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.

My second semester in Spain

Wow, sorry for disappearing. It’s not that I haven’t had any free time to do this in the past month and a half, it’s just that I’ve been filling said free time with other things. Here we go:

OK, so winter break was lovely! I had the first few days of the break to myself after my friends from last semester departed and spent them relaxing and enjoying alone time with Carmen. Then my mom arrived in Madrid!!!!! I went to the airport to pick her up on the morning of December 21, and it was SO great to see her! Our first stop was Mercado San Miguel, which she loved, obviously. Delicious tapas and pintxos, and a great atmosphere. Everyone loves Mercado San Miguel.

In the days before Christmas, we explored the sights, including Retiro, Sol, and a ride on the Navibús to see Madrid’s various impressive displays of Christmas lights; ate tons of delicious food, including a couple of dinners out with Carmen; and relaxed and enjoyed our time together.

On Christmas Day, Mom cooked an amazing meal for the two of us, which consisted of a sausage dish from Catalan recipe, yummy chicken, and a salad to break up some of the intense meatiness.

We grocery shopped for the meal in Corte Inglés, and that was quite the experience. Our biggest challenge was finding dried cherries. I wasn’t sure about the word for cherry, although I thought that it might be cereza, so Mom picked up a box of Christmas candy that had a picture of a cherry on the package, and through a game of charades we communicated to an employee that we wanted “these,” but dried. In the dried fruit section we searched and searched, fruitlessly (hah!), and had finally accepted that they just didn’t have dried cherries when … we found them!!! This was exciting in and of itself, but the best part was that the word for cherry is indeed cereza!! I felt very accomplished.

Then Mom worked on the meal for hours on Christmas, conquering the Celsius oven and other cooking-in-an-unfamiliar-European-kitchen challenges, and we enjoyed our feast together.

Bright and early the next morning (note to self: NO. MORE. EARLY. MORNING. FLIGHTS.) we headed to Barcelona! On our first day, we explored La Rambla, the port, and the Barri Gòtic, where we found the most amazing pintxo bar this side of País Vasco and inhaled an impressive 15 pintxos between the two of us. The next day we went to the Picasso museum, and returned to the amazing pintxo bar for some lighter snacking than the night before, and went back to La Rambla that night.

The next day was our last there, and I made sure that I went inside La Sagrada Familia, because last time I went to Barcelona, I only walked around the outside. It was incredible. I’ve seen a lot of churches in my time here, and this one was amazing. Then we went to La Boqueria for lunch, and after that to Parc Montjuïc to ride the funicular!

From up there we got to see the sun set over the city, and then it was time to head to the airport. When we landed in Madrid, I went straight to Bryce’s hotel (one of the guys from the program last semester) to say goodbye to him. He had been in Italy with his family and then was back in Madrid and leaving for home the next day. So we hung out for a little bit, and then said goodbye, and then I was officially the last one from the group left in Madrid!

I was sick the next day (thanks, Bryce) so I spent it at home, on the couch, reading and sleeping. Mom went and explored the Palacio Real, where someone stole her wallet!! Thankfully her money was in her pocket, but she lost her bank cards and ID, which was no good, but could have been worse. The next day, we went to Blanca and Guillermo’s house for a delicious lunch and had a lot of fun hanging out and talking with them. They gave my mom a little nativity scene and wrote on it, “With love from your Spanish family,” or something equally as cute. It’s so great to have people like them in my life here; it’s very comforting.

On New Year’s Eve, being the crazy party animals that we are, we stayed in and I helped Mom pack for her flight home the next day. At midnight we watched the broadcast of Puerta del Sol, the Spanish Times Square equivalent, and ate 12 grapes along with the 12 chimes of the bell, which is their tradition here. There’s only 3 seconds between every chime, so eating all 12 required some rapid chewing, but we were successful! Sadly, the next day Mom had to leave, so I returned home to Casa de Carmen, where we enjoyed a New Year’s Day feast together.

Three Kings celebration

On January 5, celebrations for Día De Los Reyes started with the cabalgata (parade), which Carmen and I attended. That was a lot of fun, and I got to see the “three wise kings” in person. The next day was the actual holiday, and Carmen’s whole family came over for dinner and I got to celebrate with them. They are all so nice and I really like spending time with them. We enjoyed dinner, followed by the traditional roscón de reyes (king’s cake) served with cream. That was delicious, and Carmen and I ate roscón leftovers for the next few days after.

A few days later, the new group of SMU students arrived! There are eight of them besides me, and it’s all girls this semester. I got to meet everyone, and then they headed off for orientation, and I returned to my January hobby: shopping. Spain only has sales in January and August (I don’t know why), so when they do, they go big. I bought lots of great stuff last month! Another day while the other girls were still at orientation, Carmen and I went out to lunch at Mercado San Miguel because she said that in all the years that she’s lived here, she’s always walked past it but never gone in. So she loved it; as has already been discussed, it’s impossible not to love.

With the start of this semester, I have realized that I’ve made some serious breakthroughs with my Spanish! For all of last semester I felt like my comprehension definitely improved, and my speaking did some, but after spending lots of solo time with Carmen, and just being here for longer, I guess, my Spanish has gotten sooooo much better and I have a lot more confidence in speaking it. I’m still not fluent or flawless, but I’m really happy with the progress that I’m making.

SMU students watching Barcelona vs. Real Madrid

Then the girls got back from orientation, and we’ve been exploring and having fun getting to know each other. Our first day of class was on MLK Jr Day (last semester it was Labor Day) and that was also my first day of work at my new job for this semester. Instead of teaching English classes this semester, I’m working as more of a nanny for three days a week with these two precious little girls, Sofia and Victoria, who are 9 and 6. They are super cute, and we’ve been having a lot of fun together.  That first day was also Carmen’s birthday, so we went out to Pizza Jardín (always a classic) to celebrate.

Toward the end of January, Real Madrid and Barcelona were playing each other, so we all went to a bar to watch one of the games and had a lot of fun. It ended in a tie, so it could have been worse.

Spanish class

The first Thursday of this month, I had an adventure called “Class at the Complutense.” This semester my conversation class is an independent study with my professor and me that meets once a week on Tuesdays. Since we don’t have class on Thursdays, she invited me to come to the Complutense, which is the top public university in Spain, on Thursday mornings for the composition class that she teaches there. So, all for the pursuit of knowledge, I am now waking up obscenely early on Thursdays to travel 45 minutes in order to take a class for no credit. I think I might be crazy, but I love Spanish so it’s worth it. Going to the class is really interesting because I get to meet lots of other students from all over the US, and they’re all really nice. The first day, I got a little lost. The campus of the Complutense is HUGE. I was on a bus for probably 15 or 20 minutes, and the entire time we were just driving through different parts of the campus.

