Eric in Madrid

Eric, a junior majoring in accountin in the Cox School of Business and Spanish in Dedman College, is a Hunt Leadership Scholar and Cox BBA Scholar. In Fall 2009, he is living and studying in Spain’s capital through the SMU-in-Spain program. Having never before traveled to Europe, he says he is hoping to see and experience a lifestyle different from the one he knows and to become more proficient in the language that he has come to love.

Three days in Paris

Seeing as this was my first-ever time in Europe, I decided that I needed to go to one of the big three tourist cities (in my mind, London, Rome, and Paris) at some point, despite my big talk about trying to find some trips a tad off the beaten path. It does feel nice every once in a while to be able to cross five things off the bucket list within the span of a weekend, and I got to do that and so much more that I didn’t anticipate while I was there.

Day One

We got up at about 4 am Friday morning to catch the 6:30 flight to a small airport outside of Paris. Being cheap means you get to take a bunch of small planes without free drinks to airports about an hour outside of a major city and then catch a bus in.

Anyway, so after all of our traveling was done, we had arrived in Paris about 10:30 a.m. We surprisingly had very little trouble finding our hostel, which turned out to be a tad further away from the center of the city than we had anticipated, but luckily was right next to a metro stop (I should note briefly that all of the public transportation that I have used so far in Europe, which is in 5 different cities, pales in comparison to Madrid).

So we dropped off our bags and hit the ground running. We were able to make a nice little walking tour from our hostel down to the Seine, along the way passing a monument to the Bastille prison and catching our first glimpses of the Notre Dame cathedral.

To describe the Seine as picturesque is a bit like calling the Grand Canyon big; it’s what makes the city beautiful, in my opinion; there are just no words to describe how everything about Paris wouldn’t seem nearly as wonderful and elegant without the river cutting through it. We got to the Notre Dame cathedral and walked through, rubbing St. Peter’s foot and looking at what is believed to be the original Crown of Thorns along the way.

PTDC0145.jpg We kept on walking down the Seine to the Louvre, and hung out there and enjoyed watching all of the other tourists taking the same variation of pictures involving the giant glass pyramids in the main plaza.

It was at a little street cart outside of the Louvre where I purchased the first crepe of my life. It was just a simple Nutella (the European chocolate substitute) crepe, and was truly breathtaking. I and the two other guys with whom I traveled developed the “Last Bite Concept,” where we decided that our last bite of every crepe we bought should be as big and messy as possible, so that it would leave the best possible aftertaste. Needless to say, I brilliantly executed this theory a couple more times over the course of the weekend, and I really don’t need to ever eat another crepe in my life – they just won’t be as good.

From the main plaza of the Louvre you can see, in a scene reminiscent of the Washington Mall, all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, so we once again set off and tried to make our way down there. By this time it was getting into the evening hours, and we had all been walking all day on very little sleep, so as the skies opened up and began to unleash serious downpours on us after an hour of trekking toward the Arc, we decided to call it an afternoon and make our way back to our hostel.

After a solid power nap, we made our way back to the metro and got off for our first visit to the Eiffel Tower. I’m sure if I had read any kind of good travel book I would’ve been aware of the fact that it lights up on the hour at night, but the surprise and glory of that first unexpected show might’ve been the highlight of my trip. After an hour of sitting around the tower enjoying the cool night, we returned to the hostel for a good night’s rest.

Day Two

We woke up the next morning and enjoyed our hostel’s breakfast of a croissant with a variety of jams, a chocolate Danish, and a cup of hot chocolate, which hit my cold body in a delightful way. Most of our day was spent going through the Louvre, and I am very pleased with how thorough we were – and yet how I never tired of it.

PTDC0273-1.jpg I would call the Louvre the “anti-Alamo” because it is so much larger than you would ever believe in real life. The main difference I noted between it and the Prado (the national art museum of Spain), besides size, is how many different paintings that would squeeze onto a single wall. The impression it gave was that they just didn’t have enough room to put their collection, even though the three different multi-storied buildings of the Louvre are spread over a space of land pretty comparable to the main part of SMU’s campus.

