So British!

30 Nov

Hello!

A quick summary of my London experience: South Kensington neighborhood, Tower of London, Crown Jewels, Thames, Tower Bridge, Borough Market, London Bridge, Hyde Park, Peter Pan Statue, Harrod’s for high tea, Buckingham Palace, changing of the guards, Big Ben, London Eye, Thames again, Piccadilly Circus, fish and chips, tour of Parliament, pub crawl, double-decker bus, Abbey Road . . .

And that’s really what it felt like.  A whirlwind of everything London.  We got there Thursday night and left Sunday afternoon, so we had a little less than three days total.  In those three days, we walked a lot.  Whereas New York City was built up, London was built out.  And we felt it.

One ride on the tube costs 5.70 pounds.  That’s a little over 9 dollars.  Needless to say, we walked when we could.  What’s worse is that, compared to other prices of things, the tube was about the cheapest thing we could find in London.  After paying 17 pounds to enter the Tower of London (and that was the student price,) we found free things where we could.

That being said, I really enjoyed London.  Assuming I make enough money to afford it, I could really see myself living there someday.  I couldn’t quite place the feeling when I first arrived, but it finally dawned on me why I felt so comfortable (aside from the abundance of English): it looked and felt like Boston.  It was a cold, humid, end of fall-beginning of winter temperature, which is just what I was looking for and missing in Madrid’s dry climate.  The leaves were all changing, and with the lack of Thanksgiving celebrations, I’d been aching for some fall weather.  It was the perfect dose of cold autumn that I needed.  We understood where New England got its name, too; the architecture is almost identical.  If you’d blindfolded me and taken me to certain neighborhoods, I’d have guessed we were in Boston without a second thought.

Perhaps one of the coolest parts of the trip was our tour of Parliament.  Andrew was staying with a friend of his while we were there, and she interned at Parliament.  One of the perks that came with it was she had an all-access card and could give private tours.  We saw all the main houses and rooms, which would have been amazing enough itself.  However, we had another stroke of luck: as we were walking, we saw a mother leading her four young children (dressed better than I’ve ever been.)  We silently followed, pretty carelessly, until one of her stories caught our attention.  She pointed out a set of stairs and said “See these stairs?  This is where mummy fell after a meeting.  They realized they were dangerous so they rebuilt them, and now they’re named after us!”  She was a member of Parliament, which meant she gave us (well her kids, and therefore the eavesdropping Americans) really interesting insights that we wouldn’t have known otherwise.  For instance, she moved something on an inconspicuous desk, and all of a sudden there was a hidden book with a scribe’s notes.  Inside was the court statement from November 5th, 1605, written in a margin.  Guy Fawkes’ sentence had been scribbled on the side of the page a day or two after he was captured.  Too cool.

All in all, we saw all the main tourist sites we’d planned, but I know I’m not done with London yet.  I’ll just have to win the lottery first..

Cheers!

MOROCCO

13 Nov

Let me start by saying this trip is the best one I’ve ever taken.

It somehow was exactly what I was looking for, despite having no idea what I was looking for. In the first few days of Madrid orientation, a representative from Morocco Exchange gave a presentation on the trip.  I knew from my semester in France that I wanted to go, and this trip with a guide would be perfect.

It was a total of four days in Morocco, not including travel time.  We left Wednesday night to take an overnight bus to Algeciras, near Gibraltar, so we could take a ferry across in the morning.  Unfortunately I can’t sleep on buses, so eight hours of straight sitting is not pleasant.  Nevertheless, I survived (barely, it was a close call), and we were ready to cross the Strait…when we heard that the ferry across was cancelled.  The weather was very rough, so only the big cruise ships were heading out.  Our guide was amazing, though, and exchanged the tickets.  We were off to Africa.

