Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Steph's Travel Tips

Since I've had so many visitors lately (and my family comes tomorrow!!), I thought I would write a list of my most important travel tips. I'm no expert, but I've had my fair share of travel experiences in Europe.  So without further ado, here are my 12 travel tips for Americans traveling in Europe!

1. Bathroom Lights: You may find yourself searching for the bathroom light switch for a while. The thing is, many time it's not in the bathroom. Before you call the reception desk and ask where it is, check outside the door.  I'd say that light switches are located just outside of the bathroom about 75% of the time in Europe.

2. Street Signs: The street signs in Europe aren't like the ones we have in the US.  If you're looking for the pole on the corner with the two perpendicular street signs, you're never going to find it. Street signs are posted to the side of one or more of the buildings at the corner of the intersection.  And, because it's Europe, you might not find the easy-to-read green and white signs with bold letters.  Many times European street signs are more artwork than street sign, with scripted letters over a painted background. Bottom line is, look for the sign on the side of the buildings!

3. Crossing the street: This is a tricky topic because the way people cross the street varies from country to country in Europe.  For example, in Spain I "j-walk" at least three or four times on my way to school every day.  It's just the way Spain works! Without j-walking, Madrid would freeze. Portugal, Italy and other Mediterranean countries are similar to Spain in this mentality. However, countries like Poland, Russia, and Netherlands have strict rules about j-walking and pedestrian traffic. My friend once recalled one night in Russia that it was 3am, there were no cars to be seen, but the Russians didn't dare cross the street until the walk sign flashed green. My advice is to pay attention to what the locals are doing. I doubt it would happen, but you wouldn't want to end up paying a j-walking fee while on vacation.

4. Promotions: Promotional offers can be the best, or the worst deal ever. A lot of touristy European cities (Madrid included) have tons of special offers whether its food, drinks or night time entertainment (clubs, flamenco shows, etc.). They probably seem to good too be true and SOME OF THEM ARE! So, my advice is to read the small print, literally sometimes there is small print on the posters you will be reading with the promotion, and don't be afraid to ask a lot of questions before you seal the deal. However, I have to say, sometimes there are amazing deals for amazing prices, and when those come along don't ask questions and enjoy it :)

5. Floor #: In the US we consider the ground floor as the 1st floor. In Europe the ground floor is 0 and the 1st floor is what the US would consider the 2nd floor. Pretty simple thing to remember.

6. Greetings: Every country has different greetings, so the bottom line here is do your research. However, just because you read that in Spain that they do "besitos" (one kiss on each cheek) when you meet, this doesn't mean you need to kiss your waiters, hotel staff, etc. Only do this if you're formally introduced to someone. However, greeting courtesy goes beyond formal greetings. In countries like France, Spain and Portugal, you are expected to make eye contact and greet shop owners as you enter their store and say goodbye or "hasta luego" on your way out. Not to do so would be very rude. Bottom line, do your research and/or ask your hotel/hostel staff for advice when you arrive.

7. Asking for the check: In Europe, restaurants and cafés will never bring you your check until you ask for it (bars not included). So, when you're ready, just ask for it! If you're in a hurry, ask for the check 10-15 minutes in advance as service is generally slower in Europe, especially western Europe.

8. Public Bathrooms: It's very hard to find a bathroom in Europe with what I consider "The Holy Trinity of Bathrooms": Toilet paper, hand soap and paper towels/working hand dryer. Many times you will get two and sometimes only one, but getting all three probably means you're at a fairly classy establishment. Anyway, my advice is to carry hand sanitizer and tissues on you at all times, especially at night time. You'll thank me later.

9. Going out at night: Nightlife in Europe is incredible.  It starts later but goes longer than the US! So if you find yourself in one of those "cities that never sleep" GET OUT THERE! There are some cities in Europe that are better in the nighttime than the daytime. However, a few tips before you go. First, travel light. The smaller the purse, the better but NEVER bring a clutch because they're too easy to steal. Feel free to dress nice but avoid looking flashy; it can attract unwanted attention. Finally, only bring out your essentials: ID, paper copy of your passport (although rarely needed, always good to have), hand sanitizer and tissues, keys and a small amount of cash! If for some reason your purse does get stolen, it's better to have cash stolen than a credit card. Don't let petty theft keep you from a night out on the town! Also, ask your hotel/hostel staff if there are any neighborhoods you should avoid at night and figure out the best way home before you go :)