Even though all of the rumors of Mona Lisa being disappointingly small are entirely true, there is just a certain feeling of disbelief to be looking at a cultural relic whose fame in Western society is probably matched by nothing else.

Later in the day we ventured a ways north to the part of the city known as Montmarte, where the Sacred Heart Basilica is located and is also known as being one of the best views of the city, as it sits atop quite a steep hill. The view didn’t disappoint and we enjoyed getting to hear the nuns in the basilica perform their daily prayers of adoration.

What we didn’t anticipate taking place there was a massive wine festival, which meant we were in the midst of about 2,500 French and other tourists in different stages of inebriation for the rest of the night, as we decided we couldn’t leave the festival once we learned of the fireworks show that night.

As we waited for the show, we found a nice French restaurant and went inside, and were quickly shown the door for not having a reservation. We tried the restaurant next to it, and were given the same greeting. Finally we found a restaurant, which allowed us to dine after a 15-minute wait. This ended up being well worth it for me as my meal consisting of the house specialty quiche, house specialty French lasagna, and chocolate mousse for dessert left me quite fulfilled.

We then climbed onto the roof of an abandoned building by the festival and enjoyed the show. The show was quite different from an American fireworks show, where instead of lasting 45 minutes and at times becoming a tad monotonous, this lasted only 15 minutes and consisted entirely of grand-finale-quality fireworks.

Our next surprise came as we were sitting in the metro station, and an American young man walked up to us with a question. After a couple of minutes of conversing he introduced us to his group of friends studying in Paris and their group of French friends they were passing time with that night.

Before we knew it we were heading with this group to sit in the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower again at night. Spending that night sitting around with a group of strangers who were speaking a language of which I had no knowledge and just soaking in the wonderful Parisian night is just one of those experiences I’ll never forget. I’m quite certain we’ll never run into any of those people again, but I’ll always be grateful that they turned a night of uncertain plans into a cultural experience I’ll have with me forever.

Day Three

The next day we checked out of our hostel, but still had a few hours to kill before having to catch our bus back to the small French countryside airport. Seeing as we had not yet been to any of the major monuments on the west side of the Seine during the daytime, we hopped on the subway and started walking again.

This time we got to see the Statue of Liberty’s cousin, which is situated on the end of a small stretch of land in the middle of the Seine. As we began walking on this island toward the Eiffel Tower, we noticed that on the side of the river a huge running race was taking place. We probably walked along that little island for 45 minutes, and for as far we could see along the Seine in either direction there was a giant mass of humanity, 15-20 people wide the entire way.

The race ended, like us, at the Eiffel Tower, and we finally got out daytime pictures of it while trying to navigate through a gigantic finish line and even a movie scene being filmed underneath the tower. We didn’t end up having time to go up the tower, but I suppose you can’t win everything.

PTDC0468.jpg Our last stop before catching our bus was finally making it to the Arc de Triomphe, and thankfully the clouds agreed with our pursuit this time and we wound up taking the necessary “we were there” pictures before racing to the bus and finally catching our flight.

It was quite the weekend. I feel like we couldn’t have possibly tried to do more in the city, but that doesn’t mean I certainly won’t be willing to venture back there at some point in the future – maybe it’d be a more conducive environment for my apparently sporadic blogging.

Hasta Luego,

Eric.

Tomorrow: surfing in Portugal

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Exploring southern Spain

Cathedral_n.jpg For a variety of reasons (semester projects, family visits and eventually final exams), I realized early on in the semester that the month of October would be my opportunity to go see the non-Madrid parts of Europe that I was hoping to see. I followed through with that plan, and, thus, here I am at the beginning of November not having written about my experience for over a month. I hope that my memory will forgive me and that I will be able to do all of these trips justice, along with the different experiences I’ve had in Madrid.

