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Archive for April, 2012

“And Your Bird Can Sing”

Usually, when Americans think England, they think fish and chips, double-decker buses, red phone booths, Harry Potter, and of course, English accents (bloody hell!). Officially having been to London, I am pleased to report that these stereotypes are true, right down to calling elevators “lifts.” My friend Kaitlin is studying in London, with an exchange program similar to mine. Her program, however, is shorter, and she’ll be going home in just a few short weeks. Going to see her was part two of my saga known as “Semana Santa,” and I was overwhelmed with excitement when she found me in the airport the Monday I left Dublin. She had been visiting a friend in Dublin at the same time as me, so the plan was to meet up right  before our flight, fly together, then head back her dormitory. I went with Crystal to the airport around two to see her off, even though my flight didn’t leave until around 10. For some strange reason I was in a giddy mood, be it because of the thrill of traveling or overwhelming amounts of caffeine in my system, so Crystal and I ended up spending a few hours in the airport together, having real talk and laughing our faces off, much to the dismay of people around me. In my defense, we had to make the time pass somehow. She left around five, and I went to buy Starbucks and a burger to tide myself over while I waited. I am forever in debt to the Starbucks industry for making my day with something so simple as a 5 dollar/euro Frappuccino. I will pay the price just for 20 minutes of pure bliss. When I went back to my terminal, I found a comfy spot on the floor, put my iPod in, and leaned back against my backpack to do a bit of writing. There’s something about the hustle and bustle of the airport that breeds inspiration. There is an air of excitement. People scurry to get to their destinations, lugging along suitcases, bags, and whatever else they can carry. I often wonder where they’re all going and what their story is; I guess it’s not always easy to shake the journalist in me.

I was contemplating the people around me, when I glanced over my notebook and saw someone charging toward me. She tossed a box to the ground, sprinted across the airport, and wrapped herself around me. Only later did I discover that the box contained a piece of pie. Now that’s true friendship: tossing your pie aside to hug someone. Kaitlin was my first friend from Oswego. We met each other orientation day, both scared high school students, not quite sure what to do with ourselves as we walked around the campus. Three years later, there we were in an airport on the other side of the world. It was strange to see someone so familiar in such a foreign environment; strange, but comforting. She ended up arriving only an hour and a half after Crystal left, and the time passed pretty quickly as we sat on the airport floor, talking about our lives. The next thing we knew, we were boarding our plane with RyanAir, and making our way to the lovely city of London. We didn’t touched down until around 11:30 and didn’t actually make it back to her dorm until after 1 a.m., after taking two buses and walking for about a half hour. She lives quite far from the airport, but luckily the view on our walk was phenomenal. We had to cross this bridge that had an incredible view of of the river  and was lit up. It was encompassed by beautiful brick and modern buildings on either side. The bridge itself had a series of black antique-looking light poles. When we finally arrived to the University of Roehampton, we barely made it to the bed before passing out. Traveling can be draining.

The next day, Kaitlin and I decided to have a picnic in the biggest park in London, Richmond Park. The scenery was fully-equipped with greenery, rolling hills, and tons of deer everywhere you look. When we woke up, we went to the town over (Putney) to buy groceries and concessions for our picnic. When we got back, we made ourselves a timeless classic: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We ate our sandwiches in the park and walked around for a while, taking it all in. Younger couples sat together and lay about, while older people were walking their dogs and children were chasing deer. It was very relaxing after our hectic travels the day before. That night, we went to a restaurant called The Railway, where I indulged in some of the most delicious chicken I’ve ever had in my life and, of course, a coffee 🙂 I even managed to try some of Kaitlin’s fish and chips, because it is the specialty (yes, me, trying fish!). When we went back to her dorm, we watched some shows and ate a ton of chocolate cake.

