Vivir según mi corazón

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.

 

On April 13-15, Crystal, Rory, Taylor, Cora, Geminis, Carlos, Karen and I decided to take an exotic vacation to the lovely island of Mallorca. Mallorca is one of the Balearic Islands in the east of Spain, which are hot spots for tourists from all over Europe, especially Germany. My initial thought was that this would be a great weekend to spend on the beach, taking in the sun and relaxing. Unfortunately, the weather conditions were predicted to be terrible for the entire weekend. That, of course, wasn’t going to stop us. We woke up bright and early to catch our flight at 11:35. We flew with Ryanair again, which is the cheapest way to get around Europe. It’s basically a “no-frills” airline, which means that they are immensely strict with baggage and try to sell you everything from travel insurance to clothing to make a little extra money. I have a very limited budget, so Ryanair has been the way to go. I have learned to pack lightly, though. That means one backpack with things stuffed in as tightly as possible, reusing clothing (gross, I know), going without accessories and fitting all my liquids into a small Ziplock bag.

When we got to the airport, our flight was delayed, so we hung out on the floor of the airport, talking about and in Spanish, English, expressions, traveling, and everything else we could possibly think about. Geminis, Carlos, and Karen are from Mexico, and they really want to learn English. I’m from the United States, and I really want to learn Spanish. Thus, a new system was born: I talk to Carlos and Karen in Spanish, only, and they respond in English. We correct each other sometimes (in the nicest way ever), and help each other learn. It’s the perfect system, and I like to call them “mis profesores,” or teachers.  They have a ton of patience when I try to talk, and I feel so comfortable talking to them, which is quite a feat seeing as I am intimidated by some of the Spaniards when they speak. I think the key thing I’ve learned is to let myself be dumb. I’m going to make mistakes and I’m likely to sound like a child, but practice is practice and I will never turn that down. Not to mention, my Mexican friends are so nice!

The group–photo taken by Karen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, the flight was pretty quick and painless. One minute we were asleep, the next we were there. When we touched down, it looked like it was going to pour. The skies were black and ominous, and the air was thick with moisture. We started on our way to get to the hostal, and someone flicked a switch in the heavens. The rain came down in waves. Two buses later and slightly damper than before, we arrived our destination: Hostal Ritzi, a small hole-in-the-wall dormitory with a friendly staff. They had free wi-fi and a cozy waiting area with a bookshelf full of books in varying languages. Our rooms were standard with beds and a sink, though the pillows were flat and the rooms not the cleanest. Overall, though, it wasn’t a terrible bang for our buck, but it wasn’t exactly the Hilton Hotel. I shared a room with Geminis and Crystal; they shared a bunk, and I had a free-standing bed against a window with peeling paint. The rest of our friends stayed upstairs in an old apartment that they turned into rooms, and the space was huge. After recovering for about an hour, we headed out to explore the town. Right around the corner was this huge tree that branched out in many different directions. We named it the “Tree of Life” and started singing The Lion King as our theme song for the weekend. Furthermore, there were ice cream places on every corner, so obviously we indulged a little bit. We stumbled across the “Plaza Mayor” of Palma, Mallorca, saw one of the cathedrals, and paid four euros to go into La Almudaina, the city palace. They had preserved some of the most important artifacts and put them on display, one of which was the “Roman Baths,” which consisted of a series of ceramic jars. I’m so glad we evolved from that. Thank you technology for indoor plumbing. One of the rooms in the palace opened into this huge porch that overlooked the sea. Right after that, we strolled along the sea, taking in the view.

Eating some ice cream :) The view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That night, we went out for some drinks and explored a little closer to the hostal. Down the street from us was a park with an  upside-down playhouse and some giant bird that we played on. We’re not creepy or anything.

