Bubblin in Dublin

8 Sep

Sooo… I’ve taken some time off from writing my blog (obviously). But I’m back now (I swear!)… I was going to have a full post explaining my absence, but I think I will just say that since I last wrote on May 11th as Sra. Henry kindly reminded me 🙂 I have done quite a bit of adventuring. I said goodbye to all the dear friends I made in Spain, I was visited by my brother (with whom I then took a whirlwind tour of the country), and came back to the states. After spending a few weeks settling in, I got a job and have been working in the grown-up world for almost a month now! BUT, those will all be blogs for a later date (maybe I shouldn’t say “later,” I don’t want to make anyone angry). But for now, let me go way back into the past and give you the highlights of my April trip with one of my best friends, Ms. Ali McAfee.

I’m going to start off slow. We took lit’relly hundreds of pictures on our trip around Spain and Ireland, but I am just going to give you the best (and most appropriate) pictures and a little bit of information about them. Let’s see how this goes now that it’s been five months. Again, so sorry for the hiatus, and thanks for hanging in there with me.

Reunited

Ali flew into Madrid the same day that I took a train back from Porto, Portugal. A few running / screaming / jumping hugs and two hours later, we caught our plane to Barcelona. I had already been to Madrid a dozen times, and Ali’s dream was to get to know the heavenly place that is Barcelona, so we wasted no time. We had just checked into our hostel when we were informed they were going on a pub crawl. Given the fact that Ali and I were together, we ignored our exhaustion (and perhaps better judgement) and headed out on the town with our hostel. We went to a few of the most “American” touristy bars in the city, but we were together, and we had yummy drinks, so a great (late) time was had by all. We spent the next day rambling all over La Rambla and the rest of the city, before we headed on to Dublin.

Family photo

Once we checked into our hostel in Dublin and met up with my lovely friend Kate, Ali and I had to take a family picture together with Gravy (the stuffed frog that my brother gave me for my journeys… he’ll get his own post, don’t you worry). We couldn’t have picked a better spot for our awkward family photo, and makes me smile every time I glance at it.

Live music in Dublin

Even though Kate (who had just flown in from Scotland), Ali and I were (again) exhausted, we couldn’t pass up the recommendation given to us by the owner of our hostel: go to the bar around the corner, order fish & chips and a beer, and listen to the live music. I will forever be thankful we listened to that funny little man. A night full of delicious beer, great company, hilarious conversations, and incredible live music was just what we needed.

Outside the Guinness Factory

If you haven’t caught on quite yet, the theme of this trip was “Go! Go! Go!” and we stuck to that theme like glue. After a late night of live music and yummy beer, the three of us were up and at the Guinness Factory to take our tour… by 9 am. We had a lot of things to do that day and the only time we were able to fit in the tour and complementary pint was in the morning. So off we went for a breakfast that is “good for you.”

Proving I am, after all, my mother’s daughter

The Guinness Factory tour was absolutely amazing. It had such a neat layout, and it was self-guided without making you feel lost and confused. There was so much information to absorb, sights to see, and pictures to take. I had to have a picture of myself acting like Godzilla over the model of the Guinness Factory. Why? Because it was 9 am and I was in a beer factory, that’s why. Thank goodness Kate and Ali only rolled their eyes a little bit.

Delicious Guinness

After the amazing tour through the museum (which, by the way, is a circular building that goes up and up and up until you reach the bar at top… just like a pint glass!) we reached the bar where we got to try our free Guinness. Now folks, I enjoy beer as much as the next good Midwestern girl. However, I’ve never been a huge fan of Guinness: it’s too heavy and dark and just sits like a brick in your stomach. Little did I know, this is only because the Guinness I’ve tried was shipped and stored thousands of miles away from its bottling source. So how did the Guinness in the Factory compare? I would swear it was the Ambrosia of the gods. I have never tasted a more delightful, complex, delicious drink in my entire life. You could tempt me with the finest wines or most expensive champagnes, the bubbliest sodas, or the freshest juices, and I would still choose a fresh Guinness over everything. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry and hop on the first plane back to Dublin. Needless to say, this got our day off to a great start. 

