Prague, please take me back

Well I’ve discovered where I’m going to live for the rest of my life, so I’m glad I’ve got that figured out. Sorry familia, it’s nowhere near Minnesota, but you can come visit!

During the long weekend (normally we have classes Monday-Thursday, but Thursday was off last week), Alyse & I traveled to Prague. We left Thursday afternoon, thank goodness for no 3am wake-up call to catch a flight. When we landed, we were greeted by a gray, drab sky, but I honestly think that makes the city much prettier. Our Air bnb was in a more local area of the city, but it was a 5 minute walk from the metro making it easy to travel all around the city. When we arrived, I was shocked at how quiet it was because living in Barcelona means noise, traffic, and commotion at all hours of the day. Also, it was in the 50s which to most people isn’t exactly a positive, but that’s my favorite type of weather. It was warm enough to not need anything but jeans and a light jacket, perfect weather for sightseeing.

Ironically the first meal we ate in Prague was sushi, but it was phenomenal. Something I never got used to was the conversion rate between the Euro and the Czech Koruna, 1 Euro = 27 Korunas. When we got the bill back our meal was 1500 Korunas, but that evened out to about 25 euros a piece. I thought about sending a picture of the bill to my parents to freak them out, but I refrained (probably a smart choice).

The next day was all about seeing as much of the city as possible since we knew we wouldn’t be able to on Saturday. Alyse & I walked everywhere, we started out the day in a local farmer’s market, eating delicious Czech pastries with some coffee. From there we walked into Old Town (quite literally the old part of Prague), across the bridges, to the castle, and to a beer garden on top of a hill all before dinner. I can’t do the city justice by just saying it was beautiful, but man, it was beauuuutiful. It’s like you’re walking in a fairy tale with cobblestone roads, old buildings, intricate architecture, and of course, the castle on the hill.

Fun fact, years ago I was looking through Instagram and came across a Trdelník in one of those travel food blogs and I vividly remember telling my roommate that I was going to go to Prague and eat one. Dreams do come true because I got not only one but three while I was there…

Heaven

Heaven

Holy cow, it was amazing and I’d buy another flight just to eat one.

The fun part about traveling is you can be like a tourist and not feel bad about it, I always try to do more “local” things in Barcelona as I’m trying to go past the touristic aspect of life here. For example, we climbed to the top of the Old Town Hall which allowed us to see the entire city. On the way up, we read about the history of the Old Town Hall, especially in regards to World War II and the Nazis. I’d never been in Eastern Europe before, so it was mind blowing to know that I was standing in a place that had once been covered with swastikas and was the center of rebellion against the Nazis, causing it to be destroyed and later rebuilt.

Top of the Old Town Hall

Top of the Old Town Hall

Prague - View from the Town Hall

Prague – View from the Town Hall

See what I mean? Prague is insanely beautiful, even with gray skies. One of my other favorite places in Prague was John Lennon’s Wall, I know, it’s not as historical as a symbol against Nazi occupation, but I think it’s pretty cool. There was a street performer playing and singing along to all of the different Beatles songs, it was relaxing. Definitely one of the more hipster things I’ve done while abroad…

Let it be

Let it be

Friday night we met up with friends and had a traditional Czech meal, which I had mixed feelings about. I had goulash and I’m not the type to try strange meat, but I did and it was good as long as I don’t think about where it came from :) .

Saturday morning we walked around another neighborhood of Prague, eating brunch and heading to the train station in the afternoon. The experience of getting from Prague to Pardubice was one of the most alienating, stressful time periods of my life but pretty comical when we thought about our situation. We headed to Pardubice to watch a basketball game of one of Wofford’s men’s basketball graduates, he plays overseas in a town outside of Prague. He had given us elaborate, step-by-step directions on how we would go about buying the tickets, finding the train, and calling a taxi to get to the gym. Well, as it does in life, things didn’t go as planned. When we got down to the office to buy our tickets there was not one person who spoke English, none of the workers understood what we were saying. Unfortunately for us, Spanish isn’t widely spoken in the Czech Republic, or at all, so we were pretty much isolated. Somehow we ended up purchasing the right ticket through hand signals and pictures on our phones, but the next step was finding our train station. The only other times I’ve been on a train, I’ve been with a team or friends so I never had been in the position to figure it out for myself.