10. Pick pocketing prevention: I don't want to jinx myself, but I've been on three euro-trips and have lived in Europe for 2 years and have never been pick-pocketed. It could be luck, but I think it's 100% prevention. First of all, (ladies) ALWAYS wear an across-the-body purse; clutches and over-the-shoulder purses are easy to snatch. Also on the topic of purses, the more straps and zippers, the better. The purse I currently use has two zippers and then a flap that snaps over them, and it's awesome. If you choose to go the backpack route, always carry it in front of you in crowded areas. You'll look a little goofy, but hey, it's better than getting pick-pocketed. NEVER WEAR A DRAWSTRING BACKPACK IN EUROPE! If you're a dude that doesn't want to carry a backpack or a purse, just suck it up and buy one of those under-the-shirt money belts. You're asking for it if you keep your valuables in your pocket. I once saw a guy try to cut another guy's iphone out of his pocket while sitting next to him on the metro. He didn't get away with it, but it just shows you how desperate people can be.

11. Bread on the Table: Many times restaurants will put bread on the table at the beginning of the meal. Be careful, because unless it specifically says it's included with the food, it's probably not. You might think it's complimentary like the US, but then you'll be surprised to see the 2 euro charge for the bread on your receipt at the end of the meal.

12. Transportation: This is another topic that requires a little pre-trip research. Depending on which country you're going, certain forms of transportation may be better than others. For example, in most of Europe it's most convenient and cheap to travel from city to city by train. However, Spain is the exception to this rule. Usually the trains aren't much faster than the buses (with the exception of the AVE high-speed trains) and are 2 to 3 times more expensive! Also, always plan ahead to find the cheapest or most convenient way from the airport to your hotel/hostel. Sometimes, it means a taxi, but other times you can take the metro or a city bus for much cheaper! So basically, I'm saying do the research and definitely don't be afraid to use the mass transport! It can be a HUGE money saver.

Anyway, that's all I've got. I hope some people read this and find it helpful, or some of you who have spent time in Europe agree with what I have to say. I'll be taking all this tips into account of my travels the next few weeks. Until next time :)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Elise's Visit!

It's sort of perfect that one of my very closest friends happens to work for an airline company because she gets free travel benefits! I live abroad and she gets to come see me for practically nothing! Seems to good to be true. I knew it was only a matter of time before Elise came to visit me, and three weeks ago she suggested to come visit me the second weekend of March.  It was pretty short notice but luckily it was a free weekend for me so I said YES PLEASE COME!
Elise arrived on a Thursday, which meant I was working. So, on my lunch break I went to pick her up from the center, dropped her stuff off at my place, and grabbed a quick bite to eat. Then, I was able to bring Elise back with me for the last two periods of school. She got to meet a bunch of my students, and I think she really enjoyed seeing where I worked.  Later that night we did what we do every Thursday, Trivia Night!  Stavros, Alexa and I (and whoever we can get to join us) have been attending a bilingual trivia night hosted by a bar in La Latina practically every Thursday since November. It was fun to give Elise a taste of what my life is like here in Madrid! School and trivia night, just like any other Thursday.
I was very fortunate on Friday because my 5th graders were on a school field trip.  Because of this, all my morning classes were canceled and the teacher I teach with during the afternoon told me to take the day off because my friend was here. Perfect for me! I gave Elise a little tour of Madrid.  It was the first of many GORGEOUS days to come (I don't want to jinx it, but we are currently on our 12th day of absolutely perfect weather, 60s and sunny!). So, naturally I decided to spend most of the day outside! I took her through Puerta del Sol, down through Opera, past the palace, to Templo de Dedob, and back through the royal gardens, and by then it was lunch time! We found a restaurant with a sunny patio with a lovely "Menu del Dia" which is a 2-3 course menu with select options including bread, a drink and dessert for a fixed price. Usually it's a pretty good deal.  We enjoyed our long lunch and then we spent the rest of our afternoon in the Sol area. Later that night Alexa, Stavros and I introduced Elise to one of our favorite places "El Tigre".  I wouldn't say El Tigre has the best or most authentic tapas, but they come free (and unlimited) with your drink so it's hard to beat that deal. After our drinks and mountain of tapas we enjoyed a couple more beers near the Sol area and called it a night.
Sunny day in Retiro Park!