GIANT BIRD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, we had brunch at an outdoor restaurant and gulped down our café while trying to shake out the fatigue. From there, we went to find the train station, where we were going to take a scenic train ride to the town of Soller. The train was built in 1895 and hasn’t changed at all since that time. It was made of fine wood and moved about a staggering 30 miles an  hour. The view, however, was lined with mountains and wilderness, and we had the windows cracked slightly to feel the breeze in our hair.  The woods were thick and the mountains sprinkled with snow. As we were chugging along, I thought about grandpa and his love affair with trains, his basement full of collectible trains, and the beer that was always in his hand. If you gave the man a beer and sat him on that train, he would have been in his glory. It’s crazy how the smallest things can remind you so much of someone and bring back fond memories, while simultaneously creating new ones with new people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After about an hour on the train, we arrived in the small town. The first thing we saw was a small cafe and a ticket window. We had to take a tram from the train into the actual city of Soller, but we had a bit of time to waste before it actually left. We walked around and saw a fountain and a market, and stopped off for more ice cream. I was hoping to find joy in that ice cream cone after the tragic loss of my camera, which committed suicide and jumped out of my hands. Now, I am sadly camera-less and have to rely on everyone around me for pictures 😦 My hands don’t quite know what to do when I see something beautiful now! RIP camera,  you were good to me for many years.

(INSERT PICTURE OF BROKEN CAMERA HERE….Oh wait……)

Anyway, we spent the rest of the day walking along the beach and looking at the pure blue water. It was too cold to go in, but we sat on the rocks and talked for quite a while. Crystal even managed to save the environment by fishing bottles out from under a dock. Someone should give her an award.

Picture compliments of either Crystal or Cora

Picture compliments of either Crystal or Cora

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, the weather was awful and my feet got soaked to the bone. I had to wrap bags around them to keep them dry, a trick I picked up from my mom many years again as the adventurous child of a concerned mother. Needless to say, going through customs was fun when I had to take those bags off. Before we actually headed back, though, we took an adventure to Las Cuevas de Genova and ended up getting lost when no one quite knew the exact location, even the bus driver. When we got there, we realized it was a behind a restaurant and our tour guide was a cranky old man. That didn’t stop us from enjoying ourselves, however, and the caves were still cool to see.

P

Photo compliments of Carlos!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the time we finished with everything and flew home, it was late at night and we were all exhausted. As always, it was worth it to tackle another part of the world. As of right now, I have plans to go to Sevilla, Barcelona, and Paris, which will conclude my trips over here, because time is running out so quickly and so are my funds! I feel like just yesterday we were arriving here, and now, we have just over a month left. My other friend who is studying here has even less than that, and with this realization, I’m trying to fit everything in that I can. Next weekend, we are going to a soccer game and a bullfight and today I went inside the Palacio Real, which was incredible in every way. I was impressed by the dome ceiling which were adorned with different scenes. Gold lions lined the corners of many rooms, and everything was appealing to the eyes. Let’s see how many more experiences like that I can fit into my time here 🙂

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.

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.

(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.”

One thing I’ve noticed about studying abroad is that it has this grandiose power to make you examine your life and who you are as a person. Being in Spain has made me acutely aware of the fact that I am, and will always be, an American. In my entire life, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked, “Eres de Estados Unidos, cierto?” so many times, in Spanish or English. It’s like people have a radar and are just able to pick Americans out of the crowd, no matter how well we may try to fit in. This is just one of the reminders out there that I was born into a culture so dynamically different from the one I’m in now. Customs are different, mentalities are different, and behaviors are different, and that’s entirely apart from the obvious difference in language. For example, here people are much more unapologetic than in the United States (I know, that comes as a shocker). By that, I don’t necessarily mean that they are more rude but rather more relaxed about things. Being bumped into at an airport isn’t viewed as something worthy of an, “Oh, I’m sorry” or “Pardon me.” Instead, people carry on with their daily lives. When I apologize to people, I often get strange looks. I guess that’s hint number one that I’m not from around here.

Another example of this self-awareness happened to me today when I was coming back from Madrid. I was standing in the metro station, waiting for the lucky number 518 bus to come along, and I’d forgotten my iPod at home. Instead, I sat there, listening to the conversations going on around me. Surprisingly, I’ve gotten better at being able to understand. However, as I was listening, I was thinking in English and the clash between my thoughts and the language just seemed so blatantly obvious to me. That’s when I realized that I was probably the only person in that area of the metro who was thinking in English. That simply blew my mind. I was in the minority. This wasn’t an American station where I felt like just another face in the crowd (Pardon the cliché), this was a place where I was distinctly other.

