and sometimes you don’t even realize when they’re being made. So while I polish off my memories of Madrid and keep them alive, I’m trying my best to make new memories here. Hey, you don’t have to be in Europe to have fun!

The clock on the bottom of my computer screen reads 3:15 a.m. as I begin to write the final post of my experience here in Spain. It’s hard not to get sentimental during a time like this, and right now my emotions have reached nostalgia after rolling through a wave of more dramatic sentiments. This is the last time that I’m going to be sitting on this couch in a four-story house in front of a Spanish television. This is the last time that I’m going to be living the life I’ve carved for myself here, and it’s the last time I’m going to be thinking these thoughts amidst a country so dynamically different from mine. Maybe I shouldn’t jump that far ahead, because I still have high-hopes for future travels and plans. I’m not the same person who arrived in Spain five short months ago. I’ve learned so much about the world, society, and life by living here. When I first arrived, I was scared stiff, my eyes furiously shifting back and forth trying to take in my surroundings. I was clueless about public transportation and sadly ignorant about a lot of things that were going on in the world around me. Now, I have no doubt that I have grown so much as a person and have learned more about myself than I ever would have by living for years in the United States. I will never forget the memories I’ve had here, the friends that I’ve shared every special moment with, and even the times that have tried my patience. Each experience that I’ve had here has contributed to who I am in this moment, and I will forever carry Spain with me as I move on with my life.

Before I left the U.S., my uncle told me to set goals for myself and I did. The two most important were 1) to learn the language and 2) to see things that startle me. Five months later, I’m happy to report that I’ve done these things beyond my wildest dreams. The language aspect is often a touchy subject with me, because I came here hoping to make myself fluent. I’ve struggled every day with the language barrier that existed and with my inner critic telling me that I wasn’t doing well enough. On several occasions, I have felt like an idiot standing before native Spanish speakers, trying to pick out words and phrases that I was familiar with and then trying to shape my own thoughts into those in the Spanish language. On several occasions, I’ve broken down and been mentally exhausted from the effort it has taken to try to learn this language. On several occasions, I have gazed upon the face of someone who hasn’t understood a single word I said despite my finest attempt at saying it. This has humbled me, because I know that dreams don’t always easy and that goals are not easily accomplished. With this, though, came those few moments of sheer bliss such as when I had a conversation with someone as if were entirely in English or when I cracked a joke in Spanish that made everyone laugh. These fleeting moment have made it all worth it, and in the end, I may not be one hundered percent fluent, but I’ve gotten so much better at saying what I need to say. The words don’t come out perfect. Sometimes they are broken or distorted, but they come out, and finally, people can understand me! I never knew how amazing it was to have the power of language until it didn’t come easy, and now I have such a newly found respect for anyone with any type of disability that prevents this.

Beyond this, I’m so proud of myself for reaching the level I have. It’s not perfect but it’s something, and for that reason, alone, I can smile. As for the second goal, it almost goes without saying (please forgive the cliche, but it’s now 4 a.m.). I aimed to “see things that startle me,” and, in retrospect, that one was accomplished almost on a daily basis. Every time I learned something about the Spanish language or set foot in a different city, it left a unwavering impression on me. The first impressionable moment occurred when I was sitting in the Valley of the Fallen for the first time, my feet dangling below me as I sat perched on a wall overlooking the mountains. Despite the bitter cold that kissed my face, the view overtook any worry or concern I’ve ever had in my life. In that moment, I knew my goal had been accomplished, though so many other factors also accomplished the same thing. Everything I’ve realized about communication, everything I’ve seen, has all startled me and shaped me.