When we got up to the platform, a train came rolling into the station. We spotted a younger couple nearby and thought “wow, I can’t believe our luck!” In the Czech Republic, the young people are much more likely to speak English, but as luck would have it, they couldn’t understand a word we were saying. I alternated between showing him my phone and the ticket, hoping that maybe he’d understand what I was trying to ask him. Well, he kept pointing to the train so I’d mime walking to the train and he’d say no! So we guessed okay, maybe this isn’t our train..? After five minutes of talking Czech to his girlfriend and us awkwardly waiting for our train, he looked at us and mimed for us to go to the train. Apparently, this was indeed our train, but we had no idea. I’m sure they had a good laugh after we ran off to catch it.

Thankfully the rest of the way was easier, and we met up with the taxi who took us to the game. Pardubice was the number two ranked team in the league and hadn’t lost at home all season, but Lee’s team beat them! It was an awesome win and we were glad this was the game we came to watch. This made me laugh…you know how we eat pizza, nachos, candy, and popcorn at sporting events? Well in the Czech Republic they eat sausages and dumplings. Not exactly what we were used to, but it didn’t look too bad!

As if Prague wasn’t amazing enough, the cost of living is much lower there. Everything from food to tourist attractions were much cheaper than any other place I had visited before! Eastern Europe in general is more affordable, so I highly recommend visiting a destination in those countries.

It’s T-2 weeks until spring break, honestly, a break from school could not come sooner! It’s crazy that my next trip will be to Germany, the country I’ve wanted to visit for as long as I can remember…

 

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Escape to the Mountains

After three months of being in a giant city, I was finally able to head to the mountains this past weekend. As much as I love the hustle and bustle of city life, I miss seeing grass, trees, hills, mountains, and anything not made of concrete. When I heard about the free trip for Advanced Spanish Studies students to Montserrat offered by IES, my friends and I quickly jumped at the chance to be outdoors! When it comes to vacations and trips, I’m definitely a mountain person rather than the beach. Don’t get me wrong, I love laying in the sun, relaxing, and hearing the sound of the waves crash into the shore, but there’s just something about sitting on top of a cliff looking miles (or kilometers in Europe) into the distance that makes it better than any place in the world

Montserrat is located about 40 minutes by train from Barcelona, making is incredibly easy to get to. We took a bus, so it ended up being about an hour for us but the ride up was beautiful. I fell asleep on the ride and all of a sudden I woke up and we were in the middle of a mountain range. Not only is Montserrat part of a beautiful mountain range, but it’s also home to a monastery. Pilgrims from all over the world come to Montserrat to see La Moreneta, a black madonna located in the cathedral. The story goes that the Benedictine monks that founded the monastery weren’t able to move the Virgin the found in the mountains, so instead they built their monastery around it. Another draw for visitors is the unique shape of the mountains. “Serrat” means “serrated” and pays homage to the strange jagged shape of the mountain tops that many attribute to a divine intervention.

We took a funnicular up to the top of the mountains, but from there we hiked for a couple of hours to reach the tallest point of the mountain as well as different peaks nearby. The professors took us to the top of the trail, but from there we headed up a “difficult, long and steep” path to the very top of the mountain peak. Whoever put up that sign of warning was not kidding, we basically had to rock climb our way to the top it was so steep. However, the view at the end was 150% worth it, it was just so peaceful and the air so fresh. I could’ve stayed up there for hours, but we wanted to make our way back down to the monastery to see a mass.

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Jagged edges of the mountain peaks

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Finally reached the top!

The other famous aspect of Montserrat is that it’s home to one of the most prestigious boys’ choirs in the world. We were stuffed like sardines in the sanctuary because everyone wanted to hear them sing and they definitely were ridiculously good. The cathedral itself was breathtaking as all of the European Catholic churches are. When I came back and told my host mom about it, she was so excited. Although she’s been to Montserrat a few times with her kids, there was never a mass or performance by the choir at the time they were able to go!

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Performance of the boys’ choir

Montserrat Monastery

Montserrat Monastery

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Outside of the church

I wish I had time to go back, it’s such a nice escape from the craziness of the center of Barcelona. However, I’m pretty much booked up until I head back to the States. This week is a short week, so my friend and I are heading to Prague on Thursday! All of my professors, past study abroad friends, and people I’ve come across in general have told me that Prague is a must see, so I’m looking forward to it.

