Monday, December 23, 2013

Holiday Spirit

Since my last post, the holiday spirit seems to have only grown in Madrid. This past week of school was full of it! Consequently, this meant a lot less time for academics; it was a pretty easy week to say the least.
The Nativity Play
The students have been preparing for weeks for their Christmas concert. Every class sings a Christmas song (in Spanish) and each grade comes together to sing an English Christmas song.  My 5th graders sang "Let it Snow" and my sixth graders sang "We Can Make a Beautiful Christmas" by Big Time Rush (a little modern but a fun, catchy song).  Since the auditorium is pretty small and each student is allowed to invite two family members, the concerts are split up by grade: pre-schoolers went on Monday, 1st and 2nd on Tuesday, 3rd and 4th on Wednesday, and 5th and 6th on Thursday.
On Friday, the 6th graders preformed their "Belen en vivo" (live nativity scene) for their fellow classmates.  This nativity went from traditional to modern very quickly.  The scene started off with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus who were shortly joined by the angel Gabriel, a donkey, and a cow.  But then... more characters came.  By the end of the sketch a lottery ticket, 2 Christmas trees, Christmas candy, a soldier and gypsies were present at the nativity scene (just to name a few). Haha not so traditional anymore. But I must say it was quite comical, especially when the 4 gypsies were played by actually gypsies.  After the play on Friday morning, every class had their own Christmas party.  The students were allowed to bring food, drink and travel to the other classes to mingle and wish a Merry Christmas to their classmates.  It was fun to let loose with my students and to dance, sing and joke around for the afternoon.
School ended early on Friday, and afterwards all of the teachers were invited out for a holiday meal. Most schools in Spain host a special holiday meal for their staff. We ate a lot of delicious food, drank good wine and had a great time. I especially enjoyed it because I don't get many opportunities to talk to the teachers who can't speak English in the school because I'm not allowed to speak Spanish when I'm working. So I got the chance to get to know some of the teachers that I normally don't talk to and I really enjoyed that. I'm blessed with lovely co-workers.
Celebrating Christmas with some of my favorite coworkers!
I spent the weekend in Madrid, resting up for my big Christmas vacation which starts today! I leave for Italy tonight, then will move on to Paris for New Years and finally make a quick stop in Belgium before coming back to Spain on the 6th.  I don't think I'll have a chance to update again until after break so I'll just say Merry Christmas and Happy New Years to everyone reading from home :)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It's beginning to look at lot like Christmas...

It's true! It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Actually, Madrid started putting up Christmas decorations at the end of OCTOBER! Did I mention the giant Christmas tree in Puerta del Sol was set up by November 12th? As many of you already know, I am one of those people that thinks the Christmas season should not be stretched outside of it's limits (Black Friday-New Years Day). But that's okay because the Madrid didn't light up their Christmas lights (or Christmas trees) until December 1st, and that's when all the Christmas magic began.

The Christmas tree in Sol!
I'll admit that I'm a sucker for snow.  It just doesn't feel as Christmas-y without that magical white stuff! But, Madrid rarely gets snow, so I'll have to do without it for now. Disregarding the lack of snow, there is plenty of Christmas spirit to go around! First of all, we are learning Christmas carols at our school. Well, the word "carol" is a stretch considering most of the songs that have been chosen are extremely modern. For example, the sixth graders are singing "Beautiful Christmas" by Big Time Rush, an American boy band. Ever heard of it? Me neither... until my kids started learning it. Either way, the kids are excited about it and there will be a big Christmas concert before winter break! That will be fun to watch.

Also, the city of Madrid does a FANTASTIC job on Christmas lights (economic crisis what?). Nearly every street in Madrid has a string of Christmas lights and no two streets are the same. One street may have holly and berries while the next has Christmas bulbs. Not to mention the GIANT Christmas trees throughout the city. I have counted 5 so far (Plaza España, Puerto del Sol, Grand Via, Callao and Atocha).  All the trees are different, lit with different colors and designs. The lights are such a spectacle that there is something called the Navibus, a seasonal bus that runs from 6-10pm every night during Christmas time. It costs 2 euros and is a 50 minute bus tour through Madrid that highlights the best lighting displays. I hope they're using at least some green energy....

Madrid also has all of it's Christmas markets set up. In many of the major plazas, they have booths on booths set up next to each other selling everything from handcrafted jewelry to fresh mistletoe to those cheap-o gifts you should NEVER buy for your kids because it's just junk. These markets obviously attract a lot of people, so there are also a lot of food vendors, balloon salesmen, street performers, etc. Also, many Christmas markets are supplemented by a ice skating rink (sometimes real, sometimes synthetic ice) and/or a merry-go-round. Spaniards sure do know how to celebrate.

Madness at the metro
This past weekend was a long weekend due to Día de la Constitución which was on Friday. For this reason, it is notoriously one of the busiest weekends in Madrid all year. People come from all over to take advantage of their long weekend, get Christmas shopping done, and make a trip out of it. Police know this is coming and take extreme measures to manage the large crowds like shutting down Vodafone Sol (the most popular and central metro stop) and closing off most streets in the centre to cars; pedestrians only.  Alexa, Makeda and I experienced these massive crowds first hand on our way to the Imagine Dragons concert (which was incredible by the way).  We tried to get on the metro at Gran Vía, the second most central metro stop.  This was a terrible idea.  We were literally body-to-body with thousands (yes thousands) of people trying to get on and off the train. We were moving so slowly that it took us 20 minutes just to get to the metro platform. It was a nightmare. I put up a picture that captures the madness. This is just a little taste of how overcrowded it was this weekend in Madrid. I'm glad it's over and things have calmed down now.

Well there is plenty more Christmas to come! Hopefully a Christmas cookie party will be happening this weekend among other holiday festivities. Merry Christmas everyone!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bikes on bikes on bikes - Amsterdam

One of the most fun things to do while living abroad is visiting friends who are doing the same thing! For the second year in a row, I arranged a little reunion with two friends from high school. Sofia was a Swedish exchange student at Eden Prairie High School for a year; we became friends and have stayed in touch ever since. Colin was in that same group of friends from high school, and is currently helping lead a university study abroad program in Dublin for the second year in a row. Last year, Sofia and I flew out to visit Colin for a weekend in Ireland. This year, we decided that Colin and I should visit Sofia as she is on a semester abroad in Amsterdam. We have been so fortunate that for the second year in a row, we all managed to find a weekend that worked for us! Not the easiest thing while leading our busy abroad-lifestyles.
Colin arrived a few hours before me on Friday night, so both he and Sofia were there to meet me when I arrived in Amsterdam! Sofia wanted to show us around the Red Light District at night, so that's the first place we went. I have to say, even though I'm very aware of what the neighborhood was known for, I was pretty shocked. As the name promises there are red lights shining down on door after door of legal prostitutes, standing behind glass doors with scandalous clothing on waiting for their next client. Although it was something shocking to see and pretty hard to wrap my head around (legal prostitution), I'm still glad I got to see it. Not surprisingly we passed through the Red Light District quickly, and moved on to a quieter neighborhood and found a small bar where we could get some local beers. We had a lot of catching up to do, and by the time we finished out second round of beers it was after 3am. We got the local's favorite street food (a cone of fries with different sauces on top) for the walk back to Sofia's apartment.

On Saturday Sofia had the whole day planned out for us. After stopping by the local supermarket to grab breakfast, we went to pick up some bikes! As many of you probably already know, Dutch people go EVERYWHERE possible by bike.  Sofia explained that it originated from inflating parking prices in the city, so people rebelled by biking everywhere. The city supported the movement and put bike racks all around the city, including an impressive 3-story biking garage right near Amsterdam Centraal Station. To get the real Dutch experience, Sofia set up a two-day bike rental for Colin and I. A good portion of Amsterdam is walkable, but being on bikes made it a lot more convenient, authentic, and fun to get around (and it was only 12 euros for the two days).  After we picked up out bikes we biked straight to Sofia's favorite flea market in Amsterdam. There, we got to shop around and try some local pastries including Stroopwafles and Oliballens.  A stroopwafle consists of warm gooey caramel stuffed between two thin, crispy, cinnamon waffles.  You can buy them in the grocery store (and I did before I left to take some back to Madrid with me) but they're even better fresh! Oliballens are like doughnut-holes... but they put American doughnut-holes to shame. They're giant (about the size of a tennis ball), warm, fresh and sprinkled with powdered sugar upon request. Messy, but amazing. After the market, we headed to the Heineken Experience... and it was an experience. One of the most interactive brewery tours I've ever been on! After the brewery we went back to Sofia's house and made dinner. That night, Sofia took us ou with her university friends from all over the world and we had a blast.
Coffee on the canal

We spent Sunday biking around Amsterdam and hitting some of the main sights: Begijnhoff, Amsterdam Museum, (going past) Anne Frank's house, Leidseplein, Rembrandt Square, the palace, the flower market, and the seasonal Christmas market. Above everything, the highlight of my afternoon was having a coffee at Sofia's favorite café on a quiet canal in the centre. That night, we went to a well known restaurant called Bazar. Although it's cuisine is Turkish, the restaurant building itself used to be a Jewish Synagogue. Great place, highly recommended if you like middle-eastern cuisine.

