Monday, May 31, 2010

20 flavors of Gelato (A visit to the Homeland)

I am Italian. Really, I'm only 50% Italian, with the other half of my ancestors bringing German, French, English, and a tiiiiny bit of Cherokee into the mix. Sorry to say it Mom, but I generally ignore that side of my heritage. Truth be told, I am unsure as to why my identity rests so heavily in this fact. Maybe its because Mom-Mom makes delicious home-made food. Maybe because in 7th grade, when I was self-conscious of my big nose, knowing that it was Italian made me feel better. Maybe it's because my friends always commented on my olive skin tone, something that definitely does not come from my Mom's side. Whatever the reason, my strong Italian identity made it easy for me to choose my next big travel destination during my time here in Europe.

Although I really wanted to start the trip of in Naples (where all of the ancestors but one lived), I only had 5 days available for the Homeland, seeing as I had an oral presentation the day I left, and one the day after I came back. Thus, I narrowed the vacation down, with the help of my traveling partner Jenny McCoy, to Rome, Florence, and Venice, in that order.

The week started off with another six hour bus trip to Madrid, where I slept for four hours with Jenny in her twin bed. Romantic, we know. The next morning we were off to Rome on an early flight. Jenny had already been to Rome earlier, in fact, it was her first traveling experience during study abroad. The fact that her hostel got raided within the first day (most hostels in Italy are actually illegal because of the strict regulations and high taxes required by the Italian government) of her trip made her much less excited to be there, so much so that she refused to throw a euro in the Trevi Fountain. So, when we were planning our trip, we compromised: we would visit Rome, but only for a day.

Seeing as Jenny had already been there (and the fact that she's really great at reading maps, or maybe I just really stink), Rome was a whirlwind of sight-seeing. In only one day we saw the:

-Arch of Constantine
-Roman Forum
-Trevi Fountain
-Spanish Steps
-Piazza Navona
-Piazza del Campidoglio
(and more that I can't remember)

[Throwing my euro in the Trevi Fountain!]

Rome was also the place where my Search for the Best Gelato Flavor started. I forget the actual name of the gelato shop, but it is located right near the Pantheon and has literally 100 flavors. 100 FLAVORS! Obviously, it was our first gelato stop, so I was a little overwhelmed with all of the choices, but narrowed it down to these:

1. Torrotina
2. White chocolate
3. Pistacchio (that was for you, Dad)
4. Fruta di bosco

After enjoying our delicious gelatos, we realized we were incredibly tired after all of the sight-seeing we had already accomplished, and so went to take a little rest in the plaza in front of the Pantheon. Not too long after laying down (we were tired, ok?!), we heard a male voice say, "Hey, are you girls American?" Long story short, we met this film crew from Education First travel, who then bought us free gelato (5. Lemon) and capuchino, and then filmed us sitting in front of the Pantheon and describing our experiences in Rome. The best part of the interview was obviously when Jenny finished describing our morning and I decided to follow up with " we're just chilling." Excellent Lyndsay, excellent. Somehow this didn't completely deteriorate their impression of us, and we met up with them later that night for some drinks. Then, after a frantic metro ride from the wrong train station of Rome to the correct one, we were on our way to Florence in Harry Potter like fashion.

We were able to be more relaxed in Florence, since we had given ourselves 2 full days to enjoy the city. To start off, we stayed in Plus Florence, this incredible hostel that is more like a hotel; it had a gym, a pool, a rooftop and basement bar, giant rooms, and water pressure! We took our time walking around and exploring the city, visiting these sites along the way, among others:

-Il Duomo (where we climbed 463 steps to get the incredible view)
-Ponte Vecchio (one of 3 bridges in the world that have shops on it)
-Piazza della Signoria
-Piazza Michelangelo

Things that we were too cheap to buy entrance tickets to, but saw from the outside:
-Palazzo Vecchio
-Bell Tower (Campanile di Giotto)
-Galleria dell' Accademia
-Uffizi Gallery

Florence was my favorite city of Italy. The river that runs through it is gorgeous, and it had some of the best food I've ever tasted, including a warm vegetable Panini with a seasoning called Viagra in it. It was spicy. And delicious.
Our first night we went to a nice restaurant and shared some wine, which made us friendly enough to get to know our Italian waiter. We met up with him and his friend later that night at a bar, and after they led us to a secret bakery, which was literally a door on a side street with no sign. Best part - inside the pastries was chocolate pudding! But above all, my favorite part about Florence was the Piazza Michelangelo. Following the recommendation from our Argentine roommate (Anna, you live there right now!), we went at around 7 pm to be able to see the sun set on Florence. It was just breathtakingly gorgeous.

[One of my favorite places in the world.]

Also, my Search for the Best Gelato Flavor continued in Florence with the following:
6. Biscotti
7. Yogurt
8. Butterscotch
9. Green tea
10. Chocolate
11. Banana
12. Egg nog
13. Hazelnut

[On the Ponte Vecchio.]

