Barcelona or Bust

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The first thing to note about Barcelona is that I’m guilty of almost not even going, and I lived in Spain for four months. My roommate and I had two or three different weekends in mind to get ourselves to the other side of the country, but with no concrete plans made for any of them. Hannagh and I are the queens of last-minute travel decisions. When it came to visiting another country, it was a given that we would be traveling by plane; however, within the country of Spain, we had a few transport options to choose from. There was the possibility of a one hour plane ride which didn’t seem totally worth it, a shorter train journey but just as much money as the plane, or a horrendously long bus trip, all options ranging from just expensive to ridiculously expensive. We were pretty discouraged at a certain point, and it was about three days before the following weekend we decided that we were finally going – so what did we opt for, at last?

I was talking to a friend on campus about how Hannagh and I were planning on getting to Barcelona, and he just kind of paused for a moment, then said, “so… it’s basically like organized hitchhiking?” I realized that that was actually the perfect way to describe it. There is a website I was originally unsure about called BlaBlaCar (the name alone is sketchy, admittedly) where people who are traveling somewhere soon and have empty seats in their car can post about it and offer a ride; the affordable price you pay to tag along on the person’s journey goes toward their gas, most often, and you have the chance to chat with a local while you’re at it. Past passengers leave opinions, and the way to stay safe is to choose a driver with many reviews (and preferably all positive ones). Our host sister even recommended it to us, having done it before herself. You just choose where you’re traveling from and where you’d like to go, and you have an instant list of numerous people going there in the near future. BlaBlaCar is a lot more popular than I thought it was, since it operates in a lot of European countries, and even in India and Mexico.

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Yeah, it’s an actual thing. It’s a cool concept because the drivers even provide useful information about themselves, such as considering themselves very conversational to being on the quiet side, playing music in the car vs. having it quiet, etc. It also made it a lot less scary being able to speak with the person beforehand and read nice things people said about them in reviews before deciding to meet them at 8 AM at the train station to set off across the country. So, that’s exactly what Hannagh and I ended up doing. I communicated the details of the journey with Emilio after making our reservations online, and all in Spanish, no less. Since we were messaging and I didn’t have to talk aloud I just thought it would be fun to not mention the fact that Hannagh and I speak English, so I went with it. Although, my plan backfired when I had to give him a call the morning of and ask him where the heck he was because we got lost at our meeting point, and I faltered after a few sentences and eventually blurted out “¿Habla Inglés?”

Not only did Emilio speak English well, but he was also easy to talk to and even had little pillows in the backseat (score) where Hannagh and I made ourselves comfortable for the next six hours as we set off from Madrid. He also had WiFi in his car which was unexpected but convenient – Hannagh, who had told her mother the night before that it might be the last time they ever speak (jokingly) assured her that she was alive and well with a friendly Spanish stranger. The trip flew by quickly, I slept most of the time since being awake before ten in the morning is still just as painful for me now as it was then, while Emilio and Hannagh got on the topic of Spain’s political and economic system and how it compares to America’s. Leave it to my Political Science major of a roommate to find someone in every country and from every walk of life to debate this stuff with.

I was grateful to Emilio for being so nice and to BlaBlaCar for making getting into a stranger’s car and driving 500 kilometers seem completely normal. Turned out to be a good choice on our part, and once again, budget-traveling got the job done. We arrived in the afternoon and our next hurdle presented itself when we tried to work around the headache of a language that is Catalan while navigating public transport. Barcelona is a self-governing community in Catalonia and although Spanish is still spoken, it is considered one of two official languages in the region, where Catalan happens to be dominant. It was possible to get by with comparing the two languages and asking questions in Spanish, but getting around took more time than usual. We eventually made it to our hostel, and from there we went to the grocery store for some picnic food and set off to eat in a little park where people were rollerblading, young people were playing music and hanging out, and a dude was making giant bubbles. It was chill.

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After enjoying our quick meal and the last of the day’s sunlight we saw a bit of the city as evening started to fall. I loved seeing the distinct architecture of Barcelona’s buildings and monuments, as well as the colorful markets filled with fruits and vegetables, fresh seafood, and lovely flowers. Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí himself designed a lot of buildings scattered around the city, making them immediately recognizable for their characteristic, stunning mosaics. The Sagrada Familia church was unfortunately under construction, but Gaudí’s vibrant style was unmistakable and it was amazing to see it in person. The whole city had a really peaceful and unique vibe, and it was definitely a city of primarily young adults as most people I saw appeared to be students. Barcelona would definitely be the ideal place to go to college for a person that prefers more of an urban location, but also loves having the beach within walking distance. The air felt different than in Madrid because of the nearby water, as well, and I enjoyed walking the streets and exploring while Hannagh and I pretended we were Cheetah Girls. Never mind the fact that there were only two of us – we could dream. And sing the soundtrack off-key.

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The next day we decided to stop by the grocery store once more and start the day with breakfast on the beach, which is something we could never do in Madrid. The beach was walking distance from where we were staying, and once we got there we set down a sheet we borrowed from one of the hostel beds and ate under the warm sun. I was so unused to it actually being warm and sunny, since this was back in March and it was still pretty chilly in Madrid most days, so after we ate I fell asleep almost instantly on the sand.