The next day, we ventured into the actual city center to see some of the major sites. We took our trusty double-decker bus to get there and sat on top so  we could see out over the city. Riding these things can actually be a pretty frightening experience– the drivers seem to play a game where they get as close to things as humanly possible. It’s certainly a different perspective riding up there, though. Instead of seeing people pass by, you look down over people who seem a bit smaller than before. You see tops of bus stops, instead of the actual stops, and trees become difficult to maneuver under. The slap of tree branches against the bus wasn’t always the most comforting thing in the world, but it was definitely cool to be seated so high up. Our first stop was Piccadilly Circus, which is essentially the Times Square of London; lots of bright advertisements, numerous department stores, and a fountain in the middle (though that would be more of a Puerta del Sol influence). From there, we started walking and saw Trafalgar Square, the famous home of four gigantic lion statues situated around a column that nearly touches the skies with a statue resting on top. The lions are so big that not only can you climb on them (with a great deal of difficulty getting up), but you can probably fit a small class-size of children on one of the lion’s backs. I attempted to scale the lion and jump on its back, but surrendered when I realized there was a very real possibility of me falling many feet below. The square, however, was beautiful with two huge fountains and a giant clock that counts down the days until the Olympics. All over the city, people are preparing to host the classic event, and it was so exciting to be there in the months leading up to it!

From there, we grabbed a Costa Coffee, the Starbucks of London (though they have a ton of Starbucks, too) and walked to the Houses of Parliament. The building was the epitome of Gothic architecture: brown and gray, with tall, pointy columns reaching up toward space. Along with the Houses of Parliament, we got to see the giant clock tower that holds Big Ben! Just passed that, we crossed over a bridge that covers the River Thames and runs parallel to the Millennium Bridge, which I discovered was used in the final book of Harry Potter. Talk about cool stuff. Situated between the two bridges is the London Eye, the biggest Ferris wheel in all of Europe, with a diameter of about 400 feet. The carts are actually these giant pods that fit about thirty people, and from the very top, you can see almost all of London. Despite Kaitlin’s overwhelming fear of heights, I, being the good friend I am, dragged her on it and it was definitely an experience of a lifetime. Down below, everyone looked like an ant. It took about a half hour or more to go around the whole thing, and afterword, I took Kaitlin to Pizza Hut as a reward for her going with me. And yes, people, sometimes it’s okay to do the American things! Pizza Hut never tasted so good.

The London Eye

Over the next two days in London, we hit up the Globe Theatre, Buckingham Palace, and Abbey Road, yes THE Abbey Road. Ever since my high school classes with Mr. Spitler and Mr. Franco, it has always been a dream of mine to see the famous Shakespeare theater in London, and on the day we went, I was in all my nerdy glory. Standing outside the globe made me feel right at home, and I was so happy to see that it was just like the pictures, a white and brown cylinder with the middle cut out. We took a tour of the theater and learned about how it was part of a rebellious culture back in the day and was burned down and rebuilt. Buckingham Palace was equally huge and exquisitely designed, suitable I’d say, for a royal family. Outside, there were the cliche men you see in all the movies, donning Red suite jackets, black pants, and those tall furry hats. They marched with purpose to and from both sides of the grounds, and carried their rifles close to their chests. I was slightly disappointed to realize that they didn’t actually stand there, unable to blink an eye while people move around them, but hey, I’d imagine that would get pretty boring after a while. On the grounds of the palace, itself, was another giant fountain (those things pop up all over Europe) with angels surrounding it and a golden eagle resting on the very top. Thousands of coins shined in the pool of water that surrounded it, each one holding the wish of some passerby. Kaitlin and I made our own wishes and went to the royal gardens, which were alive with some of the most vibrant and well-maintained flowers I’ve ever seen. I guess that’s one of the benefits of being the Queen of England: you get to have nice things. Oh, to be royal, if only for a day! However, my favorite part of the whole trip was most likely our trip to Abbey Road. For anyone who isn’t a huge fan of the Beatles like myself, Abbey Road is the famous road with the crosswalk that the Beatles used for one of their album covers, and the picture has since been reprinted in posters like the one I  have back home in the States. As a tourist destination, it wasn’t that exciting, because it’s literally just a crosswalk, but there was a decently sized crowd of people stopping traffic to have their picture taken crossing there. It was awesome to think that I was walking in the same place the Beatles did years ago! On the opposite side of the road is Abbey Road Recording Studios, but we weren’t allowed to go in. Outside of the studio, however, the wall was completely graffitied with quotes from Beatles’ songs or messages from fans that had visited over the years. I added my own little lyric and signed my name.

Me in front of the Globe Theatre

Royal Gardens

ABBEY ROAD!