If anything could define our visit to Venice it would be the directions given by our hostel to arrive there from the train station: "Walk outside, take a left, and then walk 'straight' for about 8 minutes." Straight in quotation marks? And how can you say 8 minutes, when everyone walks at a different pace? Yes, that would be the city of Venice. None of their streets are actually straight, and it is a city that is impossible to navigate, which we figured out very quickly. So, we put the guide book back in Jenny's bag, and let ourselves get lost in the floating city.

The thing about Venice is that there is really nothing to do there besides take pictures, eat, shop, and get lost. So, that's what Jenny and I did. We took pictures of pretty bridges, ate pasta, pizza, and more, and shopped. And got lost. After the first day, when our feet and legs were tired from walking all around the city (there are no cars or bikes or anything on the island, only water transportation), we tried to find a bridge to take us back to the other side of the river, where our hostel was located. This is the part of the trip when we realized that traghetto didn't mean bridge, and that we would have to retrace our steps all the way back (lots more walking) to the bridge we originally used.

[Jenny and I combining two of the four things to do in Venice: taking pictures and shopping.]

Another thing about Venice is the extreme number of tourists. (And on top of that, tourists with extremely bad fashion! Seriously, Jenny and I were amazed at the rampant wardrobe malfunctions.) Based on this fact alone, I really didn't enjoy Venice as much as I thought I would. It seems more like an amusement park than an actual Italian city, like all of the authenticity is gone. This is the case even for the northern islands off of Venice, especially Murano and Burano. We visited these two, and Torcello, on the second day of our time in Venice. Murano is famous for its glass (we saw a glass-blowing demonstration), Burano has brightly colored houses, and Torcello...well we only spent an hour there so I'm not quite sure as to what that island has to offer. Overall, Venice was beautiful, but it was too touristy for my liking. But of course, it did help me round out my Search for the Best Gelato Flavor (which at this point all of you should realize was just an excuse to eat a lot of gelato and there will actually be no winner) with these:

15. Vanilla
16. Coffee
17. Venetian
18. Amarena
19. Amaretta
20. Blueberry

[Jenny and I in Burano.]

Although Venice wasn't my favorite city, I still had a blast during the entire trip. If anything, it made me want to come back and see more of the homeland, like Naples and the Tuscany countryside. But in 5 days, I feel like we got a real taste of Italy. Literally. Chencha knows that Italian food is my favorite, and loves to see my reactions when she makes pasta for us, because I get so excited and always grab seconds (or thirds). She likes to laugh at me and say "¡Que sangre italiana tienes! ¡100%!" (What Italian blood you have! 100%!) Well Chench, maybe not 100%, but close enough. :)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Night I Stayed Up Until 7 am with Spaniards

I'll admit it, in the US, I really don't go out that much. Yeah, I like to have a good time as much as the next person, but if I'm not in the mood, I'm not going to force it. Case in point, my friends sometimes refer to me as the "G-ma." I'm sure this will change next year when I (finally) turn 21 (mark August 20th in your calendars if you have not yet done so!), but for now that's what it is. All this being said, however, one of the things I've wanted to do since coming here was to have at least one authentic Night Out: Spanish Style.

Only one night? This may seem like a small feat, but just wait a minute my friends, for it is not. This is, roughly, how a typical NOSS goes down:

9-10 pm: dinner time
10-11 pm: get ready to go out
11 am-2 pm: Botellon (drink in the streets) or go to a bar and have some cervezas, mojitas, whatever your heart desires
2-5/6 am: go to a discoteca and dance your little culo off
6 am: get churros con chocolate
whenever you're done eating the deliciousness (roughly 6:30/7am): go to bed

As you can see, a NOSS is very different from an NOAS (Night Out: American Style). Thus, it could not be a weekly occurrence for me, considering that the day after a NOSS is spent being a lazy piece of caca and a general waste of space.

Two Fridays ago, I had the opportunity to experience a NOSS with my spanish friend Clara, who I met through my Conservation class at the university. Clara had invited me to come to her pueblo (town) of Osuna for its Feria, which I had heard was a lot different from Sevilla's Feria. We started out the day with a class field trip to un Centro de Defensa Forestal (Forest Defense Center) and el Parque Natural Los Alcornocales (Cork Tree Natural Park). The salida del campo was part of the course curriculum, and something I had been looking forward to doing since I enrolled in the class. Andalucía (the southern autonomous community of Spain) actually has an extensive network of protected natural spaces, as well as a comprehensive forest-fire response team. The trip, and the class itself, taught me a lot about how Spain views nature, biodiversity, and the value of protecting the environment. It's a very different approach, but something that I'm glad I was able to experience. Here are some photos of the trip:

[Because of its geographic features, Andalucía is a hot-spot for energía eólica (wind energy), especially in the province of Cádiz, where the Centro de Defensa Forestal is located. This is the hill behind the center.]

[Some of my classmates hiking up to our lunch spot.]

[Antonio, the head of the Geography Department at the university. Besides teaching us about the Park and its processes, he also smoked about 18 cigarettes during the day.]

[The mountain we WERE going to climb, until the authorities stopped us. Apparently Antonio didn't ask for permission, because they had told him the year before that he didn't need to ask. Such is the Spanish way, no pasa nada.]