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HOWEVER, this was the day reserved to see the top place on our list: Park Güell. Located  outside the immediate city center, Park Güell is the result of many years of construction dating back to 1900, but the way the estate is known today is the result of Gaudí’s artistic vision. Eusebi Güell, the entrepreneur for whom the park is named after, was so infatuated with Gaudí’s distinctive and inventive style that he just brought him onboard full-time to design everything in the estate to his heart’s desire, and even design Güell’s house. They had a sort of artistic partnership that ended in a life-long friendship, which is just a great story in itself.

Also, the Cheetah Girls randomly appeared here during a musical number while that guy “Angel” with the guitar who always seemed to come out of nowhere sang about how much he loved Barcelona, so that was worth noting. Hannagh and I later watched the movie again but after seeing how quickly everybody danced around random parts of the city in the span of a three-minute song, we came to the conclusion that it was slightly unrealistic. Especially since our feet were just about falling off after walking from one end of the city to another and conquering the endless hills to get to Park Güell. It took coming to Barcelona ourselves to reveal the truth, but at least now it’s all cleared up.

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Vibrant architecture, good vibes, and a refreshing breeze from the Mediterranean – seeing the beauty that is Barcelona was decidedly worth the impromptu trip.

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Of Bulmers and Rugby

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Land of energetic pubs around every street corner, eminent national pride, and enough Guinness to probably fill a couple hundred Olympic-sized pools? Yes, good old Dublin. Before arriving in Spain at the start of the year and meeting my roommate who comes from an Irish background, it hadn’t crossed my mind to make my way to Ireland since it was just never very high on my list, but not for any particular reason. I didn’t even know that only Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom before finding out from Hannagh (who spells her name with a silent “g” like a badass). Once she told me that an uncle of hers lives near the city and would be willing to host us for a few days, I jumped at the opportunity to visit a city I don’t know very much about and on top of that be able to stay with local people. The trips I’ve taken where I’ve had the chance to spend time with people who live in the place I’m visiting and just chat or exchange stories have been some of the most enjoyable.

Before we even departed, however, the Luck of the Irish was not with me (don’t worry – I won’t repeat that). Knowing that students were given two unexcused absences from each class, I decided to not come into school on a Thursday to be able to leave a little earlier for our trip. While abroad, most students would go away on Friday and return Sunday, right before classes pick up again for the next week. Shortly before leaving, however, I had the terrifying realization that I had booked my outgoing flight during a midterm that would count for a quarter of my final grade for one of my courses. I spoke to my professor but ended up having to change my flight and pay kind of a hefty fee for it. I was completely freaked out at the time, especially since RyanAir overprices any and all flight changes, but after a few hours on hold with their customer service (not the most relaxing experience) it was sorted. I’ve since then learned to actually read course syllabi and not treat the exam dates as “optional” … or forget about them completely.

Finding a balance between school and travel is a delicate art form, and not one I have much talent for. Hannagh was leaving the morning of my exam, so the night before she flew out she popped her head into the spare room I was occupying with my textbooks (and misery) to give me a motivational “Happy studying, see you in Ireland!” The next day I headed home from campus to start packing and catch my evening flight. I landed in Dublin in one piece, although fairly late at almost midnight. Since I was alone I had to figure out how to get to where we were staying by bus with Hannagh directing me where to go and what to tell the driver (I am hopeless with directions, which she is well aware of, and the fact that I’ve survived traveling alone has honestly been a shock to me). We figured out that having my location turned on while communicating over Facebook messaging actually allowed Hannagh to see where I was – I was grateful the bus had wifi, since without it I would be even more lost than usual. You can’t even sense my panic, though.

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We spent our first full day sightseeing, Hannagh showing me around all the places she frequents with her family. It was great to see her happy to be back in the city her mother comes from, and it was nice to explore parts of the city I may not have thought to visit myself. The Christ Church Cathedral, for one, is beautiful and is actually the oldest building in Dublin, located in what was once the center of Medieval Dublin. This was in March and I lived in Madrid, which means I already hid away my winter coat, but despite my complaints I brought it along to brace the cold winds and random rain that this region is known for. Hannagh and I have had this ongoing joke throughout our travels that we always seem to pack for the weather we want, meaning warmth, holding out hope that the sun will miraculously come out. BUT, Europe has a tendency to have drastically varying temperatures in every country, so that never worked out well for us.

Some say that Dublin resembles Boston, and although I didn’t see it at first, after walking the charming streets and seeing a lot of similar architecture I started to agree. Especially given the garish flags and huge pub signs like “Murray’s” or “Donahue’s” displayed every few meters that reflected our city center rather well, since that’s a pretty accurate depiction of most Boston bars. Except we don’t really have Irish dancing as a normal thing anywhere, and I think that’s a big problem, because it’s cool. That should change. We visited Temple Bar (which I learned is not one pub in particular, but a whole area in itself) where I had real fish n’ chips for the first time and was introduced to this magical liquid called hard cider. Life was good.