Andalucia

The last week of September, all of the SMU students and about half of the San Diego students, with whom we are attending the Fundacion Jose Ortega y Gasset, ventured down to the southernmost comunidad autonoma (the Spanish version of the state or province) in Spain. It is the region home to the former Muslim Moorish empire that has shaped much of Spanish culture over the last 1,300 years. The Moors were formally expelled from Spain more than 500 years ago by the King and Queen Ferdinand and Isabella, but their influence remains to this day.

We started our trip with a 4-hour bus ride from Madrid to Cordoba. Immediately after departing the bus I realized that this was a very different place from Madrid, and it felt as if I actually was in Morocco or one of the other Moorish homelands (not that I’ve visited those places yet, but I’ve seen the pictures).

The buildings were all white, the streets were narrow, and instead of high-rise apartments and grandiose plazas, the city was filled with clusters of one- and two-story buildings that typically seemed to surround some sort of green area for leisure. The main site of historical significance there was the Mezquita (Mosque) de Cordoba. There began the trend, which held steady for the rest of our visit to Andalucia, of sites that held great Muslim importance before being converted by the Christian kings of Spain into Catholic holy places.

Later that day we hopped back on the bus and went to Seville, where we stayed the night and had the opportunity to enjoy many of the city’s famous tapas bars to celebrate a our friend’s 21st birthday.

The next morning we got to tour Sevilla, Andalucia’s most populous city and the fourth largest in all of Spain. We visited the Reales Alcazares (Moorish term for Royal Castles), which were a series of breathtaking gardens and ornate buildings

The true gem of our visit to Sevilla was the opportunity to visit the Cathedral of Sevilla, which is the third-largest cathedral in the whole world. Like the Mezquita, it was also built on the site of a former mosque, and when it was completed in the 16th century, it was the largest cathedral in the world and was a sign of the new Christian dominance of the region. Located within the Cathedral is the tomb, which has long been disputed to hold the remains of Christopher Columbus. Whether or not the claims are true, it is more than a little surreal to stare at the tomb of possibly the most impactful person in our history.

After another night in Sevilla, we made our way to the last Moorish stronghold of Granada. As we arrived at probably the most famous Moorish monument remaining in Spain, the gigantic palace called the Alhambra, my camera decided to break, thus losing all of my pictures of my trip for the rest of time, I’m afraid.

Dance_n.jpg Oh well, I trekked onward (with a slightly worse attitude admittedly) and ended up enjoying Granada probably the most of all of the cities we visited on that trip. It was highlighted by a nighttime flamenco dance performance in a bar located in a cave on the side of one of the many Sierra Nevada mountains. A group of six of us ended up staying in Granada an extra night.

Our original plan had been to rent a van and make our way back to Madrid and enjoy some of the parts of Spain (notably Valencia) that we had not yet seen. However, there was a lapse of communication on the part of the rental car company and, long story short, we found out that we would not be getting back to Madrid via minivan.

The extra night and day of seeing the city and enjoying its many tapas proved to be just as fun, and I was truly happy to be home the next day and still have a full day of rest before the start of the next week.

Tomorrow: Paris

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The wonder that is European futbol

e2.jpg As a true sports nut, I have spent the last few years of my life trying to become a fan of futbol, the world’s most popular sport. I spent the summer watching random American national team games as they prepare for the World Cup, but I had never really invested myself in the world of European club futbol.

Since coming to Madrid, however, that’s been a topic that has been impossible to avoid. Since I was born in a city without professional sports, I’ve always found that it’s fun to root for the local teams that people care about, and have jumped on the bandwagon for all of the Dallas franchises accordingly since arriving at SMU.

Here, of course, the team that is most often discussed on the news is Real Madrid, the club that, until the recent domination of rival FC Barcelona, had been the answer to the rest of Europe’s questions regarding whether Spanish clubs can keep up with the perceived superiority of the English teams.