After the field trip, Clara and I met up with her mother (who is taking psychology classes at the university as well) and drove to their town, Osuna. Osuna is about an hour east of Sevilla by car, and the next biggest city in the province with 17,000 people. Here's how it went down in Osuna:

9:15 pm - Arrive in Osuna, meet Clara's dad, shower and get ready to go to Feria

10:30 pm - Meet Sergio (Clara's boyfriend) and get a tour of Osuna at night

10:50 pm - Dinner, consisting of hamburgers from Clara's favorite hamburger stand in all of Feria. (Yes Will I ate meat, and no Jamie I did not really enjoy it.)

11:15 pm - 5:30 am - Drink, dance and be merry. I had been nervous before coming, because although Clara and I were friends, I wasn't sure if I would be a nuisance for her during Feria. I really had no reason to worry, however, because Clara and all of her friends and family were so great to me. They made sure to include me in conversation, share their rebujitos with me, and make fun of me just like everyone else. A lot of them were surprised by how much I could follow along, especially Juan Carlos. He was saying goodbye to Clara and Sergio, and told them to "¡Qué hagáis buen amor esta noche!" (Make some good love tonight). Without thinking, I hit him on the arm for his inappropriate comment, realized what I had done, and then said "¡Lo siento!" (sorry) He was so surprised and said "You understood that!" and then laughed for about 10 minutes.

[Clara and I with our sweet wine and barcitos dulces. Delicious, delicious, delicious.]

5:30 am - Go the bumper cars! It was Diego and me versus Clara and Sergio, and I must say, Diego and I dominated.

[At this point I was thinking "It's 5:30 am and I'm about to ride bumper cars. Is this real life?"]

6:15 am - Go back to the hamburger stand for a little breakfast. This time, however, I ordered a baguette de tortilla (kind of like an omelette sandwich).

7:00 am - In bed.

12:00 pm the next day - Wake up and get ready for Feria during the daytime! That's one thing that's different about Feria in Osuna, no one wears Flamenco dresses during the night, only during the day. Clara was so nice and let me borrow one of her dresses.

[Clara y yo en su garaje.]

[Me, Ángela, and Juan Carlos.]

7:00 pm - Corrida de Toro (Bull Fight). Yes, I did go to a Bull Fight in Spain, after much internal debate. It was a very interesting experience to say the least, and I'm not quite sure if I have sorted out all of my feelings about it yet. I will say that is is more dangerous than I had expected; three times during the bull fight the matador was actually hit by the bull. I screamed every time.

10:50 pm - Adios a Osuna and back to Sevilla on the train.

Besides being able to cross NOSS and a bull fight off of my "Things to do before I leave Spain" list, my trip to Osuna was great because it felt like a normal weekend out with friends. Before coming to Sevilla, I had expected to make a lot of Spanish friends, but quickly realized it is a lot harder to do than one might think. Apart from the obvious language barrier, most of my friends from school live in towns outside of Sevilla, meaning that I can only see them two days a week in class. This particular weekend, however, Clara and I did things that my friends and I do. She straightened my hair, and I braided hers. We made fun of awkward dancers and belted out "La Loba" to each other. We talked about our favorite parts of the night while we laid in bed in the morning and wished we had slept for longer.

Just writing about it now makes me smile. It was definitely one of my favorite experiences thus far.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

P is for Playa

Hayley and Lauren, I know after reading this blog you are going to say "THIS is what Mom and Dad are paying for? Wow, you little brat." Accordingly, let me just preface this by saying that I have 2 presentations coming up (where I will be speaking Spanish to a room full of Spaniards for a minimum of 20 minutes), lots of reading, and a couple of essays. So, I AM doing more than finger-painting over here (that's for you, Jamie), but I'm sure you all would rather read about the fun stuff anyways. Which is why this blog will be all about cosas divertidas (fun things)! Now that we're past that, let's continue.

Playa = beach. And for my 17th week here in Spain, I started and ended it on two different ones.

Saturday the 1st of May was el Día de Los Trabajadores (Worker's Day) in Spain, and yes I do agree that Worker's Day on a Saturday kind of defeats the meaning of the holiday. Considering everything would be closed, my friends and I decided to hop on a bus and take a ride down to Matalascañas, the closest beach to Sevilla. After a chaotic bus-boarding experience (90% of the city apparently had the same idea as we did) and 2 hours of heavy traffic (it normally takes 45 minutes), we finally arrived. We spent the day laying on the beach, reading some homework and doing quality people-watching. (Dad, you would have loved it.)

[La piedra (the rock) that marks Matalascañas. It's really an upside-down tower. I don't know why it's upside-down.]