That same first Thursday, we went to the Thyssen museum with the program, and I really enjoyed that because I hadn’t been to that museum yet and it had art from all periods of history, so it was interesting to see a little bit of everything.

And now I would like to end this marathon post with some of my recent thoughts about Spain. First, any homesickness that I was feeling at the end of last semester (which was sort of a lot) completely evaporated probably a day after the group from last semester departed, and I was walking around my neighborhood thinking about how comfortable and content I feel here, and how happy I was that I have more time here.

It’s crazy to me how at home I feel in Madrid after only five and a half months here, and I feel like this is already my city, but then I think about how ridiculous that must seem to someone who was born and raised here — in comparison to them, I know nothing about the city, and I’m just a visitor here. But regardless, I still feel like I have some sort of a claim on the city. I love it here, and I am so happy.

I’ve also come to realize that Spain is an extremely complex country that is still coming to terms with its history, and still deeply divided over some things. I could probably spend the rest of my life trying to understand what it means to be a Spaniard, but I love the little bit of insight that I gain each day, and I am absolutely in love with this amazing, confusing, complicated, beautiful country and its people.

Last weekend I had an amazing time in Tenerife, an island in Spain’s Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa, celebrating Carnaval! I’ll try to post an update about that before a month and a half has gone by! Thanks as always for reading my extreme wordiness, os quiero!

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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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Coldplay, Ireland and the longest day

There have been a couple of days recently where I’ve felt really good about my Spanish: I’ve been able to communicate what I want to without major difficulties. Of course, my frustrations with the language, which are daily, still outweigh my successes. But I’m making progress, slowly but surely. And I am absolutely falling in love with Spanish!

Last week I received an excellent package from my family, full of my favorite snacks, and pictures, and sweet notes. It was probably the best package ever. They also sent me my tennis shoes so I’ve gotten to go on a couple of runs in Madrid! The weather has been basically continuously cold and rainy this week. I tried to buy rainboots last week but I couldn’t find any big enough to fit me. I literally don’t think that they make shoes in this country that are my size.

On Wednesday of last week I went to a Coldplay concert at the Plaza de los Toros, where the bullfights take place. It was the best concert I have ever been to. Here’s my video from the concert. It’s basically awful because my camera apparently can’t handle loud music, and I was dancing all over the place, but it has some good moments in it.

Before the concert, Carmen told me that people had spent the night outside of the Plaza de Toros the night before, so when we arrived at the venue half an hour before doors opened and got into the longest line ever for general admission, I was pretty nervous. I figured that we were going to be so far in the back and not be able to see anything.

When we finally got in and general admission was hardly crowded at all, we were ecstatic. So we ended up with really great spots and enjoyed the amazing concert. Upon entry, they gave everyone a bracelet which lighted up and flashed colors during the first song, so seeing the entire venue flashing was an awesome sight. There were fireworks, and we were showered with paper butterflies, and Chris Martin speaking Spanish was pretty cute.

St. Stephen's Green

The day after the concert, I gave a presentation in one of my classes and then headed to Dublin, Ireland on Friday morning with two friends! Usually we end up sprinting through airports, but this time we got to the Madrid airport with too much time to spare. Maybe we’ll eventually get it right. Upon arrival in Dublin, our immediate impression was that everyone there was just so nice.

We continued to notice this throughout the weekend as random passers-by would jump in to offer directions when they overheard us talking about where we were trying to go. The people there were one of my favorite things about Dublin. We also noticed that Ireland looked really familiar, like home. At least out by the airport, their highways wouldn’t have looked out of place in Austin, and their gas stations looked just like ours do in the U.S. (they’re different in Spain).

Being in Ireland was obviously different from being in Spain. It was nice to be somewhere where people spoke English, but I actually found myself missing Spanish! At one point, I bumped into someone and I was about to say “perdón” but then I realized that I wasn’t in Spain so I got really confused and couldn’t think of anything to say. I had been worried that their accents would be unintelligible but thankfully this was not the case. Some were stronger than others, but in general I had no trouble understanding anyone.

Regi and I almost got ourselves run over on our way to the hostel when we looked the wrong way before crossing the street, forgetting that they drive on the opposite side of the road than what we’re used to. This was a source of confusion for the rest of the weekend, but thankfully at most intersections it’s painted on the ground “Look Left” or “Look Right,” so I guess we’re not the only ones who need a little help.

On the first day we explored Grafton Street, a shopping area, and St. Stephen’s Green, which was a beautiful park. The next day we took a free walking tour of Dublin for almost four hours that was really great. We got to learn lots of history and see all the important sites, like Dublin Castle, the River Liffey, and the Temple Bar area. We also experienced some genuine Irish weather: overcast and a bit rainy. That night we learned that Halloween is popular in Dublin and enjoyed seeing lots of crazy costumes.

First-class train ride

At 5:40 a.m. the next day, the longest day of my life started. For overly complicated reasons, which I will not get into, we did not fly home from Dublin, but rather from London. We spent the day in Liverpool, which was really quite nice. We toured around the city on a “Hop on, Hop off” tour bus throughout the day and enjoyed going to Albert Dock and various Beatles landmarks, as well as learning lots of history about the city while on our bus. The only annoying thing about Liverpool was having to use pounds instead of euros. The exchange rate against the dollar is terrible, and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to their coins. You have to seriously examine them to find where it says how much each is worth, and the sizes are random.

OK so back to why this was the longest day of my life. We woke up at 5:40 a.m. on October 30. Over the course of the next 18 hours we:

Took a bus to the Dublin airport, flew to Liverpool, took a bus into Liverpool, took a train out of Liverpool, switched to another train into London, took a night bus in London, switched to another night bus, took a shuttle to Gatwick airport, flew to Madrid, took the Metro home, and finally arrived home at noon on October 31.

We did not:

Sleep.

It. Was. Terrible. We didn’t have school on Monday or Tuesday so I basically did nothing but sleep for two days.

A bonus was that we, for some reason, had first-class tickets on the two trains, which basically meant nothing except that it was less crowded, so we enjoyed that.

This was a really cool weekend because I got to experience Halloween in three different countries (Ireland, England, and Spain), and I really liked both of the cities we visited.

Because of the festivos on Monday and Tuesday, we enjoyed a two-day-long school week this week, so that was obviously great. Yesterday our group went to the building for Spain’s congress, el Congreso de los Diputados, and the modern art museum the Reina Sofía, where we saw Picasso’s Guernica, among others. I like modern art, so I really enjoyed it. This weekend three of my friends from SMU who are studying in other parts of Europe are coming to Madrid, and I am so excited to spend time with them!