Another common thought that comes with studying abroad is what I like to call the I’m-going-to-remember-this effect, in which almost everything I do is accompanied by, “When I’m back in the States, I’m going to remember/ miss/  tell everyone about this.” I don’t know if what I’m feeling is pride or pure bliss, but every time I travel some place in Spain or Europe, a part of me reflects on how that’s going to effect me as a person down the line. When I think about how strange it is to be a world away from everything comfortable, I’m torn between two things: missing that comfort and being proud of myself for exploring uncharted territory. On one hand, I miss my family and friends everyday. On the other hand, I’m growing as a person each passing second. Spain has a lot to take in, and learning about the culture and art and foreign affairs and geography is super-charging my brain. I love every minute of it.

For example, last week, we went to visit Granada through El Coliseo. The trip was essentially full of elderly people with their significant others and us, six “jovenes.” We took tours around Granada to see the Muslim influence on the buildings and art. Looking at architecture was never something I was interested in in the States, but here it’s different because everything is so finely detailed and eye-popping. I’ve developed a deep appreciation for everything around me. The buildings there had tiles painted with vibrant blue artwork and the streets, as always, were paved in stone. At one point, we reached a hippy-center, where there were people selling things right near an overhang of the city. If you went to the edge, you could tell you were high above everything else, lost in the mountains. The houses were miniscule and you could distinctly make out Alhombra, a famous ground for three palaces, garmented with gardens and ruins from past dynasties. We actually went inside of it the next day on a guided tour. It was entirely in Spanish, and we had speakers that we had to wear to hear what our tour guide was saying. I felt like a business woman walking around, donning the ear piece, and though the concept of it was great, the reception was terrible. Often times it interfered with other groups or cut out at random times. Regardless, it was worth it to see everything.

Rory, Carolina and I in one of the gardens in Alhombra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another cultural event we finally experienced was a flamenco show. Flamenco is a traditional Spanish-style dance that combines tap rhythms with guitars, clapping, and a high-pitched kind of singing. Again, dance hasn’t always been my cup of tea, but there’s something so enticing about the passion that these people have for what they do. They literally put all their energy into moving their body and singing, and it’s inspirational to see. Then, to intensify everything, the costumes and lighting are so vibrant and lively. The club itself was a small building in the middle of no where, but the performers brought it to life. I was able to kick back with a glass of wine and watch it all unfold.

When we returned to our hotel that night, a four-star hotel nonetheless, we decided to see if we could go on the roof (It was our attempt at being sporadic “jovenes”). To our great luck, the door was wide open and when we stepped out the door, there was an entire dining, swimming, and bar area to enjoy on top of the hotel. The bar and pool were closed because it’s still only spring here (though it’s hard to believe with the 70-degree weather). However, the view was absolutely stunning. We looked out over the entire city, everything spread out before our very eyes, glowing against the dark of the night. Way below, every one and everything looked so small, and Crystal, Taylor and I all stipulated on where everyone was going or what they were doing. We had some incredible conversation, before returning to our rooms for the night. It was nights that I know I will remember all my life.

Crystal and I on the rooftop of El Hotel Carmen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond all of this, however, one thing I am immensely proud of myself for is trying new food. As everyone in my life knows very well, I am the world’s pickiest eater. Seafood, mushrooms, mystery meat; not my thing. In Spain, though, I have absolutely expanded my diet. I’ll admit that I still haven’t touched much seafood, but the other day, I ate Pate Pato or Duck Spreak with strawberry jelly on a piece of bread. I was surprised at how much I didn’t hate it 🙂 Yesterday, I ate hard-boiled eggs with tuna in the middle, two foods that I would never eat alone, yet alone mixed together. So while Conchi still has to cook me special food because I won’t touch seafood, I can proudly say I am making waves. Thank you Spain for expanding my taste buds.

Imagine that you were a person who has a lot to say. Imagine that you have strong opinions on just about everything and that you liked to talk…a lot. Now imagine that you open your mouth and the words just won’t come out. You know exactly what you want to say, but you can’t connect the thought with your vocal chords. You freeze, and instead, you sit in silence and let everyone else do the talking. Essentially, in a slightly less dramatic way, this is how I feel on a daily basis.

