Ashley in Madrid

Ashley is a junior majoring in Spanish and psychology in Dedman College and an SMU Distinguished Scholar. During 2011-12 she is participating in SMU-in-Spain. She is eager to improve her Spanish, to get to know other students in the program and to explore Madrid and the rest of Europe.

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A month of travels

On the first Friday of the month, our group visited the Congreso de los Diputados, the lower house of Spain’s legislative branch, and the Reina Sofía, a modern art museum, where we saw Picasso’s Guernica, so that was enjoyable.

Then that night three of my friends from SMU who are studying elsewhere in Europe came to Madrid to visit, and I had a great time showing them around the city the next day! In my everyday life, I don’t live like a tourist here, so it was good to explore new places and visit some of the tourist spots that I haven’t been to since I first got here. We went to the Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, the Palacio Real (we went inside, which I had never done before! It’s pretty opulent in there), Plaza de la Villa, Mercado San Miguel, and the Prado. Then I had to get home, but I left them with directions to Retiro, so I think they had quite the successful Madrid exploration day. Later that night we got chocolate con churros at Chocolatería San Gines, so that was delicious.

Off to London

I spent the second weekend in November in London. This was a much more enjoyable trip than our stop there two weeks earlier in the middle of the night en route home from Dublin. Our first stop on Friday was Borough Market, which was a precious open food market. It was so cute and interesting. Everything looked delicious, and they had lots of really yummy samples! We had a lot of fun exploring there.

After that, we saw Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and went to the Tate Modern, which was free (like basically all of the museums in London) and really interesting. I like modern art. And even when I don’t like it, I have a lot of patience for it, whereas other people like to claim that something isn’t art just because they (or a 4-year-old) are also capable of doing it. To me, the difference is that maybe I could also do some of the things that modern/contemporary artists do, but I didn’t, and they did, and that’s why they deserve to be in a museum. Regardless, I like modern art, and I liked the Tate.

After that, we walked across the Millennium Bridge, which was in one of the recent Harry Potter movies, went to Topshop (when in London…), and to the British Museum, where we saw lots of cool stuff, including the Rosetta Stone! Then we learned that it gets dark in London at 4:30 p.m. What the heck?! Next we decided to go to Harrods for tea. My friend Hayley and I were trying to figure out which metro (ah, excuse me, tube) we needed to take to get there, so I was standing with my back to the platform looking at a map. A train pulled up but I didn’t worry about it because I wasn’t sure if it was the one we were supposed to get on. Then I heard Hayley, who had apparently just asked someone which train this one was, yelling “Ash! Ash!” so I turned around right in time to see her hop onto the train and have the doors close between us. We just looked at each other in shock for a second and then her train left, leaving me alone in the station. That was a nerve-wracking moment since we weren’t entirely sure where we were going and our phones didn’t work there, but I just got on the next train that came and found her a few stops later with no problems, thankfully.

Harrods is a department store that was all decked out with Christmas lights and had insane window displays, and we enjoyed our tea! That night we went out with some of the people from SMU who are studying at the London School of Economics, who were so very, very kindly letting us stay in their dorm to avoid a hostel. That was so nice of them, and we had a really fun night.

The next day we took a bike tour of London and got to see the London Eye, Big Ben and the houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St. James Park, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, various sculptures and statues, and some palaces being guarded by the typical London guards, although they were sadly wearing gray winter coats over their red uniforms. I wonder what it would be like to have that job –  do they take a lot of pride in it, or do they just feel like they’re doing a semi-pointless job full of nonsense protocol where people take pictures of them all day? You can possibly guess which option is my personal opinion.

After the bike tour we saw Tower Bridge, explored Chinatown, saw a fireworks show (at 5 p.m., you know, because it’s already dark by then), ate fish and chips and then happened upon the only Chipotle in Europe! So that was a must. I got a burrito and was sooooo happy. It tasted just like it would have at home. Ah, lovely.

And that was the end of our trip! It was a good one, we definitely liked London.

País Vasco

We got home from London on a Sunday, and then the next Tuesday, the 15th, our whole group departed for a trip to País Vasco! País Vasco is another one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, this one in northern Spain. We went to two main cities, Bilbao and San Sebastián, as well as a few smaller ones along the way. País Vasco is a really interesting place because of their intense nationalism — this is the home of the ETA, a terrorist organization that wants independence from Spain.

I’m also endlessly fascinated by the language that they speak in País Vasco. Everyone speaks Spanish, but lots of people also speak a regional language, known in Spanish as Vasco, in English as Basque, and in Basque as Euskara. It’s a language isolate, so it has not been proven to be related to any other language, anywhere, and it’s listed by Wikipedia as one of only six “vibrant” language isolates in use around the world today. It’s not a romance language, like the other four main languages spoken on the Iberian Peninsula, and it’s not even Indo-European, which the vast majority of languages spoken in Europe are. It might be the oldest language in Europe, but its origins are barely known. I know all of this because I’m writing a paper on the languages and dialects spoken in Spain, and I just find this beyond interesting.