This past week has been full of doing everything I possibly can while in Madrid and saying my despedidas (farewells). Last night, for instance, was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever faced in my life. Crystal, Taylor, and I went to an Italian restaurant with our Mexican friends as a final goodbye dinner. We ordered all the food in the world, chatted about life and our future, and laughed, all while the gravity of our impending departure weighed down on us. Each person made a speech to the group of 10 of us, and we talked about the memories we’ve had, the traveling we’ve done, and the friendships we’ve formed in two separate languages, depending on the person. After, we went to Madrid, walked around, signed each others’ Spanish flags and ate churros. On the bus ride back, the tears streamed. We overtook the back of the bus and each sat there, talking little and thinking a lot. Our friend, Ivo, played the song “Good Riddance” by Green Day on his iPod and everyone sang along, not quite ready to say goodbye. It was a bus ride we’d taken together many times before and the seats and windows were familiar to us all, but something was different. When you know that moments are limited, you tend to take in a lot more, and that particular moment seemed so distinct. Taylor sat there rubbing my back as she prepared to leave and when we approached her stop, I watched her hug Crystal and remembered all the classes we’d had together and our roles in each different trip we’ve taken. She hugged my quickly and was gone. My eyes filled with tears as she left the bus and I peered out the window to see her disappear into the night, an image cemented in my memory. My friend Carlos grabbed my hand and when I looked up to see that he too had began to cry, my heart broke. Carlos is such a sweet person and he would rather freeze to death than see you shiver once. Him crying made it real. I looked over and saw my other friend Karen trying to hide her eyes, and I laughed at my own strategic placement of my sunglasses to hide the tears. After those last moments together, our lives would forever diverge and we’d all move on to different experiences. We came together through an experience so distinct and unique in comparison to other experiences, and while we talked about having a reunion, part of me worries that I will never see them again. We’ve shared so many beautiful moments together, and no matter what happens, I will always carry them in my heart.

I’m trying very hard to see the positive in everything, and as they say, all good things must come to an end. Life can be so bittersweet sometimes. Agridulce. I’ve been removed from my life back home and while I have some inkling about what is going on, I’m going to again be thrown back into the mix, hopefully as if nothing ever changed. I hope that things are the way I remember them and that my “hellos” will be as strong as my despedidas were. I’m sad to leave this experience behind me, and perhaps the saddest thing is not knowing when I will be able to do something as equally life-changing. My program director told me that from here, it’s up to me and that I can pretty much form my own future. I know she’s right, and I know this is one taste of an entire dish that I have for my future. I’m going to miss walking the streets of the city that I’ve come to call my own and I’m going to miss eating meals with the family that has become so dear to my heart. Equally, I’m excited to see my family, friends, and boyfriend and to share stories with them about everything that I’ve done and hear their own stories. I’m not quite sure I’m prepared to decipher my own feelings on leaving, beyond me labeling it as “bittersweet,” but I do know that no matter what happens, Spain will hold a special place in my heart. As the Spanish say, “No es adios, es hasta luego.” And now, Buffalo-bound.

“You’re gonna miss this. You’re gonna want this back. You’re going to wish this days hadn’t gone by so fast. And these are some good times, so take a good look around. You may not notice now, but you’re gonna miss this.” -Trace Adkins

A majority of our time is spent in constant motion. Americans are eternally obsessed with progress and moving forward, which often leaves relaxation and enjoyment in the lurch. With that being said, there are those few rare, fleeting moments that happen in life that silence all the background noise and strike you with their perfection. It’s almost like being pinched and feeling no pain. You’re moving along and living your life. You’re going, going, going, thinking about what you have to get done, thinking about all that things that have or have not gone right in your day, worrying about this, debating that. Your mind is racing. Then all of the sudden, something pinches you and you’re brought back down to Earth to see what is right in front of your face. It doesn’t have to be some grand epiphany about the universe, nor does it have to be something that forever changes you and your mentality toward life. Sometimes, its just an image that sticks with you forever, no matter how insignificant it seems to others.

For me, that moment happened  yesterday in Madrid. It was so simple, and maybe it won’t make sense to anyone else, but to me it just seemed so undeniably perfect and memorable. We made a trip into Madrid to grab a bite to eat at our favorite restaurant, Cien Montaditos, and then to watch a movie. By the time we finished, it was around around 1 a.m., and we dropped our friend off at her apartment and went back to the bus stop to wait. We had time to kill, so I brought my friends to this one spot just down from the bus stop that overlooked the entire city. The four of us, Carlos, Geminis, Crystal and I, sat on top of a cement wall, our feet dangling over the side. Spread out before us was Madrid: a long river, a ton of buildings, a few trees, and lights that lit up the city skyline. Two specific trees glowed purple because of the lighting and the river reflected the different colors. The night was still and none of us talked, not because we were incapable, but because there was no need to. Earlier, we had been talking about how our time in Spain was running out and how we’d all miss each other, but in that moment, with eight legs dangling below us, everything suddenly became real. There I was, sitting among people I’d become so close to in just 5 short months, taking in the view of a city that I’ve come to call home, even if it is only a temporary one. Two of us on that wall were Spanish-speakers and two of us were native English-speakers. Each set of us came from very different backgrounds, with very different stories and very different futures, but it didn’t matter. Somehow, we’d all managed to overcome whatever language barrier existed between us, and we’d become friends. Somehow, through it all, we’d all established a way of communicating with each other that was quite imperfect– but worked. In that moment, it wasn’t the communication, but the lack thereof: Four of us sharing the same view, each of us thinking our prospective thoughts, knowing that time is running out for our experience here.