These two trips were truly unforgettable experiences, and ones that I know I’m going to remember all my life. It’s incredible to learn about things for years and see pictures, then actually go there and see that picture in front of  you in three dimensions. I’m going to have stories to tell for years to come. As the Beatles said, “There are places I remember all my life, though some have changed. Some forever, not for better, some have gone and some remain.”  These places will remain with me forever.

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Everyone’s Irish on St. Patty’s Day

Two weeks ago, Crystal and I left the country for the first time since our arrival in Spain. We didn’t have classes because of La Semana Santa (Holy Week), so we made plans to go to Dublin, Ireland and after I would go to London, England and she would go to Liverpool, England. We booked our flights for the Thursday before break, so we would have to miss class that Friday, but doing so would save us a ton of money. Flights on that day were only 40 euros compared to the 100 or more euros that other flights cost. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into. There was an incredibly valid reason that flights were so cheap on that day, and we were unaware of it until a few weeks before the actual flight. Mind you, we booked them back in February. The date we picked to fly out was the same date as a nationwide huelga or strike. Everyone in the country was boycotting work in protest of the lack of jobs and of the unemployment rate, among other factors. Because of this, half the flights were cancelled for that day; there weren’t enough workers for them to fly out. We spent a week going back and forth to the airport, emailing people, and trying to figure out whether or not our flight would be one that was cancelled. We couldn’t book our hostal until we knew when we would be arriving to Ireland, so we needed to figure it all out. Luckily, two days before we were suppose to leave, we finally got confirmation and found out that our flight was actually going to be on time.

We quickly booked one of the last hostals available: Dublin International Youth Hostal. The room in the hostal was dorm-style, which meant we would be sharing the room with six other people. Uncomfortable but cheap. When we go there, the quality of the hostal exceeded my expectations. It used to be an old church, so everything had an eerily old and sacred feel to it. When you walked in the front door, there was a small lounge and a long reception desk. The people were incredibly welcoming and friendly, all of them eager to help us with our questions. Beyond that room was another small room with a line of vending machines to the left, a line of computers pressed against the back wall, a couple chairs and a pool table in the middle. Crystal and I had the chance to shoot a couple rounds when we were there and show off our not-so-professional pool skills. Our actual room was pretty bland and normal. There were four bunk beds in a line, each divided by a bright blue locker. At the far end was a sink and a window shaped like half a canoe and the paint was peeling. There were red and blue comforters on each of the beds and blue sheets that weren’t of the cleanest quality. Thankfully, we were given fresh white linens to put over them and a new pillow case for some of the flattest pillows I’ve ever seen. The showers were amusement-park style with a pull curtain and a push-button to operate the water. It was so much fun to push it every three minutes, especially when there was conditioner in my hard (oh the joys of sarcasm!). The coolest part of the hostal, however, was the dining area. It was the chapel part of this old church, and it was fully intact with stained-glass windows and a confessional booth against the far wall. The food was pretty standard, with toast, jam, cereal and drink options. We ate most mornings pretty quickly before heading out on the town.

 
The first thing I noticed was that the Irish people are some of the NICEST people you will ever meet. The second I got off the plane, I felt welcome and at home. It might have been their chipper attitude or the fact that they spoke my language or maybe there was something in the water, but it was a nice contrast to the stern etiquette of many people here in Spain. People were singing on the streets and playing their guitars or dancing. Night life was a mix of older generation people and younger generation people, which I thought was a bit strange. In Spain, the nightlife is all “jovenes,” but in Dublin, there were quite a bit of middle-age and elderly people out and about on the town, quite the refreshing mix. When we left the airport, I also realized, as we were riding on a double-decker bus (that’s right a real-life double-decker!), that people drive on the left side of the road, which got confusing every time I wanted to cross the road. When you’re in your own country, you definitely take advantage of the fact that you know the rules on how to cross. In Ireland, I had no clue and almost got hit by a couple cars.