Colin left on an early flight on Monday morning, and Sofia had to go to class, so I spent my last morning walking around the centre and soaking up my last few moments in an incredible city. Amsterdam blew my expectations out of the water. I've heard a lot about it, but I never dreamed I would love it so much! I felt like I was living in a postcard for the weekend; every way I looked was a perfectly framed postcard-worthy view. Between the sandwiched buildings and winding canals, it's truly an amazing city. On top of everything, the Dutch are a group of kind and friendly people, and nearly all of them speak English fluently. As Sofia said "Even the homeless people speak English." Dutch may be the language most closely related to English (linguistically speaking), but I still find that impressive.  I'd like to go back someday and visit all the things we didn't have time (or money) for this weekend: the Anne Frank museum, Van Gogh museum, and of course, visiting the blooming tulip fields in the spring. I have no doubt I'll get back on day, but for now I'm satisfied :)

Here's an amazing video Colin made of our weekend in Amsterdam! He's quite talented

Sunday, November 17, 2013

La Huelga Limpieza (The Cleaning Strike)

Hallelujah, the cleaning strike is OVER! Two weeks ago, the street cleaners of Madrid went on strike after finding out the government was planning on outsourcing them to private cleaning companies. This would cause over 1,000 of the total 6,000 street cleaners to lose their jobs.  Additionally, wages would be cut by up to 40% (some only earn 500 euros a month to begin with! That's half of what I make!). In an outrage, the street cleaners went to the streets and made the huelga (strike) known. They knocked over garbage bins, spreading trash throughout every street in Madrid (especially my street because I live across from the street cleaning headquarters).  Furthermore, they would periodically light trash on fire and cheer! This resulted in 1 million + euros of damage and 19 arrests for vandalism and property destruction.

Tensions remained high in the following days and an end to the strike seemed no where in site. On day 3 of the strike.... terror struck. It rained all night which sped up the rotting process of the garbage in the streets. Furthermore, things like vomit, urine and animal feces were not being cleaned up on a daily basis.  The result of this was a rancid smell that could be noticed throughout Madrid. On my way to work I would pass literally piles of trash next to the garbage bins that were not being emptied. The aftermath of the weekly traveling market outside my school in San Blas was atrocious. Rotting fruits and veggies were simply piled up on the side of the street rather than being cleaned up and thrown away. As someone who experienced the affects of the strike first hand, I can tell you that it was disgusting, tiring and embarrassing.  I would constantly have to look down at my feet and see where I was walking to make sure I was not stepping on rotting food, broken glass or dog poop.  I would cover my nose with a scarf as I passed the massive piles of trash. Also, it's embarrassing as someone who lives in Madrid to explain to tourists and visitors what is going on. Madrid is usually such a clean an beautiful city but it's hard to see that when the trash makes it look like a dump.

On top of everything, it was just hard to look at.

Finally today (Sunday) they reached an agreement. Only 300 cleaners will fully loose their jobs. Those who keep their jobs will have to endure furloughs (temporary layoffs) of 45 days per year for the next 4 years, which will result in an overall lower annual salary. Obviously not ideal for the workers, but a good enough compromise that the affects of the agreement can already be seen! The streets are already getting cleaner as the street cleaners get back to work. I for one could not be happier that the strike has come to an end. Now, maybe I can get back to enjoying strolling the clean(ish) streets of Madrid.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Deja Vu in Almería

This weekend I decided to take a quick weekend trip back to Almería, the city where I worked last year. A few weeks ago I was invited by a family that I remain close with (former private lesson family) to Daniel's 5th birthday party! I've been meaning to visit Almería since I arrived back in Spain, so this birthday seemed like the perfect time to go!

At midnight on Friday I hopped on the night bus to Almería, a 6.5 hour journey. I figured sleeping at night would be the best way to make the time fly by, and I think I was right. I arrived bright and early on Saturday morning. I made my way to their house, and definitely had a sense of deja vu; walking on the same road to the bus station that I walked dozens of times last year. When I arrived, they had breakfast waiting for me.
Delicious seafood lunch!
  After breakfast, they forced me to sleep a few more hours, which I was thankful for because 6 hours of sleep is definitely not enough for me. Later that morning we went to the garage (which belongs to Daniel's grandparents) to set up for the birthday party! Many Spaniards have garages, but it's probably not what you think. Garages are usually not connected to your house, they have nice tile floors or something to that extent, a bathroom and maybe multiple levels! Yes, they are still used for cars and storage, but often event spaces too since most families own small apartments that don't yield enough space for a large gathering. Anyway, we set up some balloons and Spiderman decorations and then rewarded ourselves with early afternoon tapas. I left directly from tapas to see a different private lesson family from last year. I had lunch at their house. They spoiled me with a giant seafood stu, breaded anchovies, and an olive and tomato salad. For dessert we had kaki (persimmon) and granada (pomegranate). That was my first persimmon experience and maybe my 3rd or 4th time trying pomegranate, and I loved them both! I love trying new foods, especially fruits because they are so different in every part of the world! After lunch we sat around and had a coffee but then it was time for me to head back for the main event, the birthday party!

The birthday boy and I :)
Daniel's birthday party was a blast. The guests included his parents, sister, grandparents, great aunt and uncle, aunt, uncle, 2 cousins, 4 friends with their parents and of course, yours truly ;) The party was like any traditional birthday party in the US: coloring, musical chairs, food (sandwiches, chips, peanuts, olives, cake and drinks), music, games and a craft. The craft, I must say, was the coolest part for me to see. You know sand art in the US? When we put layers of colored sand into a glass bottle? Well they figured out a much easier and cheaper way to do it in Spain! All you need is empty jam bottles, salt, and colored chalk (regular chalk, not sidewalk chalk). If you rub the colored chalk against the salt, it paints it that color and voi la. you have colored salt to layer in the jars. Super neat! The party was fun, but came to an end. After clean up, we headed back to the house. I read Daniel and 2-year-old sister Carla a bedtime story that I gave them as an early Christmas present. After story time, it was bedtime. Thank God for that becase I was beat.

Sunday morning, after breakfast, we went to the beach with some of the family members. We spent an hour there playing, talking and relaxing. It was great to see the beach in Almería again.
Sunday morning at the beach
After the beach we went to the village to have a big paella lunch. Per usual, there was way too much food to eat, but it was all delicious. After a relaxing afternoon in the village, we headed back to Almería. Later that night, I hopped on the night bus back to Madrid, back to my new-normal.

I'm very glad I went back to Almería, I have made so many amazing, lasting memories there. But, it's strange being in a familiar place when a lot of things are unfamiliar at the same time. I was in place that I know so well yet nearly everyone I knew, most of those people from my memories, are back home now. I'll admit, it wasn't the same being in Almería without my friends from last year to share it with, but it was still good to see it again. Being there made me realize that it wasn't just the people that made it great, it was the place itself as well.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Eat, Drink, Love - Porto!

I spent this past weekend in Porto, Portugal. Let me start with how this trip was chosen. My friend and colleague, Alexa, and I both agreed from day 1 that we met each other that we wanted to go to Portugal! I had my heart set on Lisbon, and she on Porto. So I agreed that whichever flight was cheaper, would be our trip. And it was Porto! So in a sense, I like to think that this trip chose us :)

We left directly after our long day of Halloween festivities at the school, and caught a 6pm flight to Porto. A one hour flight plus a one hour time difference means we landed at the same time we took off. Magic! That first night all we wanted to do was eat and explore. So we checked into our AMAZING hostel (Tattva Design Hostel, comments below), and asked for a recommendation for a good place to get a traditional Portuguese dinner. The sent us to a diner called Santiago, where they are known for Francesinha, which is Porto's staple dish.  It's a sandwich with three types of meat (ham, spicy chorizo, steak), toasted and topped with melty cheese and a fried egg, served with fries and smothered in a spicy (we'll they called it spicy, we found it pretty mild but still PACKED with flavor!) gravy. It was Portuguese comfort food at it's finest, and although Alexa and I both agreed we couldn't eat it every day, we both enjoyed every bite!  The rest of the night we attempted to walk off the calories of the sandwich, which wasn't an easy task but the steep hills of Porto definitely helped the process along! We happened across one of Porto's many stunning bridges, and took lots of photos.  At about 10:30 we called it a night, because we were exhausted.