I know I’ve addressed this probably a dozen times in my blog, but the language here is just not coming easy for me. I think I came in with this expectation that because I studied Spanish in school for about six or eight years, I’d know enough to pick it up at a fairly quick rate. I’m not sure how, but I was somehow given the impression that by the end of these five months here, I would be able to hold a solid conversation. Now, I’m not so convinced. As William Shakespeare said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” My expectations are certainly not being met in regard to me learning. After five weeks here, I feel no better about being able to express myself than I did on day one. Often times, I feel redundant and foolish. I know that it’s part of the process of learning, but at times, it can get to be mentally draining. In addition, castellano, or the Spanish language that is spoken in Spain, is dramatically different from the Latin American Spanish that is taught in school in the United States. Therefore, I have to focus so hard on what people are saying, or I usually won’t pick it up. Furthermore, I’ve made English-speaking friends so we usually speak in English because it’s easier. I need to figure out how to overcome this bump and plan the next step. I’m feeling a little down about it now, but hopefully it’ll get better.

I can’t let myself complain too much, though. This trip is everything I’ve imagined and more. I’ve been doing a great deal of traveling and site-seeing, eating new foods and meeting new people. Travel is just as easy and cheap as everyone told me it would be when I got here. I have plans, and I’m going places, whoop!

This past weekend, I went to Segovia with Crystal and some of my other friends from the States, and to say the least, it was a blast. We woke up bright and early to meet up at 8 and catch the bus from Principe Pio at 9:30. My ticket only cost 13 euros, round-trip, and the ride was only about an hour and fifteen minutes. We stopped off at a small cafe before we left called, “Café y Té,” where we had coffee and tortilla, which is a traditional Spanish dish made of egg. When we got there, the weather was ideal and in the 60’s the whole time, the sun shining and everyone walking the streets. Our first stop was the Roman aqueduct that was constructed hundred and hundred of years ago. My host father told me that it was actually built into a mountain and then carved out, but the work was all manual. Can you imagine having to construct something without the use of any modern technology? Talk about challenging. This aqueduct is huge and stretched before me for miles. Slabs of stone are piled on top of each other in the form of arches, and there are two layers of these arches. Water is brought from the mountains and into the town using this aqueduct. Standing below it, a person is only a speck.

After the aqueduct, we ventured to Segovia’s version of La Plaza Mayor, where there were a ton of restaurants, a gazebo, some architecturally-lavish buildings, and what I think was a basilica. We didn’t have a tour guide so I’m not one hundred percent positive on some of the details, but the design of the building was so detailed and incredible. In the corner of the plaza were two bakeries where we went and got a few sweets and snacks to munch on. Our friend Cora loves taking pictures, so every so often, we would stop for a photoshoot, or she would take an action shot of someone eating a pastry. After this, we headed for the castle, which served as a fort during times of turmoil here in Spain. There is a gate that you walk through that leads to a small park area in front of the castle, itself. A fountain ornaments the middle of the park, with various statues dancing on top of it for decoration. We crossed a drawbridge to get in the castle, and a quick glance to either side showed deep motes vacant of water. I love heights, but other people weren’t so fond of it.

Inside the castle, we went up to the watchtower, but to do that we had to climb 150 stairs. It doesn’t sound terrible at first but when you’re doing that many stairs straight up a spiraling tower, you start to question your initial notion. I’d like to think I’m in shape, but after that march, I realized that I probably need to start working out a bit more. By the time we got to the top, we were all out-of-breath. The rooftop area was wide open and from any given point, you could see all of Segovia. Merece la pena, as they say in Spanish (It’s worth the pain). To top off the view, a Spanish flag blew in the wind on top of one of the walls, a tribute to us being in Spain. After the tower, we explored other parts of the castle, including some of the old armor suites that knights used to wear. The castle also boasts some of the most luminous and beautiful stained-glass windows. At the end of our tour, however, we stopped off at the basement for a photoshoot in the cellar. I posed as a prisoner 🙂 From there, we stopped at a restaurant where I had the most delicious chicken, bacon, carrot, and lettuce sandwich ever. I was in heaven.