Our first stop was in Tangier, where we walked around the old town, the market, and the center plaza.  Somehow the weather had cleared up for us, and it was absolutely beautiful for a walk.  Around lunchtime, we had a tour of a women’s center.  We ate lunch in a classroom with 3 students and chatted about everything from dating to politics.  I was amazed at how well they knew what was going on in American politics – I hadn’t realized how much the foreign policies affected them.  We get so caught up in domestic issues and the passing of individual laws that I think we forget about how the president and country are seen internationally.  On a side note – I lost count of how many times we were stopped on the street by locals and, using the only two words they knew in English, asked: American? Obama!  I wonder how the trip would have been different if Romney had won.

After a delicious lunch and not enough Moroccan mint tea, we got on our bus to drive to Rabat.  To show you how awesome our tour guide was: she spotted camels on the side of the road, asked if we wanted to ride, and stopped the bus.  I had really wanted to ride them before going on the trip, but I hadn’t seen it on the itinerary and had accepted that it wouldn’t work out this time.  When I saw that we would be able to, I may have been a little excited.  Just a little bit.

They stand very oddly, with their hind legs first.  Essentially it feels like it’s trying to throw you off, over its head.  With our group, it ended up working out at the end that only one girl was left to ride, so I got to go again.  You know, so she wouldn’t feel alone.  It was a selfless act.

After our camel adventures, we continued to Rabat.  There, we stayed with host families for two nights.  I was the only guy in our group (not complaining) so I stayed in the same house as two other girls but in a different room.  Our host family was amazing – it was a mother, father, and 3 boys.  The father spoke English, but the mother and two youngest did not, so I ended up speaking French a lot and translating.  It was refreshing to hear French again.

Moroccan hospitality is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  It’s on an entirely different level.  Never have I eaten so much.  We had chicken and potatoes the first night, with local spices of course, and it was zuin – delicious.  We tried to learn Arabic.  I’m pretty sure zuin is close to what they were saying.  Anyway, I’d eaten 3 platefuls, already unbuttoned my pants, and the father just put another spoonful on my plate.  I thought I’d roll away from the table.  Then, of course, came the fresh local fruit – pomegranate, oranges, dates…

The following day, after an equally wonderful and filling breakfast, we drove across the river to Sale, Rabat’s poorer sister city.  We met up with 3 more students and had a very political discussion with underlying religious aspects.  It was mind-opening to see the three argue between each other; one was extremely religious, another had traveled a lot and was a bit more liberal, and the third was very quiet and reserved, but served as a good mediator.  It was a bit like a three way tennis match.  We asked questions and watched the answers bounce between the students.  Some topics like homosexuality and punishments for crimes made for some uncomfortable moments, but we learn the most by leaving our comfort zone.

Later, we went to Roman ruins just outside the city.  They were preserved well, despite our climbing all over them.  After running around for a bit, we went back to our host families for lunch – couscous with countless vegetables and chicken.  Too good.

We met up with more students after lunch, and they took us on a walk through the city, to the beach, and through the market.  We sat down for tea and chatted.  It’s amazing how good the students’ English is; at times I forgot it isn’t their native language.

That evening, before dinner, we had the opportunity to go to the hammam, the Arabic baths.  Que guay.  How cool.  I’ve never been so clean.  There are three rooms, one very hot, another warm, and a one cold.  You start off in the hot sauna with very hot water.  After sitting for a bit and sweating out everything in your system, you scrub down and rinse off with the hot water.  Then repeat in the next two rooms, but with cold water.  I was in a trance after leaving.

The baths are separated for men and women, but it still surprised me is that it is acceptable for women to go completely naked.  In a culture where some women cover themselves to their eyes, they have no qualms about stripping down to nothing in certain situations.

To add to my blissful state, we had traditional Moroccan soup with the family, and I was one happy guy.  After, we played Uno and cards with the host brothers until 1 a.m., probably a bit longer than intended considering we had to be up to leave the next morning.

Day three: goodbye to host families, hello to Moroccan mountains.  It was this trip that made me glad I can’t sleep on buses: the country side is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  We drove straight up one of the mountains to a rural village, and I mean rural.  There was not much of a path, let alone a road.  We applauded the bus driver.