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There is this amazing place next to Christ Church called Dublinia, and it stole my heart. Of all places to go in Dublin I did not expect this to be one of them, especially since things like the Storehouse seem to be main attractions, but this was more than worth it (and Guinness is kind of icky – sorry). Dublinia is essentially an interactive museum, but they describe it as “history brought to life” which sounds way funner. Hannagh went here with her family when she was younger, but had to admit that coming back many years later made for an even more entertaining experience, especially since we had a lot of sassy comments to make about the mannequin’s fashion choices and argue about the answers to viking trivia questions. There was definitely a great deal of information about Dublin’s medieval history to read about, but it’s safe to say that our inner children came out while giggling through the exhibitions. We still learned a lot though – I was especially proud of my ability to barter in the marketplace and successfully batten down the hatches with my crew.

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Hannagh has a truly interesting family history; her grandmother is a well-known sculptor and artist and has made various statues and busts of relevant literary figures, some of which are displayed in Dublin. James Joyce is probably Ireland’s most notable novelist and poet, and his statue stands proudly right in the city center. A bust of him can also be found in St. Stephen’s Green, both of which were made by Hannagh’s grandmother.

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We were staying somewhere a little bit outside the city, so our second night we went out with Hannagh’s uncle and his wife to a few local places where I learned that Irish people are extremely friendly. Not even a minute after joining somebody’s table at a bar, we were all in conversation with four or five people and although they were all already a bit tipsy, they were too jolly for us to really care. It was like everyone just becomes friends instantly in Dublin and regardless of where you’re from you can find something to talk about. It just shocked me a little how easily they all started chatting with us and how open they were from the start since back home people kind of survey each other from a distance before breaking the ice somehow, if the ice even breaks at all, that is. It was just pretty refreshing, and appreciated. Straightforwardness is key, Boston!

The next day we took a drive with Hannagh’s uncle and her grandmother to see a different part of the country known as the Moors, complete with rocky cliff sides and beautiful mountain views. We drove up winding cliff roads and after getting pretty high up we got out to take a look down below, but the wind very nearly knocked me to the ground and I was being pelted in the face by rain, so I managed to take maybe two decent photos before running back to the car for my life. Definitely an adventure. We later stopped in a more rural part for lunch in a calm, quiet town.

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Because we flew a discount airline with the most inconvenient flight times you can possibly imagine, our flight home was at six in the morning. Naturally, we decided to go into the city our last night and just power through until it was time to leave for the airport at 3 AM. We found a festive pub with live music where we stayed for a while and chatted with some people that had traveled to the city from Manchester for the rugby game happening the next day. We learned that this sport is a pretty big deal there and that there’s an apparent rivalry between Ireland and England. My flight over was even filled with a rugby team, and the entire city was going crazy over this game. Our new friends tried hard to get us to care, but Hannagh and I are sports-challenged and just could not sympathize with them. I don’t think either of us are still entirely positive what rugby is. Since we were right near Temple Bar, spirits were high and there was just a lively atmosphere among everyone there. The music was great as well, but I was so unused to it that when I was invited to dance, I had no clue what I was doing. I actually wish I could have seen what I was doing. But I can say that I danced like a fool in a pub in Dublin so that experience alone made the trip pretty memorable.

Once we were back I packed my suitcase and fell asleep for a whopping twenty minutes before my alarm went off. The weekend flew by, and before we knew it we were waiting for the airport shuttle bus in the cold wind at three in the morning. I’m grateful to have had this little getaway with my lovely roommate and her welcoming family, and seeing Ireland’s famous capital city which used to be a viking settlement (that’s just way too cool) as well as enjoying the energetic pub culture made for a noteworthy weekend. And the people, as I said before, are just so nice! It blows my mind. Everyone just wants to have a pint and give you a hug. Maybe not really, but that’s how it feels. Thanks, Dublin!

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Weekend Trip, or History Lesson?

As I begin writing, I sit in bed and fight off the remainder of yet another illness I seem to have contracted somehow. I had the realization that until very recently, I actually have not had a full night’s sleep for the better part of a month due to classes and traveling for four consecutive weekends. I also have to own up to occasionally substituting coffee as a meal during especially busy days and thinking it’s okay, when in reality, I should know better than that. After contemplating the extent of my poor choices I’m definitely less surprised that I made myself bedridden for the third or fourth time since moving abroad. At the moment I count how many antibiotics remain for me over the next week, finish up applications for my last year of college upon my return to Boston, and prepare for my very first solo backpacking trip that I leave for in two days. I’m perfectly aware that I’m spreading myself thin, but if it were up to me, I would never trade in this lifestyle for anything less (meaning, anything rational).

Last month, I traveled down south for three days with a few great friends I’ve made here. We decided to spend a weekend visiting two not only exceptionally beautiful places, but also two of the most historic cities in this country: Granada and Córdoba. Spain has a long lasting Islamic legacy, which I was not aware of previously. Islamic rule and conquests, once very prevalent influences in Spain is survived in these places seen by remnants of their palaces, fortresses, and former places of worship. My roommate, who is taking a course dealing specifically with the once peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Spain was especially keen on seeing what she had been studying all semester. Her deep interest in the topic transferred over to me, since I had no idea that they had all once lived without conflict in the company of each other, especially with the modern day horrors among these exact religious groups that seem to never end.