Saturday we were planning on joining some friends on a day trip to Cuenca but unfortunately we overslept and missed the early bus. However, it still ended up being a great day.  Heidi (roommate), Elise and I bought some food and went to Retiro Park to have a picnic.  We munched on baguette bread, fresh strawberries (yes, it's currently strawberry season in Spain!), and some cheese as we sat next to Retiro's man-made pond where we watched the hundred or so rowboats on the water. A street performer seated just a few feet behind us was playing classical Spanish guitar which was the cherry on top of our little picnic. After lunch we explored Retiro for a few more hours. I've been to Retiro dozens of times and still haven't seen it all, it's HUGE! Heidi went back to study eventually and I look Elise to the Palacio de Comunicaciones for one of my favorite views of Madrid. From here you can see Plaza Ciebeles and up Calle Alcalá and part of Gran Vía. Later that night, we had some friends over to my apartment for drinks and appetizers, stopped by a friends birthday party and then spent another night out on the town in Madrid!

Sunday morning can only mean one thing, The Rastro! The Rastro is the oldest flea market in Madrid and it's HUGE.  It's only on Sundays from 9am-3pm in La Latina/Embajadores. Elise was able to find some great souvenirs there, and after a couple hours there we found another place to enjoy a Menu del Dia. After our giant meal, we were feeling pretty sluggish but we managed to walk down to the Manzanares River and spent some time laying in the sun down there. The Rio Manzanares is not such a beautiful river on it's own, but it's lined by beautiful parks and greenery. As the sun was setting Elise and I went back to the Templo de Debod because the view is completely different at night.  After that I took her to Plaza España, up Gran Vía and eventually Mercardo San Miguel which is my favorite place to take visitors. Although Mercardo San Miguel is a bit on the pricey side, it's a great place to go to give visitors a chance to try little bites of any type of Spanish food they would like to try! We sipped on some local drinks (vermuth and sangria) and tried lots of food. We called it a night after that because we had an early wake-up Monday.

On Monday we decided to go to Toledo for the day. It's only 30 minutes away by the fast train and it's much different than Madrid.  Toledo is a medieval town with tons of Spanish history. We spent the day exploring Toledo and even took the tourist train to get the best view of the town.  After 6 hours in Toledo, we came back to Madrid and I took Elise to the Prado during it's free hours.  Here's a BIG tip if you're coming to Madrid.  The Prado and the Reina Sofia (two most famous museums in Madrid) have free hours every day, so if you aren't planning on spending over 2 hours in the museum don't pay and go then! Anyway, after the Prado we went to Museo de Jamon and Cien Mondatitos for some cheap Spanish food. Sadly, Elise's visit came to an end just like that. She left on an early plane on Tuesday morning and I went back to work. It was so fun to show a friend around Madrid; I really love playing tour guide!  With every visitor I am reminded why I love Madrid so much, and I do my best to show it off.  It's a good thing I like visitors because there's more coming! Next weekend I'm hosting a fellow Bennie for a few nights and then in two short weeks my family will be here! Can't wait for these next visits :)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tour of the North (of England)!