The highlight of my day today has been that our heat got turned on!! Yesterday when I wrote this, I was sitting in my bedroom wearing my peacoat and FREEZING. It’s getting to be below 50 degrees now, and the low for tonight is 38! As a native Texan, this is cold for me.

Next weekend my friends and I are off to London, which I am looking forward to, and then the week after that our program is taking a trip to País Vasco, in northern Spain, and I am SO excited. Apparently the food there is unreal and we’re going to some of the prettiest places in Spain.

As I’m writing this, it’s half-time of the Homecoming football game. It’s weird to be so many thousands of miles away instead of in Ford Stadium cheering for the Mustangs with all my friends. This weekend I’m definitely missing all the Homecoming festivities, Boulevarding and, of course, the game. As always, I’m so happy to be here, but I love SMU and am missing it a lot. Go Stangs!!

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At home in Madrid

My first churros con chocolate

I’ve been enjoying spending time home in Madrid since our return from Andalucía. On the Monday after we got back, I went to a local public high school, where I’m going to be volunteering as an assistant with English classes, to meet with the professors and figure out my schedule. They learn British English here, so I was amused to hear that these Spanish English professors speak English with a British accent! I guess it’s the same as if a person from Mexico heard me speaking Spain Spanish, but it’s funny nonetheless.

The following day, Tuesday, I went and helped with my first two classes! I basically just did whatever the teachers asked me to do, which was to introduce myself and have a little dialogue with the students, and teach vocab words about professions in one of them, and verbally go over their homework in the other. They liked having me speak to the classes as much as possible since I can pronounce all the words correctly.

One of the English teachers didn’t have the most fantastic English ever. It was good, just a little bit slow, and she had a thick accent. She told me that her real career is in Latin but because of the problems in Spain right now, I guess with the economy and education system, teachers are being forced to learn how to teach new subjects. I thought that was really interesting and sad.

On the following Monday I went for the second time to help with classes, and I got there early and waited in the teachers’ lounge for the professor to meet me and take me to her classroom. After I had been waiting for awhile, and the bell to start classes had rung about 10 minutes earlier, I decided to hunt down the classroom myself. I asked someone in the office and they walked with me, but when we got to the classroom, it was teacherless! So I just jumped in and started introducing myself to them and then asking them comprehension questions about my life. Then one of the directors came and told me that the teacher who was supposed to be there had fallen on some stairs somewhere so she wouldn’t be coming in to class, but they would send in another teacher.

The teacher next door, whom I had worked with the previous day, called me over and told me about how some people from different countries were visiting their school that week so I could teach my class vocabulary about meeting new people and then have them practice conversations, so I just jumped in and started teaching an English class to a group of 13- and 14-year-olds by myself off the top of my head, and I absolutely adored it!

A couple of teachers poked their heads in every so often, but no one ever came to take over as had been promised, so I taught the entire class by myself (which is one of the primary things that they told me would never happen whenever I met with them the first day, but whatever. I really enjoyed it). I just pretended like I knew what to do and like I wasn’t scared of them, and took charge and it was just such a cool feeling. Definitely one of the highlights of my week. I’m going to be volunteering at this school every Monday and Tuesday morning for the rest of the year, and I’m really excited about it since I have no clue what I want to do with my life and I’ll be able to see if teaching might be something that I’m interested in.

After my exciting class, I got to meet some of the people at the high school who were visiting from different countries. They were English teachers from different places in Europe, and when I told some people from Estonia and Lithuania that I’m from Texas, they were very interested. It was the best reaction that I’ve gotten from anyone yet, just sort of surprised and excited, so that was fun.

For my Spanish Culture and Civilization class, we have to do a group project in which we compare a neighborhood within the city of Madrid to another city within the autonomous community of Madrid. Last week, my friend Regi and I went to explore our city for the project, Alcobendas. It was about 40 minutes away by metro. While there we had to interview 10 people about their impressions of the city, visit the town hall, and go to all the important places in the city and take pictures.

It took us about nine hours including travel, so it was quite an exhausting day, but I really enjoyed it. I feel like we got to see everything there was to see in the city and really got a good feel for it. Interviewing the 10 people was time-consuming and awkward, but not horrible. My impression of Alcobendas was that it was convenient because it was close to Madrid, but so much more peaceful and quiet (and smaller) and full of really pretty parks! I liked it.

This past week was midterm week for us, so I spent all of last weekend and week studying nonstop, which was rough. In general, I don’t have to study as much here as I do in Dallas, so last week was a change of pace. Midterms here were different from how they are in Dallas because it was much more structured and formal, more like a finals week in that I had one in every class and they were scheduled at specific times. It was stressful, but I survived and am so excited to return to my typical stress-free Spanish life!

I am also glad for the end of nonstop studying because it means that I can stop spending my life’s savings at Starbucks. I didn’t want to study in my room all day every day, nor did I want to walk 20 minutes to the library at school, so that means that I spent a lot of time this week at Starbucks, and it was just painfully expensive.

On Saturday of last weekend, Regi and I were studying at Retiro Park, and on our walk home we saw a giant protest taking up all of Paseo del Prado, a big main street. Then later that night, when my roommates and Carmen and I attempted to get churros con chocolate in Sol, it was absolutely packed with people and we could get nowhere. After some googling, I’ve learned that these protesters are Spain’s indignados and they seem to be protesting a democracy that is not representative enough and corrupt politicians. It also might have something to do with the Occupy protests, but I’m not sure. Here’s an article about these protesters, and here’s a video of what was going on in Sol when we were trying to walk there.

As mentioned above, I had my first churros con chocolate on Saturday night! We walked for what felt like forever through crowds of people just to find that Sol was way too packed (if you looked at that video, you realize that this is an understatement), so we basically made a circle and ended up getting churros right by our house. They were pretty good! They were basically sticks of fried dough that we dipped into chocolate that was more chocolate-y than just hot chocolate, but less chocolate-y than just straight-up melted chocolate.

Anyways, they were good, and after we finished our first servings, we were full. Carmen asked us if we wanted more, and we said no, so naturally she ordered more, which we then had to eat. I was painfully full by the end of the “meal,” if fried dough dipped in chocolate can count as a meal.

One day last week when I was walking through the metro, someone stopped me to try to get me to enroll in a program of donating a certain amount of money per month toward ending world hunger, which is obviously a great cause, but as a college student studying abroad, obviously not something that I can afford to do. Anyway, I let him go on with his spiel instead of just cutting him off like I might normally do because I was so excited that I could understand him explaining this complex concept in Spanish! I’m realizing that my Spanish comprehension and speaking are both definitely improving even though they’re not where I want them to be and I still don’t have much confidence.