OK, done ranting about things that probably don’t even interest people who aren’t me. Our first main stop was Bilbao. País Vasco is famous for its cuisine, so Friday night we explored the old town area and sampled some delicious pintxos (Basque word! the tx is pronounced ch. So interesting), aka tapas. I was adventurous and just asked the people working which pintxos were their favorites and I ate those. They were delicious.

Our whole group with one of our professors outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The next day we headed to the Guggenheim. The architecture of the building is amazing and I loved exploring inside for a couple of hours.

That afternoon we headed to Guernica, the small town that endured a bombing during Spain’s civil war and is best known for the Picasso painting by the same name that we had seen in the Reina Sofía. While there we ate an amazing, giant meal, provided by the program, which culminated in the most amazing dessert I have ever eaten. Then we headed to San Sebastián, considered by many to be the most beautiful place in Spain. It’s a precious town on the coast and it definitely lived up to its reputation.

That night we had another pintxo exploration. The next day we went to another small town, Getaria. This is where Cristóbal Balenciaga is from, so while there, we went to the Balenciaga museum. Next we went to another small town for a tour of a txakoli vineyard, which is País Vasco’s typical wine. At the end of the tour, we walked out onto a patio to find a stunning view and a table set up with delicious txakoli and snacks. The weather was great, and it was basically a perfect moment.

A view of San Sebastián from the funicular

We went from there to a culinary school to enjoy a delicious million-course meal. We returned to San Sebastián and had the afternoon and evening free. A few of us explored the beach and played on the rocks as the sun set, then went into the pintxo zone for another delicious meal (even though we weren’t hungry) and finished the night sitting on the beach, huddled under a blanket against the wind. This was one of my favorite days of the semester, starting at the vineyard and ending on the beach listening to music with friends. Perfect.

The next day was our last in País Vasco and we saw some beautiful scenery before heading home. We took a funicular up to where we had a great view of all of San Sebastián and the Bay of Biscay on the other side.

Back to Madrid

Then we loaded back into our bus and returned to Madrid! It was a great trip of eating delicious food, enjoying beautiful views, exploring interesting museums, and experiencing a new aspect of Spanish culture.

Back home in Madrid, Spain had general elections on November 20. One thing that I noticed was that campaigning was way less intense than it is in America. Posters were only put up a couple of weeks before the elections, and the candidates only had one debate that I’m aware of and it was not too long before the elections. The socialist party, PSOE, has been in power for over seven years, but they were just replaced with the more conservative PP. Everyone basically knew that they were going to win, but they ended up winning by a landslide, even more than was expected. Carmen was so excited.

We watched the news during dinner, which we never do, and I got to learn more about politics in Spain. On the news, they showed shots of people celebrating outside of the PP headquarters, which just so happens to be three blocks from my house, so after dinner my roommate and I decided to walk over and join in on the festivities! We had so much fun. There were people everywhere singing, chanting, and waving flags. The music they were playing over the speakers was very funny and random, including “Get Down On It” and the electronic-y “Barbara Streisand” song. After a couple of hours, the newly elected President Mariano Rajoy came out and spoke and it was so cool! I’ve never seen the president of anywhere in person. Overall, it was an awesome experience. Here’s a short video.

I had an awful banking experience recently. The day before I left for Paris I tried to go withdraw money to take with me and the ATM swallowed my card! Lucky for me, the bank was open, so someone was able to open the machine and get the card out for me. I thought it was a problem with the ATM, so I went to another one to try again but that one swallowed my card as well! So I got it out again and asked why this was happening to me and the lady at the bank said she guessed there was something wrong with my card (but there wasn’t anything she could do since I was at Barclays and my account is with Bank of America).

So I went home and called Bank of America to find out that they had decided that my card had been compromised, cancelled it, and sent a new one to my home in Austin. All of this the day before I left for Paris. And oh yeah, have I mentioned that I live in Spain?!?? That just makes everything more difficult, even simply calling the bank. After a longgg time on the phone they were able to reopen my cancelled card for an hour so I could withdraw money for the weekend, and when I got home from Paris a new card was awaiting me, so all is well now; it was just a very stressful time!

And on to Paris

Then we spent our Thanksgiving break in Paris. Even though Thanksgiving is obviously not celebrated in Spain, our kind program gave us a Thanksgiving break, so off to Paris we went!

I do not speak any French. I’ve never been to a country before where I don’t speak the language at all, so I didn’t realize how hard that was going to be. Instead of suffering in a hostel, my friends and I rented an apartment for this trip, and that was a great choice. We were supposed to meet our landlord at a cafe next door to the apartment to get the keys, and he had told us that the cafe owner had an extra key in case he couldn’t be there for whatever reason.