In the village, we met and ate with a family who graciously invited us into their home.  After more couscous, vegetables, and I don’t know what fruits, we had another discussion.  A translator came with us, as the family only spoke their dialect of Arabic.  We saw a very traditional and familial view of rural Morocco that I know we couldn’t have without the program.

We then drove to Chefchaouen, which I heard called several times “the shangri la of the Rif mountains.”  The whole city is painted in blues and whites, and there are many tales as to why: the white represents the soul, while the blue represents the heavens; another story related to beliefs in evil eye; and my personal favorite is that flies don’t like the color blue, so they stay away from the buildings that are painted that color.  In any case, it made the city very pretty.

We had free time to wander around through the market.  The vendors spoke English, Spanish, and French, and used every language to try to sell us things.  I bought a few things, including a scorpion!  Okay, it’s a henna tattoo on my hand, but still.

The “hostel” we stayed at was better than some hotels I’ve stayed in.  I didn’t sleep too much, though, because we got up early on our last day to walk through the old town at sunrise and hike up a mountain to get a view of the city.  After breakfast and another hour or so of wandering, we had to pack up and leave.

We didn’t leave through Tangiers, but rather through Ceuta, a Spanish territory on the coast of Morocco.  The difference between the two sides of the border is astounding.  The north of Africa is very agricultural, plain, and without many buildings.  Ceuta, on the other hand, is bright, built up, and rich.  We didn’t have much time before the ferry (actually, it was just enough time to enjoy a beer), and just like that we were leaving Africa.  A wonderful whirl of culture, learning, exploration, and experience.

Back to the real world: I got back into Madrid at 5:30 Monday morning, and had class all day.  It didn’t bother me, though, I’m still on a Moroccan high (and not from the hashish they kept trying to sell me.)

Thursday I leave for London for 4 days, then the following week Michelle, Leah, Johan, and Izzi are coming to Madrid to visit.   I live a tough life.

Hasta la proxima vez!

 

Mallorca / Toledo / last month or so

13 Nov

Hola!

Long time no see!  (oops..) I’ll try to catch you up on what I’ve been up to..

In October for a weekend I decided to go to Mallorca.  It’s an island off the coast of Spain near Ibiza, the party central isla.  It was a bit of a last minute decision – we booked tickets about a week beforehand, and booked a hostel without really looking into it too much.   We didn’t realize just how little we knew: we thought we were staying in Palma, the capital on the west side of the island.  Nope.  Upon arriving in Palma, we were told in a mixture of Spanish, English, Catalan, and German that we had a 2 hour bus ride to get to our hostel.  It ended up working out  beautifully: we had an amazing beach day, got to explore, and missed the rain in Palma.  The coastline was gorgeous – straight cliffs into the Mediterranean and very sharp.  I probably shouldn’t have worn flipflops for that.

The weirdest part of the entire trip was how many Germans there were – it’s called the German Cancun and I understand why.  We were greeted in Deutsch by hotel staff, waiters, and just about everyone we talked to.

The second day we took a bus to Porto Cristo, another city a little south of where we stayed.  It’s another coast town, and nearby there are many caves to explore.  We went to one called the Caves of Drach, which I believe means dragon in Catalan.  I looked but I didn’t see any.  Que lastima.
The stalactites and stalagmites were amazing, though, and it was a real shame that I had to illegally snap photos when no one was looking.

That Saturday we had an evening flight back into Spain, so we took a morning bus back into Palma to explore the capital for a bit.  There is a beautiful cathedral with some amazing pews – by this point we needed a place to sit and it was wonderful.  It had started to rain as well, but we couldn’t complain with how well everything had worked (for how little it was planned.)