Those were pretty much the highlights of the trip, and from there we grabbed another coffee and headed back to Madrid where we hung out at our friend’s apartment, walked around a bit, and then got crepes and milkshakes. I think the whole trip was made better by the fact that it was so last-minute. We were talking with our friend on Thursday about how we didn’t have plans for the weekend, and he looked some information up and that was that. I love that I can travel so easily. This weekend, we’re going to Granada and are going to spend the night in a hotel for the first time since we got here. I’m so excited!

As for everyday life here, it’s pretty much fallen into a routine. I wake up, go to class, eat with Conchi, try to motivate myself to run, do some homework and go on Facebook. At night, I usually go into Villviciosa for tapas with friends or go putter around and explore Madrid. I always have to make sure that I’m home for mealtimes, though, because Conchi always cooks something for us. Mealtimes are different here, though. Lunch is usually around 3 and dinner is usually around 10, so I’m starting to get used to eating very late and eating a ton of food at mealtimes. I would usually feel bad about eating so much, but everything my host family eats is healthy, so I feel less guilty. Tomorrow, we’re having a huge dinner with my host family and their son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law because it’s Conchi’s birthday! She’s sincerely the sweetest person ever and while the communication aspect isn’t always easy, she’s a very relaxed and charismatic woman. She talks a lot about Crystal and I coming back to visit her in the future. There’s no doubt in my mind that I will definitely be back here to visit.

“Just Watch the Fireworks”

This Sunday marks the end of my first month here, and what a month it has been. Since the last time I wrote, I’ve seen so many things that have opened my eyes a little bit more to the world I live in. Of course, there have been a few spotty moments of frustration and a few pangs of homesickness, but a lot of new experiences.

Classes began for me two weeks ago and it was a catastrophe. The classrooms changed at the last minute, professors failed to show up for class, and I was certainly in for a rude awakening with the language. I found myself sitting in a Spanish photography class, struggling to pick out words that I recognized from my professor’s long-winded speech about the supplies we would need and the projects we would be working on. I could get the gist of it, but details like what kind of paper we needed simply eluded me. Terrified about my future in that class, I went to the international office to switch out; I wasn’t taking the class for credit, anyway. After waiting in a line for about an hour to talk to someone, the lady very rudely rushed me to pick another class. When they didn’t have the options I wanted, she simply told me she was going to give me the English version of the photography class. I didn’t argue because I didn’t feel like intensifying my headache. It wasn’t until later that I realized that with the class change, I was taking three classes in English and only one in Spanish. This truly frustrated me. My thought was, How am I suppose to learn if I keep leaning on English as a crutch? What most people don’t realize is how easy it is to go to a foreign country and get by without ever speaking the native language. True, my host family doesn’t speak English, but almost all of my friends and professors do. To practice your Spanish, you truly have to go out of your way to make the effort.

Knowing this, I knew I had to switch to another class to practice. So, I went back to the office later in the day, only to be chewed out my the same lady for, “Making her job harder by changing my mind.” This is a lady who is paid to help ease my transition to life at UEM (Universidad Europea de Madrid), not condemn me for making sure my schedule works for my needs. I calmly talked to her, and in the end, she apologized for being rude, but numerous other people here have claimed to have the same issues with her. Once I switched, I was taking two classes in Spanish and two classes in English, which I think is the perfect balance. However, I later had to deal with the issues that came with ensuring that these classes would count for credit, which was yet another struggle. Thankfully, I worked it out. It still seems like many of these classes haven’t truly gotten started yet, so hopefully my third week will flow a bit more smoothly.

To take my mind off the stress of the first week, I started running again, which was greatly overdue. I’m out-of-shape to put it frankly, but running has given me a chance to take in the community. The more I see of it, the more I realize how opposite El Bosque to my hometown. Houses here are very clustered together and every house is gated with an intercom next to each entrance. The streets are very clean and big gray-and-yellow bins are placed strategically throughout the streets for people to dump their garbage in. La Calle Leizarán is shaped like a horseshoe and from the very middle of the street, there is a clear view of miles and miles of mountains and trees. Residential areas of Madrid are very clustered, but they are separated by huge areas of wilderness. Just off the median of our street is an extensive dirt trail meant to be used as a bike path. It is completely isolated from the rest of the world and is perfect to just relax and take a breather. Apart from that, however, there is one area that I run that I have deemed “Dog Alley.” The second I entered that part of the street, at least twenty dogs start wailing at me from behind the fences: good for the owners, but incredibly distracting. Almost everyone in my community, except for my own host family, owns a dog or three. In addition, there are stray cats everywhere! Not a day goes by where I don’t see a dozen or more cats roaming the streets without any owners. I usually have to fight the urge to pick one up and take it home with me. I’m not sure Conchi would appreciate it if I did.