After some fascinating backstory about where we were headed thanks to the lovely roomie and a rushed, last-minute night of packing, our triangle trip began.

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One early Friday morning we set off from the bus station on our six and a half hour drive to Granada. Our journey featured virtually no leg room, a sore lack of comfortable napping positions, and one sketchy rest stop in what resembled an Arizona ghost town (if it wasn’t clear already, I only travel in luxury). One perk was having wifi onboard, which I had actually never seen on a bus before. It was spotty and generally terrible, but it held up long enough for me to tell my mother I was alive and snapchat the hills rolling by, so not much else matters, really.

After arriving in the afternoon and experiencing a failed public transportation attempt to locate our hostel, we grabbed a cab and eventually arrived at our accommodation for the night. We turned out to staying in a quiet quarter of the city, yet still in close proximity to both the city center and the neighboring medieval district. Our first order of business was food, of course, followed by some exploration that continued into the evening.

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And then we turned a corner and found a donkey. Natural.

And then we turned down the street and found a decorated donkey. Normal.

Granada is the last Muslim kingdom of Spain, meaning it is a city littered with history that can be found around every corner. The most prominent and in-your-face place to find it, however, would definitely be the majestic Alhambra. We are talking about an enormous, royal palace complex constructed for the last Muslim emirs in Spain that has survived to this day as simply a grand work of art to be admired. Although we had that information before arriving to Granada, what we did not have was the knowledge of how difficult it was going to be to get into the place itself without booking tickets beforehand. We got quite a lot of squinty eyes and skeptical looks when saying we were planning on visiting sometime the next day. We were told that the only way to be successful with that plan was to arrive at the gates extremely early, since there is only a specific amount of visitors admitted on every given day the palace is open to the public.

So, naturally, we got up at six in the morning and trekked uphill to find this Alhambra that we had heard so much about. There was definitely grumbling on my end about how this had better be worth it, how cold it was at the absolute crack of dawn, and how much I wanted coffee. My travel companions have a lot of patience since this is what usually comes out of my mouth when I don’t have enough sleep. We weren’t completely positive which way we were going to get to the ticket office, we just knew that we had to go as far uphill as we could manage since the palace sits highly elevated. We trudged up endless stairs, and at one point when we paused to catch our breath we happened to catch a lovely view over the rooftops of houses of the city, still asleep before sunrise.

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We found the entrance eventually, and after standing in line at the ticket office for approximately forty minutes, we successfully scored tickets. Relishing in the fact that waking up ridiculously early actually paid off lifted our spirits, and getting off to an early start gave us a lot more time to enjoy our last day and see even more than we had originally thought. The gardens were our first stop, followed by exploring the gorgeous palace interior which I cannot describe in words – only by photographs.

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Worth it. So worth it.

After walking the palace grounds and deciding we were successful in our visit, we spent the rest of the day walking the city and before we knew it, an evening bus to Córdoba awaited. We arrived three hours later and by the time we made it to our next hostel it was already 10 PM, but still wanting to explore, we wandered off to see what we could discover. I first noticed that this felt far more like a village than it did a city, and the streets were practically empty save for the occasional strolling couple. After finding what resembled a secret passageway that winded between lovely white-washed apartment buildings, calm cafes and hostels, it ended up letting out on the other end into the center where we found a sangria bar, along with more people enjoying a night out in the picturesque quarter. We later walked past the Mosque of Córdoba that we would be visiting the next morning and past the shore of the Guadalquivir River where an elaborate bridge stretched across.

Our first (and only) evening there remains one of my favorite nights in Spain so far, due in large part to how unexpectedly charming this place was. I had the pleasure of visiting beautiful villages when I lived in Italy, such as Visso and Assisi, yet the allure of Córdoba is kind of unparalleled in my eyes. I’m pretty sure the only non-peaceful encounter we had was when we ran into a group of young people all wearing masks and strange costumes having a little social circle near the mosque; we soon realized we were visiting during the time of Carnaval, so the festive spirit was still very much alive. They didn’t bother us until the moment we began approaching their group to pass by, at which point at least fifteen of them started corralling us and dancing around us, even joining hands to keep us from getting out. Clearly not wanting to join their Carnaval-cult, we freaked out and tried to get away, and at one point during my escape attempt I ended up in some weird standoff/danceoff with a dude in a Jabbawockee mask. Yeah, I can’t really explain that one.

The next morning we saw the city in the daylight, and I immediately vowed to buy a vacation home here someday. Y’know, in another life.

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The Mezquita–catedral de Córdoba was our last stop on the trip. Islamic conquest in the 8th century divided this building between a place of Muslim and Christian worship, but it was later converted back into a place of Roman Catholic worship. The fact that this is basically a cathedral built on top of a mosque made this one of the most interesting places I’ve ever seen straight away. As I mentioned before, this arrangement of different religions once worshipping directly alongside each other was something that really impressed me. The interior is amazing due to the incredibly unique architecture that combines both Moorish and Christian elements, and the beautiful striped arches scattered among bursts of gold truly made walking through this mosque/cathedral something awe-inspiring.