I have endlessly been asked how I feel about the fact that I have a week until I return home to the United States of America, to New York. Truth be told, I’m not sure how I feel about it. To date, this semester abroad has been the best thing I’ve ever done with my life. Since high school, I knew I wanted to study abroad and that idea never faltered in my mind, but in all honesty I was terrified a few days before I came here. I wasn’t sure what to expect with my host family, the university here, the language or even the country, itself. It was the first time I’d ever ventured into something so boldly unknown and new. College was one thing, but living in a foreign country for six month? Tan diferente! I can’t sit here and tell you that it was all candy and butterflies. I struggled at times with the language and the culture shock and with feeling so different from everyone, but I can tell you that it was the best decision I’ve made so far. I’m not the same person who arrived here five short months ago; I’ve grown so much. I’ve seen things beyond my wildest dreams and learned how to deal with adversity. Granted, I’m still young and I have so much more to learn in my life, but I think this was a good stepping stone. After taking this semester abroad, I now know that if I set my mind to something, I can do it. As for the going home aspect, I’m excited. I get to see so many faces that have been absent in my life for five months. I get to eat all my favorite foods again, and I get to go back to the familiar. Living outside your comfort zone stimulates growth, but having something familiar keeps you grounded and sane. I do wish my experience here was longer and that I had more time to perfect my Spanish and travel Europe, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that it can’t last, and I know that this will not be my last life experience.  I guess from here, it’s time to go home and see what comes next.

A Weekend in le Paris

In my time here, I’ve eaten the finest Spanish cuisine, mingled with the natives, taken a ride on the London Eye, t0ured the Guinness Factory, and taken a scenic train ride through Palma, Mallorca, among other things. In the first few months alone, I saw more and experienced more than I had ever planned, both in and outside of Spain. So what else could I possibly add to this dream come true? Paris, of course. Last weekend, I finally made it to the city that I always promised myself I would see would see, and it was incredible. As of now, it has officially topped the list as one of my favorite cities and is tied with, if not better than Madrid (Yes, I’m slightly biased because I live do live in Madrid).

We started our trip last Thursday by spending the night at the airport. Our flight left at 7:20 a.m., so to avoid confusion with the metros and buses, we just went the night before.  We brought a soccer ball and some food and camped out on the floor, mixed among numerous other people. It kind of looked like a homeless community in a way with everyone clinging tightly to their luggage, trying to steal a few hours of shut-eye before the day broke. Needless to say, Hali and I only got about an hour of sleep. I guess that’s what you get when you are struggling college student trying to travel the world. That’s always where the best memories come from, though<3

Yes, this really happened.

 

 

 

 

 

By the time we actually got on our flight, we were exhausted and passed out the whole way to Paris. Ryanair flies into a place just outside of Paris called Paris Beauvais. It was a little over an hour away and the airport is in the middle of nowhere and looks like a warehouse. A few random machines and bathrooms were literally just thrown inside of a building and we had to take a tour bus to the actual center of Paris. Again, we slept the entire way, fitting in as much sleep as we could; beds are a thing of the past, anyway. At the bus stop, we took a metro to Joinville Le-Pont, where our hostal was located. Despite my attempt at being very well-organized and prepared, we got a bit lost and relied on others to point us in the right direction. We arrived at Hostel Hipotel Paris Hippodrome and were exhausted from the traveling. For a hostel, our room wasn’t terrible, but it was small and the air conditioning didn’t work. For the price we paid, however, they had an elevator and a TV in each room, so I’d say it was worth it. Hali, unfortunately, had to sleep on a pull-out mattress that was insanely small and came out from under the double bed I slept on. It reminded me of a motorcycle with a caboose. Hali just looked so small!