We arrived at the cafe but basically no one was there so we were just faced with the cafe owner and had no idea how to tell him that we were renting the apartment next door and were looking for Philippe. I literally just looked at him and could not think of a single thing to say. That’s when I realized how interesting this weekend was going to be. By showing him a piece of paper with the address and our landlord’s name, I was able to get across the idea that we wanted to get into the apartment, so once he got a chance we all walked next door and he let us in and starting explaining things in French. Luckily the phone rang and it was Philippe, apologizing (in English) and telling us he would meet us there later that evening.

Throughout the weekend, I really started to appreciate my Spanish skills because I realized that all of the things that I couldn’t say in French, like in restaurants or stores or asking for directions, I would be able to say in Spanish. Luckily most people spoke “a little bit” of English (as they all said) so we were able to get by fine.

We met a few stereotypically rude French people, but in general, everyone was nice enough! Not Dublin-nice, but not nearly as scary as anticipated.

Our first stops on Wednesday were to go to Moulin Rouge and the Arc de Triomphe.

The next day was Thanksgiving, and I was slightly sad all day to not be at home, or in Tyler with my whole family at my grandparents’ house, but we all survived just fine. The first place we went to on Thursday was Luxembourg Gardens, which were nice. It was comparable to Retiro, although I think that Retiro is a little prettier than it was at this time of year. It’s probably much more stunning in non-winter months, but it was still nice! Next we headed to Notre Dame, which was impressive. After that we stopped in the bookstore Shakespeare & Company, and then had a delicious pizza lunch.

After lunch we went to the Eiffel Tower! It is just so massive, and really breathtaking in person. We were there as the sun set, and it looked so cool once they turned its lights on. We also got to see the tower as it lit up with flashing lights! That was really cool and pretty. I had no idea that the Eiffel Tower actually did that, I thought it was just something that little souvenir towers did for no reason, so I was surprised when the real deal did too.

The next day we went to the Louvre. It is one of the most confusing buildings that I have ever been in. But we finally figured it out and saw some Italian and French paintings, including the Mona Lisa. I’m not really sure why it’s so famous, but there were a bajillion people around it taking pictures, so I did too. Then we explored the area that Napoleon used to live in and saw neat, really opulent rooms, and some artifacts and paintings from his life.

After the Lourve, Hayley and I went to Centre Pompidou, a modern art museum. On our way there we saw Hotel de Ville, which is Paris’ city hall, and it was really pretty. Then we went to the Pompidou. The outside of it is really interesting and covered in pipes. We explored for awhile in there and saw some Picasso, Miró, and Warhol, among others. Then we went to an awesome and fancy macaroon place, Pierre Hermé, where we purchased some delicious macaroons. The flavors we got were chocolate passion fruit, crème brûlée, rose, chocolate, and caramel. SO good. My favorites were rose and crème brûlée (seriously, could that word have any more accent marks?).

The next day was our last, and we went to Musée d’Orsay for some Van Gogh, Renoir, Manet, Monet, and more before we had to pack up and head to the airport. It was great, I really liked it!

Then we headed home that night. Overall I really enjoyed Paris — there was so much to do. I think I could spend a solid two weeks, maybe even a month, there, and then I would maybe be able to accomplish everything that I wanted to.

Last week we saw another flamenco performance with our program. This one was very different from the one we saw during our Andalucía trip: more dancers, more traditional costumes, different music. It was really fun to watch! I’ve now been to two flamenco performances and I’ve noticed that the audience for both was basically all tourists, which has led me to wonder if real Spanish people actually ever watch flamenco.

Christmas in Madrid

The Christmas spirit arrived in Madrid earlier than I’m used to. Without Halloween or Thanksgiving to slow them down, lots of stores had Christmas decorations up by early/mid-November. I missed the fall leaves and pumpkins decorations from home. But now that it’s December, Christmas is undeniable. I’ve gone out a couple of nights this week to explore and see all of the Christmas lights that are up around the city.

Then on Friday I went with my friends Brittani and Kendal to the Reina Sofía (again. This blog post has now come full circle) and then we shopped a bit, so that was a nice day! While there, we saw a man wearing an SMU T-shirt  – Peruna, logo, and all! In the
middle of Madrid! We decided we basically had to approach him, and so we did. We asked him if he had gone to SMU but, as it turns out, he definitely did not speak English. He gave us a lost look and just said, “I am Japanese.” We tried to communicate to him that we liked his shirt, but got nowhere and just ended up running away, embarrassed. We thought
it was random when we saw a man in Madrid wearing an SMU t-shirt, but after
talking to him (or rather, at him) and learning that he was actually a Japanese man in Madrid who does not speak English and apparently does not know what SMU is wearing an SMU t-shirt, it’s about 10,000 times more random.

I’ve been feeling pretty homesick recently. I just reallyyyy miss Texas and my friends and family. But I know that everything will still be there when I get home, so for now I just need to keep living it up and taking advantage of this awesome opportunity that I have!! Plus my mom will be here in 17 days!!!!

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