This off-season they made giant acquisitions that couldn’t help but be the top stories on American news and sports outlets, by spending over $200 million solely for the rights to pay millions of dollars of annual salary to two of the world’s top players: Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazil’s Kaka.

It can truthfully be stated that since I arrived in Spain the nightly news is dominated by two figures: Prime Minister Zapatero and Ronaldo. I came here expecting to root heartily for the renewed-dominance of Real Madrid and excitedly anticipated the opportunity to watch their matches amongst a fan base stronger than any I had before experienced.

Then, I remembered why futbol has been so difficult for me to watch in the past: the players falling, grabbing their shins, howling at the referees while ignoring the game going on around them. There were multiple times a game when a referee would call for a stretcher to be brought out onto the field because of what could only be perceived as possible paralysis and at the very least a severe concussion, only to have the player hop right up, hobble for two steps, and then start running again at full speed. Say what you will about the off-field antics of American professional athletes, but there’s no doubt that they’re tough, and when they struggle to get off the ground, no one in the room yells at them for being a baby or trying to stall the game.

I was therefore a tad hesitant when I heard that most of the people in our program were going to the Real Madrid match last Saturday against Tenrife, a smaller club from the Canary Islands in its first year on the top level of La Liga. This hesitation not only stemmed from the 45 euro (~$65) price for my second-to-last-row seat in the giant stadium, but also because I wasn’t sure I could root for Madrid after watching certain players whine and out-talent their way to beating teams with less than 10 percent of their budget. I’ve always hated the Yankees, and now I was paying to see them play.

e-IMG_1124.jpg However, all of those thoughts were quickly erased as soon as I stepped off the metro at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu and for the first time saw the commotion and pageantry that was a premier European futbol match. It was truly breathtaking and surreal. The mom and pop tiendas were selling everything from knock-off jerseys to “real” jerseys to peanuts and popcorn and what appeared to be some homemade fudge. The bars surrounding the stadium were packed with fans of both clubs armed with megaphones and a lack of shame.

In stark contrast to many of the problems surrounding the tailgating at American locales, the fans here were packed into the stadium a half hour before the game, and we heard rumors that they wouldn’t allow us in after play began. Whether or not that was true, we weren’t brave enough to find out.

e-3.jpg I’ve always told people who don’t believe me that hockey is a fun sport to watch – that they simply need to go to a live game and they won’t be able to leave their seats. Well I suppose I should take that captivation and multiply it by at least five to describe the feelings of anxiety and thrill that controlled my body for 90 minutes.

At both halftime and at the end of the game I stood up and felt a little woozy from the fact that I had been intently staring at the same place for 45 consecutive minutes. At no point except for halftime did anyone in my section get up to use the restroom or visit the concessions, and there were no campy promotions on the field or scoreboard during the game. Trust me, the two action-packed hours were far more enjoyable than the languid three to four hours of a typical baseball or football game.

There’s also the fact that futbol is so much more mesmerizing to watch from the live audience’s perspective, and for the first time I was forced to appreciate just how much better these players were than any that I’ve ever seen live before. The close-ups and reverse angles to which I’ve become accustomed on television really don’t do justice to the acumen and fluidity of every participant in the game, even those 50 yards from the ball. Their pinpoint passes and smart running patterns allowed every fan with the slightest sense of geometry to anticipate the big play a few seconds before it happened, which in turn built the tension of the stadium as everyone slowly rose and picked up their voices.

The culminating explosion of either cheers or groans, depending on the play’s outcome, were some of the loudest unified noises I’ve ever heard people make. No wave or “Let’s go” chants were necessary, the players knew the crowd was there, and the heightened sense of reality that was felt amongst the fans, through every trial on the field, made friends of strangers and left no one feeling apathetic or distracted at the game’s pivotal moments.