As I’ve mentioned before, speaking English is definitely getting harder. Yesterday was especially rough. I feel like over and over yesterday as I was trying to say something to someone in English I just had to give up because I couldn’t think of the words for what I wanted to say. And as I was writing something in English tonight, I kept spelling words wrong. So annoying, but at least I know I’m not alone in this struggle. It’s become pretty common to hear someone in our group end a sentence with “well, I can’t speak English anymore, but you know what I mean.”

After my English tutoring session with Blanca and Guillermo, my 6- and 8-year-old students, on Tuesday of this week, they invited me to stay at their house for dinner, which I did, and which was lovely! We had a yummy fish dish and rice and I had fun talking to them in Spanish. We all had a good laugh about how much of a struggle it is for me to roll my r’s and Blanca entertained herself by thinking that she was teaching me Spanish by telling me words that I already knew.

My roommates and I had a hilarious experience with Carmen the other night at dinner. Because I’m the tallest and I eat the quickest out of the three of us, she has decided that I naturally must be the hungriest. She is always sneaking me cookies or offering snacks to me but not my roommates, which is pretty funny. So at dinner the other night, she brought out our plates of pasta. Mine was the biggest to begin with, but not by too much so I wasn’t worried about it. Then she asked Fati if she wanted all of the pasta on her plate, and Fati said that she would like a little bit less, so Carmen then announced to the table, “Whenever anyone doesn’t want all their food, we will just give it to Ashley because she is the tallest and eats the most.”

Then, without consulting either of us, she picked up Fati’s plate and dumped like 1/3 of her pasta onto mine. I then had a veritable mountain of pasta on my plate, like more than I have ever seen on a single plate possibly ever. It was all I could not to just die laughing. Once she left the room, I put half of what she had added to my plate onto Hayley’s, but I still had a significant amount of pasta left! I was so full after finishing it.

Yesterday we went on a group excursion to El Escorial and El Pardo, a monastery and a palace a little bit outside of the city. I think the most memorable thing that we saw was the Pantheon of the Kings in El Escorial, which consists of 26 marble sepulchers containing the remains of former kings, queen regnants, and royal consorts who were parents of monarchs. It even has two empty spots in it, one for the current king, Juan Carlos I, and one for his wife, Sofía de Grecia (provided that their son, Felipe, eventually becomes king. If he doesn’t, she does not end up being the mother of a king, she ends up somewhere else). It was pretty creepy but also cool.

El Pardo is the palace that Franco lived in when he was the dictator of Spain for almost 40 years, so we got to see his old bedroom and some of his clothes, and that was interesting. Now the palace is half museum and half residence for any foreign heads of state that come on official visits to Spain. It’s interesting for me to think about all the palaces and such that we visit actually being used and lived in by people 400 or 500 years ago. I can’t really picture it.

Also, the ETA, a terrorist organization from País Vasco that has been using violence to convey their message about their desire of statehood for their autonomous community for four decades, just announced a “definitive cessation of its armed activity” so that is very exciting! And as far as Gaddafi’s death goes, I have seen multiple pictures of his dead body in Spanish newspapers, which was pretty surprising/disturbing for me since I don’t think that pictures like those would be published in American newspapers.

Yesterday I reorganized my armoire and added all my winter clothes in because it is starting to get chilly here! Spaniards I’ve spoken to have been pretty surprised that it hasn’t gotten cold yet, because apparently by this time it usually has. So now we’re looking at highs in the 60s, with some days in the 50s next week. It’s pretty chilly at night and in the morning, and the heat in the apartment buildings doesn’t get turned on until November 1, so I spend my nights roaming the house in a fleece pullover and slippers, which is quite comfy. And I have some good blankets in my bed, so I’m not cold at all!

It’s not even too cold yet, but I don’t know what I’m going to do when actual winter starts since I don’t really do cold and we have to walk around outside so much here. It also might rain sometime in the next few days, which would be interesting since I have literally not seen a drop of rain in Madrid since I got here.

I’m looking forward to a Coldplay concert here in Madrid on Wednesday and a trip to Dublin this weekend! ¡Hasta luego!

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Exploring the south of Spain


The entire group at Los Reales Alcázares

Last week our whole group took a school trip to Andalucía, Spain’s southernmost autonomous community, a few hours from Madrid. It was a great week of learning outside of the classroom, with lots of tours and free time for exploring on our own.

On Tuesday morning we loaded onto our charter bus (quite spacious for the 13 of us) with two professors and headed off for Córdoba. Once there we were dismissed to roam around and eat lunch for a couple of hours, and when we all met back up again we toured the Mezquita-Catedral, which was constructed in the 8th to 11th centuries by all the different Moorish rulers of Spain. After Spain was reconquered by Christians in the 13th century, it was turned into a church. It was really interesting to see all of the Muslim architecture mixed in with crosses and portraits of Jesus and saints.

That same evening we got back on the bus and left for Sevilla. Once we got to our hotel, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the school was putting us up in really nice four-star hotels! Our hotels in Sevilla and Granada were both great, and we had access to their delicious breakfast and dinner buffets. A nice contrast to the hostels that I’m getting accustomed to.

We had our first night in Sevilla free, so our group got dinner and then went out together, which was a blast. One of my favorite things about the trip was hanging out with the whole group because I have so much fun when we’re all together, and that doesn’t happen in Madrid (outside of class) very frequently.

On Wednesday morning we started a long day of tours with Los Reales Alcázares de Sevilla, a royal palace.

We also walked through el Barrio de Santa Cruz, Sevilla’s old Jewish neighborhood, and toured the Cathedral of Sevilla, which is the third-largest church in the world. Our professor told us that the people building it said, “Let a church so beautiful and so great that those who see it built will think we were mad.” I didn’t take any good pictures of it, but here’s the website if you’re curious.

Christopher Columbus has a tomb inside this cathedral, which we saw, but there’s some controversy as to whether Columbus is actually in there. According to Spaniards, he is, but according to Dominicans, Columbus is buried in the Dominican Republic. Mystery. The tomb is impressive regardless. While at the cathedral, we climbed to the top of its tower, the Giralda, for a view of Sevilla.

After four tiring hours of walking around the city, we went to a restaurant for a typical meal organized by our school. It was delicious, but so much food! We started with salmorejo, a really yummy soup, followed by a salad with tuna, another course that I don’t really remember (something pork-y), and then calamari. By that point we were all painfully full, and the main course hadn’t even arrived! For the main course we could choose between swordfish or pork loin, and I had the pork. And after that, we had a choice of desserts. Tons of food. Delicious, though, and best of all, paid for by school!

Riding bikes in Sevilla

We had a free afternoon in Sevilla after lunch so a few friends and I rented bikes and rode around the city! It was only 3€ for an hour and it was one of the most fun things I’ve done in Spain so far. Sevilla has a great bike path that goes all through the city, so we just followed it aimlessly and encountered lots of pretty sights along the way, including the river that the city is on.