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Bienvenido a mi casa

For those of you who are curious, here’s a sneak peak inside what my homestay looks like in the center of Barcelona. There are a total of six people living in the apartment, it’s pretty spacious. It’s interesting to see how there is no space wasted throughout the entire living area, they have just enough to make it comfortable, but not an excessive amount just because they can. Even when I went to a cooking class at the chef’s house outside of the city, the house wasn’t obscenely grandiose – it was homey, comfortable, and inviting.

The house consists of the dining room, living room, kitchen, 1.5 bathrooms, and 3 bedrooms. I share a room with Alyse while my other roommate lives alone in the room next door. Here are some pictures:

My side of the room ft Pongo

My side of the room ft Pongo

My roommate's side of the room

My roommate’s side of the room

Desk (My roommate has the same on her side)

Desk (My roommate has the same on her side)

Closet

Closet

Pongito

Pongito

Yes, we have a dog and I absolutely love Pongito.

My homestay experience has been in incredibly, I highly encourage anyone thinking about studying abroad to stay with a family. It’s a great opportunity to practice the native language, I knew plenty of people who don’t even speak Spanish but are thriving in a homestay. The food is delicious, I get excited to go home and all sit around the table for a family meal. We have breakfast and dinner provided for which definitely saves a chunk of change!

Additionally, one of the best parts about being in a homestay is that our host mom does our laundry and the entire house is scrubbed clean by a service once a week. So yes, I don’t have to cook, clean (except for picking up my room), or do laundry. I’m living the life over here :)

Some of the concerns I had coming into my homestay dealt with being unsure of having the freedom to come and go as I please. My family is really chill, and I’ve never felt limited by the fact that I live in a homestay. The only thing I have to really abide by is being home in time for dinner, but if you have plans with friends you can let your family know beforehand. Otherwise I can come and go at all hours of the day/night as long as I’m quiet and courteous. We do have a rule against guests in the house (IES program), so when friends come to visit they stay in hostels or hotels nearby. Luckily my apartment is in the middle of the city, so it’s not inconvenient to meet up with them because hostels are everywhere on our street.

I really do feel like I’m a part of their family, we talk about all of the things I would at my own home. The two siblings bicker and my host mom gets after them for fighting at the table, we share stories about our day (the good & bad), talk about our weekend plans, and we enjoy discussing our two cultures and the differences we’ve experienced in both. Also, they’re extremely helpful regarding fixing errors in our Spanish and then explain why it’s incorrect. It makes it much easier to pick up the language and increase my knowledge of the grammar as well. Although I’m halfway across the world from my true home, my family has made the transition to Spain a breeze and I feel like I can call it my second home.

 

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No Trouble in this Paradise

So as the spontaneous, restless person that I am, I decided it would be a fantastic idea to travel to an island off the coast of Spain three days before actually doing so. The destination? Mallorca. Lucky for me, it’s about a forty minute flight and ridiculously cheap, it can get down to 20 euro round trip!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mallorca (also spelled Majorca), it’s the largest island in the Balearic Islands archipelago. It’s a part of Spain and its capital is Palma, which is conveniently located 13km away from the airport. The island itself is full of some of the best beaches in Europe as well as a beautiful mountain range, making each day a new experience if you so desire to explore the area.

Since I’m trying to be thrifty (@parents), my friend and I just decided to go for a day trip. This is actually how the conversation transpired:

Me: Hey, are you free on Saturday?

Friend: Yep, what’s up?

Me: Wanna go to Mallorca for the day?

Friend: Is that even a question?

So, this is how we thoughtfully planned out our day vacation. Lucky for me, I’ve met a friend here who is down to do anything at the drop of a hat, so I knew I had someone to go with. One of my other friends had gone to Mallorca the week prior and told me it was a must-see, plus I’d never been to an island before! When in Spain right??

We arrived in Mallorca at 9:30am, perfect timing because that’s when all the stores & restaurants were about to open. Armed with Google maps and a keen sense of direction, we found a bus that took us to the city center and basically wandered around all day. The first thing on our mind was food (duh) so much to our delight we found a shop that sells cruffins (croissant and a muffin). We got to talking with the lady who worked there, and she essentially told us her life story. Her and her boyfriend lived in Madrid, but she said it wasn’t really living. Everybody was always caught up with work and they decided to ditch the fast lane for following their dream of opening up a bakery on an island. So they actually did it! Honestly it was inspiring because they were just genuinely so happy and truly loved what they were doing.