Day 2 we woke up with one thing in mind, get to the free walking tour of Porto! at 11am we met our tour guide, Graça (or Grace for us English speakers) a young and bubbly Porto native who took us all around the city. Although it was raining (more like misting) throughout the day, we didn't let it hinder our day! Plus, we expected the rain... come on, it's Portugal; a small price to pay for lush green landscape. Grace took us around for about 3 hours, giving us an insiders view of the city. Lots of cool history and culture, but I won't bore you with that. But to paint an image for your mind (in addition to the few pictures I've added), Porto is a city built on a river, with eclectic architecture, bright colors, orange rooftops, steep hills and tiled sidewalks practically everywhere you go. Also, interestingly enough, there are tons of abandoned building everywhere. Grace told us it's because a while back, the city of Porto became a UNESCO world heritage site, which is quite the honor but it makes renovating extremely difficult. Although UNESCO has good intentions, their strict restrictions on preserving building in their original state prevents Porto from moving forward in a sense. Don't worry though, the abandoned buildings don't take away from the stunning views. Back to the architecture; Porto reminds me of buildings I've seen in Scotland (dark, mossy stone), Granada (blue and white painted tiles), and Argentina (buildings of every color of the rainbow) just to name a few, which gives it a really unique look! Anyway, after our city tour our tour group went to a café for lunch. After that, Grace took us on an optional second tour, the Port wine tour. We learned all about Port wine (a mix of wine and grape brandy) and got to try three types of Port as well as regular Portuguese wine. We had a nice relaxing afternoon with wine and great people (our group was from all over the world!). That night, we decided to grab dinner in the hotel and join our hostel on their nightly pub crawl (Grace ran the pub crawl too)! We had a blast, once again meeting new people and having a good time dancing into the early hours of the morning.

Although we were exhausted, we pulled ourselves out of bed (free breakfast from the hostel is always a motivating factor) the next day around 9:30. After breakfast we checked out, even though we weren't leaving until our 6am flight the following morning, we decided to save money and spend the last night out instead of paying to sleep in a hostel bed for a few hours. It was a rainy day again but we still had our hearts set on going to the beach. So Alexa, a new friend and I caught the 30 minute bus to the Atlantic Ocean. The rain temporarily stopped and we were able to spend some time walking up and down the beach and watch the wavey ocean as a storm rolled in. Not the beach we intended to see, but worth the visit all the same. The rain started up again so we went back into town for lunch, after lunch, Alexa and I took a little break, and then headed out for coffee around 5pm (coffee hour in Europe!). We indulged in some delicious Portuguese pastries including the "Pastel de Nata" which is the famous pastry of Portugal. It is a small custard cake, almost comparable to a creme bruleé if it had a pie crust. It was tasty. Then we walked around the city until it was dinner time. We were having trouble finding an affordable place for dinner that we didn't need a reservation for and then we found it. The Ceuta Café. We later found out that it's the oldest restaurant in Porto, and one of the most famous (and we found it on our OWN!). The restaurant was an absolute STEAL! Alexa and I split h'ordeuvres, grilled squid with boiled potatoes, bacalhau (Portuguese's most famous fish, cod) with caramelized onions and fried potatoes and two drinks for 19 euro! We felt like we robbed the place, and it was the best meal we had in Portugal. After dinner we did the bar crawl again until about 3am when we went back to the hostel, grabbed our bags and caught the night bus to the airport. It was a long trip home. I didn't arrive to my flat in Madrid until 10am. Yikes.

Overall Porto was AMAZING! Amazing, CHEAP food and wine and views to die for. Perfect for a 2-3 day trip. If you find yourself in Porto, here are my top five recommendations.

1) Tattva Design Hostel- Definitely have to stay at this hostel. It's amazing. Each bed has its own curtain, electric key locker, light, fan and multiple outlets. The rooms are clean, the food was great, and the staff was friendly, helpful and professional. Not to mention, it's a great value. From someone who has stayed in 20+ hostels in her lifetime, this is easily in my top 5, if not top 3.

2) Pancho Tours- Grace worked for a company called Pancho tours. They're tours (some free) in the city of Porto, and they're also in charge of the pub crawl. They do an amazing job. The best city tour and pub crawl I've ever been on (a 10 euro pub crawl with 4 drinks and all cover charges included?! COME ON!)

3) Port Wine Cellars- There's a million Port Wine Cellars to tour in Porto. It's maximum 5 euros to visit and do a wine tasting. Definitely worth the money. The prime wine-tasting season runs April-October.

4) Francesinha- Even if you're a health nut, let yourself indulge in this local dish.  If you're not a big eater, however, split it with a friend because it's pretty heavy. Ask the locals where the best place to try it is. Everyone will have a different answer, but they're all correct. Try it, you won't regret it.

5) Ceuta Café- This restaurant is a MUST visit. The oldest restaurant in Porto, where you can eat like a celebrity without breaking your budget. Everything from local seafood to burgers and steaks. All Portuguese and all DELICIOUS.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

When Life Hands You Lemons...

The saying "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade" is a phrase that should definitely be taken to heart before any abroad experience. It's inevitable to run into challenges and inconveniences during a year away from the U.S., but instead of complaining (which I must admit that I do sometimes) it's better to find the silver lining of the situation.  Here are some prime examples from my first month in Madrid:

1. Long Commute- In reality, my commute isn't bad at all: 10 minute walk to the metro station, 15-20 minutes metro ride (depending on the day) and 8 minute walk from the metro station to school. Some auxiliares have the luxury of having a short commute, but I enjoy the journey. Not only does the walking wake me up in the morning, the metro ride gives me a chance to catch up on my reading (currently in the second book of the Game of Thrones series and loving it). Also, on occasion I run into fellow teachers from my school on the metro and that is always a good opportunity to speak Spanish and bond with them a little bit.  So yeah, my 35-40 minute commute is no biggie :)

2. My TWO HOUR lunch break- In my opinion, a two hours is an unnecessarily long lunch break especially when it's smack-dab in the middle of a 4.5 hour school day. Ugh. But I decided to be as productive as possible with it, so I joined a gym that's a short 5 minute walk from the school. Now, instead of having two hours for lunch, I spend an hour at the gym, plus walking there and back, changing, showering etc, which leaves me 30 minutes for lunch, plenty for me! Now, I have a workout planned into my work-day which has been pretty nice I must say.

3. Having Monday instead of Friday off at work- Okay, I'll say it, I'd definitely rather have Fridays off BUT I must admit that there are a lot of benefits to having Mondays off.  Last year I had Fridays off, which I loved because Thursday was always a lively night out with tons of local University students filling every bar and pub in Almería. However, since I usually found myself going out on Thursdays, that meant I usually slept that day away on Fridays. I.E., I got NOTHING productive done.  And on Sundays when I wanted to be productive, everything was closed, whomp. Now, I have Saturdays or Sundays to waste away and on Monday I can go grocery shopping, run errands and plan a fun day activity. Also, since I'm awake and alert I've been cooking (something I dearly miss) for my roommates on Mondays. I love trying out new recipes so that's been fun.  Which leads me to the other bonus of Mondays. I have made a friend here named Catherine (Cat for short) and she is my only other friend with Mondays off of work. So we've deemed Mondays to be "Monday Funday" and plan on doing something fun with our days off.

4. Sick this week- This week I came down with a little cold. Nothing to severe just your general sore throat, mild fever, runny-nose, etc. But my 6th graders ironically were learning about "Health and Illness" right now in science. So, I was able to use myself as an example. (Quote of the week: One of my students asked me "Teacher, are you sick?" and I said "Yes, I have a cold" and he responded with "But teacher, it's sunny outside." Language barriers can be comical).

5. Madrid is EXPENSIVE- Yes, Madrid is a pricey city to live in, but that just forces you to explore more of the city and find the cheapest (sometimes even free) events that are going on. has proved to be an extremely useful resource for me this year. I've been trying out new bars, restaurants, and neighborhoods each week to find where the best deals and promotions are and it's been a fun adventure so far.

6. Lice- This week we found out multiple students at my school carry lice..... can't really find a silver lining to that situation. I'll let you know if I do ;)

Something else that is unrelated to the theme of the week that happened this week was the "Holi Run," Spain's version of the Color Run. I participated in the Color Run this summer in St. Paul, and new I had to do it again! The run consists of 5 kilometers of running or walking and at each kilometer mark, there is a different color that you are painted with. The paint is a eco-friendly powder that (for the most part) won't stain. The biggest differences I noticed between the Color Run in the US and the Holi Run here is that it is MUCH cheaper here (Only 10€ as opposed to $35) and that in the US there are volunteers that thrown paint on you where as here, you have full access to the paint and throw it on yourself. The self-painting was fun, but a little brutal. Some people would steal full buckets of paint and run off with them, and some people would lay and make snow-angels in the powder (hazardous). But we had a blast at the race and I'm looking forward to the next time I have an opportunity to do it :)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

First Visitors of the Year!