Munching on some Doritosss

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To recharge, we took a quick nap before heading out to see the sites of Paris. Our first stop was a restaurant for some food because we were literally starving to death! Needless to say, communicating was interesting. All we knew how to say was “Bonjour” and “Merci,” so to actually order, we put on our best smiles and pointed to the pictures on the menu. Thankfully the waiter got the jist of what we wanted. We smiled again and said, “Merci,” in the best French accents we could. Sadly though, my accent was awful. I think we’ll stick to speaking Spanish. Our food arrived, and true to the stereotype, it was delicious. Paninis, crepes, the whole sha-bang was perfect, and It wasn’t  just because we were hungry.

From there, we made our way to the Louvre, or the famous museum in Paris that is considered to be the most highly visited. The architecture was beautiful and adorned with statues, fine trimming and fountains. We learned on the walking tour that we took later that weekend that for a while the royal family used to live at the Lourve and when they moved to Versailles, they converted it into a museum, as they do with most things that pass their expiration date. The Louvre has a grande entrance way that leads to a small plaza, and then you pass another entrance way to make it to the main Plaza. There, there are three glass pyramids that contrasted directly with the old-style architecture and make the area more unique than most places I’ve seen. We took our tourist-style pictures and went inside for free. Oh the joys of being a student in the European Union!  The Louvre is home to one of the most famous paintings in the world: The Mona Lisa, and though it was a lot smaller in size than I thought it would be, it looked exactly like the pictures. We had to battle crowds of tourist to get through to see it for a few seconds. There were also some pretty cool Egyptian displays with mummies and artwork which also caught my attention. The museum was so big though, that we couldn’t possibly see it all. After a few hours, we headed out to our next destination: El Torre Eiffel (whoops, the Eiffel Tower).

Rory and I next to one of the pyramids in the plaza of the Louvre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Egyptian display

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second we caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, it felt like Paris or everything I’ve ever known about Paris. In the distance, it looked small, but up close, it was anything but small. After about an hour of walking toward it, it kept getting bigger and bigger, until it soared above us. We got there at exactly the right time, because we took our pictures before it lit up and took more just as they were turning the lights on. Everyone gathers around for that and the plaza was filled, and a wave of “awws” overcame everyone the second they hit the switch. It was a site to see, and at one point, the lights even blinked. Hali, Rory, and I were all in shock at the fact that we were actually standing under something that we’ve spent our lives hearing about. Paris: the city of romance. That’s certainly the truth.

Feeling brave, we decided to climb the Eiffel Tower. The line was long to take the lift, so for the low, low price of 9 euros, we climbed the stairs half way up, then took a lift to the highest point. We did this all despite Rory’s overwhelming fear of heights, and Hali and I were so proud of him for doing it! We climbed the stairs for about twenty minutes; it was quite a hike, and some people even stopped on the landings to catch their breath. I was taken back by how many older people were taking the hike, though they took their sweet time. New goal set for me: to be that adventurous when I’m old and gray. Anyway, even from half way up the monument, you could see all of Paris. It was night, so everything was lit up and contrasted with the night sky.The scenery was truly beautiful but even better from the top. You could see the Triumphal Arch, which saw close-up later, and the River Seine, which were both mixed into the Paris landscape. It was crazy to think we were actually that high up, on top of a monument in the middle of Paris.

Eiffel Tower at night.

Me of top of the Eiffel Tower

View from the top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, we took a free walking tour with Sandeman’s New European Tours. They are honestly some of the best tours I’ve ever been on in my life, and I’ve followed them religiously in every major city I’ve gone to. So far, I’ve been on their tours in Sevilla, Madrid, Dublin, and now, Paris. All the guides are “free lance,” and they basically give these tours on their own time for tips only, but I haven’t had one negative experience with them. Our guide in Paris was Naomi, a university student from Scottland who came to France to better learn the language, a story with a strangely familiar ring to it. She had a fiesty sense of humor and knew a lot about French history. We walked all around Paris for three and a half hours, listening to everything she had to say, and though we were exhausted at the end, we learned a lot. We passed the River Seine again and crossed over some of the famous bridges, lined with locks that people put on them. Apparently couples who come to Paris buy locks and write their names on them. Then they go to the bridges, lock them onto a certain spot and toss the key into the river. This is suppose to symbolize their love lasting forever…well or at least till the end of the trip 😉 All jokes aside, though, Paris truly is the city of romance.