Cruffins in hand, we began to window shop around the city center. It definitely felt like we were still in Spain with the cobblestone streets and familiar architecture, but then we’d catch a glimpse of the palm trees and remember where we were. On our adventure around the city we came across beautiful, historic churches and the old royal palace of Mallorca. We even saw a wedding party taking pictures in the palace garden (cue *awwww). The weather was incredible, 75 and sunny, making it a perfect day for being outdoors.

Palma Cathedral

Palma Cathedral

Walkway to the beach

Walkway to the beach

Moments before the sunset

Moments before the sunset

Here's me being happy

Here’s me being happy

After lunch, we spent about four hours at the beach. It was amazing, besides the fact that we didn’t realize it was a topless beach before we got to the middle of it. So, that was definitely a cultural experience that I’m not thinking I want to experience again. Europeans are much more…open with everything shall we say. Regardless, we had a great time relaxing on the beach. When you’re traveling around different cities you feel so much pressure to go go go. You’re only there for a short amount of time, so you have to see everything! This trip was solely for relaxation and man did we need it going into the next couple of weeks…

The next two weeks are when everybody scheduled projects, essays, and presentations. I’ve been locked in the library, classrooms, and the occasional café for a while now. My teacher reminded us today that finals are rapidly approaching which made me want to cry. Finals suck but what sucks even more is the fact that after finals I won’t be in Barcelona anymore. Crazy how time flies!

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GOLLLLLLL

For all of those sports fans out there, yesterday was a historic night for FC Barcelona – the ultimate underdog story! FC Barca is a part of the Champions League, an elite group of the top European fútbol teams. Before last night, there was really no hope that Barca would continue to move on in the tournament, but you couldn’t tell by the sold-out stadium bursting with Catalan pride. They faced PSG and although I don’t fully understand what had to happen, essentially it was dependent on the number of goals in their series. Not only did Barca have to win, but they had to win big. Against all odds, Barca scored 3 goals within the last 3 or so minutes to win the entire series (the game ended with a ridiculous 6-1 score).

I wasn’t willing to shell out hundreds, even thousands of dollars to physically be at the game so I watched at home with my host mom and sister. My host mom and brother are HUGE Barca fans; however, my sister doesn’t like fútbol. As I have been learning in my Sports & Society class, fútbol and politics go hand in hand in Spain, creating a negative sentiment for some against the sport. She always says “It’s a business, not a game.” For others, fútbol is a way to represent independence and the fight for Catalyuna to become its own nation. When FC Barca plays Real Madrid, it’s really a fight between separatists and the King/government of Spain.

To give you a picture of how insanely important this game was, my host mom turned on both the TV and the radio during dinner. This never happens. Dinner is a time for family and conversation, there is no technology allowed which is pretty refreshing. However, yesterday was an exception and we dined on paella to the analysis of the announcers at Camp Nou. My host brother went to a bar with his friends to watch the game and when they won he called my family and all we could here was screaming and celebrations. People were at the bars hours beforehand to get a spot to watch the game! Fireworks went off throughout the celebrations (scaring our poor little dog) and when we went out that night people were driving around with Catalan and Barca flags screaming at the top of their lungs. The camera zoomed up on Barca fans in the stadium who were crying tears of happiness, elderly men were jumping up and down, and little children were waving their scarves everywhere. It was insane! I may not be a huge fútbol fan in general, but it was incredible to be a part of all of this.

I did have the opportunity to go to a game last week at Camp Nou! Ironically, they beat Sporting 6-1, however the stakes weren’t that high. My friends and I took advantage of a not-so-good opponent to get cheap front row seats. The atmosphere was unreal and we were so close to Messi, arguably one of the best fútbol players of all time.

*Disclaimer, do not try and argue this point in Barcelona. Just accept that he is and never, ever utter the name of Cristiano Ronaldo*

It may not be the volleyball court, but it was pretty sweet  :)

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Messi's the player on the right

Messi’s the player on the right

 

 

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Studying Abroad – The Side Nobody Wants to Talk About

At first when I got to Barcelona, I went through a period of culture shock and I didn’t immediately love it here. Everything was just so different – the language, food, family dynamic, classes, size of the city, and the public transportation system. It reminded me of how I felt when I moved to the different cities around Minnesota while growing up, but 100x more intense. I felt 10 steps behind everyone else and even the simple task of inferring whether I sat down first or ordered first in a coffee shop was difficult to figure out. The feelings of confusion and apprehension lasted for about a week probably, and as I started to get my bearings I began to love this place.