Being in Madrid has given me SO MANY topics I want to blog about, but I'm going to resist blogging about them all at once because I have 10 months to write about them, and I want to do each topic justice. So this post I'm going to dedicate to the most relevant topic of the week which was my visitors!

The first visitor was Charlie Crocker, a family friend who I've known my whole life. He's currently studying in London and decided to come to Spain for his week-long fall break with friends. Unfortunately, he visited on a Wednesday and Thursday which meant I was busy with work from 9:30-4:30 (plus private lessons on Wednesday), but that didn't stop us from having a blast with the time we had! Wednesday night I met Charlie just outside Plaza Mayor where he was sharing a bucket of beers with his friends. His friends needed a nap, but Charlie was determined to power through so the two of us ventured on. I took Charlie to the Museo de Jamón and despite it's name, it's not actually a museum. It's a chain of bars that offer a wide variety of cured ham to try as well as beer and cheese. I treated us to a platter of jamón serrano (dry-curred ham), queso curado (cured cheese) and a pitcher of Spanish beer. After munching on that and catching up I took him down Gran Vía to the Templo de Debod, which in addition to visiting the Egyptian temples from 2nd century BC, you get (in my option) the best view of Madrid. At night you can see the Palacio Real, Basilica and Cathedral all lit up as well as the entire river valley of Madrid. It's pretty amazing, definitely something everyone visiting Madrid must see! Afterwards, we went and got more tapas (I was helping Charlie eat his way through Spain), and then eventually met back up with his friends for a beer.
On Thursday night we met up again. I was with two friends from work when Charlie & co met us in Chueca, a hip neighborhood of Madrid. We enjoyed some tapas and mojitos together and then we walked them to one of the most famous clubs in Madrid, Kapital. However, it was a school-night for me so that's where we had to say goodbye. It was great getting to visit Charlie, even though brief it was a good time.
Just two days later I was graced by a second visitor. Antonella is my mother's best friend and our former backyard neighbor. I grew up with Antonella's family, including her children Daniel and Chantal. They moved away when I was seven-years-old but we've always kept in touch and last year I was lucky enough to spend Christmas with them in Italy, where they currently live! Well, coincidentally, now Chantal is studying abroad in Madrid so Antonella came to visit and I got to spend time with both of them. We spent the morning at the Rastro, a notorious flea market that happens every Sunday in La Latina, just a short 15 minute walk from where I live! After browsing the clothes, jewelry, and other knick-knacks we went to Plaza Mayor for a coffee. Then for lunch we visited my favorite place in Madrid, Mercado San Miguel.  This time I indulged in various tostas including smoked salmon, Galician-style octopus, creamed codfish, and muscles. All delicious! Then we moved on for a little treat, frozen yogurt from Llaollao. Frozen yogurt has become a HUGE enterprise in Spain within recent years, and Llaollao is notorious for being the best-quality chain. After fro-yo we tagged along while Antonella and her friend did a little shopping. Chanti, her roommate and I chatted and enjoyed each other's company while occasionally being asked to weigh in on shoe purchases. It was a lovely afternoon. But eventually, it came to an end. Thankfully this won't be that last time I'll see them this year! I am planning on seeing Chanti much more in the near future and Antonella not only is planning on a second visit to Madrid but also invited me to spend Christmas at their house for a second year. I'm so lucky to have such wonderful family-friends.
Anyone who has lived abroad knows how special it is to see a familiar face in an unfamiliar place. Not only is it comforting to have a little piece of home, but it's fun to play tour guide! However, this week as made me realize how much I still have to see in Madrid! I still have a lot to learn about this giant metropolis. Looking forward to all the adventures to come!
And now, I have a couple of plugs. First of all, for any of you who follow me on twitter, instagram or facebook, I am going to be keeping track of all of my big moments this year with #MadridMilestone . So for all the haters who think hashtags are pointless, I'm proving that they can be properly used. Simply type in the hashtag and follow along! Second, this week I was honored to have one of my pictures from my Chile study abroad trip chosen to be featured on Ellen Degeneres' blog! Feel free to check it out.
Love from Madrid <3

Monday, October 7, 2013

New year, new school!

Another week down and I'm still loving Madrid :)

Last Tuesday was my first official day of work. I made sure to get there a little bit early because it was my first day, but I ended up beating all the teachers there! And I was only 15 minutes early. That's Spain for ya! But once all five of us auxiliares were there, they gave us a tour around the school. It's a comparable size to my school last year; three classes per grade, K-6 rather than 2 per in Almería. Then we got our schedules, and I began to realize my work schedule is going to be very different this year. Last year I worked 12 hours a week, and the school day ran 9-2pm with a 30 minute recess and I had Fridays off.  This year, I work 16 hours a week, the school day is 9:30-4:30 with a 30 minute recess and 2 hour lunch break from 1-3pm and have Mondays off. The lunch break is not my favorite, way too long in my opinion, but other than that I think this school is better in every way than my school last year! I'm really liking the staff. They're all pretty young and super friendly. Furthermore, not only can the English teachers actually speak very good English, they also make an effort to ONLY speak to their students in English.  Last year, that was not the case, haha. I work with 4 different teachers a week, but specifically one for 9 of my 16 hours. She's a brand-new teacher and young like me. Her English is really good and we get along great. She found out that I have my teaching degree in the US, so she even let me create a lesson and have a few classes to myself last week!

Another big change for me this year has been my students. Last year I taught 1st-3rd graders and this year I am teaching 5th-6th graders. At first, I admit that I was a little disappointed that I didn't have the adorable little kids, but I've really liked having the older kids so far. They're better behaved, they're easy to joke around with and their English is really good! I can hold simple conversations with most of my 5th and 6th graders! They've really impressed me so far, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them more this year.

Besides getting adjusted to my new work schedule, I've had a pretty exciting week! The highlights include purchasing my first plane ticket of the year. Alexa (one of the other auxiliares from my school) and I planned a long weekend trip to Porto, Portugal. We're headed there in just a few weeks, so I'm very excited. Also, on Saturday 4 out of us 5 auxiliares at my school went to Día del Mercardo, where for 2 euros we got to do quite a bit of wine sampling. In addition, there are free samples of cheese, olive oil, marmalade, honey, liquor, and more. I was also shocked to see that they had beer tasting! I didn't even know they did craft beers in Spain, but apparently they do in Madrid, so that's exciting. Later on Saturday night we all went out to a concert and got to listen to some local music as well as covers of American classics. We had a blast. On Sunday Alexa and I explored Casa de Campo, the biggest park in Madrid and we covered a LOT of ground.

I'm realizing more and more how much there is to do in Madrid! It's truly a city full of life and adventure. I can't wait to see what the rest of this year has in store for me.

Below I've added some pictures of my apartment. Its small but I love it. Amazing location, within walking distance to everything! And also in a young, hip neighborhood.  Visitors welcome :)
Itty-bitty bathroom

The kitchen, washer included 

View from my balcony!

Monday, September 30, 2013

One Week in the Books!

Phew, I've survived week one in Madrid. Hooray! There's been a lot of adjusting to the city, and getting rid of my jet-lag, but overall is has gone pretty smoothly.  My biggest challenge thus far has been doing my best to not compare everything about my experience this year to last year.  I had such a great year in Almería, that I struggle to not always fall back on that experience. However, I knew that by choosing Madrid I wanted a big change from Almería, and I got it. There are some big differences (good and bad) I've noticed very quickly.  The obvious things are that Madrid is much more expensive from housing to the price of a tapa, the amount of people, the diversity, the unavoidable influence of tourism, and of course the size of the city.  Even though Madrid is 10 times the size of Almería, it's much easier to get around.  In fact, today I just got my "abono" card which will give me unlimited rides on the metro, buses, and light rail for about 50 euros a month. Pretty pricey but an absolutely necessity for me as I'll be taking the metro minimum twice a day (to and from work).

I had a few big things that were on my to-do list that I accomplished this week.  The first was attending the mandatory meeting for auxiliares (language assistants) the day after I arrived. Most of it was just review from last year, and it was long and tedious, but I met a few nice people so it was worth it.  The following day and new friend and I went and set up our appointments for our TIE card, which will be our ID here in Spain. It's a long process, so we wanted to get our dates set up as soon as possible.  Our appointments are scheduled for late October, and we'll receive the cards 40 days after that, so until then, I'll have to rely on my old TIE card from last year and a copy of my passport for my form of identification.  On Friday I went to visit my school.  I didn't go inside because I didn't want to interrupt the school day, but I got to practice my commute and met the four other auxiliares I'll be working with this year.  They seem like a good bunch! Four Americans and one British girl, all of us have at least one year of teaching experience; two worked at the same school last year, one girl used to be in a pueblo outside of Cordoba and the other was in South Korea.  I'm looking forward to getting to know all of them!