Sunday was Spain's Mother's day. [Side note: HAPPY AMERICAN MOTHER'S DAY MOM! I LOVE YOU!] To celebrate, Pilar (Chencha's daughter) invited us all over to her house for some Paella Valenciana (rice dish from the Spanish province of Valencia). We bought Chencha a plant (purple, of course), and three flowers each for Pilar and Chari (Chencha's daughter-in-law). The highlight of this visit was the paella deliciosa; Pilar hand-cooked it in a huge pan over the stove and we all chowed down straight from the pan, neglecting plates. This would make the lowlight the caracoles. Caracoles are snails. Snails that Spaniards eat by putting the entire snail (shell included) in their mouths and sucking out the body. I was a little more than hesitant, but wanted to say that I tried them at least once, and so gave it a shot. And failed. Dead snails really want to stay in their shells, evidently, because I had to use a toothpick to wriggle it out a bit. Don't worry everyone, Chantel filmed this experience, and you will all be able to see my triple chin of disgust in video form.

[Pilar took this photo. Chantel and I have food in our mouths, and no one else even knows it's being taken. But look at that paella....yummmm.]

To end the day, some friends and I went to the Sevilla vs. Atlético Madrid soccer game. The atmosphere was incredible, everyone was wearing Sevilla colors (red and white), but considering that those are also the colors of Atlético Madrid, I guess that helps a bit. It made me miss playing soccer, but also it made me get really excited for Michigan football next year. The whole stadium would start clapping and yelling in coordination, lead by the group behind the North Goal called "Biris Norte." This group was originally formed to support the only African soccer player on the team, but since then has turned into something like Sevilla FC's student section, leading the entire stadium in cheers and enthusiasm. In the end, Sevilla won 3-1, with all of the goals scored in the first half. As everyone left the stadium, I turned to my friend Gayle and asked, "Doesn't this remind you of Hoover Street after a football game?" She smiled really big, and nodded eagerly. So, vamos sevilla for now and vamos azul soon! (Let's go Sevilla and Let's go blue!)

[Haley, Gayle, Chantel, and I after the win.]

The next notable occurrence in my life took place on Tuesday night, during my bi-weekly step class. I have mentioned this class before, because the first time Chantel and I tried it we embarrassed ourselves by showing a complete lack of coordination. I've improved since that first experience, mostly because listening to Mari (one of the fittest women in the world...seriously, you should see this woman on a stationary bicycle) bark out instructions in Spanish twice a week forces you to get better. Depending on her mood, she can be pretty hard on people, sometimes picking on certain girls when they mess up, including me. (e.g. "¡Gira, Lyndsay, gira! Turn, Lyndsay, turn!) So I came to class on Tuesday, mentally exhausted after thinking in Spanish for 6 hours straight, and made a couple of mistakes. I didn't think it was that big of a deal though, since it seemed most of the class was struggling. Then, all of the sudden, Mari completely stopped and turned around to shoot me a death glare that was so icy that goosebumps rose up on my arms. I froze and watched wide-eyed as she picked up my step and moved it all the way to the front of the room, yelling "VENGA LYNDSAY!" (Come on Lyndsay!) before re-starting class.

So, that was nice.

This past weekend my program made its final cultural excursion, this time to the city of Málaga, on the Costa de Sol of the Mediterranean Sea. The only cultural part of the trip, however, was our planned visit to the Museo Picasso Málaga, an intimate collection of Picasso's works, the majority of which have been donated by his family. A lot of people don't know this, but Picasso was actually born in Málaga, but was 19 the last time he visited the city. I really enjoyed the museum, I think mostly because we were able to walk through at our own pace, able to focus on the ones that caught our eye and pass those that didn't. Another cool thing about this museum was the fact that there were a lot of quotes by Picasso himself on the walls, allowing visitors to get a more personal experience of some of his works. At the bookstore, I bought two postcards to hang on my wall next year to remember the experience.

As I said earlier, Málaga is located on the Costa del Sol, in English, the Sun Coast. If I had to give it a new name, however, I would dub it la Costa de la Arena Super-caliente (the Super Hot Sand Coast). We discovered this characteristic as our leisurely walk on the beach quickly turned into a sprint, accompanied by screams of some choice words at the hot temperature. For how hot the sand is, however, the water sure is freezing. I spent most of the day walking along the wet, cold sand, trying not to stare at all of the naked boobies and old men that for some reason flooded the beach that day.

[One of four pictures I took while in Málaga. I was lazy with the camera that weekend.]

Saturday night we went to a 3 hour long dinner with a large group, where we enjoyed pasta, lasagna, salads, and scrumptious drinks. We continued the night by visiting a bar that Bryan and Gayle had read about in their guide books. The cool thing about this place is that each table has its own tap of Alhambra beer, which you serve yourself. There's a computer screen on the wall that keeps track of how much beer each table has consumed, leading to a competition between our two tables. This was a pretty rowdy place, and we joined the ruckus by playing obnoxiously loud games of ten fingers, oh yes oh yes oh yes I have, and truth or dare. The best part of the night was when one of our friends Khemi dared Bryan to imitate the music video that was playing for a minimum of 20 seconds. The artist was Shakira. The music video was She Wolf. Need I say more?

So ends my 17th week here in Sevilla. And if P is for Playa is the theme of the 17th week, it appears that the 18th week's theme will be T is for Tarea (homework). Whoop whoop....

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Spanish Prom?