They labeled the streets for people like us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first full day there, we went to the Dublin Zoo with one of Crystal’s friends from high school who is studying there and saw a tiger up-close and some penguin procreation. From there, we went to the Temple Bar area, which is the main strip in Dublin. There are bars, restaurants and ice cream shops to make everyone’s heart content. That night, went to the original Temple Bar, and I had my first Guinness beer in honor of my dad who has always dreamed of having one beer in an Irish pub 🙂 We also toured the Guinness factory, which was awesome, and I got to pour the “perfect pint of Guinness” behind a simulation of an actual bar. I ended up getting a certificate for it and felt proud of my sham achievement (they gave certificates to everyone!). There were at least seven floors to this factory, and we got to see old advertisements, follow the fermentation process (oh chemistry!), and sample little things of Guinness. I couldn’t help but laugh at one of the sign in the factory that said, “Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.”

Crystal and I in front of the Guinness brewery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also went on a free walking tour of Dublin, with an energetic Irish man named Richie. We learned all about the history of Dublin and the constant struggle for freedom, as well as a lot about Oscar Wilde, an Irish native, and Jonathan Swift and his Modest Proposal about eating babies. On the tour, we passed a club owned by Bono of U2 and heard the story about how he was once kicked out of that same bar back in the day. On the tour, I also heard the story about how “the luck of the Irish” is actually quite the ironic phrase, because Irish people are just about as unlucky as they come, or so Richie said. So the ancient stereotype about little men running around with pots of gold is actually a hoax, though souvenir shops definitely exploit the image and Ireland is one big shade of green.

I also got to try this traditional U.K. sandwich, called a pasty and Guinness beef stew 🙂 Yum. On the day we left, I got my hair cut at a sketchy little Chinese place, but it turned out fabulous and made me super happy. The city was pretty expensive, and I ended up spending more than I would have liked it, but it was worth it to feel the Irish ambiance. My favorite part was probably walking along the river at night, because it was all lit up with green and red light, and was absolutely beautiful 🙂 Another of my favorites was this little bar called The Quays (pronounced The Keys). There was live music every night by two guys on their guitars and they played some of the best classic rock sounds surprisingly well. The only drawback that it was crowded every time we went, even Sunday, but hey, I guess the people know when they hear something good.

The river view 🙂

Hasta la próxima!

Man singing in the street.

“Fight Fire with Fire”

(March 17-19) The weekend went up in flames, literally, and I’m still recovering. On that Saturday morning, I woke up bright and early at 6:30 a.m. to meet my friend at the bus stop at 7:30. From there, Taylor and I met with our friends Alejandra and Angela to catch another bus to go to Valencia for this huge festival called Las Fallas. When we got to the University Circle, we were taken back by the crowds and crowds of people waiting to board more than 50 buses that were going to the same place we were. Having done the math, there were 2,500 or more university students going, including ourselves. Talk about young enthusiasm. This festival brings people from all over Europe, and the excitement was evident. We drove for a couple hours when all 50 buses stopped and bombarded a rest stop. It was pure unadulterated savagery. People were pushing and shoving to get to the bathroom or to buy food, and the side of the road was lined with people “using the facilities” in a field. We had forty-five minutes to stop and just barely had time to do our business and buy a prepackaged sandwich to scarf down before hopping back on the bus. The driver insisted that there would be no food or drinks allowed on his bus. When we arrived in Valencia, the bus dropped us off at the heart of the city. We spent about 3 hours trying to find where we were staying, before caving and taking a taxi. Thankfully, it only cost us 15 euros in total but a whole lot of  frustration. The apartment was just outside the city, but the contrast was incredibly evident. In the city, there was nothing but noise, people talking and hustling and bustling to get to their destinations, but in our little pueblo, there was a complete tranquil silence. The old cliche that you could hear a pin drop certainly applied to that situation, and it was a nice reprieve from the earlier stress of our day. The area was very secluded and thick clusters of trees ran along side the road. Right outside the apartment building was the elusive yellow bus stop that we had been searching for all day through the advice of random people we asked on the streets. At very least, we now knew how to get back into the center of Valencia. Our apartment, itself, was two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom. The living room had two midsized sofas that were worn so you could feel some of the springs. Overall, it was a cute little place to stay and cheap when split between the eight or more of us who ended up sleeping there. After a very short nap, we found ourselves starving and rushed into the city to find food. The streets were thick with people and we fought our way into a small pizzeria where we ordered two family-sized pizzas and two liters of pop. We huddled together in the corner without any chairs and successfully managed to finish everything between the four of us. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t eat all day! After that, we wandered around the city to look at the actual fallas, or huge statues made of wood that is meant to fulfill some sort of theme. Usually, one falla has many different parts to it, each as finely detailed as the next, and there can be as many as thirty or more different figures per falla. They soar above you, forcing you to crane your neck to see it all, and you have to walk around the entire falla to truly take it all in. There was at least one falla every two blocks for an overall total of about 400 fallas, some bigger than others. After talking with one of the falleros, we found out that some of the midsized fallas costs upwards of 20,000 euros to make!