My anxiety was replaced by excitement, curiosity, and a desire to explore. Every time I walked out the door there was something new to see or experience, I was even fascinated by looking at all of the restaurants, bars, shops, and stores on my way to school. I was meeting new people, making friends, eating as many croquettes as possible, and marveling at the diverse range of neighborhoods to visit. I’d go to the beach one day, climb to an overlook of the city the next, and attend a wine tasting before the weekend even started. The energy I’ve put into stressing about school at Wofford was now put into which countries can I visit while I’m here and the cheapest way to do so. My life was and has been absolutely incredible and I know the decision to study abroad has been one of the best I’ve ever made.

However, school and life began to pile up. Traveling on the weekends means your weeks are much more stressful as you try to finish up homework and study for quizzes/exams. You begin to fall into a routine – I work out at the same times, walk the same routes to school, and spend part of my afternoons doing work in the IES center. The things I once found charming like translating a menu I’ve begun to find annoying when I’m on the run and just want my food. I miss Target, man do I miss Target. Here there isn’t a big store that has everything you’d possibly need, you need to go to a specific store for each of the things you want.

Then you begin to miss your family and friends. Personally, I’m used to being far from my family, in addition to the couple of games my parents fly down for, I see them at Christmas, spring break, and a month and a half in the summer. However, I’m not used to spending time away from my teammates and friends at Wofford. I spend the school year and the majority of the summer with them, so even the week of spring break feels weird being apart. A couple of nights ago I facetimed my roommates and afterwards (no shame) I cried because I missed them so much. You can’t help but think about all of the things you miss out on and the memories that you just won’t be a part of.

Studying abroad isn’t all excitement, adventure, and traveling. Sometimes it’s difficult, sad, and frustrating. Some days you find yourself just wanting to lay in bed and watch Netflix.

I’m writing this entry to tell all of you future study abroaders that it’s okay to feel like this. Don’t feel guilty for taking a “me” day and watching a movie, you don’t need to constantly be going every single hour of every single day. Sometimes you just need a minute to yourself to relieve stress. The best advice my Spanish professor gave my study abroad class was to take that time to regroup, but then start small and push yourself to integrate back into your host culture’s society. Go to a familiar café and order your favorite drink and a pastry or go to one of your favorite spots in the city. Although it’s fine to have those off days, you don’t want that day to turn into a week of you binge-watching your favorite show (you have the US to do that in).

Just because you feel this way doesn’t mean you “fail” at study abroad or “can’t handle it,” it means you’re human.

I’m having the time of my life over here and my dream is to move/travel all over Europe after graduation. Of course, just because I love it doesn’t mean it’s without its difficulties. Sometimes that part gets skipped over when you prepare for going abroad. You hear all of the amazing stories from friends who have done it before, but after you get back home you tend to forget the days when all you wanted was to be back somewhere familiar.

So no, studying abroad isn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and happiness, but that’s okay. I promise.

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Is the glass half full or half empty?

Well, I’m officially halfway done with my study abroad journey. Midterms started this week and will continue into the upcoming week which I honestly can’t believe. It seems like yesterday that I lugged my suitcases up to the door of my homestay, couldn’t figure out the buzzer system, and was overwhelmed by the simplest of conversations in Spanish. Now, I can navigate my way around the public transportation systems (and in other countries I visit), wait to eat dinner with minimal hunger pains at 10pm, and hold my own in a conversation with a Spaniard.

In my Spanish class today, we took some time to reflect on our initial goals that we had created at the beginning of our time in Barcelona. I can honestly say that my Spanish (notably my pronunciation) has drastically improved, I feel confident in starting a conversation, and I’ve have had the opportunity to learn and embrace the Spanish & Catalan culture. Then, we proceeded to talk about our fears, anxieties, and feelings going into the second half of the semester. How do you cope knowing that this amazing, life-changing experience is half over? Do you feel like you’re running out of time? What do you still have to accomplish while here?

Oh, man…

I feel overjoyed…I have spent almost two months in Spain, traveling to surrounding countries, and done things I never thought I’d do. I have adapted to a new culture – the good and the not so favorable. I’ve eaten seafood – fish, shrimp, squid, mussels…and even liked some of it. The language is becoming easier to understand and my brain is more quickly keeping up with conversation. I’ve found a church to call “home” while here and have a Spanish Bible of my very own to take back with me. I’ve para-glided in the Alps, cooked a meal with a Catalan chef, and watched the sunset from the top of the city.