That night, the three of us were blessed enough by my aunt and uncle to take a dinner cruise down the River Seine, and it was so amazing. We departed from under the Eiffel Tower, aboard a glass-encased boat. We were dressed in our finest clothing, ready to eat the finest cuisine, and the atmosphere was so elegant. Our waiter seated us all and brought us all wine, water and bread to tide us over before the cruise began. He also stopped back every now and then to explain some of the sites that we were passing and gave us some background about the city. I was very surprised to learn that there is another Statue of Liberty in France, and though it is a bit smaller than the one back home, it definitely reminded me of New York. Our first course arrived, and it was Asparagus and shrimp soup, followed by mashed potates, then duck. I was so proud of myself for trying different foods and am happy to report that it was all delicious. It was all the better because we topped it off with coffee and desert, a chocolate creme cake. As we ate everything, though, we got to take in the beautiful sites at night, see everything lit up, and even listen to a live band that was playing some amazing songs. It was truly incredible, and to end the night, we left the ship and layed under the Eiffel Tower, just relaxing after our meal. The whole thing was perfect, and I cannot thank Aunt Karen and Uncle M enough for their amazing gift! Thank you guys for making Paris a dream come true 🙂

Dressed up and lookin’ classy 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rory and Hali, all cleaned up and looking nice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Le menu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mashed potatoes yum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And dessert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View from the boat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On our last day in Paris, we got up early and checked out our hotel. We had a nice breakfast and went inside of Notre Dame Cathedral. The inside was beautiful and mass was going on when we were there, so we got to see how big of a celebration it was. The stain-glass windows and statues showed an acute attention to detail, and it was a nice way to wrap up our trip. We had a little time after that, so we got some Starbucks and sat by the Louvre before our journey back to Madrid. Though it was only for a weekend, I feel like we definitely fit a lot into our time there. My only wish was that we had enough time to go the Palace of Versaille, where the royal family used to live. It is suppose to boast some of the most beautiful gardens in the world. I can’t complain too much, though, because it was definitely everything I wanted and so much more! ❤

If I could, I would tell you that my fingers were miserably broken and that I couldn’t type. If I could, I would tell you that a black hole opened up in the center of the Earth and swallowed my laptop whole (I just barely managed to get away!). If I could, I would tell you that I had temporary amnesia and forgot how to write or that I had a severe case of writer’s block. Instead, I’m going to be the honest Abe that I am and tell the truth: I’ve been living my life in Spain and simultaneously neglecting my blog. I was a writing-machine for a few months! How could I be so careless? Well the cycle ends now; it’s blog time.

Since the last time I wrote, I’ve been to Avila (a little town about an hour northwest of Madrid) and Sevilla (a city in Andalucia in the South of Spain). As my days here get more and more limited, the more and more we are trying to fit in. Avila was a spur-of-the-moment kind of trip with the girls. UEM students had a two-day break in the middle of the week, one day for Labor Day and another day in celebration of the community of Madrid; hey, I will take what I can get. When you’re traveling to so many cities, after a while, things start to blend together and much of what you see feels familiar. When you see something different, it helps you better remember the city. There’s usually one or two things you can pin-point that are highlights and those things are the poster child for your trip. Thusly, each trip can be associated with one or two words.

La Muralla!

Word association for Avila: Wall, World Maps. We hopped on a metro and a bus to get to Avila and spent the day walking around, exploring. Unfortunately, many of the restaurants and shops were closed because of the holidays, so we went to one of the few restaurants that were open to grab bocadillos and coffee that we drank from mugs that had maps from throughout the world. Maybe it was the delicious flavor of the coffee or the ambiance of the cafe, but I remember those world maps. I was Brazil. Now if only I spoke Portuguese!  As we sat sipping and chewing, we saw a parade out the window with people donning giant costume heads of famous Spaniards while people surrounded them, watching the show. It was definitely one of the more interesting sites to see. From there, we roamed, taking in the sites of the cathedrals and buildings. Avila does boast an ancient wall, called La Muralla that we got to climb. It encompassed the entire city, and from the top, you could see the city skyline. Walking on top of the wall made me feel like part of the city and it was an adornment that was very unique.