Dublin skyline

Another great thing about the Guinness Factory? You could see the entire city of Dublin while you were enjoying your (free!) beer. The entire bar was a circle with nothing but spotless glass around it: you could see for what seemed like miles. While we could have stayed there forever drinking beer and looking over the glorious city, we had other things to accomplish as well, so we headed out of Dublin and set off to Cork. Once we got into Cork, we caught a bus to Blarney. There we visited the Blarney Castle and…you guessed it… kissed the Blarney Stone.

Instant eloquence after kissing the Blarney Stone.

For those who don’t know the legend, it is said that anyone who kisses the Blarney Stone (a stone on the top of the castle) will instantly be made as eloquent and sharp-witted as the Irish. The three of us felt we needed all the help we could get, so we ran to the top of Blarney Castle and got there about 2 minutes after it closed. Thankfully, luck (of the Irish?) was on our side, and Donald the overly-kind caretaker let us kiss the Blarney Stone. While it sounds like you would just pucker up and be done with it, we found it was a bit more complicated. You actually have to lay down on the ground at the top of the castle, and hang the upper half of your body off a gaping hole in the upper wall of the castle. Donald’s job is to hold people to make sure no one falls to their death as the lean backwards off the castle to kiss this famous stone. The rush of hanging off a building was enough to make anyone feel like their was some magic taking place as the eloquence coursed through their veins. After we had successfully kissed the stone, Donald took our picture to document the momentous occasion. While none of us felt particularly more eloquent, we did find that we fit in quite well with the incredibly nice Irish people we met and hung out with, though that might have been because everyone we encountered was even nicer than the last.

A little backstory: we literally ran up the hundreds of steep, winding staircases (comprised of tiny, weathered stone steps) to get to the top of the Blarney Castle in time to kiss the stone. We even had a little Hollywood-esque drama when Kate tripped up the stairs, threw her purse, and fought her way up on her hands and knees yelling “Keep going!” While it was hilarious, it was exhausting after we’d done nothing but drink beer and eat sandwiches all day. However, we were rewarded by the following spectacular views of the castle grounds. *Traveler’s tip: If you want to avoid all the crowds at the Blarney Stone and don’t mind getting in a bit of a cardio workout, get there near closing time. We were the only people on the top of the Castle and it made our experience even more enjoyable. Maybe if you don’t feel like getting close to a heart attack, go a little bit earlier than 15 minutes before closing time.

Blarney Castle Grounds

Fields by the castle

Benches outside the castle

Even though the Castle closed, the exquisite grounds were still open. We meandered around the grounds for a few hours before the sun started to set and we decided to head out before we got locked in for the night. The following few pictures are just a tiny sampling of the incredible sights we absorbed.

Ali trying to lick dangerous plants in the Castle’s “Poisonous Garden”

Rock Close: wild gardens near the Castle

Blarney Castle

Palace Bar

Once it started to get dark, we headed out of the castle grounds, back into Blarney proper, took the bus back to Cork, the train back to Dublin, and a cab to the Temple Bar district. Temple Bar is an area of bars (named after the original Temple Bar that is still open) filled with great people watching and even better selections of beer. After wandering around and soaking in the atmosphere, we ended up at the famous Palace Bar. We ordered some beers and made our way upstairs to hear some live music that was, again, fantastic.

In Palace Bar

We had planned on staying out for quite a while in the Temple Bar area, but since the next day was Good Friday and the Republic of Ireland is a Catholic country, all the bars closed at midnight. And I do mean closed: they didn’t just stop serving liquor. They turned off the taps, the band stopped playing, and all the patrons were sent (politely of course) to the street. They take their religious holidays seriously: bars could not serve any alcohol the next day, nor could liquor stores be open. It was quite an interesting sight to see. But anyway, after we left the bar, we stood outside the bar until about 3 am talking and singing with the guys from the band. After a few hours of international merriment, we were all tired and headed our separate ways. However, that night will forever be in my short list of best times ever had.

Beautiful ivy and doors

Even though we stayed up late (for American standards… Kate and I were used to the Spanish idea of 3 am being an early night) we were up bright and early to do more sight seeing around the city. We wandered around in a big loop around the city, stopping at all the touristy highlights, as well as making random detours to explore the parts of the city that weren’t necessarily on our maps. However, instead of showing you 4,000,000 pictures, I will just hit the highlights of the major attractions.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

New Friends in the park

Kate and Ali are two very similar people. I knew they would get along, but I was not prepared for the type of intense bonding that happened: their friendship seemed to blossom and their greatest delight together seemed to be making my life miserable. Ok, so they didn’t really make me miserable, but they definitely enjoyed ganging up on me. And each other. There was not a dull moment the entire trip.