                                                                                                                                                                         

Another weekend we took a day trip to Toledo with the BU program.  We got very lucky with the weather and all, the forecast hadn’t looked good for a while.  The trip was fun though; we got free time to explore, and I wandered around to a castle / fortress / not sure what.  It was closed I believe, but the gate was cracked open so we wandered in.  It provided a really nice view of the city and the surrounding country.

Since I am in the history class, most group trips mean following our profesora, Amalia, as she quizzes us on how what we see is related to what we’re learning.  Aside from the constant examination, I’m extremely glad I’m in the class – I appreciate SO much more what I see, since I understand where it came from.

The other two weekends (or three?) between my last blog and now were relatively quiet.  Okay, perhaps better said,  I didn’t travel.   For a while, I was drowning in work.  Not only did I have midterms, but essays, individual field trips, and other caca to catch up on.  The weekends in Madrid were well spent though; I explored some touristy sites and our host senora took us to some places that she likes.  We even saw a huge herd of sheep walk through the city for an annual fiesta.   I may or may not have explored the nightlife as well.  I do want the full cultural experience, you know.

As far as midterms and papers, I did better than expected.  For a while, I was very frustrated, but I’m content with how I did on everything (especially considering the grades I was predicting after taking them.)  Things have really slowed down to a fair amount of work again, which is good with the amount of traveling I’m doing this month.  I’ll touch upon this in the next one!

Hasta luego!

 

 

¡Olé!

14 Oct

Hola a todos!

A week ago (yeah yeah I’m a little behind,) I was invited to go to a bullfight.  It was a bit last minute (she asked me 2 hours before it started) but, figuring I only had homework to procrastinate on, I tagged along.
The seats, which were season ticketed, were extremely good.  We didn’t quite know what we were doing, though.  People started walking out and sections would clap, others would whistle (booing in Europe), and we both sat there trying to decipher the pattern.  It was easier once the bulls started coming out.  By the sixth bull, I almost knew when to clap.  I’m still not sure why, but I knew to join in with the rest of the crowd.

Six bulls was a bit much; I’d have been content with three.  This is definitely an event that I can fully say I’m glad I went, but as a one time thing.  The bulls dying didn’t bother me too much.  It was the fact that if the death wasn’t a clean kill, they’d sever the rest of the spinal cord.  Which meant that it twitched, a lot.  Which meant that I twitched a lot.  In “shudder” disgust, you might say.

The show – the costumes, distractions for the bulls, and running around by all involved – was very entertaining, but it was amazing how quickly everything could change.  One matador was in the last stage, trying to make a kill, when he missed.  The scene did a 180 – the matador misstepped, the bull changed direction, and before anyone could react the toro had trampled the man.  Faster than the crowd could acknowledge what had happened, his aides were out, trying to distract the bull; it got one more charge in before the matador could get up to get to the side.  Then, just as quickly, the scene reverted: the matador – now with some bandages – killed the bull as if nothing had happened.

Another bull flipped a horse.  Not kidding.

After, my friend and I walked out a little unsure what to do with all we’d seen, while others happily chattered about their prospects for the next week’s bulls.

All in all, I’m glad I went.  It is a part of the culture that I can appreciate.  But from now on I think I’ll try to appreciate other aspects instead.  Say, perhaps, the futbol games.

¡Olé!

 

The rain in Spain..

30 Sep

….falls mainly on Cordoba.

Actually, this isn’t true.  It hardly ever rains in Cordoba.  My professors repeated this often, from under their umbrellas.

Despite the never-ending rain and mushy socks (my shoes are still wet, two days after getting back), Cordoba was lovely.  A two hour train ride, a quick walk to the hotel, and we were off to explore.  Our parade of 75 umbrella-toting Americans was easy to follow all the way to the mosque.  It was there where I realized the memory card to my camera was one parade, one quick walk, and one two hour train ride away, sitting comfortably in my computer in Madrid.  …oops.  I was disappointed (especially when I saw the inside of the mosque) but luckily a friend lent me hers, so I happily clicked away.  Photos will be posted as soon as I get the card from her.