Beyond running, however, I’ve been exploring different parts of Madrid. Last weekend, we went to one of the most incredible memorials ever, El Valle de Los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen). Essentially, it is a huge cross on top of a mountain, and while it sounds simple and unimpressive, it’s probably one of the most inspirational places that I have ever been. It was constructed by former dictator Francisco Franco to honor those lives lost in the Spanish Civil War. Franco is actually buried inside the basilica that is directly below the monument, as are some of the victims of the war. In front of the entrance to the basilica is a huge plateau that stretches out before you, lined by a wall at the far end. Beyond that wall is unadulterated wilderness for as far as the eyes can see. Mountains roll in the distance, capped by snow and below there is nothing but trees. I cannot stress the enormity of the cross or the incredible detail devoted to the figures of angels around its basin.  I cannot stress how small it made me feel in comparison to the vastness of the world. I cannot stress how much I could sense the bloodshed that took place in that area years before. Looking out at the scenery made me feel at peace in this world. I felt closer to heaven than I have ever been before.

The entrance to the basilica resembles a plaza and three archways mark each side of it, with one more in the middle that leads inside. Above the middle one is a statue of an angel cradling a fallen soldier in her arms; symbolism at it’s finest. Inside, you have to pass through a security checkpoint, much like those in airports. Cameras and cellphone use are prohibited. Past that is a grand entrance gate made of metal with angels fashioned from gold at the top and saints lining the panels. The main room is lined with eight tapestries on the walls, each with the heavens fighting against evil on them, though there are different scenes on each one. In front of each is a description of the scene, in both Spanish and English. I read the Spanish for practice. Between the tapestries are six sanctuaries devoted to different saints, and above each one is a statue of an angel doing different things. All of them are stronger and more fierce than what you would picture an angel to look like; the one was crushing a serpent beneath her feet. As I walked through the building, I was constantly forced to look up, and I couldn’t help but be struck at brilliance of that design. By having everything so big and high, it forced me to look toward the heavens, something that I should be doing in everyday life. After the room with the tapestries was a large chapel, with three sections of pews surrounding the altar. In the center of the altar was a log cross with a graphic representation of Jesus nailed to it. It was far more disturbing than any of the other crucifixion statues I’ve seen. On the floor of either side of the altar were tiles with names on them, flowers surrounding each. These are the burial sites of both Francisco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, a fascist leader in Spain. Directly over the altar is a huge dome, painted with a scene of angels and God on it, and angels surround all sides of the altar. Behind the pews are two more sanctuaries on either side, with smaller alters to pray. I lit a candle for my grandpa and my best friend’s dad, in honor of their lives, then knelt down to pray. I was overwhelmed by the spirit of the place and for a few hours after we left, I said very little, not out of sadness, but by pure inner peace and ease; pardon me if I’ve verging on being overtly corny or cliché.

As for this weekend, it is Carnaval in Spain! Carnaval is a very old cultural festival that has its roots in Catholicism. Supposedly, it started as a pagan festival to the god of vine and spirit, Baco and grew into a nationwide celebration of art and identity. For three days out of the year, people dress up in costumes and parade through the city. There are dances, music, and food. People literally come from all over the world. Today was the inauguration, or opening of the festival and to kick it off, people dressed in various costumes, some as horses, others as medieval princesses, and pranced through the streets behind a giant raft with a man sitting on top of it. Crowds of people followed to this one center, where a famous Spanish celebrity talked for a while about the start of Carnaval. From there, there was a concert and the streets were packed to their limit, different languages mushing together. The spirit was intense, and nothing compares to it in the States. Tomorrow there are more things going on, so Crystal and I are going to head in to the city and explore more. ¡Viva la Vida!