What? Another blog, and so soon? Yes, I know you had all thought that I had finished blogging about my spring break vacation, but surprise! I've got one more to close out the week, and it involves 25 bobby pins, a bright yellow dress, and a roller-coaster. Sound interesting?

Welcome to Feria, Sevilla's other huge festival besides Semana Santa. If you ask a Sevillano which one they like better, Feria or Semana Santa, they will shake their head and reply, "They are too different, basically opposites. You can't compare them."

Semana Santa is a religious, sacred, and serious week (see previous blog post: "The trip from hell"). Following the Sevillana logic, this could only mean one thing about feria...


And party is right. To put it in US pop-culture terms, Feria could be considered Sevilla's prom. Except that instead of one night, it's a whole week. And instead of just high-schoolers, everyone's invited. And there's also an amusement park. Alright, so it's not really that similar at all.

Basically, Feria consists of a bunch of casetas, or tents. Most of the casetas in Sevilla are private, meaning that you have to be on The List to be able to enter. (Casetas in other towns are different. In Jerez, for example, they are all open to the public.) Inside the caseta, you will find music, dancing, drinking, a catering service, and fun fun fun! Public casetas are also enjoyable, but they're much more crowded and you have to pay for your food and drink. To get the authentic experience, it's better if you know someone on the inside, someone who can get you on The List. For me, that was one of my speaking partners, Antonio.

[I realize I haven't talked about either of my intercambio partners, so I'll describe Antonio a bit here: I know Antonio through my gym. He's 16, rides a horse, likes to do chin-ups, and is from a rich family. I know this because during our first intercambio experience, I really had to go to the bathroom and he offered his apartment. (Not sketch, his Mom, Loli, was home.) He lives on the 9th floor in what is basically a penthouse, with an incredible view of the river and opulent pictures of Jesus throughout. Accordingly, his family has a caseta, and Chantel and I were invited!]

Another thing about Feria: all the girls wear flamenco dresses. Blue, red, yellow, polka-dotted, flowers, any kind of color or pattern, you can pretty much find in flamenco dress form during Feria. They are tight from the shoulders to the bottom of the culo (what your mama gave ya), with lots of volantes, big and wavy folds of fabric at the bottom and on the sleeves. As our guy friends put it, "they are very unforgiving" dresses.

Thankfully, Chencha let Chantel and I borrow two that she had lying around. The woman is such a Feria pro that she was able to re-sew the top of mine, taking it in so it fit me perfectly, in less than an hour. Daaaang Chencha! She also did both of our hair, complete with the traditional flower and peineta, ornamental comb. Honestly, it felt a little bit like getting ready for prom. (Similarity!) Her finished products:

[On our patio.]

So, with our new get-ups, Chantel and I took to the streets, feeling very giddy and very authentic. Feria is located in our neighborhood, Los Remedios, and so it only took us 2 minutes to get there. Enough time for me to turn to Chantel and say, "I feel so Spanish!"

We first spent Feria with Matt and Bryan, two boys from our program, hitting up the public casetas and one of the roller-coaster rides. Bryan and I tried dancing Sevillanas, the traditional dance of Feria, but it was pretty much a fracaso, failure. (We had had 5 dance classes given by our program during the weeks leading up to Feria.) It was great, but after a couple of hot hours, Chantel and I were getting blisters from our heels and needed a break.

[Bryan seems distracted.]

After a quick rest, we changed into flats and hit Feria once again, this time meeting up with Antonio and his friends. We visited our first private caseta, owned by one of Antonio's friends, and then went to another amusement ride called Super Canguro (Super Kangaroo). After an extremely bouncy experience, we went to his family's personal caseta, where I met the rest of his family. His mom was so nice to me, saying that she had missed me since we first met, and then asked me if I wanted to dance. Those of you who know me well know that I never turn down an opportunity to get my groove on, and this was no exception. I was a little nervous however, considering my dancing with Bryan earlier that day, and I asked her to have some patience. She smiled and replied, "Just follow me."

[From left to right: Miguel (another gym member], me, Antonio's Dad, Chantel, Ángela (sister), Antonio, and Antonio's Mom Loli.]

And I did. And it was so fun! I also danced the rumba with Antonio's dad, which is a MUCH easier dance that you can pretty much make up on the spot. After spending an hour or two in Antonio's caseta, we said adios to him and his family, and bopped over to our friends Gayle and Melissa, whose Señora has her own caseta. More talking, more rebujito, and more Sevillana dancing with Bryan ensued, without much improvement. (Actually, it might have been even worse.) At around 4 am, we decided to hit the road, and sashayed our way back to our house and went to sleep.

[Me and a bañuelo. Sorry Mom, I still play with my food.]

We officially concluded our Feria experience the next night by grabbing some bañuelos(the gypsy's version of the churro con chocolate) and watching the end-of-Feria-fireworks at midnight. They were so close that I could actually feel them boom as they lit up the warm dark night. After a week-long dance party, you've got to have a big finale to close it out. Sounds exactly like prom in the US, right?

Friday, April 30, 2010

When life hands you a spewing volcano, shrug and say “Opa!"