A deep sadness…As much as I wish I could pack my bags and move to Barcelona forever, I have a return ticket booked for April 27th. Occasionally, it’ll cross my mind that there’ll come a day where I’ll have to say goodbye to the amazing people, food, and city I hold so dearly in my heart. I really do try to forget about it, to seize the moment and live in the now, but I’m also human. I’m not ignorant of deadlines and realistically can you ignore it completely?

Anxiety…Although I’ve already crossed many things off my bucket list there’s so much still to do! This weekend I’m finally hitting up La Sagrada Familia, it’s about time. I want to meet locals, see a FC Barca game, travel around Spain, go to Carnival, etc and honestly it can get overwhelming at times. Here I am in Europe and sometimes I feel obligated to do and see everything, even though I know full well that it’s not possible, but there is a huge difference between logically knowing something and accepting it. I’ve made lists & prioritized the sights I want to see and the experiences I want to have. Yet, a nagging fear still exists…what if I miss out on something?

People-sick…It doesn’t seem right to put homesick because to be honest, I don’t miss the places. I miss the people. Whenever I see Snapchats from my brother who went home from the weekend, it makes me miss my crazy, goofy, sarcastic, and loving family. I’ll facetime my friends at Wofford and have a slight case of FOMO in regards to all of the practices, games, sporting events, and memories that I just won’t be a part of. I didn’t expect to be as sad as I was when I missed the last game in the BenJo, but there were moments I found myself wishing I could be there. Sometimes it sounds lame to me even saying this because I’m in Spain for goodness’ sake, but I can’t just forget about the people back home.

Independent…Being thrust into a completely different country by myself really makes you learn how to be on your own. I have complete freedom here, even in a homestay (except I have to be out of the house by 11am on Tuesday so the cleaning lady can go through my room). I’m on my own, I don’t have to ask permission to ride the Metro to the beach and I can stay out until 6am with the Spaniards. For the first time in my life, I don’t have a practice/conditioning/weights schedule to adhere to. Don’t get me wrong, I miss the team and am looking forward to playing with them again this summer, but here I’m just a “normal” student. I can travel on the weekends, go the gym on my own time, and I have so much time to do homework. It’s the weirdest feeling to be done with all school responsibilities and have an entire evening/night to do nothing, that’s really never happened at Wofford!

Optimistic…I still have until the end of April to enjoy this incredible city and do all sorts of amazing things! I have two months to savor my host mom’s traditional Spanish meals, travel around Europe, and explore Barcelona. It’ll get warmer out and I’ll be able to play sand volleyball on the beach or lay out in between classes. I have so many trips to still look forward to, including Germany which is the place I’ve wanted to visit since I was a little kid. There’s so much I still have to look forward to in my time here!

My Spanish teacher ended the class with this simple question, do you see the glass as half full or half empty? We all have a choice to make – we can sulk and constantly think about how fast the time is flying by or we can look at the calendar and see another half to go. Sure, it’s not easy and we live life based on deadlines, but I’m making a choice to see the glass half full. Here’s to an unforgettable two months in España, and another two to go…

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Ciao Milano

Finally, finally, finally I was able to return to Italy!! My senior year of high school I played in a volleyball tournament in Falconara and I’ve been dreaming about the pizza & gelato ever since. This time, I headed to Milan to visit one of my teammates who is studying abroad there.

Pro: travel is cheaper in Europe

Con: cheaper travel means flights at the crack of dawn

After waking up at the hour of 3:30am, my friend and I headed to the airport for an hour and twenty minute flight to Milan. Besides the whole sleep deprivation thing (especially because dinner didn’t get done until 10:30pm), it’s nice to be able to get to your destination knowing you have the full day to sight see. My friend has an apartment in the middle of the city (how convenient and cheap for us :) ), so we crashed there for the weekend. In addition to her roommates from the US, she lives with an Italian student who works for IES. So not only were we able to meet Bella’s friends from the program, but also her BCC’s Italian friends despite the fact that they didn’t speak a ton of English!

We began our day by walking around the different famous sites of Milan, most importantly The Duomo. I thought La Sagrada Familia was taking forever to be finished (about 150 years by completion date), but The Duomo took around 500! It was breathtakingly beautiful with all of the intricate details and sheer size of the cathedral. It was a sunny 60 degrees as well, so it felt great just being in the plaza and walking around next to it.