Wednesday night the group got back together and our professors took us to a flamenco performance, which was unlike anything I have ever seen. Overall, I definitely liked it. It’s not the kind of music that I would listen to in my car or anything, but I can absolutely appreciate it, and the dancing was just intense. The dancers contributed to the music with their bodies, with the sounds of their feet and by hitting their legs. It was very interesting, and I was captivated during the whole performance.

The view of Granada from La Alhambra

Thursday morning we loaded back into the bus and drove a few hours to Granada. That afternoon we walked through la Alcaicería, which used to be an important market area but is now mostly full of souvenir shops, although it was still interesting because you could imagine how it used to be. After that we went to la Capilla Real, which is where Queen Isabel I and King Ferdinand II, the Catholic Monarchs who completed the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, are buried. I saw their coffins! Creepy and cool.

During our free time that evening, a friend and I walked up a massive hill to La Alhambra to see the sunset over Granada, which was gorgeous.

During this entire week, I had been developing a cold, and Friday was my worst day as far as that went. I was pretty miserable during our tours that day. First we went to La Alhambra, which is a 14th century Moorish palace/fortress. We toured all around and inside the different buildings, and of course climbed a tower for a view of Granada since we seem to do that in every city.

We also saw el Generalife, one of the buildings connected to la Alhambra, and we walked through gorgeous gardens to get to it, so that was nice.

By around 1 p.m. our official school trip was over. The return to Madrid on the bus was optional, so two of my friends and I had planned a trip to nearby Almería for yet another weekend on the beach. Six of our other friends were planning on going to Morocco, so we all parted ways. As the three of us were waiting for our bus to Almería we received a phone call from the Morocco group saying that their train was sold out, so they spontaneously decided to join us instead! They called and made reservations at our same hostel and hopped on a train to Almería. After our very scenic bus ride through southern Spain, the nine of us conveniently all arrived at the bus/train station at the same time and headed to the hostel.

We were all really sad that their Morocco trip didn’t work out because they had really been looking forward to it, but we were also really excited because, like I said, I love it when we’re together as a group. On our way to the hostel I picked up some cold medicine at a pharmacy. It was absolutely disgusting. It was a powder that I had to mix into water and it was so bitter. I had to take nine packets of it over the weekend, and it left a bad taste in my mouth for the entire weekend. I’m very glad to be done with that and feeling better!

On Saturday morning we loaded up on provisions at Dia and then took a bus to a small fishing town about an hour away called Cabo de Gata, which we had read had the best beach. We weren’t disappointed – it was gorgeous, and not crowded!

Sunset at Cabo de Gata

The return bus wasn’t until 8 p.m. so we spent all day at the beach, and it was probably my favorite day that I’ve had in Spain so far. For lunch I tried my first-ever paella at a restaurant on the beach, and it was delicious. We also got to see a lovely sunset.

Then we packed everything up and walked to the bus stop to go back to Almería, significantly sandier, more burnt, and more tired than we had been eight hours earlier.
On Sunday we took a seven-hour train ride back to Madrid, and the fun week of explorations came to an end. Now I’m home for a couple of weeks without any trips, which is very nice. Time to get ready for midterms next week!

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Trip to Portugal

Yesterday I got back from a weekend in Porto, Portugal, which is in the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula. It’s not that big, so it’s not exactly overflowing with things to do, but it is very pretty and we had a good time there.

On our river tour

With this weekend came exposure to another new language. Portuguese is similar to Spanish in some ways, and Catalan in others, because it was also influenced by French. Seeing signs in Portuguese and hearing people speaking it (so crazy sounding!) made me wish that I could speak every language in the world. I am seriously so fascinated by them.

Also with this new city came a new public transportation system, and I am sorry to say that I was not impressed by it. Porto’s metro is above ground, which is a neat twist, but it is slow, expensive and confusing. Not a fan.

Our hostel this weekend was absolutely the best. It was very clean and safe, and the people running it were so nice and friendly, and they had an adorable 1-year-old daughter we got to play with. I loved being there. We also made friends with some other travelers our age staying there – a Polish girl and a German boy – and we spent the rest of our weekend exploring with them.

Making those new friends was definitely one of the highlights of the weekend, and our German friend has convinced me that I definitely have to visit Germany before I leave Europe. His logic is that coming to Europe without going to Germany would be like going to America without seeing New York City, L.A. or Washington, D.C. A good argument, only faulty because I’ve lived in America for 20 years and I have never been to any of those places. Regardless, I want to go to Germany!

View from the river

While there we dropped by a mall and were surprised to find a full-fledged grocery store in the middle of it. This is apparently normal. It was convenient for us, and we enjoyed cheap snacks out of their cafe section.

The overall highlight of the weekend was the two days we spent at the beach with lovely weather and very cold water. I had fun swimming in the Mediterranean last weekend, but I wasn’t brave enough to get more than a foot in the Atlantic this weekend. But the sand and the sun did not disappoint!

We also sampled some tasty Portuguese food, like their traditional francesinha sandwich of beef, sausage, cheese, and sauce, as well as a sausage that was lighted on fire at our table, and some Ferrero Rocher-flavored ice cream (not unique to Portugal, but so, so good).

I also loved the river tour that we took of the Porto’s Douro River. We got to cruise up and down the river, seeing the bridges and scenery and learning the history of the town. Afterward we sampled some port wine, one of the most important things about Porto. Not my favorite.

All in all, the weekend was lovely, but coming home to Madrid yesterday was really great. I wasn’t expecting the amount of relief that I felt when we got off our plane in the Madrid airport and I was once again surrounded by people speaking Spanish, but it was definitely a comfortable feeling. I’m glad to be reaching a stage where hearing Spanish makes me feel at home.

Another interesting thing about our arrival back in Madrid was that it really did feel like I was coming home. Realizing that made me beyond happy. Plus we were reunited with Madrid’s lovely and efficient Metro system, which had been sorely missed. We were especially grateful for it after having had to seriously hustle in order to make our flight out of Porto on time thanks to their slow metro (why would they have trains that only come once every 20 minutes during the middle of the day?!? In Madrid the longest I’ve ever had to wait for the metro was 9 minutes, and that was practically in the middle of the night. Good riddance.)

Today in Madrid I was faced by a somewhat scary adventure/challenge: my first haircut in Spain. This is something that I have been thinking about/dreading since I arrived here. How would I know where to go to get my hair cut? How would I successfully communicate with my stylist? And what would I even be trying to communicate? The same guy has been cutting my hair ever since I cut it short, and I have never given him instructions on how to cut it, just always left it up to him, so I don’t even know how to describe my haircut in English!