The weekend was fun.  On Friday one of my roommates, Tamara, invited me to her boyfriend's concert and let me bring two of the new girls I met.  We had a blast! It was a small concert venue, but afterwards we hung out with the band who were all nice guys, and we had a good time.  Saturday I went out with some other friends I had met earlier in the week. The three of them live right around the corner from me so it will be nice having some friends living close to me! Tonight there will be some roommate bonding time as the three of us will be making dinner together (veggie tacos, fruit salad and a surprise dessert!). Tomorrow is the first day of school.  Excited and nervous just like most students on their first day.  Crossing my fingers for good hours, friendly teachers and nice students. A girl can dream can't she?

(I apologize for the lack of pictures. I promise the next post will have plenty!)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Pre-Flight Jitters!

Wow, I can't believe the summers over and I'm headed back to Spain tomorrow! My time at home has been absolutely perfect.  It included weddings, cabin weekends, a twins game, Wicked, Basilica Block Party, a trip to CSB-SJU, a trip to Chicago, the state fair, family time and countless nights in Uptown with friends.  I've enjoyed indulging in my favorite American goodies such as brownies, apple crisp, chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, mac n' cheese, pizza (Spanish pizza is not the same), Mexican, Indian, kale chips, pancakes, and all the other stuff I can't get in Spain.  This past week I've gotten to share some special moments with friends and family, which makes leaving even harder. But the bottom line is that while I'm in the US, I still kinda feel like a kid. I live with my parents (which I don't mind because the cooking is great), work my old summer job, and borrow the family cars to get around.  In Spain I have my own apartment, find my own ways to get around, and live an adult life.  I'm ready to go back to Spain and feel like I'm putting my college degree to use!

You'd think that after packing for multiple long-term trips before, that it would be a breeze for me.  I'll admit, I've gotten better at it, especially after figuring out that rolling your clothes rather than folding them not only saves room but prevents wrinkles as well. Also, I've gotten better about not packing so heavy.  It's always good to have space so that when you come back you'll have room for souvenirs, etc.  However, all of this improvement still can't help the constant overwhelming feeling like I've forgotten something. All the checklists and double/triple checking in the world won't get this weight off my shoulders. It makes me so nervous that I can't fall asleep at 1am the night before my flight (now). But nervousness hasn't been the only emotion I've been feeling this week. I find the entire week leading up to my departures from anywhere are just a hodgepodge of emotions: excitement, anxiousness, sadness, uneasiness, worry and happiness. Another strange thing that I feel about a week before I leave is guilt.  Let me explain.  Guilt comes in because I want to spend as much time as I can with EVERYONE, which obviously isn't possible. I feel guilty for spending too much or too little time with family, friends, etc.  Or I feel guilty that I'm not spending my last few days the right way or being productive enough. I'm hoping that my 7.5 hour plan ride will give me some time to chill out and relax a bit before I arrive in Madrid!

I've had to say so many goodbyes this past week. Did I mention I HATE goodbyes? I feel like it just amplifies the sadness I already feel. If I didn't have to say goodbye so much, then all the sadness/separation emotions wouldn't surface so much. I wish it was socially acceptable to skip goodbyes.  But they are inevitable, so I find the best way to say goodbye is to be as casual and quick as possible. Drawing them out definitely won't help my situation. And I always remind myself that it's not forever, and the time will pass quickly and I'll be back before I even know it! But I must say that the best part about goodbyes is that it means something NEW is coming! New friends, new places, new school, new city new roommates new EVERYTHING. I'm sure it will only take a few hours in Madrid to remember why I keep leaving my beloved family and friends from my favorite place anywhere (MN <3 ). I'm an adrenaline junky, and in more ways than one. I thrive off of the excitement and uncertainty of new life experiences, and this is my next one! So goodbye family and friends, I'm sad to say goodbye even if I don't show it. Hola Madrid! Can't wait to see what it has in store for me :)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Reflecting On My Year In Spain

As I am sitting here, finishing up packing and waiting for my landlord to come collect her last months rent, I have been thinking about my year here in Almería (well, not technically a year, 9.5 months to be exact).

Throughout the year I feel like I have learned a lot about the Spanish people and their culture, and I have tried to teach them as much as possible about American culture. My conclusion is that no culture is perfect, and that we have a lot to learn from each other.  While I think the Spanish could learn to be a bit more punctual and improve their work ethic, I think we have a lot to learn from Spain.  They are a country that is in a huge economic recession, although if you were just passing by you may not notice it.  Regardless of the hard economic times you still see people in cafes every single day enjoying their coffee.  Even though most of Spaniards can't afford lavish vacations right now, that doesn't matter.  Spending a long lunch with close family and friends is vacation enough from them.  If I've learned anything from Spain is that they know how to enjoy life!  They truly soak up every moment, every coffee, every meal, every minute of sunshine.  Although I feel proud to be from the USA and that they sometimes call us work-a-holics, I think we need to take a lesson from the Spaniards a relax a bit.  After all, their life expectancy is an impressive 81.37 to America's 78.62, they must be doing something right.

I have heard countless times here that in the US we "live to work" but in Spain they "work to live."  In a sense, I think they are right.  It's nice to be determined to reach a goal of being a CEO or the president, or simply the best at what you do; but I also think that we need to stop, take a breath and smell the flowers.  Life is short and we must enjoy every minute.  Sure, we will have stressful moments in our lives, that's unaviodable, but we can't dwell on them.  Life is here, and we can't wait until retirement to enjoy it.  Enjoy it now, enjoy every moment.  The biggest lesson I've learned this year is that the only limits we have to enjoying life and achieving our dreams are the limits that we set to it.  Sky's truly the limit.

Thank you to everyone and everything in Spain that has helped me learn so much about myself this year.  I must say, I am excited to spend my summer in Minnesota, but I can't wait to see what Madrid has in store for me next year!  Until then, hasta luego España :)
I'm going to miss my life on the Mediterranean 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Bye Bye Teacher!

This past week was my final week at CEIP Blas Infante in La Gangosa!  I can't believe it.  The time absolutely flew by.  I can still remember my first day there like it was yesterday.  This week was absolutely full of love.  On Monday, instead of class, my teacher had her entire class of first graders make pictures for me.  Some of the pictures had things such as "Vay vay teacher" (the student's attempt to write bye bye), "I love you teacher!" along with adorable pictures.  Side note: I consider myself brunette, but here in Spain everyone considers me blonde; so when my students drew pictures of me they drew me with yellow hair! What a change in perspective.  Anyway, soon enough word spread around the students that it was my last week and I was greeted with even more hugs and smiles than usual everyday.  It made it even harder to say goodbye.
Also, since it was my last week, I wanted to thank all of the teachers from the school.  I made a batch of chocolate chip cookies and they all LOVED THEM!  They don't have anything really like that here.  They were all begging for the recipe so I rewrote it in Spanish and made a bunch of copies.  It made me happy that they loved them so much :)  I've been making them for my private lesson families too, and they've also been a hit.  Who knew chocolate chip cookies could be such a cultural thing?
Me with one of my six classes (3rd Grade)
Anyway, yesterday, on Thursday, I said my final goodbyes.  Gave all 3 of my co-teachers letters thanking them for their support throughout the years, and made sure I visited each of my six classes before I left.  I received giant group hugs in every single one! Have you ever been simultaneously hugged by 25 6-year-olds at once? They're combined force nearly knocked me over! I thought the funniest things is that my trouble-making kids that I thought didn't particularly like me were the ones giving me the biggest hugs and saying "bye bye teacher!" "don't go teacher!" It was sad to say goodbye but I couldn't have left on a better note! So many hugs and kisses; it's nice to feel loved :)
So, now I'm down to my last six days in Spain!  I plan on spending my time finishing up my private lessons, packing up and spending as much time as possible at the beach with my friends. It's going to be a bittersweet week!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Kilts, Whiskey and Green- SCOTLAND!

This past week we had a "puente" which I know I've mentioned before, but just to review it is a long-weekend due to a holiday.  This puente we got Wednesday, Thursday and Friday off due to Spain's labor day and the Cruces de Mayo festival. About three months ago Amanda and I were thinking ahead about how we wanted to spend this time-off.  We decided to look for the cheapest plane ticket we could find and let the trip choose us.  So I looked at several trips, and the cheapest flight (70 euros round-trip!) was to Glasgow, so we went with it!