I did it! I FINALLY made it to England after 5 visits and two years of living in Europe.  Took long enough huh? But, it was well worth the wait.  Although I've always wanted to make it to England, I must admit that I didn't go for touristic reasons; I went to visit some of my friends that I met in Almería last year.  My original plan was just to meet one of my closest friends from the past year, Hannah, but then I was able to plan my trip to see others as well!  It snow-balled into one amazing reunion.
Reunion in Manchester
We had another long weekend so I flew into Manchester on Friday.  I have five friends that I met last year in Almería that go to Manchester University, and in addition to that I have two friends that go to Essex University that decided to visit the same weekend.  This made for quite the reunion, even though it only lasted a night.  My first impression of Manchester that it was much bigger and much more modern than I expected.  Although it is quite a modern city, it does have tons of history as well.  An interesting blend of new and old.  The eight of us caught up over a delicious meal at a Mexican restaurant and a few pints afterwards.  We walked around the centre a bit, but we mostly we just focused on making up for lost time!  It was a quick visit, but I really enjoyed it.
Saturday morning I took a train to meet Hannah in Durham, where she is finishing her last year at Durham University.  I was warned that Durham would be much smaller than Manchester, and though it was true nothing seems small after going to college in St. Joseph, Minnesota, population 6,000 (student pop 4,000).  The first thing I saw as the train pulled into Durham Station was the enormous Durham Cathedral that is perched on top of a hill along the edge of a beautiful winding river.  The city of Durham seems to sprawl out from this church in winding cobblestone roads making for an even more picturesque view.  Hannah picked me up at the station, we were literally both jumping for joy in the excitement of our reunion! We made the short (steep) walk down to the city centre and made our way toward Hannah's flat.  She pointed out all of the "colleges" along the way.  The best way for me to explain "colleges" to fellow Americans is to describe them as a mix between Hogwarts Houses and Fraternities/Sororities. Basically, the entire university is split up into multiple groups that live on the same campus and do activities together for all four years.  Seemed like a cool idea to me!  Anyway, after we dropped off my stuff, we didn't lose any time and headed straight for the cathedral.  Although this beautiful 11th century, romanesque church is visually stunning and full of history, I must admit that I was most excited to visit because I knew that a few scenes from the first two movies in the Harry Potter series had been filmed there.  For those of you wondering which ones, you can find the list here. After the cathedral Hannah showed me Durham Castle (where some students still live!) and the centre.  We enjoyed a late afternoon tea and then headed back to get ready for the night.  Coincidentally, one of Hannah's friends that I just so happened to have met the previous year while he was studying abroad in Madrid was having a birthday party.  He was nice enough to let me come along with Hannah and we had a great night out! My night ended in the perfect way, with a hot order of fish and chips.
Newcastle upon Tyne
On Sunday, Hannah's flatmates and I went on a little day trip. We took Hannah's car and she let me sit in the passenger's seat.  Not only was it disorienting going down the opposite side of the road, but sitting where the driver's seat normally is was a very strange experience for me.  First stop was Newcastle upon Tyne for a full-English breakfast.  A full English breakfast includes sausage, bacon, baked beans, toasted, roasted tomatoes, mushrooms and an egg sunny-side up.  I enjoyed the breakfast but all of Hannah's friends seemed to love it even more, it's their breakfast comfort food.  After breakfast we walked along the river and went up to a skybox to get an amazing view of town.  The most unique part of Newcastle has to be its bridges, especially the Millennium Bridge. This pedestrian bridge is the stunning focal point of the view from the skybox. Afterward the view we wondered through a Sunday market and walked through the city centre before moving on.  Then, Hannah took us to "The Angel of the North" which is Northern England's symbol of sorts.  It's basically a giant, steel, red statue with an enormous wingspan.  To be honest, it's mostly just a site for a quick photo which is ironic because we asked a stranger for a group picture there and she ended up taking a picture of the five of us at such an angle that the angel couldn't be scene.  We had a good laugh about that one.  Then, we went to Hannah's house in Chester-le-street for afternoon tea.  Her mum went over the top and had a spread of scones, cakes, finger sandwiches and other goodies along with tea for everyone.  We got to meet Hannah's adorable dog, Alfie, chat with her parents and watch some hysterical home videos. It was a lovely afternoon and so nice to see where Hannah comes from.  By the time we left, evening was quickly approaching and Hannah and I wanted to fit in a quick nap before another night out.  I can't remember the last time I went out on a Sunday night, but Hannah was determined to take me to Klute which is a club whose claim to fame is being "the worst night club in Europe".  I've heard so much about this club that I was also determined to go.  Although a Sunday, the club ended up getting pretty full and we had a great time dancing to cheesy music and drinking a "quaddie."
Hannah and I with the Angel of the North
Monday, I went for a long run in the morning for my half marathon training.  I ran so far that I was able to see a bit of the countryside. I must admit after all my city runs in Madrid it was nice to have a country run for a change. Then, Hannah and I got a nice lunch at a place called "Saddlers" in town before I had to take the train back to Manchester airport.  It was sad to say goodbye, but Hannah is one of those people that I know it's only a matter of time before I see her again.
I could not have had a more perfect visit to England. It was fun to be with friends and have personal tour guides to show me around. I have nothing but respect for England and it's people.  They people are friendly, they know how to make the best tea, and I must say their food was surprisingly good! Thank you to everyone who made this weekend so memorable.  This was my first, but surely not my last visit to England.