When one travels from Sevilla to Madrid, there are three options for transportation (assuming you don’t have your own car). You can take a plane, train, or a bus, listed specifically from most to least expensive. Considering Chantel and I have more time than we do money, we opted to take the 6-hour bus ride to Madrid at the beginning of Feria week (our spring break), with the plan of getting on a flight to Paris after a 5-hour catnap in the Madrid airport.

Taking the bus saves money. In this case, taking the bus also meant being completely unaware that a volcano had erupted in Iceland and was spewing out particles everywhere.

Accordingly, we were a little shocked to hear the news the next morning when we checked into our flight. We had no idea that a volcano had occurred, and more importantly, we were completely unaware of the magnitude of its atmospheric vomit. So, when the EasyJet employee with very strange eye make-up told us that our flight was rescheduled for the next morning, we frowned and said, “One less day in Paris.”

That one lost day would turn into an entire lost trip, and to make this blog less lengthy (and more focused on the fun stuff), I will try to relate more succinctly than I normally would what occurred after:

1. EasyJet sends us to a hotel nearby, telling us that we have a room and will stay there for the night, on them. We wait for about an hour for the hotel shuttle, only to discover that we’ve been waiting in the wrong spot. We move, get on the shuttle, and arrive at the hotel.

2. Our names aren’t on the list at the hotel. What’s more, they don’t even have any available rooms, and have no idea why our airline sent us here. Chantel loses her phone at some point; the details of how this occurred remain unknown.

3. We get back on the shuttle and scurry to the airport, and they send us to another hotel, this time located in Coslada, Spain. To let you know how small and insignificant it is, let me just say that Jenny McCoy, who is studying IN Madrid, has never even heard of it.

4. Thankfully, this hotel actually does have rooms. (Although, not surprising, the town has nothing to offer.) We sleep the rest of the morning and early afternoon away (at that point we had only gotten roughly 4 hours of sleep in 30 hours), and then meet up with said Jenny McCoy for a wonderful afternoon and evening in Madrid.

5. By the next morning we’ve realized that we have no chance of flying to Paris within the next 4 days, but still have to check into our flight at 5am so that EasyJet can’t sabotage us. While I wait in line to try and get a refund, Chantel decides to look for the cheapest flight leaving from Madrid that day…We were desperate at this point, just wanting to get the heck out of the airport. (If you don’t remember, we had experienced another bad taste of Barajas upon our initial arrival in Spain.)
6. Chantel returns, tells me she’s found one leaving for Athens, Greece later that day and asks what I think. I momentarily think to myself, “Well, this is certainly going to be the most spontaneous thing I have ever done in my life” before shrugging and replying, “Let’s do it!”

It wasn’t until I actually got ON the plane 4 hours later that I realized something: I don’t know Greek. I don’t really know anything about Greece. The tiny amount of knowledge that I do have comes from the 2002 movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. (Great movie, by the way.) Furthermore, we have no idea where we were staying in Greece, what we should do in Greece, how to get around in Greece….you get the picture. However, instead of freaking out, I turn to Chantel with the airplane magazine full of the completely foreign Greek alphabet open on my lap and say, “Chantel, we are SO spontaneous.”

We arrive in Greece, and make friends with a nice old man who tells us what train to take to get into Athens. In the metro, we encounter many Greek Guido’s and furry unibrows, and try to figure out a little bit about the Greek alphabet. (Pointless endeavor) We find one hostel, decide we don’t like it (actually, I decide), and then move into another one. For the first time in 3 days, we get a full night’s sleep.

The next day, we decide to take our map of Greece and hit up as much of the monuments as we can. We end up visiting:

- Hadrian’s Library (built in 132 AD)
- The Arch of Hadrian
- The Parthenon
- The Acropolis
- The Theaters of Herodes Attius and Dionysus
- The Temple of Zeus
- The Temple of Athena
- The National Gardens
- The Parliament Building and the Changing of the Guards (hilarious)
- More whose names I have forgotten…

[Chantel and I in front of the Parthenon.]

One of my favorite places that we visited, however, is slightly less famous and doesn’t have any ancient columns. It’s called Melissinos Art, and it’s a sandal store run by a published poet. Accordingly, he calls himself “The Poet Sandalmaker.” Celebrities from around the globe have come to get a pair of handmade sandals, including Jackie O and John Lennon. He has 27 basic styles to choose from (I chose style #2: Aeolian 2), which he then custom-fits to your feet. It’s amazing to see him and his employees work; at one point, I pointed to a part of the leather strap that was uncomfortable, and he removed the entire thing, took out a knife, and cut the (already thin) strap precisely. Definitely worth 25 euro.

[Us and the Poet Sandalmaker himself!]

After a full day of sightseeing in Athens, Chantel and I were ready to take advantage of our vacation in a more typical spring break manner. So, we changed our flight, bought ferry tickets, and were off to Santorini, a little island south of the mainland.

Santorini is gorgeous. It’s picturesque. It’s the image I get when I think of Greece: white churches with bright blue roofs on a cliff side overlooking the Aegean Sea. It’s actually a caldera, a volcano whose magma chamber has collapsed, and so now resembles a giant bowl. Since it is so beautiful, pictures describe the island better than I ever could.