Tuesday after work we hopped on a bus to Malaga and caught a late night flight to Glasgow.  We arrived after midnight, went straight to our hostel in Glasgow and went to bed.  We woke up the next morning and caught the train to Edinburgh straight away.  The train was inexpensive and only a 50 minute ride.  The first thing I noticed about the architecture in Scotland is that it's all very dark and gloomy looking.  Instead of the bright Mediterranean and classic renaissance architecture that I'm used to seeing in Europe, most buildings are made of out dark stone which have become weathered by years of rainfall turning them black and giving them an eerie look. Beautiful in their own way. The first day in Edinburgh (pronounced Ed-in-bur-oh) we explored the "Royal Mile", the old main street of Edinburgh which now is lined with restaurants, cafes, shops, museums, etc.  We enjoyed a cafe lunch and tea, happened upon a delicious fudge shop, and caught a free walking tour of the city!  Our tour guide was fantastic, he really knew his stuff.  We learned a lot of interesting things about the old city but the general theme is that Edinburgh built city walls, 1 square kilometer wide, centuries ago.  Due to fear of attack, as the city began to grow in population, the buildings grew up rather than out to remain within the city walls.  There were reports of buildings nearly 20 stories high, made out of WOOD! The city remained within the walls until they finally built "New Town" (the first city scape designed on paper) in the late 18th century.  I could go on about the history for a while... but I'll move on.  Later we visited the famous Greyfriar's cemetery where Greyfriar's Bobby (the famous dog who slept by his owner's grave for 14 years) is buried as well as the real Thomas Riddell, Sir Walter Scott and other celebrities.  That night we decided to go out for a classic British meal, fish and chips.  Afterwards we went to a local pub and tried local cider.  It was a chill but good night.

Day 2 in Edinburgh we woke up to great weather (50s and sunny) and the sound of bagpipes and we were feeling ambitious. We decided to tackle Arthur's Seat, a 40 minute hike up an extinct volcano overlooking Edinburgh.  We were dripping sweat by the time we reached the top but it was worth it for the views.  In one direction you can see the city of Edinburgh in its entirety and the other direction the port of Leith can be seen bordering the North Sea. And in every direction, green rolling hills, exactly what one would expect in Scotland.  We enjoyed some traditional Scottish butter shortbread cookies at the top to celebrate the climb  Then, we snapped some photos and made our way back down towards the city.  We went to The Elephant House for lunch, the café which JK Rowling often went to write the Harry Potter's books. The waitress even pointed out her regular table to us.  As a fan of the books, it was simply magical, and the food was fantastic too!  We spent the afternoon visiting the Edinburgh castle (just the outside because it cost 16 pounds to enter) and the GIANT National Museum of Scotland which contains exhibits of Scotland's history and much more. That night we went to a vegetarian baked potato joint and split a potato topped with cheddar cheese and baked beans.  Later, we joined our hostel for a free pub crawl where we met a lot of cool travelers from the hostel and got to see a bit of the Edinburgh nightlife.  I took this opportunity to try some local whiskey, and I wasn't disappointed. The whiskey here is incredible, even Amanda (who isn't a big fan of whiskey) agreed. 

The next day we woke up bright an early for our Highlands tour.  We grabbed some stuffed breakfast rolls on the way (I had sausage and egg) and went to our meeting point.  We joined about a dozen and a half others on a mini bus with a Scottish tour guide.  He took us to a whiskey distillery, a farm, a few small towns and of course, Loch Ness.  Although it was a rainy day (the only wet day of the trip!), it didn't matter because in my opinion the views from the bus throughout the drive were the best part. The Scottish highlands are stunning, with tall rocky mountains that blend into the rain clouds, and endless waterfalls, creeks and rivers.  If you're ever in Scotland, don't miss it!  The tour was over 12 hours long, so it's safe to say after the long day we were exhausted.  We grabbed a light dinner and went to bed.

Saturday we woke up and checked out of the hostel.  Before leaving for Glasgow, we treated ourselves to a Scottish breakfast , a "must-try" according to many.  For 5 pounds we got two sausages, two eggs, baked beans, a potato pancake, 2 pieces of bacon, a cooked tomato, and blood sausage.  I managed to eat it all, but wasn't hungry again until about 9pm that night.  It was delicious, but a little too heavy for my taste. Afterwards we traveled back to Glasgow.  After arriving and finding our hostel, we met with friend of Amanda's who was completing her master's there. We went out for tea and then she showed us around the West End and Glasgow University.  The West End is the university part of towns and has tons of cute shops (lots of them second-hand charity shops), restaurants and pubs.  Like an American college town with a Scottish twist.  The university is also stunning, many people think that JK Rowling was inspired by it's architecture when creating Hogwarts.  We finally settled down at a pub for dinner and indulged in mac n' cheese, something I haven't had in nearly 9 months.  We were also brave enough to try "haggis balls" which were sheep stomach balls, battered and deep-fried.  We were nervous to try the Scottish staple, but they turned out to be pretty good as anything can be when it's deep fried. That night we worked our way into the centre to meet up with Amanda's friend again and some of her local friends.  The Scottish are very friendly and welcoming people, and we had a nice time.

Our last day in Scotland we decided to visit the Kelvingrove Museum which everyone in Glasgow had been raving about, they weren't kidding.  After our breakfast tea (which I´m now hooked on) we went to the museum.  We saw that they offered free guided tours, so we decided to take one and luckily we were the only people!  So a tour guide took Amanda and I around the enormous museum for free!  The museum is an interesting mix of animal exhibits, art collections and historical artifacts.  We could have easily spent the entire day there but we had a flight to catch so we only spent an hour and a half there and saw the highlights.  Later that day we took a train to the airport and flew back to Malaga.

One last comment about the kilts!  Before Scotland, I thought kilts were mostly kind of a joke; something they wear just for the tourists.  However I found out, that's not true!  Men wear kilts to special occasions. Instead of a suit, they wear a shirt, tie and kilt! Furthermore, many of the men sport the traditional tartan (colored wool plaid) of their family clan. Anyone with a traditional Scottish name will have a family clan which has it's own code of arms and colored tartan! I had no idea that those kind of traditions still live in Scotland, but I found it really fascinating.

My overall review of Scotland is great!  Although it was cold (40s and 50s all week), we only had one day of rain and for a Minnesotan, the weather was extremely bearable.  Although the pound is a little scary (1.7 to our dollar), we always managed to find affordable food/drinks and nearly every museum is free!  Our only big expense was the day-long highlands tour which was well worth it.  The history of Edinburgh is very interesting and I think even people that usually don't like history would find it interesting.  Also, the little presences of Harry Potter magic was fun for a fanatic like me.  The food was tasty although heavy on the meat and potatoes.  And like I said earlier, there's nothing better than a big cup of breakfast tea to warm you up after a day in the Scottish cold.  Glad I got my green fix in Scotland, because now I'm back in Almería for one more month of desert heat and beaches!   

Monday, April 22, 2013

Almería Rediscovered!

I have lived in Almería for nearly 8 months now and loved every minute, but for the past two weeks I have really been trying to get to know my city even better, and rediscover why I love it so much.

View of Almeria from the Alcazaba
Last weekend, I FINALLY went to the Alcazaba, the old Moorish castle/fortress in Almería.  Basically, it's our lesser version of the Alhambra (see previous entry).  I can't believe it took me so long to finally visit!  It is literally the main tourist attraction in Almería (and there aren't many).  It was worth the wait though. I think I couldn't have picked a better day to visit.  It was a cloudless day, about 75 degrees, and since it's spring, the castle gardens were in full bloom. Part of the castle is old ruins while other parts have been maintained to show it's original character.  Throughout the entire castle are informational signs explaining what everything is or was.  Above all, the best part of the castle is the amazing view of Almería that can be seen from every wall.  We spent about an hour there, and then went down to spend the rest of the day on the beach (yes it is beach season in April!).

Also, the Sunday of the same weekend that we visited the Alcazaba, a bunch of us also toured the "refugios", another historical sight in Almería.  The refugios is a system of tunnels about 4 kilometers long that served as a bomb shelter during Spain's civil war in the later 1930's.  The tour was really interesting and naturally eerie.  We learned that Almería had been a target during the Spanish civil war, and was frequently bombed.  So, the government decided to make a series of bomb shelters including the "refugios" in order to keep it's citizens safe. The watch tower would signal to set of the sirens when they saw enemy planes approaching.  The people had less than ten minutes to get to the nearest bomb shelter and take cover.  For some people that meant going into basements beneath government buildings, churches, etc, but for many people that meant taking one of the many entrances to get in the refugios.  The entrances included street access (the little metal doors can still be seen today), entering through a news kiosk (that had hidden passages underneath), or entering through an apartment building. We learned a lot about the war, but mostly that the refugios served as a safe haven for Almerians for nearly two years.  We walked through 1 kilometer of the cement tunnels during our hour-long tour, and the image of thousands of people filling the tunnels filled my mind.  It was extremely interesting but like I said, eerie.