Word association for Sevilla: Waffle, Italy. Strange, I know but let me explain. Less than a five-minute walk from our hostal in Sevilla was the Metropol Parasol, the world’s largest wooden structure. Essentially, it is a giant canvas that looks like a waffle. I could have slabbed some butter and syrup on it and had the biggest breakfast ever. Out of everything I have seen in Spain, this structure was definitely the most modern and it was just completed in 2011. It gave a very contemporary vibe to the city and contrasted dramatically with my established notion of what Spain is like, as did my association with Italy. During the free-walking tour we took on Sunday morning, we came across La Plaza España, which suited perfectly what I picture Italy to look like: high arch-ways, pointed buildings, fountains, and two mini-rivers with boats going up and down them. The architecture was stunning with artwork mixed into the walls and bridges and scenes painted on bench-areas where people could sit. We also learned that part of Star Wars: Episode II was filmed in that exact plaza. It’s crazy to think that we were walking in the same spot where they shot a major motion picture. As for the rest of our Sevilla trip, it was perfect. We saw La Giralda, or a high tower with bells on the top and the Catedral de Sevilla, where Christopher Columbus was buried. The weather held out, our hostalwas colorful and breakfast was included, and we even got to see another flamenco show that far exceeded the first one I saw. Sevilla is apparently the heart of the flamenco world, and the dancers have more passion than I’ve ever seen before in my life. It was written in their every move and every expression. You could see the sweat dripping off of their faces. It was also nice to talk to some of the other people who attended the show; two of them were from Canada and backpacking through Spain for three weeks. Another guy we met on our walking tour was in the military for ten years and had just started going back to school.  Everyone has a story.

Waffles for breakfast anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Plaza!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for Madrid, itself, I’m still trying to complete my “Madrid Bucket List,” where I wrote down everything I want to do before I go back to the States. I knocked off the bullfight, where we saw six bulls get killed by matadors on horseback. It was sad to see the bulls die, but you have to take it as an art form, because that’s exactly what it is. It is an integral part of the culture. I also managed to knock off going to a “football” game and saw the last one of the season! Real Madrid. v. Mallorca. Afterward, there was a huge celebrations to commemorate Real Madrid winning the division. They covered the entire field and set up a stage and had the whole stadium shouting “Campeones!” It was exciting to be part of.

Bullfight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Campeones!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s so hard to believe that I have 23 days left in this country. It feels like just yesterday, I was arriving here, without any notion of how things work or how to get myself to my house from the bus station. Now, a little over four months later, I am seasoned and a bit wiser. I’m not fluent in Spanish yet, but I’ve come so far that I surprise myself sometimes. I love being in public now and hearing the chatter around me and knowing that I can understand about 80 percent of what is being said. I love daily meals with my host mom and host sister and not having to cook or clean for myself. At this point, I am torn. I’m ready to go see my family and loved ones again because I miss them. At the same time things have changed at home that I’ve heard about but have not really had to deal with. I feel distant (not just physically) and separated from these changes and I know that going back with probably be a slap in the face. Then, there is the issue of this fantasy life coming to an end. I feel like I’ve been on a semester-long vacation with a few classes thrown into the mix. In these few months, I’ve grown and seen, I just feel like there’s more to see and grow with. Hopefully, that’s the spirit that will stick with my well into later life and hopefully I will continue to do crazy things like this that allow me to see the world.

This weekend is my last out-of-country trip, and I’m pleased to say that I  have high hopes for it. I’m Paris-bound and thanks to my amazing aunt and uncle, I will be taking a river-boat cruise fully equipped with fine cuisine. I feel so blessed to have the people I do in my life and don’t know what I did to deserve the kindness that people have been showing me. Every package I receive, every message I get, and every time I hear that someone reads my blog, it reminds me that I have people back home who love and care about me, and to me that is such an invaluable feeling when you’re all the way around the world. It reminds me that no matter where I go and or what I do, I always have someone out there who cares about me. I do wish that I could stay in this country longer but in the end, half of my heart is in New York.