What we did:

- Visited the old port and hung out with two stray dogs, whom we named Nico and Toula (there’s that Big Fat Greek Wedding influence again).

[Our big Greek family at the Old Port.]

- Rented ATVs (Chantel did the driving, I did the sitting) and explored the island.

[Look Mom, I wore my helmet!]

- Sunbathed at a couple beach cafes that have lounge chairs (while drinking strawberry daiquiris with little Greek flags in them).

[Me swearing allegiance to a new country.]

- Ate great food. Greece has great food. Souvlakis (basically a stuffed pita sandwich), Mousaka, stuffed peppers and tomatoes, Greek yogurt with honey, tzatziki…it was all delicious.

- Went to Oía to watch what has been voted “The Best Sunset in the World.” The movie Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was filmed here. We saw Lena’s house!

[You can't tell, but Chantel and I are doing a swagger picture in honor of our friend James Bistolarides]

We got a few extra hours in Santorini because the ferry workers went on strike, but I didn’t mind. I loved Santorini, its charming architecture, its beaches, its weather, its food, and its people. In reality, one volcano had made us visit another.

Spontaneity has never been such a rewarding experience.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Feliz cumpleaños/Passport to Paris

This is going to be a short one because I am leaving for Paris in 2 hours and have not yet finished packing.

First up, and most importantly, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MY SISSIES HAYLEY AND LAUREN! These two lovelies are turning 17 today, so wish them a happy birthday if you haven't already. I think that one of the best compliments a sister could give is this: Even if you weren't my sister, I'd still want to be your friend. And this is how I feel about both of them. (Even though Lauren once carved my name into my wood desk and then crossed it out...and Hayley once read my diary...among many, many other things.) ¡¡¡FELIZ CUMPLE CHICAS, LES QUIERO MUCHISIMO!!!

[My sisters and I share a lot of clothes, including this XXL one. This is one of my favorite pictures.]

Secondly, Chantel and I are going to Paris! We leave today on a bus to Madrid, and tomorrow morning we're on a flight to Paris! We'll be staying with Chantel's ex-nanny named Aisha that lives 15 minutes outside of the city. Apparently her husband is a famous rapper, um, sweet. Besides boppin' around Paris, we'll be visiting Normandy and Monet's gardens. Ever since I watched Passport to Paris by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson, I've always wanted to visit the romantic city. Don't worry, I'll definitely walk down at least one street saying "Bonjour, bonjour...oh my god!" (Check this link if you don't know what I'm talking about:

On a side note, this past week my program had its 25th anniversary. Yay MCP Program! Here's a photo of the event:

[From left to right: Nate, me, Pepe (program employee), Christina, and Casey. Look Caroline! That is wine in my hand. So classy, I know.]

So, adios España y bonjour Paris! When I see you again, Sevilla, it will be time for Feria (the April Fair). Until then...keep it sexy.

Monday, April 5, 2010

"The trip from hell"

Before coming to Spain, I wouldn't have called myself a big traveler. Yes, it's true that I've been to a little over half of the United States and to Mexico twice. (I can't even count Canada, I was only there for 20 minutes.) However, I consider a traveler to be one that not only has a passport, but actually uses it. And after three months of traveling around Spain (soon to be followed by Paris, London, Portugal, and Italy), I feel like I've got the traveling routine down.

Which is why I was nervous for my parents to come visit me during Semana Santa. Having never been to Europe before, I was slightly scared about them making their connection in Amsterdam, and then in Madrid.

I had a right to be scared.

On my way to get the bus that runs routinely to and from the airport, I get a call from my Dad. "Your Mom's on the plane, but I'm still in Madrid." Apparently when you don't book your flight 24 hours in advance (whether or not you're able to because you're currently on an international flight), your tickets are susceptible to be demoted to stand-by. Wonderful. It would turn out that he would spend the night in Madrid, without any euros or Spanish speaking abilities. It was only the first night, and yet it was already "turning into the trip from hell." (Title of this blog courtesy of my Father.)

But the next day when I picked up my Dad and brought him back to the hotel (where both of my parents would sleep most of the day away), I relaxed. "Finally," I thought, "they're here and now I can show them Sevilla."


I had heard that Sevilla during Semana Santa (the Holy Week before Easter) would be full of people, but I had no idea just HOW packed it was going to be. Given that Chantel is the navigator in our relationship, I usually stick to main streets to get around this city. And of course, all the main streets are where all the processions are. I guess I should explain a little bit about what happens during Semana Santa first...

Ok, here's the dealio: there are processions every day during the week, and every procession has a 'paso.' A paso is like a parade float, except that it is carried by men (who usually wear only socks or go barefoot) and has depictions of Jesus or Mary on top. There are also other parts of the processions, like old men shouldering crosses and adolescents toting giant really depends on the procession. The costumes that they wear look freakishly similar to those of the KKK, but here in Sevilla they get creative with the colors and textures. (For example: purple velvet KKK hats.) The pasos are from medieval times, and depict different scenes, emotions, and stories from Jesus' life. Like my Dad described it, "It's like the Rose Parade for Catholics."