Our Friend Engagement Photo

No, Ali and I are not actually engaged… this is a “friend engagement” photo: we promised each other to come back to this spot together when we’re both “old” (whether that means 5 years from now or when we’re both married with kids and grandkids I’m not sure) and have another European adventure together. Kate was our wonderful photographer, and we couldn’t have asked for a prettier backdrop for our friendship commitment.

Lake in the park

Oscar Wilde’s house

To put the icing on the cake of an incredible trip, we found the home where Oscar Wilde used to live. As an avid reader, self-proclaimed nerd, and English major, I felt like visiting this house was one thing I could check off my list of things that I need to do in order to die happy. Maybe the fact that I kissed the Blarney Stone and visited the home of Oscar Wilde means I will one day be an international superstar for writing. Time will tell.

Another literature-nerd thing I got to do while I was in Dublin was to visit the Book of Kells at Trinity College. The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript (fancy words for a book with decorations) written by monks around the year 800 that contains the 4 gospels of the New Testament of the Bible. It is massively thick, hand-written and decorated, and (is this phrase getting old yet?) one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The amount of time and effort that went into creating this work, and the sheer luck that it has survived this year through fires and wars and floods is just mind-blowing. I could have stared at this work for hours on end if there hadn’t been a line of disgruntled tourists forming behind me. There’s another thing to check off my bucket list.

My whole trip with Ali was phenomenal. While we did travel in Spain a bit, traveling to a new country with wonderful friends is something truly worth writing about. I hope you’ve enjoyed all these pictures: I tried to include more than I normally would have since I left you hanging for so long. However, I pinky swear I will write again soon. I do have to warn you: some of my posts may become a bit emotional (though I will try to edit out most of the comments that are over-the-top saccharine)… I am now using this blog not only to document my travels, but also as a sort of debriefing for myself, and a way to work through all of my emotions (good, bad, and everywhere in between) about being back home in Kansas after a year on my own living out adventures. Again, thanks again for being such loyal readers. I’ll see you soon!

Leaving Ireland

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And Now For Something Completely Different

11 May

Today is Wednesday. When I woke up this morning, it looked like it was going to be just another Wednesday. Normally, Wednesdays are my busiest day. I teach and tutor from 9:40 am to 6:00 pm with only a few, short breaks in between a few classes. But today, my tutoring was cancelled. Glorious! That means I was home by 2:30 pm. I had planned on laying out by the river and soaking up some ridiculously strong rays.

And then it started to rain. And pour. And thunder. I was tragically disappointed for about 7.4 seconds, until I realized I haven’t been able to enjoy a thunderstorm since October. Seriously, it doesn’t rain very much in León, and when it does it’s just a nice little drizzle. Where’s the fun in that?

I changed out of my laying-out gear and into my comfiest pajamas. I turned off my cell phone and my computer, left my headphones in my bedroom, and came out onto my terrace. I haven’t really moved in the past 6.5 hours. In that time, I watched the clouds swirl and fly by, counted the seconds between rolls of thunder and bolts of lightning, and listened to the sound of the rain on the corrugated-plastic rooftop of my terrace. I also read my first book by Kurt Vonnegut. As an English major and a lover of books, I have absolutely no idea how I have gone 24 years of my life without reading anything by this all-important American author. Anyway, I read The Sirens of Titan. And it was glorious. It’s all about the ultimate question, the meaning of life, and the pursuit of… everything. I loved it. Though, to be perfectly honest, I can guarantee you I didn’t understand all of it. Every time I thought I was getting close to grasping the full meaning, the little wisps of understanding would suddenly disappear… pesky little critters, ideas. I’m actually ok with not understanding it all on an intellectual level, because it definitely impacted me on an emotional level… though (again) to be perfectly honest, I can guarantee you I have no idea how to express that impact. But. Such is life, eh? …I wonder if that’s the meaning of the story…

Anyway. I know this blog isn’t about one of my crazy adventures, and that I need (and want!) to write about my trip with Ali over Spring Break, but I just really felt like sharing this experience. While I didn’t actually leave my terrace, the world I got lost in while reading was full of travel through time and space, and I had my own little adventure in my head. And when I finished reading and finally pulled my nose out of the book to look up for the first time in a few hours, I was greeted with this image:

And that, my friends, is worth writing about.