The mosque was incredible; despite the number of photos I took, they don’t do it justice.  I’ve seen many, especially in my history class, but I was completely unaware of how enormous it is.  I was not ready for endless arches in a mosque so large that it has an entire church inside of it.  That was a shock itself – the Arabic arches mixed with the elaborate Christian images was quite a mix of cultures.  The church is there, of course, from when the Christians “reconquered” the Iberian Peninsula.  They were so amazed with the structure that they couldn’t bring themselves to tear it down, so instead they used it to house the church.

The rest of our Cordoba trip was a bit quieter than what I am used to, in that there were no other particularly big sites to visit.  We walked around a lot, to the point that we had to sit and even nap on a miraculously dry park bench.  The rest of our 1.5 days included visits to an Arabic house, a Jewish house (which was essentially an Arabic house with Jewish script everywhere), a Roman bridge, gardens from the times of the Muslim reign, and a Flamenco dance show.  I’ve never seen a guitarist’s fingers move so quickly as in Flamenco.  It was quite a show.  But before we knew it, we were sloshing back to the train station to return to Madrid.

My exams start this week, so I hope I can retain what is left of my sanity.  I believe they will be spread out over the next few weeks, so I hope to not have to cram too much.  This weekend’s plans have not been finalized yet.  Some friends are going to Paris, others to Ibiza, but I’m considering a day trip to Granada or another nearby city in Spain.  We’ll see!

Hasta luego!

 

San Sebastian y Bilbao

24 Sep

Hola!

San Sebastian was amazing.  I need to start with that.  It was one of my favorite weekends in all of Europe.
The flight out on RyanAir was a little bumpy. We’d heard of the many problems that the company has been having, including having to stop at another airport for gas mid-flight because a plane didn’t have enough to make a full trip.  However, I’ve never had a flight like this one.  I lost my stomach on a couple drops.  We landed on time, though, which was good because we had just a few minutes to catch the last bus of the night from Bilbao to San Sebastian.

After a restless night’s sleep – people came in and left the hostel room at all hours – we started off the first day well: we went directly to the beach.  It was cool in the morning when we left, but the sun was intense.  It jumped to the mid-eighties by the afternoon and, between the humidity and glaring sun, the very cold water felt good.  Until we lost feeling in our limbs, at least.  A few of us walked the length of the beach and we found a wonderful (aka cheap) cafe right on the edge of the water to eat.  As the Spanish rarely snack, we have to make each meal count.  Lunch (and every other meal) was nearly silent until we had satisfied our hunger enough to not snap at each other.

We split up after lunch; a few stayed on the beach and others, including myself, hiked a nearby mountain.  It provided excellent views of the city, and luckily there were benches along the very steep path.  We timed it perfectly – it was the only time during our trip that there were clouds, and they provided a little shade and cooled us.

After the quick decent (an hour hike up and less than ten minutes to get back down) we wanted to walk around a bit more before dinner.  We saw much of the old city, which was gorgeous.  Our wandering around led us to the enormous theatre where the big movies were premiering.  We saw a decent crowd and realized that the red carpet had been rolled out, so of course we stayed.  We only waited 45 minutes for people to arrive and walk the carpet, but most of them were Spanish actors that we didn’t recognize.  We were exhausted and uncomfortable, as we were still in our bathing suits after the hike.  Just as we were about to leave, Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon arrived.  I shook Richard’s hand, which was neat.  He gave me a very particular look, though.  We’ve narrowed it down to two possible reasons behind the face he gave: it looked as if either he thought he recognized me, or he was stoned.  That’s the best description I can give.

In disbelief of what had just happened, we showered and found a lovely place to eat.  After some local wine and a few bars, we slept very well.