Semana Santa is big in Spain, but it's biggest in Sevilla. Read: crazy amounts of people. Usually in the streets that I wanted to use. It became routine for us to be walking along my normal route, and suddenly begin to hear slow marching drums, signifying a procession in close proximity. One night, it took us more than an hour to walk home, a walk that normally takes me only 15. Let's just say that I got a lot of practice asking for directions in Spanish during the week...

But let us remember that the saying goes "save the best for last." Accordingly, on the last day of their stay, my Mom's wallet was stolen. We believe it happened during a very short picture-taking interval, but during Semana Santa, that's all the time a prepared thief needs. By the time we returned to the hotel and called the credit-card companies, they had already made 6 ATM withdrawals with one card, within a period of two hours. At least it was Good Friday, meaning that all of the stores were closed. After canceling the rest of the cards, we proceeded to spend 3 hours waiting in the Consejería de la Policia (Police Department) so my Mom could formally sign a complaint. I think they were both ready to go back to the States after that experience...

BUT, even with all of the stress and messed up plans, I am very grateful that my parents were able to visit me and see where I've been living for the past 3 months. Things that we did in Sevilla (in no particular order):

- Arabic Baths: My Dad, having never experienced a massage in his life, was very skeptical. But after I waited in the lobby for an hour for them to get out because they had lost track of time, I knew I was right to schedule this for them.

- La Catedral y La Giralda: My parents were really impressed with the architecture and the wonderful views. Although, not as happy with length of the vertical trek to see them. "They should really have first aid people around, what if people collapse on the way up?"

- La plaza de toros: We visited the bull-fighting ring and learned about the history of the sport - in English AND Spanish!

- Casa de la memoria: A traditional Flamenco show. Both were impressed with the 'rapidez' (quickness) of the feet movements, even if the French guy next to us was trying to clap along. (He was failing. Miserably.)

- Cádiz: The beach town I've visited before with my program. We spent the morning in the historic center and the afternoon at the beach. I think my Dad's favorite part were the train rides though. "I was really impressed by the train! So clean and smooth!"

- Alameda de Húrcules: Its appeal was slightly ruined after spending three hours at the police department located here...

- Carriage ride around Sevilla: Second in stereotypical tourism behavior only to the double-decker tour buses, the 45-minute carriage ride was actually really fun. Seeing as none of the drivers knew English, I had to translate for my parents. This was quite enjoyable, especially when the driver made a point of explaining a certain statue of a naked woman. 'Transparent bathing suit' works in both languages, in case you were wondering.

- Las reales alcázares: The royal palace and its gardens. I visited this with my program earlier and thought it was beautiful then, but now that spring is upon us, it's even more gorgeous. Inside the palace, there's a certain tapestry from Brussels from 1554 that my Dad - the history buff - got a kick out of. Prom pic!

-Plaza de España: It got dark while we were there, and the full moon was out. Gorgeous.

- Sweet restaurants, most notably San Marco, Mama Mia, and Río Grande: Since I get three meals every day at home, it's a very rare occasion when I eat out in Sevilla. We found San Marco wandering around the old part of the city, barrio Santa Cruz, and the two others were on the river. Being true Italians, we went to lots of Italian places (i.e. Mama Mia) but I made sure that they tried the Spanish food instead. I think my Mom's favorite was the Paella de verduras (rice dish with vegetables). They both liked the ice cream. :)

- Chencha's apartment: I was so happy to be able to show my parents where I live, and who I live with (excluding Juan, he wasn't there...standard). When my parents first walked in, Chencha gave them both a big hug with some cheek kisses, and proceeded to joke with them: "Normally, she is your daughter, but right now, she's mine!" She, like a typical Spanish mom, fed us Torrijas (kind of like french toast, except cooked with wine and orange peel instead of butter and syrup, a typical Spanish dessert during Semana Santa) and coffee. Although I was a little nervous about how the translated meeting would go, conversation never stopped and it seemed apparent that everyone was enjoying themselves. She even invited us to come back later in the week, but we had to cancel and spend 3 hours in the police department instead.

And of course...we bonded! I was sad to see them leave, even with some of the more stressful moments of the trip. I know they were happy to return to America (and English), but I'm very thankful that they were able to visit me. (CAUTION: Extreme cheesiness ahead.) I love you Mom and Dad!

To finish off Semana Santa in style, I traveled to Cádiz once more with the one and only Jenny McCoy and her roommate Stacy. We laid on the beach, drank strawberry margaritas, ate mexican food, talked, laughed, and shared a bed (ooh la la). Long story short, it was a wonderful way to end the Easter craziness of Sevilla, and I was so happy to be able to spend time with the first first I met at Michigan. :)

Things are back to normal here in Sevilla, although not for long. Feria (the other big holiday here) starts on the 20th of April, but Chantel and I will spend the first part of it in Paris! For now, I'm back to studying, eating a lot of arroz con leche, and enjoying the wonderful atmosphere of Sevilla in the springtime. (Although they still somehow refer to it as winter...Hello? It's 78 degrees outside!)