Paradise, thy name is Porto

8 May

I LOVE Porto, Portugal. Everything about the city is fantastic. It’s on the ocean with a river running through the city, so it’s like a port city on steroids. The whole city is built on a hill (ha! The english/history nerd in me loves that it’s a city on a hill), so you have to hike to get anywhere, which is a fun challenge. Once you get where you’re going you’re rewarded with incredible views. The mix of buildings is incredible: old and ruined dumps are sitting right next to new and gleaming beauties. Add all these things up, and you’ve got an incredible, charming, welcoming, vibrant city. It doesn’t hurt that everyone I encountered was very nice, open, and seemed to love smiling and laughing more than anything else in the world. It’s a refreshing break from Spain: don’t get me wrong, I love Spain. But after living for so many months in a culture that I enjoy, but where I don’t totally fit, being in a relaxed city- if only for a weekend- was a blessing.

One of many intriguing views from my hostel

I’ve done quite a bit of traveling, both this year and in years past, but I’ve never really travelled solo. Sure I’ve been to Chicago by myself, but that was to get a visa and I flew there and back in 1 (long and grueling) day. I’ve been to Boston to visit people before and spent most of my time alone while they were in class, but I still had someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of, and the comfort of knowing I wasn’t completely alone in a new city. So, I have always wanted to take a trip and really be by myself. That’s what I did in Porto. I had a few days to kill during Semana Santa (Holy Week, aka Spain’s Spring Break) before the always-awesome Ali Mac came to visit, so I decided to hop on a plane and fly to the beautiful coastal city I’ve heard about. I was incredibly excited to be able to do whatever it was my little heart desired: alone, I would be able to go where I wanted to go, eat what I wanted to eat, see what I wanted to see, and do it whenever, wherever, and for however long I damn well pleased. It was such an energizing thought to say to myself, “Self, you have complete control!” …It was exhilarating until I got to my hostel. Then, I just got nervous. I wouldn’t have anyone to help me if I got lost, I would be eating alone, I wouldn’t have someone to plan with, and I was in complete control (with no one to blame but myself if things went terribly, horribly wrong)! It was quite daunting.

Traveling alone = Taking pictures of yourself

After I spent about a half hour in my fantastic hostel, studying the maps over and over and over again, I finally realized that I was nervous and forestalling the inevitable of stepping out into the great unknown (where I did not speak the language… another scary aspect). Once this dawned on me, I folded up the map, made sure my camera was in my purse, sucked it up, and headed out to see the city.

Museum, market & monument: across the street from my hostel

And what a city it was. I had walked maybe 2 feet before I got to the beautiful market building that sits right next to a museum and a monument dedicated to el Infanto. After skipping through the monument’s park and getting judgmental looks from all the seagulls, I ran smack dab into the first stop on the historic trolley route. I paid a euro and hopped on the adorable trolley and I was off! The trolley took all of us passengers and tourists all the way out to about 5 minutes from the ocean.

The adorable, historic trolley

I hopped off the trolley at its last stop (it is a great mode of transportation that all the locals use to get from point A to point B… literally, it only goes in one long straight line, but what a wonderful straight line it is), and ended up wandering through parks and along the mouth of the river and ended up at the pier on the ocean. I stayed on the pier for quite a while, then wandered back inland to play in the surf. I was so happy to be there and by myself that I was giggling and singing to myself the entire time. I’m sure I looked like a blissful lunatic. I loved experiencing that adventure of falling in love- but with a city. It was as if my heart was saying, “Oh, I’ve been looking for you and I didn’t even know it. Here you are! Hello!” I was absolutely elated.