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Can you find the Monica?

Can you find the Monica?

Deciding to stop for one last sangria before our long drive back to Madrid, we basked in the sunshine at an outdoor cafe and relaxed a bit. This trip, for some reason, turned out to be the weekend of strange encounters with locals. After paying our bill and gathering our bags to get ready to head to the bus station, a man at a nearby table filled with chatting Spanish people who had heard my friends and I talking to each other suddenly called out to us.

“Hey! You girls! You speak English, are you from America?”

We looked over skeptically. “Yes.. why?”

The man nudged his friend next to him, put his hand on his shoulder and turned back to us. “They’re American! They’re- look, girls. Look at this guy. Do you recognize him?”

My friends and I looked at the man, then at each other, unsure. “… No.”

The man laughed and motioned to his friend. “He’s a famous flamenco dancer!”

The man’s friend started clapping a rhythm and moving around animatedly, while we just stood by silently, not entirely sure what was going on. The man insisted that this guy was the most famous flamenco dancer in Spain, and was entirely convinced that we would be thrilled with this information. Locals we had spoken to thus far were strangely delighted by the fact that we were not only not from there, but also spoke English, and time and time again just communicated the strangest things to us because it was amusing for them. Even back at our hostel during breakfast, a group of Spaniards were spurting any and all English words they knew at us, laughing amongst themselves in the process. We backed away from the table slowly and congratulated the man on his success (we think?) and made our way to the bus station, thinking back on what had just happened and laughing in confusion. This anecdote is one very difficult to retell in a comedic way, but the sheer randomness of the encounter was actually hilarious. Especially when while walking away from the cafe, my roommate mocked the man in a sarcastic huff, “Oh! You’re American? Great! He’s a flamenco dancer!” That absolutely killed me.

Thus, we set off for Madrid and finished off our certainly interesting weekend, and one that I definitely won’t soon forget.

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A Day in the Life

I’ve had the pleasure of making some lovely friends lately that have come over to Madrid from Poland either for work, erasmus, or simply passing through on vacation. I do love living in a place of rich diversity and meeting people from countries all over the world, but I have to say it’s been great getting to know new people who come from the same cultural background in a place with not so many Polish people. Even though I oftentimes get confused questions as to why I speak with a “dziwny” accent and live in the faraway, frozen land of Boston.

Recently, I met a girl from Gdańsk who mentioned that she rarely meets fluent English speakers. She told me that she would like to improve her English skills, so, something surprisingly productive was born. While spending one day last week at a little amusement park outside the city, she kept the conversation on her end completely in English while I responded to her in Polish. Committing to this for the entire day was actually very beneficial for the both of us and proved to be pretty amusing, especially when we accidentally switched back or randomly slipped in a Spanish word. After class today I headed to the bustling city center to meet up with another new friend who is studying abroad in Spain for a year. Cue the rapid conversation over coffee as a Spanish couple at a nearby table looked on at us, suspicious as to what weird Slavic tongue we brought into their calm cafe.

After spending a few hours chatting we parted ways and I decided to take a walk through Puerta del Sol, where awesome street performers and musicians can always be found. A mariachi band was playing and had attracted a pretty large audience, so I stopped for a moment and enjoyed the fact that this is just a normal occurrence in Madrid. Among the crowd of people that had gathered, my gaze fell upon a certain man in a suit standing off to the side, recording the performance. I had the realization that he was a British filmmaker I frequently watch on Youtube who has traveled a crazy amount of the world, creating incredible videos documenting his trips. My heart kind of stopped seeing as all I do in my free time is read about travelers’ experiences in foreign lands and watch the adventures they share on online, and this guy has pretty much done it all.

Twenty feet away from me was the fearless person who almost got himself killed in the semiannual Rickshaw Run across India and got bitten by a snake while trekking through the Amazon, so naturally I creeped on him a little before scurrying up and timidly saying, “excuse me – are you funforlouis?” It’s worth noting that I very gracefully addressed him by his Youtube username as opposed to his actual name, so I gave myself a little imaginary pat on the back for getting this encounter off to a good start. Thankfully, Louis was very friendly and awesome to talk to. I commended him on his insane adventures across pretty much every continent there is and learned he was only in Madrid for two days for a conference he had spoke at a few hours prior, hence the suit. Meeting someone I admire completely out of the blue, and in Spain of all places made for a very good turnout today. I recommend checking out his stuff on Youtube – the dude is going places. (Pun intended).

And here we have my obligatory selfie.

And here we have my obligatory selfie.

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Madrid, te quiero

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

Hi – still alive. To catch everyone up to speed, in the time since I’ve last written I’ve managed to contract bronchitis (which won’t surprise those who know I’m sick all the time), learn how to confront creeps on the metro in Spanish, and survive the long, hellish period universities like to call midterms. I had the absolute pleasure of having my strenuous exams spaced out over the course of two weeks in between an out-of-country trip, two presentations and two papers. One day in my zombie state I looked up and realized a month had passed, so I figured it was about time to come back to the land of the living. I can proudly say that I am a functioning human once more.