Real Madrid won the game 3-0 and I came away with a scarf and a Kaka jersey that will in some way adorn the walls of my room back in Dallas. I also came away with a new appreciation for a sport that I had been struggling to understand.

It isn’t the hard-hitting, gritty, simulated warfare that has permeated the American sports scene. Rather, it’s a game of finesse, thought, and execution, while at the same time testing a person’s endurance and strength in a way that guarantees only the fittest athletes will succeed. It’s a game and a culture that embraces the eccentricities and flashiness of its stars as opposed to expecting them to be boring political figures as we do.

In the end, though, it’s honestly just something that you need to experience for yourself. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

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Becoming a Madrileno

Three weeks into the trip, and I have grown to love the city I live in and am developing a routine in an attempt to make myself feel like an actual resident.

IMG_0985-1.jpgI enjoy sitting around with my big Spanish family (at its peak nine people from four countries) and eating dinner, trying to research new Spanish superlatives to describe how wonderful I find my senora’s food.

There are also the moments when I realize that I’m going to be completely lost when I get back to the States and can’t find pudding cups of flan (can someone start looking for me now please??), and the opportunities for all of us to crack wise at the Spanish news.

All of these things have made me feel very much at home in my actual house, and I am very grateful for them, but I also sometimes feel bad for maybe feeling TOO much at home. There are moments when I am performing a typical, at least for me, school night ritual of just sitting around on the computer, talking to friends and listening to music, and then suddenly I think, “Wait, I’m in a huge European city!! I’m so lame!”

I know that I can’t be Mr. Tourist Night Owl every day, but there is still this weird tinge of guilt every time that going back home and taking a nap sounds a lot better than stopping by Plaza Mayor and snapping those pictures I keep meaning to or exploring some tourist-free barrio for the best Spanish food and drink. I guess maybe that is a part of being a resident, which is what I wanted to be upon coming here.

Weekend trips

As much as I love being in Madrid, I also have the foresight to know that this is probably the last time I will ever be in Europe with financial assistance and that I need to try to take advantage of the flights that are about 1/20th the price that they would be from the States (The flights that I’m looking at from Dallas to Kansas City during Christmas Break are more than it would cost me to go to Rome this month! Really??)

IMG_0953.jpgThe first couple of days in this program, “What trips are you planning?” is the equivalent to “What dorm do you live in?” or “What’s your major?” at the beginning of freshman year. My answer would usually just be that I hadn’t thought about it at all, so I would just show interest in everyone else’s ideas and kind of adopt them as my own.

However, after I settled in a little bit, I decided that my goal was to try to do as much stuff as possible that I would only be able to do as a 20-year-old, not as some old man down the road. That kind of turned me off the “I need to go see Big Ben and the Coliseum” touristy road and more on the “just go somewhere and see what happens” road.

That is how I ended up in Barcelona last weekend with only a camera, a wallet, a toothbrush and a hostel reservation. And what do you know? It ended up being an absolute blast of a weekend! That’s in spite of the fact that I smelled horrible, saw the work of pickpockets firsthand for the first time, and could barely stand from being so sleep-deprived by the time we had to leave. I do have my one indulgent trip to Paris already booked, but past that I’m trying to look a bit off the beaten trail for some ideas, and hopefully finding experiences that, years down the road, I would never be able to convince my family to do with me.

Hasta luego,

Eric.

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Jet lag, public transit and school in Madrid

segovia%20pic%201-1.jpg As the tardiness of this first blog post may imply, learning to manage time wisely when first being thrust into a completely foreign (pardon the pun) situation can be difficult. I’ve been here for just under two weeks, and in some ways it feels like two months, while in other ways it feels like a long weekend.

The first hurdle to cross for me when I came over here was the jet lag. Upon telling people that I had never before traveled across this many time zones (Madrid lies 7 hours ahead of Dallas), I received plenty of free, though often unrequested, horror stories of jet lag and its ability to completely ruin the beginning of an adventure. I brushed most of them off as being the exaggerated tales of people with a weaker will than my own.

