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!)