Confetti to kick off Carnaval

A group of kids dancing to the music in the streets

From One Town to the Next

Yesterday was probably the busiest day I’ve had yet in Madrid. We woke up at 7 to get to the university by 8:30, where three powder-blue space-like buses were waiting for us. We signed in with the lady who organized the event and headed out to Toledo. Four students were assigned to be tour guides if we wanted to be showed around, and we went with three of them around the city. In Toledo, the streets are incredibly narrow, but people still manage to navigate and drive without crashing, which was quite a feat. The architecture everywhere in Spain is old and unique, and the roofs of the houses in Toledo are mostly brown and textured. The rest of the house is made of stone, though some are painted earth tone colors. Most of Toledo is a hill, and the buildings aren’t very tall, for the most part. From certain places in Toledo, you can see the tops of houses for miles, and to say the least, the view is stunning.

For lunch, our group of people ate at a Chinese-owned little dive, where we all pushed tables and chairs together. I felt bad for our waitress, who was struggling to take care of us and the other customers in the place, but she did a decent job. I had a zumo de naranja, cafe con leche, y un sandwich vegetal con huevos. It was delcious! Later, we broke off into smaller groups, and Crystal, Taylor, a couple other girls, and I went shopping for a while. I bought myself a fan with a picture of Toledo on it, and a small gift for someone else. Apparently it is customary in touristy places to wrap souvenirs, which I thought was incredibly nice.

When we  finished looking in the shops, we walked around some more and found a center area where the benches had paintings of different scenery on it. We took a picture with a statue of Don Quijote and walked through a small museum that we stumbled upon. By that time, we had to head back to the bus, but a couple of the girls invited us to hang out with them later. I ended up falling asleep on the bus because I was so exhausted, but overall, it was a great trip and a great chance to get to meet some new people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we came back, we said hi to Conchi and watched a little TV. The one thing I’ve noticed here, is that game shows are on almost every channel and they are incredibly corny, but entertaining. One of them, entitled “Los Hormis Cuernos” involves a host who interviews famous celebrities and then makes them do various corny tasks. Then, on occasion, these ant puppets pop up to makes jokes. On another one, contestants have to answer questions and when they get them wrong, they fall through the floor and are eliminated. Another one involves money that you have to use to place a bet when you answer questions. Mind you, these are all in Spanish, and for the most part, I can understand what’s going on. I’m sure that when I leave, the games shows are going to be the things I remember best, along with the Spanish voiceovers on programs like “The Simpsons” and “Desperate Housewives.”

I’ve only been here for two weeks, but already I have so many things that I’m committing to memory because they differ so much from American customs. For instance, I know I’ll remember eating diced strawberries coated in sugars out of small bowls and huge spoons with Marta and Conchi. In the States, we are so accustomed to a fast-paced kind of lifestyle that we seldom slow down to do things the right way like dicing up our strawberries. When I told my host mother, for example, that I usually don’t eat breakfast at home because I rarely have time, she was taken back with surprise. Here, my host family sits down together for dinner every night around ten (they eat so much later here!), which allows us for time to talk and bond a little more. Furthermore, like clockwork, my family eats three meals a day, usually followed by a piece of fruit and yogurt. They eat constantly, but almost everyone in this city is so thin, partly a result of everyone walking everywhere. On the weekends, my family likes to stay in their pajamas most of the morning and lounge around and relax. Then later at night, they get dressed to go out for drinks with their friends, and while I’m usually quite the busybody, I’ll have to admit that it’s nice to relax.

However, at night, a lot of people are insanely active, and their nights often don’t start until 1:00 a.m. We went to the city last night after dinner with Carmela and Indie and some of the metro stations were busier than I ever saw them during the day. A big group of us went out on the town and experienced a discoteca, where people got together and danced their hearts out. Everyone was very relaxed and fun to be around, and apart from one episode, I enjoyed the company.

Tonight, I may go with some new friends from Boston to watch a soccer game, then hopefully tomorrow we’re going to go to the center of Madrid. I spent most of my day writing in my journal and my blog, and I’m proud of myself for writing almost everyday in some shape or form. I just hope I have the time once classes begin on Monday. One thing is for certain, however, the customized wooden pen that reads “Follow your dreams” from my parents, has been put through extensive use already!