Put simply, I love living in Madrid. There’s a tiny bar ten minutes from me that has one euro sangria, which is 10 minutes from a restaurant who’s name literally translates to “one hundred tapas,” both of which are intermingled between countless, quaint oddity stores. What more could a girl possibly need? My walk to class has to be one of the most interesting parts of my day, solely for the diverse people I encounter. Some call Boston a melting pot, but I think that title can easily also be associated with the colorful population of Madrid. It’s become interesting to start seeing the same people during my thirty minute walk – the man selling newspapers outside our local market, an Asian fellow cleaning the windows of his store meticulously at the same time each day, a woman who always smiles my way as she plays the accordion at the intersection I cross at. There’s something very warm about the vast majority of the people here, which makes talking to them in an attempt to improve my Spanish skills very helpful.

It’s only when the older folk walk as if the sidewalk is their test track or give me strange looks for smiling at their dog as I pass by that they may lose their charm in the slightest, but I’m not complaining.

I had the chance to experience Carnaval in Madrid a few weeks back, which is essentially a continent-wide celebration that is the equivalent to the States’ Halloween, except much cooler. It’s definitely best-known in Venice, but Madrid did not disappoint as I had a lovely day in the city before the craziness ensued. Madrileños and tourists alike filled the streets dressed in every costume you can imagine, cute little children even sporting tiny minion and superhero jumpsuits. A lot of streets were blocked off due to the parades and crowds, so constant swarms of people speaking a slew of different languages all clumped together in one place is the best way of describing the sights that day.

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We caught the Carnaval opening speech which was given by Carlos Iglesias, a Madrid-born actor. He fired off some confetti that filled the air, and a short performance of people dancing and playing instruments dressed up in elegant costumes followed. After some tapas bar crawling and strolling around until it got a bit darker, we retreated to catch the parade that stretched all the way from El Retiro park to Cibeles. It being dark hindered my photography skills (the very little that I do have) therefore I don’t have too many photos from the night. We did see some spectacular fireworks over the magnificent Plaza de Cibeles, however, where the normally traffic-congested stretch of road was instead filled to the brim with people. Fireworks were fired to the song “All You Need Is Love” in honor of the evening’s celebrations being on Valentine’s Day. I pretended not to be a cynic for a good thirty minutes, so we ended the night on a pleasant note.

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It’s funny to think how the city has warmed up to a lovely 72 degrees fahrenheit this week, yet almost a month ago on that evening I distinctly remember shivering in my glamorous hoodie and clutching a cup of hot tea as the fireworks went off. I’m definitely not grumbling about it, though, since I really feel for my loved ones back in Boston having to deal with one of the worst winters yet, being buried under feet upon feet of snow. It’s worth stating that I feel intensely grateful to have the opportunity to be living in Spain right now, and I’m looking forward to sharing my following adventures that I’ve fallen a wee bit behind on writing about. Hasta pronto, todos 🙂

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Morocco: Tangier + Chefchaouen

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Three weeks have passed since my arrival to Madrid, and I’m having trouble comprehending how much has happened already. I’ve visited beautiful Sevilla in the south of Spain, met some great people that I am traveling with in the months ahead, and have finally learned the difference between “french fries” and “potato chips” in Spanish. Thursday finally rolled around last week, which is our always anticipated start of the weekend. I didn’t have too much going on that day; I went to my Cultural Diversity lecture, did some laundry, took a lil’ nap. And then I boarded a night bus to Africa.

Wait – come again?

I can confidently say that this voyage was one of the roughest I have ever experienced. Randomly drifting in and out of sleep while sitting upright for ten hours and trying not to fall asleep on the guy next to me was a bit tiring, and telling my stomach that it wasn’t actually hungry during the one and five AM rest stops proved futile. Joe, a student from Syracuse who I spoke to briefly on the ride, was actually awaiting his birthday as we drove through the night, so when midnight hit I wished him well and said, “happy 21st – sorry you’re on a smelly bus.” What began as a 10pm departure from Madrid ended as a restless arrival to the southernmost point of Spain at around seven the next morning.

Naturally, we were all grumpy and confused zombies once we actually got to the port of Tarifa, from where we would be continuing the rest of our journey. In the early morning we boarded a ferry with our passports and arrival forms in hand in preparation to enter Africa through the Strait of Gibraltar. It’s funny how teeny tiny this narrow body of water is. The strait joins the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea, and separates the countries of Spain and Morocco by a mere 14 kilometers, making for very easy access into a completely different continent and a short ride across of only 35 minutes.

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Gibraltar: Hop down to Africa real quick and still make it home in time for dinner.

Hop down to Africa real quick and still make it home in time for dinner.

Another bus ride to the hotel awaited us once we were on land and past customs. We stumbled into our hotel rooms, collapsed into bed and napped for about an hour and a half before pulling ourselves together to get back on the bus and on to the next destination. Our agenda for the first day was packed, so having even a tiny snooze after that brutal pilgrimage made all the difference. The first thing I noticed while driving through Morocco was how green it was. Everywhere we went the landscape was thriving, and I learned that more than half of the country’s population relies solely on agriculture as a source of income. The sights we saw along the way were breathtaking, and I was in awe at the vast coastal views and beautiful, foggy mountains.