Those thoughts ended suddenly when it was 11 in the morning and I was walking off of my plane in the Madrid airport having acquired a grand total of 30 minutes of sleep (the free movies and television shows on the plane being my downfall) and unsure if I was quite ready to tackle the Spanish world.

The cab ride to my Senora’s apartment re-energized me, though, as I was practically a dog sticking its tongue out the window oohing and aahing at the most mundane of sights along the way. I even felt strong-willed enough to start conversing with my cabdriver in Spanish, telling him that it was my first time in the country and expecting an excited response in return. Right as I was about to speak up, however, I choked on a giant puff of his wafting cigarette smoke and got a good look at his facial expression in the rearview mirror, which pretty much told me to go ahead and be quiet.

The adrenaline rush of the new experience quickly wore off as I arrived in the apartment, quickly unpacked my suitcases and ingloriously flopped on my bed for the next five hours until our early dinner.

segovia%20pic%202.jpg 10223_1249064513725_1442820026_31401757_7456144_n.jpg After a few days hanging around and touring Madrid as well as Toledo (left) and Segovia (right), two incredibly historical cities an hour outside of town, I got myself into full tourist mode and was very much enjoying opportunities that Spain offered, opportunities that often didn’t allow me to go to bed before 2 or 3 in the morning.

In Dallas I’m quite happy to enjoy a full dinner at 6 or 6:30 and then get whatever nighttime activities done with plenty of time to hit the hay by midnight. Here, however, when dinner ends at 10:30, it’s much easier to rationalize experiences that carry on further into the night, especially when it seems like all of the locals are participating also.

One fact about Spain is that there is absolutely no time of day on any day of the week when you feel alone on the streets or when there isn’t somebody or some vehicle making massive amounts of noise outside of your window.

Back to school

Of course, as most end-of-summer stories go, all of a sudden school hits, and for the first time in my life I get to experience the full effects of relying on public transportation to get me where I need to be, and on time. I live about 45 minutes from the school we are attending by either walking or taking the subway.

One morning during the first week of class I decided to try the bus near our apartment, which is supposed to only take about 25 minutes, and thanks to rush hour traffic I arrived at school an hour and five minutes later, 30 minutes late to my first class.

This was the moment when I realized that I wasn’t on campus anymore, waking up at 9:15 for my 9:30 class. Now I’m having to wake up at 7:45 for that 9:30 appointment and hope and pray that my trip isn’t somehow delayed by a subway car needing maintenance or two particularly grumpy people blocking the escalator as I try to run down and catch the connection that I can hear pulling into the station.

Needless to say, those nights of not being able to fall asleep until 3 in the morning start to add up and the prospect of school nights spent lazing around the casa don’t seem quite so unbecoming.

As the second week of class begins, and I grow more and more accustomed to the lengthy burden that is walking or bussing from one part of the city to another, I am starting to learn how important it is to try to do more in a smaller section of the city, instead of making plans in multiple places in the same day.

By overplanning a day, I find myself all of a sudden looking at a sunset and realizing that I’m an hour away from my apartment and dying of thirst. That might work for a person who only has a week to spend in a place as massive as Madrid, but for me, planning and time management become very important. December is a long ways off, and I know I’ll have time to do everything that I want as long as I plan wisely.

Two things to take away from this post if you are currently planning your Madrid vacation: Never plan to meet someone within the half-hour (or even hour) if you have to take the subway; it’ll make you seem incredibly flaky and could overload a punctual person, like myself, with frustration.

Also, never EVER be scared to take a cab at night because of the price! This is a huge city, and unless you can see the glint of your window from wherever you are standing once the subway closes, splitting a relatively cheap cab ride (about 5-10 euro from pretty much any two points within the main part of the city) is definitely the right way to go.

Hasta luego de Madrid,

Eric.

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