Since my arrival in Madrid, I’ve contemplated every salon that I’ve walked past, wondering “Will that be the one?” Finally my hair reached a stage where it was just driving me crazy so I knew it was time to bite the bullet. I asked one of my Spanish friends where she would suggest that I go, and she told me to go to a salon inside of Corte Inglés. I don’t even know how to explain Corte Inglés. It’s this bizarre department/grocery store that sells everything. Here they say that if you can’t get it at Corte Inglés, it doesn’t exist. They even have their own travel agency. So I was not at all surprised to find out that my friend’s salon of choice was located there as well.

I gathered up my courage and headed over today after class. You don’t need to make an appointment, which is interesting, and I only had to wait a couple of minutes before being helped. As I was waiting, I was ridiculously nervous. Possibly more so than right before I first got my pixie cut. I was basically worried that I wouldn’t be able to say the right things and that I would end up looking like a boy. But through a mixture of sign language and Spanish, I was able to communicate, and I am so, so, so happy with the end result! It looks the same, just shorter, which is exactly what I wanted.

Yesterday and today have been a whirlwind of unpacking and repacking because tomorrow our program is leaving for a trip to Andalucía, another one of Spain’s autonomous communities, in the south of Spain. I’m looking forward to a week of exploring outside of the classroom! We’ll be there all together until Friday. Then the official school trip is over, but my friends and I are staying for the rest of the weekend to enjoy my third beach weekend in a row. Basically I’m loving life and couldn’t be happier!

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Great weekend in Barcelona

With Hayley at La Sagrada Familia

This past weekend two friends and I went to Barcelona and had an absolutely amazing time. Barcelona is on the east coast of Spain, a little bit farther north than Madrid. It took us about an hour to get there by plane.

The first accomplishment of the weekend was our mastery of a new city’s public transportation system. We got from the airport into the heart of Barcelona for basically nothing by taking a bus and the Metro, and successfully zipped around the city for the rest of the weekend on the Metro.

This was the first trip I’ve ever been on without parents or other adults to plan everything and navigate the city for me, so that was exciting, and I think we did a good job at seeing everything that needed to be seen!

Our first stop was La Sagrada Familia, a giant church designed by Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí started construction on it in 1883 and died in 1926 when the church was less than 25 percent completed. It’s still under construction today and won’t be finished until 2026, 100 years after Gaudí’s death.

I’ve seen lots of pictures of Sagrada Familia before and learned about it in school, so seeing it in person was that much more amazing. It is huge and has so many intricate details. There were a ton of people outside and around it, and I took a ton of pictures.

On the terrace at Parc Güell

“Gaudí” and “Barcelona” are practically synonymous, and we saw two more beautiful Gaudí creations during our trip.

One of them was Parc Güell, which is up on a hill in Barcelona, walking distance from our hostel.

We also checked out Casa Batlló, which looks sort of like a dragon and had some really impressive tiles, mosaic-style, on the front.

Another highlight of the trip was the afternoon we spent at the beach! Barcelona is on the Mediterranean Ocean and we enjoyed a lovely afternoon laying out and swimming. The weather was perfect. The water was pretty chilly but refreshing, and it was perfectly clear.

There were tons of people selling stuff at the beach, which was moderately annoying. They walked in between all the people laying out, calling out the name of whatever they were selling: everything from massages to henna tattoos, clothes to sodas.

One night that we were there, FC Barcelona was playing a game in their home stadium, so we headed that way to walk around the stadium and take pictures. It was really cool to hear everyone inside cheering, and when the game ended, the streets were full of people decked out in FCB gear. The three of us bought matching FCB socks, but don’t tell anyone here in Madrid or I’ll be in trouble.

We also meandered through Las Ramblas, which was basically a large street packed full of tourists and souvenir shops. We didn’t realize it when we planned our trip, but last weekend was the weekend of Barcelona’s biggest annual festival, Festes de la Mercè, so during our time on Las Ramblas we got to see a dance performance and a parade, which was great.

The last main sight we saw was the Font Màgica in Parc Montjuïc. At night there’s a light and sound show at this fountain. The light show part was very pretty, and the sound show part was very funny. The songs that they were playing in the background of the light/water show were just so random. It was American music: Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” followed by Mika’s “Grace Kelly” followed Irene Cara’s “Flashdance … What a Feeling.” Basically, awesome.

We also enjoyed some great meals in Barcelona – specifically our dinner one night at a restaurant called “Taverna El Glop.” Glop. Appetizing right? My personal favorite was butifarra, a Catalonian sausage that was so good.

This trip was my first ever hostel experience. Quite an adventure! Since this weekend was La Mercè our hostel pickings were slim and we ended up with one that didn’t have the best online reviews. I was terrified that it was going to be beyond filthy, so we brought our own sheets and towels just in case, but my expectations were pleasantly exceeded! It was definitely a hostel, and it wasn’t particularly nice, but it was pretty clean and we had a bathroom in our room — no shower though. And that’s where the adventure part comes in.

One night the three of us headed to the shower room to discover that the shower stalls were miniscule and only freezing cold water came out of the shower head. And as soon as I had jumped into mine and doused myself with ice water, I discovered that my stall didn’t lock, so one of my friends had to hold the door closed while I showered. Needless to say it was a very quick shower.

Barcelona is the capital of an autonomous community (Spain has 17 of them) called Cataluña, which has its own language, Catalan. Spanish is the official language all over Spain, but there are quite a few other co-official languages, including Catalan. This means that all of the signs and place names are in Catalan (usually, hopefully, in Spanish too) and the people speak Catalan. I really enjoyed being exposed to Catalan, and I was really fascinated by it. It’s similar to French and I liked how crisp it was — instead of “supermercado,” they have “supermercat”; “gato” is “gat.” And some words were just interesting, like “platja” for “playa.” A lot of the words are similar to Spanish (aka Castillian, since Catalan is Spanish too) so I could figure them out, but not all. And hearing people speak in Catalan on the Metro was really interesting! I couldn’t understand a thing they were saying … Not that I can understand the Spanish conversations that I overhear either.

National pride isn’t really a big thing here in Spain, at least not as much as regional pride, and yesterday one of my professors was telling me that it’s been her experience that if you don’t speak Catalan, people in Barcelona would rather speak English with you than be forced to practice their Castillian. Interesting! I was really fascinated by Catalan, but it was nice to be back in the Madrid airport where all the signs are in a language that I can understand.

This weekend I learned that Barcelona and Madrid have completely different feels to them. While Madrid feels cosmopolitan and classy, Barcelona feels laid-back and chill, just like beach towns in the States do! People also dress differently. People in Madrid are dressed to the nines, always, but in Barcelona I saw a lot more people wearing jeans and T-shirts, even some sweatpants. I think this difference can also be attributed to the higher level of tourism in Barcelona. I wasn’t expecting the two to be so different, but they are definitely distinct.