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Next stop was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an outdoor mall with ridiculous architecture. It was painted with murals and filled with gold accents and archways. The mall is so fancy in fact, that you need an appointment to get into the stores to shop. An appointment. No, I’m not kidding.

Not the Mall of America

Not the Mall of America

 

Then we headed to see the high end shops in Milan, oh my goodness. Personally, I’m a fan of Target so when I looked at their price tag for a jacket that was 2000 euro I almost collapsed. When we tried on sunglasses, I was apprehensive because it’d be my luck to break them and having to shell out 500 euro :) . The stores and shops were absolutely beautiful though. It was fun to walk around and just look at all the clothes, Milan itself is a beautiful city! Everyone dresses fashionable there and the amount of model-like pictures being taken was insane. In case you were wondering I wore all black all the time, a Euro staple.

Another area we visited was Navegli, the canal area with tons of restaurants and shops. Luckily for us, these shops were much cheaper and I could actually purchase a shirt! As much as Milan is famous for shopping, it’s also a hub for business. We went to the business district full of skyscrapers and (you guessed it) more shops.

We ate paninis, pasta, gelato, pizza…you name it. For 4 euro you could get a bottle of water and a HUGE slice of pizza, I’m starting a petition to bring the chain to the US. For such an expensive shopping district, the food was actually cheap if you knew where to go. Being in Italy made me realize just how diverse the food really is in Barcelona. If I want to, I can get Thai food or sushi, but in Italy it’s pretty much pizza and pasta. Not like that’s a bad thing, but sometimes you want to mix it up a little bit.

This upcoming weekend I’ll be staying put in Barcelona which will be a nice break from all of the craziness of traveling. This week I have two midterms, so it’ll be nice to relax after testing!

 

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J’aime la France (yes, I google translated this)

Today I have a severe case of the Monday blues because I’ve spent this past weekend traveling around the south of France. It’s hard to get started on a film critique when you find your mind wondering to castles and Nutella crepes.

One of my roommates and I took this trip through IES and we left Plaza Catalunya by bus on Friday morning. Our first stop was Camp de Rivesaltes, located essentially in the middle of nowhere just past the Spanish/French border. First created by the French military as a base, it later became an internment camp and a place for French to put “undesirables.” During the Spanish Civil War/Franco dictatorship, Rivesaltes became home to Spanish refugees fleeing the oppression and violence that came with Franco’s reign. Eventually, Jews fleeing Hitler began to inhabit the camp as well in addition to Algerians fleeing the war in their home country. This blew my mind…the camp was used until 2007 as a detention center for Spaniards who had entered France illegally.

Here’s why that fact brought tears to my eyes…

When you got off the bus, you saw abandoned, run down concrete buildings in addition to the entrance of the underground museum. First we headed into the museum, which was full of artifacts from the camp and iPads where you could listen to personal testimonies in your native language. I heard horrific tales of hunger, starvation, death, and disease. Children who spent the first fifteen years of their life in hell, not knowing a world existed beyond the barbed wire fences. I listened to an elderly man vividly recount the last interaction with his father but he was shipped off to the concentration camps, never to be heard from again. Approximately 2,200 of the 7,000 Jews in the camp were sent to Drancy, a camp from which they were sent to the various extermination and labor camps. I was standing where people stood in their last moments before being shipped off to death. It was incredibly overwhelming and emotional, the museum was silent despite the massive group of students inside.

I was eleven years old in 2007. Rivesaltes still existed, people were living in conditions worse than animals and dying of disease and starvation. Human beings.

The museum I went to was opened just a few years ago, the French just started to acknowledge the horrific atrocities that happened there. It made me think about our own internment camps in the US. How easy is it for us to look down upon other countries who have violated human rights? I’m sure your first thought at reading this was how awful/terrible it was that they did that. After researching a bit, I discovered that you can visit that internment camps in the US, but neither my friends nor I knew that was a possibility. Visiting Rivesaltes was an eye-opener, not just about the history of that specific place, but for the places that have existed and still do like that all over the world.

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So from there, we headed to Narbonne, a town with rich ancient Roman history. We enjoyed a walking tour around the town, making sure we had crepes for dessert after lunch. Then, we headed to Carcassonne where I passed out after dinner because I was so exhausted from traveling.

The next day we headed to the Chateaux de Lastours, a site dating back to the Middle Ages. Although our program said a “small walk” to the castle, that was a biiiiiiiit of a stretch because the hike consisted of a million stairs for a solid two hours. Once we caught our breaths at the top, the view was magnificent and the history of the site made it even more amazing to still be able to see the four torres (towers).