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Little sheep families appreciate the greenery, too.

Cute little sheep families appreciate the greenery, too.

I rode a camel on the beach in Africa. It sounds amazing, and it certainly was, but what the photos don’t show is the fact that Mother Nature was not happy with our presence that day and decided to grace us with pelting rain and blowing seawater. We were told that this was probably the strangest weather we could have happened upon in Morocco, but that just made it part of the adventure. Gave it some flavor, if you will. However, on a serious note, I was a little upset with the handling of the camels, since the men leading them were not gentle or patient, making the camels groan and putting them in obvious distress. I understand that the influx of money from tourism is what makes this experience feasible in the first place, and even though I really enjoyed myself riding a camel for the first time in an exotic land, I really sympathized with these innocent animals. I sincerely wish that if they must continue to be used by men, that they would at least see better treatment. It’s always a conflict of morals when doing something like this as a tourist yourself, wanting the incredible experience, but feeling bad for doing it at the same time. However, regardless of my mixed feelings about it, I still know that it’s something I will always remember.

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Taking a trip to the authentic bazaars in the heart of a Moroccan town was always something I only ever imagined doing; to be perfectly honest, I fantasized about experiencing that far more than I ever did riding a camel. I wanted to observe the local people, smell the air and the aromas of spices that float through the streets, see the culture in its truest form. I don’t know what it is exactly that always interested me, but maybe only ever seeing cities and places that all resemble each other in one way or another could have something to do with it. My expectations were definitely met during my time walking down the narrow streets and absorbing the fact that I was actually right here, right now. I can’t count how many times I’ve said that Morocco is a “different world,” to people who have asked me to describe it, but I really don’t have many more words than that. There was a specific flavor to everything I observed in Tangier, everything I saw, smelled and heard. I found that the locals either stared intently when I was taking photos, or they would react angrily when they even saw a camera pointed in their direction. Some children were very curious with our group, yet others were less than enthused and looked on with contempt. The vibe I got from the local people was in equal parts strange and intriguing. It’s important to note that this was not an entirely safe place for foreigners, but finally seeing it with my own eyes was so rewarding.

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That evening, we had the pleasure of having a traditional Moroccan dinner in a lovely, quaint restaurant accompanied by a small band that played customary music on instruments that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. The musician playing the oud, which is a tiny string instrument that resembles a lute, would dramatically stand up periodically and just rock out as the rest of us cheered him on. We were in great company with the people who traveled here with us from all over the world, and a few of us would even dance between courses with the band and trip leaders, so the atmosphere was very jovial. I can proudly say that I had couscous for the first time, and I was not disappointed.

Can you guys go on tour?

Can you guys go on tour?

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Also, I just want to point out that I woke up to this view the following day, and I seriously considered just becoming Moroccan and staying in Tangier forever:

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Okay – I’m sorry, but are you actually serious? That water? The perfect sand, the palms? Eat your heart out, Miami.

Our second full day in Morocco consisted entirely of a trip to the city of Chefchaouen, also known as the “blue city” known for its buildings in their vibrant hues of blue. After the two hour bus ride southeast we found that it was pouring rain on this day as well, of course, because when you pick a time to travel to one of the most amazing places in the world you just so happen to choose the weird monsoon weekend! I would normally be completely miserable having to walk around drenched without an umbrella, shivering, and constantly wiping my camera lens to try and remove the water droplets, but that was somehow all tolerable given the circumstances. Crazily enough, being in such a unique place shrouded my discomfort and I actually really enjoyed my time walking the winding streets and the lush, creek-covered hills (probably because after a while I knew I couldn’t possibly get more wet).

There was a moment in Chefchaouen which I really enjoyed, and it was when our group reached the center of town where we split off for a couple hours to eat, shop, or just explore more of the city. The girls and I decided to sit down at a little outdoor cafe covered with overlapping awnings built from colorful tarp to shield us from the rain, benches and chairs covered with colorful cushions, and handmade candles on every table. It was so quintessentially Moroccanand when you added in the smoke from the cigarettes of locals wafting through the area mixed with our freezing cold breaths, the atmosphere really was like no other I’d ever seen. Stray cats chilled in the small trees and shrubbery inside the tent and meowed at us, and we all drank hot mint tea as we attempted to dry off from the downpours that continued outside the seated area. Moroccan mint tea is a major specialty in the country, and is prepared with the most delicious spearmint leaves you will probably ever taste. It’s also naturally sweet, which makes it even better. I also ordered hot vegetable soup which I held up to my face for more time than I spent eating it.

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A very sad and cold Monica

A very damp, very sad Monica.