Me with a couple of the girls in front of a “small” falla

One of my favorite fallas was of a man dipping a woman while engaged in a dance. Around them were various other figures, but the colors were so vivid and the dancers were by far the biggest figures I ever saw. At the entrance of this one falla was an overhead arch of lights that formed a tunnel to lead up to the falla. At the opposite end of this tunnel was a huge life-like replica of El Torre Eiffel (Eiffel Tower) that was illuminated in florescent glowing lights. It was incredible and I felt like I was in Paris, so even if I don’t make it there, at least I have that memory 🙂 Another major part of Las Fallas is the fireworks. If this festival had a soundtrack, it would be constant BOOMS. Little children in the streets lit one every other minute and then smirk at the loud noise that made all the passersby jump. At the end of our first night there, the falleros had an extensive firework display that we got to watch from the roof of the apartment of one of our friend’s friends. From there, we walked the street, still crowded at 3 a.m. with people dancing and singing and drinking in the streets. Bands played both Spanish and English music and we stayed out all night just talking and eating churros. We decided to catch an early morning bus home and instead of actually sleeping, we went grocery shopping for food for the beach. After a quick stop home, we spent all day on the beach eating ham and cheese sandwiches and playing frisbee. I ended up falling asleep with a hoodie on and getting a line across my back from the sun; my legs were bright red by the time we left. From there, we showered, napped, went into town to eat and went to bed early! We planned out all of Monday before we slept and were out of the house by 10 a.m. with our backpacks. It was our last day there, and we wanted to make the most out of it. We first stopped off at the bus station to rent a locker and ditch our bags. From there, we saw the first-place falla, which was a huge representation of Michaelangelo looking down disapprovingly in the world. It was quite frightening. After that, we went to the Oceanografic, where we saw Nemo, dolphins and sea lions! I brushed up a bit on my sea animal Spanish vocabulary and took pictures of myself underwater. Included in our ticket was entrance to the Science Museum, where we got to do random things like row a boat, smell different scents, look at ourselves in special-effect mirrors and climb on top of the hulk.                 After that, we headed back into Valencia to see the most important part Las Fallas–the burning. Oh, maybe I forgot to mention that after putting in a year’s worth of work into creating these beautiful structures and displaying them for the world to see, the falleros strike a match and watch their beautiful masterpieces burn, all 399 of them. The first-place winner is fortunate enough to have their falla moved to the Falla museum, but the rest of them burn on the Monday after the week-long celebration to symbolize the end of that season and the start of a new one. We went to one falla and waited out in front of it to see them burn it, when one of the people working caught our attention. He let us come behind the barriers and explore the falla first-hand, even cutting a hole in the yogurt and letting us climb up inside of it! At the end, he let me keep a small token of the falla– a small sign written in Valenciano that the replica of President Obama was holding. I felt so proud to be from New York!               Unfortunately, they weren’t planning on burning that particular falla until after 1 a.m., so we could stay to watch them burn it; our bus left at 3 a.m. Instead, we moved to a bigger falla and watched the flames engulf it. Firemen surrounded it, keeping the blaze in check with hoses. People cheered in celebration and it was a beautiful site to see, though sad to see it destroyed. The fallero we talked to told us that the burning was meant to be something to be proud of. The work they put into them is worth it in the end, even if the falla doesn’t live forever. We also asked him if they had any control methods other than hoses for these blazes, to which he smiled and replied, “We’re valenciano, we don’t control anything.”                 We caught our bus at three a.m., made it back to Madrid by 7:30, and I was back in my house by 9. That gave me just enough time to shower and go to class…without sleeping at all. But as the Spanish say, “Merece la pena.”