Then, we headed back to Carcassonne where we took a tour of La Cité, the city where the giant castle is. From our hotel window, you could see a giant castle but what we discovered is that inside the walls, there’s an entire city built into it. My roommate and I thought it would be fun to go back at night; however, we quickly found out that the entire city is abandoned and the only person there was a creepy masked woman playing music that would come straight out of a horror movie. So although I can cross walking around a castle at night off my bucket list, I don’t think I’d do it again in the future.

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Lastours

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La Cité

The third and final day we went to Perpignan, the largest of the towns in the south of France. After another tour a castle, we had free time to roam around and eat. We headed back to Barcelona and arrived around 5pm, plenty of time to finish up homework and take a nap before dinner! I loved France, so very much except for when the locals made fun of us for not knowing their language. My host mom Ana and my own mom who took French warned me that this was definitely a possibility, and we just kind’ve rolled with it. Don’t get me wrong, there were tons of incredibly nice people who were willing to help us out, but there were moments when people didn’t take us seriously. Honestly I found it funnier than I did insulting :)

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I’m ending this post with a picture of me in Perpignan with a delicious French pastry because why not, the food was delicious.

 

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Travel in Europe

One of the reasons I wanted to study abroad in Spain was the fact that it made travel to all the places I wanted to visit much easier. Fingers crossed one day I’ll actually live here (or somewhere in Europe, honestly wherever) so I wanted to explore everywhere I could. Of course, my Spanish professors advised me not to travel every weekend which I have taken to heart. Barcelona is such an amazing city full of incredible things that I don’t want to miss out on because I was constantly in another country. That being said, I did want to travel around to the places on the top of my list, I mean I’m here so why not!

When I first researched traveling around Europe I was stoked because everyone was saying it’s so cheap & easy. True, it’s cheaper than the United States but for us college kids that don’t have an extensive budget, it still adds up. My advice is to make a list of the places you want to go to in order of their appeal (see I told you I’m a Type A personality). Make sure you research the sights you want to see – what do you have to do and what maybe isn’t so necessary? Look up hostels and Air B&B, not just their websites but read the unbiased reviews of real travelers. Note the cost of living in the cities you want to visit. Amsterdam for example is a destination on basically everyone’s list, but the city itself is super expensive. After you go crazy with the google searches, decided what’s worth it to you and where you want to spend your money.

For me, I’ve already visited Switzerland which was número uno on my list because I’m obsessed with the mountains and chocolate. Here’s a fun picture of me paragliding which was the cherry on top:

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Obviously, this trip was a little more expensive with the paragliding, but for me I decided it was 150% worth it.

Next, I’m heading to the south of France with IES so that’s another option for you future study abroad people out there. It’s nice to have this trip organized – everything from the hotel, bus, tours, and tickets.

I’m also heading to Brussels for a concert, Milan, Italy to visit a friend studying abroad there, and Prague because it looks incredibly beautiful. Prague for example is a more expensive flight for Europe, but the cost of living there is much lower meaning it’ll even out. Oh yeah, and I’m heading to visit some family in Germany for spring break!! I’ve wanted to travel there ever since I can remember, so it’ll be a trip of a lifetime.

Other little pieces of advice:

  • I went to Interlaken, Switzerland with bus2alps, a travel agency that caters towards study abroad students. For that trip it was awesome since I got a discount on paragliding, but be careful. Most other trips you go on with them you could honestly do for cheaper, but you’ll have to plan it all yourself. Pros and cons to both options
  • Do not book before you get your syllabus for school. I have field trips, class dates that I absolutely cannot miss, etc so just wait on that
  • You cannot visit everywhere you want to. Yes, it’s heartbreaking but unless you have the bank account of a professional football player and about a year after classes end to travel, it can’t be done. Once I came to grips with that, I was able to better prioritize and focus on what I do have time to see.
  • Cheap travel sites are your friends. Blogs are ridiculously popular now so I stole ideas for packing, traveling, restaurants, etc from people who’d been there before. Make sure you check out Skyscanner and other airline websites that compare different airlines.
  • You’ll meet people in your program to travel with so don’t stress about it.
  • Traveling alone is nothing to be afraid of, it’s empowering. Use your common sense and you’ll be fine…studying abroad teaches you to be way more independent.

 

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