View of Cabo de Gata
Lunch for only 10 people!
This past weekend I was invited once again by Maribel to go to her family's country house, but this time it was a beach house instead of a mountain village house.  The family took me first to a lookout of the natural park "Cabo de Gata".  The cabo de gata is the cape that makes up the bottom right corner of Spain.  The cape and miles around it are completely reserved, creating a sort of desert/tropical beauty.  Afterwards, we went to a remote beach in the village of the beach house.  The beach was gorgeous and only had a few families and surfers present.  It was a perfect sunny day, and not too hot, so we spent an hour or so there and let Daniel (4 years old) and Carli (nearly 2) play in the sand.  Around 2 we went to the house for lunch and I was reintroduced to the familiar faces of their relatives.  The lunch was just as big as the last one.  This meal included: bread, manchego cheese, Iberian chorizo, cured ham, salad, sausage, bacon, chicken fillets, pork fillets, rabbit, spicy blood sausage, Spanish tortilla, prawns and lots of french fries.  After lunch, we went for a walk through the small village of Rodalquilar, a once thriving village due to it's gold mine.  Unfortunately, I learned that more people working in the gold mine were stealing than working honestly, so it had to be shut down so now it is a small ghostly village just a stone's throw away from the beach.  After our afternoon walk, we came back for coffee and dessert: orange sponge cake, chocolate, and rum/sugar crepes.  All delicious.  About 7:30 the kids were getting tired so we drove the 40 minute trek back to Almería.  All-around great day.  Great views, great weather, great food and great company :)

It's experiences like these that remind me exactly why I am so happy here in Almería.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Family Visit

Okay, I have a lot to update on, so I am going to attempt to keep it as short as possible without leaving out any major details. Disclaimer, it's still going to be long...

My adventure began over two weeks ago, on Thursday, March 21st when I hoped on a morning bus from Almería to Madrid with my friend Amanda.  Our purpose of going to Madrid? The Mumford and Sons concert. We arrived in Madrid around 4:30 and as quickly as we could we got to our hostel, dropped off our things and hopped on a metro towards the concert.  We arrived around 6 (two hours before doors open), which we thought would be plenty of time to get a decent spot in line considering the Spanish laid back mentality, but boy were we wrong.  The line was incredibly long, probably five or six blocks, I lost track. Fortunately, later some friends I met up with managed to get us a closer spot in line and we got great spots for the concert!  The show was fantastic; the openers... not so much but Mumford made up for it! They're even better live.

The next two days in Madrid we did a little exploring.  Because it was my third time to Madrid, I had already seen most of the main tourists sights, so it was nice just to relax and see some new sights that aren't so touristy.  The one stop that I made sure that we made was a trip to the Mercado San Miguel which is a market full of little bites of delicious food: stuffed olives, chocolate, yogurt parfaits, paella, croquetas, etc. My favorite taste of the night was a tostada topped with fresh mozzarella (made right in front of you), pesto and a tomato.  The cheese tasted like cream, needless to say it was incredible.  One my last afternoon in Madrid we visited the Reina Sofia (modern art museum) and I got to meet up with a Bennie friend who was in Madrid visiting family! I love Madrid more and more everytime I go.
Gardens of Versailles 

I left for Paris on an early-evening plane.  By the time I got off the plane, took a train and a metro to the hostel in Paris it was pretty late.  I was so excited to be reunited with my sister (Meggie) and cousin (Sarah)!  Hadn't seen them in nearly 8 months!! They were exhausted too as they had arrived at 9am in the morning and hadn't slept much on the plane, nor at all that day. So the first night we just went to a quaint cafe near our hostel, got some delicious salads and split a bottle of wine and caught up.  The next morning we woke up early and had a full day ahead of us.  First stop, Versaille.  Once again, we thought we would be ahead of the game by arriving at 10am, but we were wrong.  We had to wait 30 minutes to get tickets and an additional hour just to get in the palace!  On top of that, it ended up being in the low 40s that day and we were not prepared, we were frozen.  All the waiting was worth it though.  The palace is truly amazing. We toured the inside and then spent some time in the gardens.  Realistically, you could spend an entire day at Versaille, the gardens are massive, but we were on a tight schedule so we continued on. Next stop, Notre Dame.  We were lucky enough to stumble upon a Palm Sunday mass lead by the Cardinal! Interesting fact, they gave us mistletoe instead of palms for mass. We later found out because there is a surplus of mistletoe in France, so thats why they give it out instead of palm leaves. After mass we went to a crepe stand and shared a fresh nutella-banana crêpe and mulled wine, the perfect afternoon snack to warm us up. Shortly after we got an exciting call from Sarah's brother, Paul, who was touring Paris with his high school. His tour guide offered us 3 VIP tickets to see the Eiffle Tower at night! Of course we accepted.  Visiting Paul and seeing the Eiffle Tower at night was pretty spectacular, but I hate to say that our experience was slightly spoiled by the bitter cold and unforgiving winds.  Waiting over an hour to get up and down the Eiffle Tower was not ideal at the time, but I'm glad we did it. Afterwards, we parted ways with Paul and found the closest restaurant to warm up in.  We ate "coq au vin" which is traditional French food: chicken cooked in wine served with noodles. After thawing out over dinner, we were beat and hit the hay early.

Day two in Paris we woke up early again and went straight to the Lourve. Although we knew the Lourve was giant and we could easily spend hours there, we decided to just see the main masterpieces and move on.  We saw many well-known masterpieces from ancient egypt, greece, italy, franch and more. But I have to say, the biggest disappointment of all was the Mona Lisa.  There was a crowd of nearly 100 people crowded around the picture. If you want to get a picture with it, you literally have to force your way to the front, you have about five seconds to take the picture and thats it. Meggie commented afterwards "I'm not sure I even looked at it."  That's okay though, all of the other spectacular art works made up for it.  After we were on a mission to find Angelina's, supposidly home to the best hot chocolate in the world!  We found it, paid the price (7.90 for a serving), and then indulged in divine liquified chocolate topped with fresh whipped cream. It was incredibly decidant, and despite the steep price, I would recommend everyone try it at least once if you're ever in Paris. Afterwards, none of us really were hungry for lunch, but we admitted we needed substance so we split a French-style hot dog, topped in melted cheese and sandwiched in a baugette. As we munched on the hot dog we headed up the notorious shopping street Avenue des Champs Elysées towards the Arc de Triomphe. We had planned on going to the top of the Arc, but the line was long so we decided to take the short walk over to the Eiffle Tower and take an afternoon nap instead.  It was just what we needed for some r&r. In the early evening we hopped a metro to Montmarte, a famous neighborhood in Paris mostly due to Moulin Rouge.  We saw the Sacre Coeur church (amazing), enjoyed a delightful happy hour of assorted cheeses, bread, chardonnay and escargot (even the snails were good!), and visited the notorious Moulin Rouge. We spent the rest of the night in the hostel, resting and packing up for our early train the next morning to Nice!

The following morning, we had a 5am wake up for our 6am train.  The wakeup was brutal, but we were able to sleep for quite a bit of the 5 hour train to Nice.  After my nap, I woke up for the last hour of the ride and it was incredible, the train followed along the Mediterranean coast. Amazing. We settled into our hostel, had a bit of lunch, and wandered around a bit. Later that evening we visited a candy factory and got to sample tons of different types of candy including candied madarins, flowers, flower-flavored marmelade and chocolate covered espresso beans (my favorite). We discovered a great place for Happy Hour near the main square and split a bottle of Rosé (famous to southern France). Later that night, we went to a restaurant recommended to us by a French girl working at our hostel, and she was dead on.  We indulged in gourmet french food for a price we could afford! I had roasted duck with potatoes and a celery purée, Meggie had truffle rissoto and Sarah had bacon scallops. All delectable. For the first time on our trip we got to see a bit of French nightlife that night.  We had a blast but unfortunately our night ended with Sarah's cellphone getting stolen right out of her hand.  Word of the wise: don't take your phone out at night while traveling, not even just to send a text or snap a photo.

The next morning we explored Nice a bit more: walked along the beach, climbed countless stairs to get to an incredible viewpoint of Nice, munched on baguette sandwiches for lunch, and did a bit of shopping for local goods which included fresh natural soaps, spices, bath salts, flavored sugars, lavender bags, and other French delacacies. For the first time on the trip, we decided to head back to the hostel during the day for a cat nap, we needed it.  That night we went out for all you can eat mussels!  We enjoyed a long dinner and then decided to go out for a beer. We happened across a deserted bar that was hosting an incredible cover-band trio!  We felt so spoiled to have the bar practically to ourselves with an incredible trio who played acoustic covers of tons of popular sons. The bartender even gave us a free drink since we were being a great crowd for the band.  A chill but great night.