The second day was very similar.  We went to the surfing beach (awesome waves to body surf on!) and spent most of the day there.  We planned on dressing up and going to the hotel where the celebrities were staying.  We hoped to buy a drink and perhaps invite un famoso to sit with us if we saw one.  The giant barricade and 400 other fans prevented us from doing that, though, so instead we wandered over to the red carpet again.  It was a good thing we did, because just a few minutes after arriving, Ben Affleck walked by to go to his premiere.  We shouted that we were from Boston, and he signed a scrap of newspaper that I’d found on the ground.  Ha.  I’ll take it.

After a quick dinner, we all went to the movie premiere we’d bought tickets to.  It’s called “La chispa de la vida.”  Translated literally, it means “the spark of life,” but the English title was “As luck would have it.”  A quick synopsis (but no spoilers): the inventor of the Coca Cola slogan (la chispa de la vida) is having financial troubles (big Spanish crisis and all) when he has a slight accident.  He slips and falls.  And impales his head on an iron rod.  Aside from not being able to move his head, he isn’t phased.  The next hour is the media, doctors, and everyone around him trying to figure out how to handle the situation.  I will say this: it provided a lot of discussion after, and there were mixed reviews.  But we were able to go to a movie premier!

Sunday morning we headed back to Bilbao for a quick stop at the Guggenheim Museum before our flight back.  The building was amazing, even more so than the expositions I think.  I’m glad to have gone, though.

One quick flight back, and it was all over.  Back to real life.  Back to 6 hours of reading.  It’s almost upsetting, until I remember that I’m still abroad and will be exploring again come Thursday!

Hasta la proxima vez!

Primera semana

17 Sep

Hola!

Many apologies for the sparse blog posts – Madrid is much more fast-paced and hectic than Grenoble.

That being said, my classes have been taking up a majority of my time.  I may only have 3 days of class, but I was assigned well over 100 pages to read.  In my novel class, we’re studying nothing.  But seriously, we’re reading a novel called Nada.  Heh, I’m such a jokester.  The professor is really neat, kinda quirky.  He is a stickler for details though, so I really have to pay attention and know what I’m reading.
History is a bit overwhelming.  The professor, Amalia, is extremely nice and helpful.  However, the sheer amount of information we are supposed to learn and retain was a bit of a shock.  Especially when she had an impromptu oral quiz the first class and called on me.
Translation is my favorite thus far.  We’re translating movie scripts and theatre (if we get to it), but this has been the most helpful.  I’ve already learned slang and every-day words that I wouldn’t get on my own, and it’s showing me a side of Spanish (and English) that I didn’t see before.
Cine is.. interesting.  The professor is dry in my opinion, but we watch some classic movies and analyze them, so I’m hoping it picks up.  Also, I think everyone in my program is taking it – the classroom barely holds all of us.

I am absolutely loving my housing situation.  Andrew and I get along very well.  I knew him from BU before coming here, and Deana recommended that we request her (and now our) senora, Laura.  Having another American in the house has made the transition much smoother, and we all have bonded a lot in the past week.  The food is beyond delicious, Laura knows an unbelievable amount of information on just about any topic you could think of, and she even took us out on our craziest night here yet.  We eat with her for every meal except Friday and Saturday dinners, so I expect to learn a lot!

I have planned several of the trips for this semester as well.  With BU, we go to Cordoba for two days, Toledo, El Escorial, and Segovia.  In addition, I’m going to San Sebastian on Thursday for several days.  Quick preview: wonderful beaches, surfing, hiking, and the Film Festival.  Apparently Dustin Hoffman will be there this year, among others. I have also bought tickets to London and Morocco for 4 days each.  Before anyone says anything, the Morocco trip is with a program; I will be with a guide the entire time, and I stay with a host family with several other students in the same program.  As of yet, I think there are 6 others from BU doing the same program with me.  I’ll post more details as the trip gets closer (8-11 of November.)
I’m also looking into Portugal and possibly the Netherlands.  Other than that, I have few free weekends left, which I hope to spend in Madrid!

Creo que es todo.. I’ll post more as things come up.

Hasta luego!

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