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.