The next day we visited Monaco, the richest country in the world!  It was a bit of a rainy day, so we tried to stay inside as much as possible but we tried to not let it hinder our day. We went to the famous Monte Carlo Casino, visited the Monaco palace, walked around port with too many yachts to count, and enjoyed an authentic italian pizza lunch.  We only spent about 6 hours there, but it was enough to see most of the small country. That night we stayed at our hostel for  Brazil party. A Brazilian staying at the hostel offered to make traditional Brazillian food for everyone, and the hostel sponsered it. We were in no position to turn down free food, so we spent the night there! We got to meet people for all around the world who were staying at the hostel.  At one point Meggie even realized that every continent except for Antarctica was represented in the room. We had a fun night but at 2am we had to catch a cab to our night bus.  The bus left at 3am, and we slept all night, and most of the morning.

We only woke up at about 11 or noon with only 3 hours left to go on our 11 hour ride.  Wasn't bad at all! We also got to see a beautiful view of the Pyrenees on the way. We arrived in Barcelona at 2 and I was finally reunited with my parents and other sister (Juju), after 8 months! They were exhausted, but we decided to seize the day as much as we could.  We started with a long lunch on the beach, and when it was it over it was nearly 5!  The only activity we were able to fit in that night was a trip to Montjuic, home to the old Olympic stadiums and a group of fountains that puts on an incredible show at night synced to lights and music. Juju loved it. Afterwards, my family was ready to go to bed, but Meggie, Sarah and I weren't, so we split up and let them go to the hotel and rest and we went out for tapas. We walked to the center, near the Ramblas and gothic part of town and found a cute tapas bar.  I tried to order the most authetic tapas I could think of so I ordered manchego cheese, iberian chorizo and patatas bravas served with a pitcher of sangria.  We also split a dessert of fresh cheese, honey and nuts. Delicious. After tapas we went back to the hotel and crashed.

View of Barcelona from Parque Guell
Day two in Barcelona we had an incredible buffet breakfast at the hostel, nothing like American breakfast: meat trays, cheese trays, any bread or pastry you can imagine, tomato spread, olive oil, mermalade, fruit, grilled vegetables, boiled and scrambled eggs, baked tomatoes, fresh orange and pinapple juice and of course, apple tort and cheesecake. Needless to say we all indulged. First stop of the day was Sagrada Familia, the famous cathedral of Gaudi. We continued on a tour of Gaudi's work and saw three of his famous houses on Passeig Gracia. Then, we moved on to the ramblas and went to the famous Boquería market for lunch. We had stuffed eggplant and falaffel topped with rice, and vegetables. We all loved it. For dessert we indulged in fresh fruit, fresh fruit juices, candied nuts and a bit of chocolate. The Boqueria remains my favorite place in Barcelona (markets/food tend to be a common theme in my favorite places in cities). After lunch we continued down the Ramblas, past the Christopher Colombus statue all the way to the port.  After a bit of relaxing and sun bathing on the boardwalk, we took the metro to Parque Guell.  I showed my parents the same incredible viewing point that I had discovered 4 years earlier when I was there. They loved it! You can literally see all of Barcelona from this point.  Then we spent another hour or two seeing all of Gaudi's work all over Parque Guell including the infamous mosaic lizard. That night we went out for Meggie's birthday dinner and enjoyed a luxurious seafood dinner along with other delightful treats.

Paella in Valencia
Easter Sunday in Barcelona, we woke up early to get to the Easter mass at the Cathedral of Barcelona by 9am. I warned my mom we wouldn't have to fight for seats like we have to in the US, and I was right. The enormous cathedral had maybe 50 attendants, and most were tourists.  Although the mass was given in Catalán and we didn't really understand it, we still were able to follow along and agreed it was a cool experience (fun fact, I have now been to mass in six languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Catalán). After mass, we went to the Picasso museum, one of my favorite I've ever visited. Its great to see Picasso's work evolve from realism to cubism to completely abstract. It makes me have a lot more respect for him as an artist because although I don't understand his late work, I can see the talent he possesses in his early work. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Gothic neighborhood which is full of rich history and beautiful arquitecture. We had delicious sandwiches and desserts at a cafe for lunch, and then it was time to part ways.  We said goodbye to Meggie and Sarah (they flew home the following morning), and the rest of us got on a train to Valencia.  We arrived in Valencia around 6. After settling into our hotel, we walked to the beach for an early dinner (early by Spanish standards, 8pm). We couldnt restist ordering anything but paella considering it's origin is Valencia. We ordered a fresh seafood paella and all loved it, even Juju! Afterwards we walked back to the hotel, snapped a few awesome shots of the science musuem at night and called it a night.

Science Museum in Valencia
The next day we enjoyed another delicious Spanish buffet breakfast and then walked into the center.  Although the center was about an hour-long walk from our hotel, it was enjoyable the whole way. we walked along the dried out river bed, which they've now convereted into a beautiful park.  Also we were able to see Valencia transform from extremely modern to old arquicetucure as we walked towards the center of town. We spent most of our afternoon in old town, checking out the old buildings, a couple of churches, sampling horchata (a rice/nut/milk drink) and churros and chocolate as well as shopping around a street market.  After another delicious deli lunch it was time for me to catch a bus back to Almeria as I had to work the following day.  I took the bus back, and my parents and Juju explored Valencia for another day and a half.

I was reunited with my family one night later in Almeria. They arrived at 8, so we didn't have time to do much, so I brought them to my favorite tapas bar with some of my friends.  They loved trying traditional Andalusian tapas and we had a great night.

Our for tapas in Almeria
The next morning I had to work but I sent my family to visit the Alcazaba (an old fortress in Almeria), the cathedral and mercado central.  After school and met them at the hotel and we went out for lunch at a local favorite.  I brought them to Entremares, a restaurant notorious for having the best seafood tapas in town. My dad was so excited when he ordered anchovies and sardines and received the biggest ones of his life!  The sardine was practically as big as a fish fillet!  I ordered octopus and made them try it (its the best octopus ever), but my mom was mostly happy to have a fresh tuna salad and cod while Juliana was completley content with her Lemon Fanta and hamburger. After lunch, we planned to go to the beach but it was raining a bit, so we changed plans and did a bit of shopping on the paseo instead (my dad was such a trooper while us women shopped! thanks dad!). Then, I brought them by my aparment to show them my place and introduce them to my roommates. They only met for a short while as we planned to have tapas with them later.  Then it was time to go to one of my private lesson family's house.  They treated us to mango sorbet smoothies and orange biscoscho (sponge cake). The parents chatted while Juliana and I played with the little kids, Dani and Carli ages 4 and 1. Then, we made a quick stop to the shopping mall and later met my roommates for tapas. Despite the language barrier (not with my Mom though, she's great at Spanish! and my dad could follow the convo too), we managed to have great conversation between the varying levels of English and Spanish. After that I walked my parents back to the hotel.

We caught a 9am train to Granada the next day. When we got to Granada we went to the center for souvenir shopping and lunch. We had a Morroccan influenced lunch and then continued on to visit the incredible Cathedral of Granada! My mom even said she liked it more the the Vatican. After an hour at the cathedral we did a bit more wondering around the old part of the center and then went back to the hotel.  After a quick break, we went out to our Flamenco and Dinner show!  My family had never seen Flamenco before, but they really enjoyed it!  Especially Juliana who had done a flamenco style dance the year prior at her dance studio.  The dinner served with the show was esquisite! We all loved our food.  After the show we went to the Mirador San Nicolas, a famous viewing point of the Albayzin (the neighborhood we were in).  This viewing point is on top of a hill and you can see all of Granada lit up at night, the Alhambra and the rest of the city!  A great way to end the night.

Mom, Dad and I at the Alhambra
The next morning we woke up very early!  My dad and I took turns waiting for tickets to get into the Alhambra as they are very popular and go fast.  We were in line by 7am and the ticket office opened at 8.  We managed to get tickets for a 10am tour.  We spent over 3 hours at the Alhambra although we could have spent more!  The Alhambra is an old palace/fortress built around the time of Arab rule in Spain.  Do the math, parts of it are over 1,000 years old.  It's the number one visited monument in Spain and it's clear why. From it's impressive Moorish arquitecture to the lush gardens to the incredible views of Granada, an entire day could easily be spent there.  Then we went down to down to get a little ice cream at Los Italianos which supposidly is the best ice cream in Granada. Even Barack Obama went there a few years back when he visited Spain! After that we had a delicious lunch at the hotel and then it was time to say goodbye.  We took separate taxis, my family to the airport to catch a flight back to Madrid and me to the bus station to return to Almeria. I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye but my parents reminded me that I only have a little over two months before I see them again!  I can't believe how time flies.  It was great to have most of my family here to visit me (sorry Chris! miss you).  I don't think we could have had a better week, and I can't wait to see them again soon.