Overall, it was a really great weekend. I had a blast and saw so much cool stuff. We got home at 10:30 on Sunday morning, exhausted, so I lay down to take a nap and my roommate woke me up nine hours later for dinner. Wow. Even I was impressed with my sleeping skills. It’s awesome to be able to have the time to sleep for a whole day. With my life in Dallas, that would just be unimaginable. I always have so much to do and never enough time. I am love, love, loving the absolutely non-stressful life that I am living here! Amazing.

I had a thought one night in Barcelona, as I was contemplating the struggle of learning Spanish … How did I get to know so many words in English??!? Really, it’s remarkable. I know probably 6 different words for everything that I want to say, and I fully understand the connotations of each one. How did that happen? And how on earth does anyone ever become fluent in a foreign language? Such a struggle.

But on that note… I feel like I’m slowly losing my grasp on that extensive knowledge of English, just a little bit. This week I’ve been noticing that I can’t always think of exactly the write way to express myself correctly, and a few times while writing this post I’ve been stumped about the correct phrasing or grammar of something. At this pace, I’m not going to be able to speak Spanish or English eloquently. Oh brother.
Day after tomorrow I’m heading to Portugal with a few friends! How awesome is this life that I’m living?? I am so lucky and so grateful for the opportunity to be here, and I am loving every second. ¡Hasta luego!

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Touring Segovia and random observations

In the palace gardens

Last Friday our group took a trip to Segovia, which is a little more than an hour north of Madrid. On our way there, we played some charades on the bus, which was more than entertaining.

The first thing we saw there was El Palacio Real de La Granja de San Ildefonso, a palace where the royal family still sometimes stays. The palace gardens were absolutely beautiful.

Next we headed to Segovia’s aqueducts, which were constructed almost 2,000 years ago by the Romans, and they still work today!

After that we checked out a couple churches and had our lunch break. During lunch we sampled some authentic Segovian desserts – ponche segoviano (yum) and leche frita (not yum). We accidentally ordered a ton of the leche frita, which was unfortunate since we weren’t its biggest fans. But we had some fun convincing the rest of our group to try it, and we managed to get rid of almost all of it that way.

View from the top of the castle

After lunch we went to the Alcázar de Segovia, a castle. We toured inside and then climbed approximately 1 million steps up a teensy, narrow tower to reach the top. After catching our breath, we enjoyed the wonderful views of Segovia.

After that we headed back to Madrid. Overall, I liked Segovia. It was very beautiful.

With regard to the “study” aspect of study abroad, I had my first presentation in one of my classes this week. It went well, pretty uneventful. School is starting to pick up, though! And my art history class went to the Prado today, which was great, of course.

And to conclude, some random observations:

  • I have realized that I don’t like asking for directions. Why? I don’t know. But I prefer to wander around aimlessly, frustrated and lost, rather than asking for help. Stupid but true.
  • I went to Dia the other day in search of some basic groceries, including peanut butter and ziploc bags, neither of which they sell there! What?! I knew that peanut butter would be expensive, but I didn’t know that they actually wouldn’t sell it some places. I thought this was interesting because in America, I could find both peanut butter and ziploc bags anywhere, like at a gas station, and here they’re not at the grocery store!
  • I now have a Club Dia card, which is the same concept as a CVS Rewards card. This makes me feel very legit, like I belong here and grocery shop here enough to benefit from a rewards card. Which I guess I do.
  • Spanish people have a thing about being barefoot in the house, so we wear slippers or flip-flops all the time. This really makes me appreciate being able to be barefoot for a few minutes whenever Carmen’s not home. Back in the States, when I had the option, I didn’t even really like being barefoot that much! But now, when I get the chance, it’s a nice feeling. Another thing which I have randomly started to enjoy more since coming to Spain is tomatoes. I’ve always liked them but now I adore them. I don’t know why.
  • I typed on a Spanish keyboard today! That was interesting, because they have keys for the letters with different accents and such. I accidentally kept pressing the “ç” key instead of enter.
  • All yogurt here (that I have encountered so far) is white, no matter the flavor! I didn’t even realize that we dye our yogurt at home, which obviously we do, until I opened up a strawberry yogurt here and, while it tastes like strawberries, it looks like vanilla!

That’s all for now. Barcelona this weekend!!! So. Excited.

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Parks, shops, restaurants and more

At Retiro Park

I am happy to report that both of my wishes for last weekend were fulfilled! On Saturday afternoon, I embarked on my first trip to Parque del Retiro for some homework-doing and grass-lounging. The park is MASSIVE. I took a walk through it for about 30 minutes, and I had probably only scratched the surface. We’ll see if I’m ever able to explore  the whole thing!

And on Sunday we went to El Rastro, the open market. It was insane: street after winding street closed to cars, packed full of people and stalls selling everything under the sun. I didn’t bring my camera, but all of those people on every street were a sight to see. We wandered through the streets for about two hours, which was exhausting. When we finally departed, we still hadn’t been down every street in the maze.

I bought a leather bag at one of the stalls, which I really like. I’ve been using it to carry my books in so I can stop feeling so silly with my backpack, but I keep having issues with it. Once I got home I noticed that there was a tear in the strap and I didn’t want it to rip all the way through, so Carmen accompanied me to a shop where all they do is repair bags, and the guy there fixed it for 1.20€! I used it happily all week until today in the Metro station when a different part of the strap broke. I’ll probably take it back to the same bag repair guy to see if he can work some more magic.

The location of Carmen’s apartment seems basically ideal. We are walking distance from everything: restaurants, stores, pharmacies, chinos, estancos, grocery stores, and even the bag repair shop. I thought it was interesting that even something as random and specialized as that was only a seven-minute walk away. In Austin I would first have to do some googling to find a place like that to take a bag, and then I’d have to drive at least 20 minutes to it. Living here in Chamberí (our neighborhood) is just so convenient!

This week we discovered that we are definitely close to some serious shopping. The streets Fuencarral and Gran Vía are both within walking distance and are straight-up lined with stores. I’ve been to Fuencarral twice this week and I am now the proud owner of a pair of 5€ sandals!

Dinner with Carmen at Pizza Jardin

Also last weekend, my roommates and I went out to dinner with Carmen at a restaurant called Pizza Jardín (right around the corner, of course). I have learned that Carmen knows everyone in our neighborhood, and especially everyone at Pizza Jardín. True Spaniards that we are, we ate dinner from 10 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. It was really nice and we chatted for quite a while afterward. Sitting at the table and talking after a meal is called la sobremesa here, and according to one of our professors, it’s the most important part of the meal. This is such a change from the States where I feel pressure to leave as soon as I’m done eating so I’m not taking up a table.