Anyone who knows me well probably knows I’ve never smoked anything in my life, and as much as my mom really doesn’t like this (sorry Mama – love you) I tried hookah, or shisha, for the first time on our last night in Tangier. Our hotel had this great lounge and bar downstairs, where one musician was playing an instrument that resembled a xylophone while another sang alongside him in Arabic. For me, it was a glimpse into the nightlife there without the danger of straying outside the hotel into some sketchy bar in an unknown area. When I mentioned previously that this is not the safest place for travelers, I mean women in particular. I made sure to be on guard at all times whenever my female friends and I were alone. I felt comfortable where I was though and trying hookah for the first time, in Morocco of all places, and in good company was a very enjoyable final night in this captivating country. We were with locals who sat at the adjacent couches smoking, drinking, and chatting amongst themselves. As an outsider just kind of stepping into this environment, it was a cool experience and a very interesting feeling.

Culture level: expert

Culture level: expert

Naturally, the day of our departure back to Madrid was absolutely gorgeous, and it was all spent in transit. The views from the ferry made up for it, though, and I had the chance to stand on the deck in the warm sun and admire the coast, snap some photos, and write a little bit in my journal with this ridiculous beauty in my line of vision.

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It should also read,

The Arabic reads, “do yourself a favor – visit in the summer.”

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New year, new country

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I have a serious question: why haven’t I seen cupholders on planes yet? The amount of times I’ve had to squish coffee into the little seat pocket as it bulges out while I try to bear the very limited allotted legroom has reached an unacceptable limit. It doesn’t help that the older woman in front of me wants to take full advantage of her nap time and recline her seat at the exact moment I let down my tray table. I, the (ahem) seasoned traveler, am taking a stand. Which translates into writing about it in a blog post for an imaginary audience and hoping that one day we peasants in economy will see justice.

Okay. Having just spent almost half a year in Europe and not having done any writing save for the occasional journaling, I feel as though it’s a little wasteful to be going through the days in all these different places and not properly documenting what I’m seeing, feeling, experiencing. I’ve never really taken blogs seriously, nor have I ever successfully continued one of my own. I’ve also never been one for consistency or commitment, which hasn’t exactly helped me in the long run, but this serves as an introduction to what will (hopefully) be a little travel record of personal experiences and musings, if you will. I’ve never done this sort of thing before, but I don’t want to just write about myself, I want to keep the people in my life in the loop on what on earth I’m doing with my life being away from the States for so long. It also doesn’t hurt to share the notable, little moments in my day to day life that I’ll probably otherwise forget ten years from now.

Also, giving meaning to travel photos as opposed to posting a highlight on Facebook that just screams “Look! I was here!” will make me feel worlds better. Take my word for it.

Suddenly packing up your life and moving to a different continent isn’t normally something that a student midway through their degree decides to do, but when you’re impatient to see the world and hopelessly stubborn, you find some way. I am still enrolled at my home institution as a full-time student, I just opted for two consecutive semesters abroad, each one in a different country. I didn’t even know this was a possibility until I asked my adviser back home if I could just go chill in Europe and not come back until my senior year. This woman is a stone-faced, Israeli former journalist who in my 20 years I did not expect to condone this idea – because, y’know, responsibilities and stuff. She’s tough; instead of going right to college, she joined the army in her home country upon turning 18, and in her later life was met with wild success in the journalism field, both in Israel and in the United States. I admire her greatly and have paid her countless visits. She paused, but then said, “Do it. Young people aren’t supposed to be going to college at this age, not yet. They don’t know what’s going on in the world from their own eyes, just from the media. Yes, you won’t graduate on time – so what? Are you in a rush to sit at a desk for eight hours a day?” I was then reminded why I love this woman so much.

That conversation is why yesterday I was sitting on a plane to my next country after four months of living in Italy, followed by family time in my wintry Poland for the holidays. Making this decision has given me a full year of braving discount foreign airlines and weird shenanigans, like eating a moose burger in Norway and expertly cramming six travelers into a tiny Parisian hotel room. As if the continuous adjustment periods haven’t been enough for my emotional state over the past five months, I’m pleased to say that I just met my host mother who will be housing me in Spain until May. I don’t speak Spanish – it’s my weakest language of the ones I’ve studied over the years, and as it turns out, Eva does not speak much English. Nevertheless, I am thrilled with my cozy bedroom and the traditional, home cooked meals this energetic and passionate woman provides as she, in a whirlwind of Spanish phrases that I understand about a quarter of, proclaims her love for meditation and Arabian dance.

Walking down the busy street with her today on my first morning in the city, through rapidly explained directions that I didn’t entirely catch, she suddenly turned to me and exclaimed, “me encanta la luz de Madrid.” Instinctively, I nodded my head with a smile as she continued her hurried spiel, but I made it a point to later on find out what exactly that meant. “Luz,” I learned, means “light,” or “glow.” She loves the glow of Madrid, the light of the city. What Eva said to me may not have been exceptionally profound or life-altering, but it resonated. If it wasn’t clear already, this is why I left. Moments like these sit with me and make me go home at the end of the day with new feelings and a constant curiosity as to how people with lives thousands of miles away from can have a very real, very tangible effect on my own life.

Sometimes you have to leave for a while. It’s not convenient or glamorous, but it’s a reminder that you are alive. It’s astounding how revelatory it is to arrive as a foreigner in an unknown land and have made yourself a local by the end of your stay. Also, sometimes you have to do things for yourself, by yourself, and I think that’s one of the most rewarding choices a person can make.

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