As everyone is aware, September 11 was this past Sunday. I thought it was really interesting that I didn’t even realize that it was September 11 until Sunday afternoon, whereas had I been in the States, I would have been inundated with nonstop September 11 awareness from the moment that I woke up. Weird.

Tutoring English has been going really well. On Monday I had my first class with 13-year-old Marta. We just sat in her room and talked for an hour, and I really liked her. Today I had class with Guillermo and Blanca and we played Twister (“Hand.. right.. in.. red.” “Blanca, repeat after me: right hand on red”) and did puzzles. It was a lot of fun, and Mercedes told me I was doing a good job, which made me very happy!

On Wednesday we took our first trip to the Prado Museum, which was just great. It was so cool to see paintings that I’ve studied in school, like Goya’s Satan Devouring His Son and Velazquez’s Las Meninas in real life! And I could understand (almost) everything that our professor was telling us! It was such an awesome feeling to approach a painting and not understand it, then have it explained to me in Spanish and then be able to understand what was going on. I felt so accomplished and I really feel like I learned a lot, so I’m looking forward to going there every Wednesday for the rest of the semester.

At times this week, speaking Spanish has seemed harder than ever. Yesterday was a particularly challenging day for me trying to speak in class and at home. I’ll think of something in English and want to say it, but it’ll just be too complicated for me to figure out. Or I’ll open my mouth and conjugate every single verb incorrectly and have my professor stop me mid-sentence over and over. It can be absolutely exhausting and definitely frustrating, but hopefully this is one of those situations where “it’s always darkest before dawn” and my difficulties will finally give way to a little bit more fluency.

In other news, I just registered the lack of bugs in Spain tonight when I realized that I have had the doors to my balcony open basically all day, every day, and I have encountered nary a mosquito! Love it. Then again I do have a couple bites from something on my toes, so Madrid must not be completely bug free. But no mosquitoes is good enough for me!

Tomorrow the group is taking a day trip to Segovia, so I’m looking forward to that. And next weekend a few of us are going to Barcelona, and the weekend after that to Portugal! I am so lucky and grateful to be here. ¡Ciao!

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Feeling more at home

This week I’ve been hanging out with some half-Spanish/half-American people, and that has left me with an overwhelming feeling of jealousy. They. Are. So. Cool. They’ve grown up in both places, they speak English and Spanish (and more) perfectly, they know how to live/survive/thrive in both countries, and I just basically want to be them. These people are the friends of my friends and I’ve been loving getting to form relationships with them so that I can hopefully continue to hang out with them over winter break and next semester, when the group of SMU students that is here with me now will be back in Texas.

How to look like a tourist: 1. Wear a backpack 2. Take pictures on the Metro

In other news, I love the Metro! It’s so efficient and cheap and clean and easy and coooool! I feel like I’ve ridden it a million times this week (but it’s only actually been like 10) and so I am now a Metro pro.

Walking is also great. You seriously do not need a car in this city. Just about everything that we need is within walking distance. It’s different in America (in Austin and Dallas at least) because everything is just so big and spread out. Here, they use the space they have much more efficiently, which we saw in the grocery store the other day, with the small building and narrow aisles. It’s interesting to see how we do the same things differently.

After school one day this week we went on a walking tour of Madrid with one of our professors. We saw some cool stuff, like the Plaza Mayor, Palacio Real, Puerta del Sol, and the oldest restaurant in the world, Restaurante Botín. I’m not even exactly sure what everything that we saw was because our tour guide was one of the professors from the Fundación and I can’t always understand everything that she says. She’s the one who’s going to be taking my art history class to the Prado every Wednesday, though, so I better learn to figure it out quick so I can pass my tests!

El Palacio Real

With one week of classes at the Fundación under my belt, I’m feeling pretty good about this semester. None of my classes seem terribly difficult, and so far the homework has been a breeze. Hopefully it stays that way!

Earlier this week, one of the directors of the Fundación offered to set us up with her friends/friends of friends as English tutors for their kids. So I’m going to be working with two to three families every week this year as an English teacher! When she gave us the names and numbers of the families that she had paired us up with, she told us that we had to call them to set up meeting times, and I was terrifieddd … I have to try really hard to understand people when they’re speaking Spanish in person, so I figured that I would be completely lost on the phone without the aid of any body language.

I was pretty much right. I called the first family and floundered around in Spanish for about a minute before she asked if I would rather speak in English and put her son on the phone. We set the date for my first class with her daughter to be on Monday! The second family that I called spoke to me in English right from the start, so that was easy. They wanted me to come over that afternoon, to get acquainted and talk about our schedules, so I hopped on the Metro and went to meet them.

After accidentally buzzing the wrong apartment (Friends can’t teach you everything) and thoroughly confusing the woman who answered when I told her that I was “Ashley, la profe de inglés,” I got into the building and went up to meet the family. They were absolutely precious and are my new favorite people ever. They were so kind and I felt like I was being welcomed into their family, which will be a nice support to be able to rely on for these next eight months. I met their kids, Guillermo, who is nine, and Blanca, who is seven, and talked to the parents, Juan and Mercedes, for over an hour. They explained how the classes will work: I’ll come over for one hour twice a week, working with each child individually for 30 minutes. Some days I’ll help the kids with homework, but mostly we’ll just get to play together, and so long as I am speaking English and having them repeat words back to me, I’m doing my job.

I had my first class with Guillermo and Blanca on Thursday after school. I was a little nervous, but it was great! We played Go Fish with cards that had animals on them and made sentences using flash cards. Really easy and fun. And once the hour was up, Blanca held my hand and walked me to the door and then kissed me on the cheek. I’m looking forward to getting to spend time with them every week!

It’s fun teaching English since I’ve always taken my knowledge of it for granted, and haven’t thought about speaking it as one of my skills. But here, it is! That knowledge is something that I have and that other people want. It’s fun to feel like an expert. I can’t really understand the kids (at least not Guillermo) when they speak in Spanish, though. They just talk so quickly and definitely overestimate my Spanish skills. I’ve been having basically no trouble listening and understanding in my classes and when Carmen talks to me, but I have more trouble with just about everyone else, like waiters, taxi drivers, and people I’m getting directions from. And speaking is proving to be more challenging than listening for me. It takes me a while to form sentences, and I can’t wait to get better at it.

That’s all that’s new here! I’ve had a very relaxing (see: lazy) Friday since we don’t have class on Fridays. Yay for a year of four-day weekends! It’s now Friday night, and I have the doors to my balcony open so I can hear lots of people in the street below me talking and singing and generally having a grand ol’ time.

I’m looking forward to what the rest of the weekend has in store for me! I hope to make my first trip to Parque del Retiro and visit El Rastro, which is apparently Europe’s largest open market. Adiós!

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