The beautiful surf

Even when you’re head over heels in love, a girl’s gotta eat. I took the adorable trolley back to the riverfront near my hostel to go to one of the little cafes sprinkled all over the place. I had a ham & cheese sandwich and a Heineken and people-watched and soaked in all the happiness the city was offering me. After all the sun, the love and a beer, it was time for a nap. I couldn’t figure out why I was so tired… and then I realized I’d officially been awake for about 30 hours (leaving León by bus at 2:30 am the night before completely threw off my sleep schedule). I took a glorious nap with the windows open, listening to the seagulls singing their mating songs. Once I woke up, I was hungry again. I went back to the riverfront to find a restaurant, but got distracted by more sightseeing for another hour. I walked across the Dom Luise I bridge (built by one of Gustave Eiffel’s students) and meandered along the waterfront on the other, less touristy side of the river. Finally, hunger won out and I went back to the fancy riverfront restaurants. I ended up at a restaurant called Alzira, where the menu looked good, the prices weren’t sky-high, and the waiters were cute.

I wasn’t totally alone at dinner: Gravy was with me

I ordered olives, a glass of Porto Port wine (what the city is famous for), and a “Ribeira Salad”- mised greens with carrots, tomatoes and olives, but also with almonds, hazelnuts, strawberries, apples, mango, pineapple, and a glorious raspberry vinaigrette. It sounds weird, but it was one of the most delightful meals I’ve ever had. I really enjoyed eating silently by myself and watching the world go by. I chatted a bit with my gorgeous waiter, but was really just focused on enjoying my time by myself. It was incredibly satisfying.

The view from my table during dinner

After my 2.5 hour dinner alone (I told you, I was really enjoying myself), night had fallen. I headed back to my hostel and met 2 wonderful girls in my dorm. Judy was a married woman from Seoul, South Korea, who was taking some time to travel by herself before she and her husband started their family. Erin was a fellow American, hailing from Utah, who had spent the last few months living with a family in Madrid while she taught their kids English. We all chatted for quite a bit before I showered and went to bed, happy as a clam. The next morning, I lounged in bed for a while- it was so nice to sleep and wake up at a leisurely pace. Most of the time when I travel, I feel the need to go-go-go, see everything there is to see, learn everything there is to learn, and eat everything there is to eat. That’s just how I enjoy traveling. For whatever reason though, this time, the days felt so long and relaxed that I didn’t feel the need to go-go-go. It was a refreshing change of pace. I still did everything I wanted to do (and actually more), but somehow it felt different. Erin-from-Utah and I ended up wandering around the city and spent all day together. It was so neat to find someone who I otherwise never would have met, and to become fast friends. We spent 14+ hours together and never ran out of wonderful things to talk about, and never stopped having a blast.

Erin and I went to a park overlooking the city

Through the course of our day, Erin and I saw the famous Bento Train Station that has tile murals all over its walls, the Porto Cathedral that overlooks the city and also has tile murals all over its outer walls, 3 very different & very beautiful parks, and many other breathtaking sights. We took the funicular up the hill by the Dom Luise I and walked across the top of the bridge to get glorious views of the city and the river. We ate lunch at a tiny bakery that made some of the best gelato I’ve ever tasted (my flavor of choice was banana and chocolate chip… mmmm) and we later  had sandwiches and cokes at a cafe on the beach overlooking a rocky area full of seagulls and surfers. We walked all over the city (for hours on end) seeing everything there was to see. We had planned on going to a Fado (the traditional music of Portugal) concert in the evening, but were too happy sitting at the beach to be bothered to move.

A beautiful tile mural on the Cathedral

After a full day of glorious sights and conversation, we ended up back at the restaurant where I had gone the night before. The handsome waiter from the night before was there and the three of us chatted for quite a while. He asked me to go out for drinks with him once he got off his shift at the restaurant, but since this was a weekend about being on my own and enjoying my time to myself, I thanked him but declined. Besides, I had already fallen in love with Porto and didn’t want to cheat on my new city, even if it was with one of its own citizens. Erin and I meandered back to the hostel, chatting all the while and continuing our day full of wonderful fun.

My last night on the river in Porto

It’s hard to say, but at this point, just being a few weeks removed, my weekend in Porto might have been my favorite trip to date. It was so different than anything I’ve ever experienced. I was on my own and alone, but I didn’t feel lonely. I met new people, I fell in love with an incredible city, and I had a few days of glorious introspection. Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling with friends, and I love that some of my favorite people have visited or will visit to travel with me. But this was something special. What impact this random weekend trip will have on the rest of my life, I can only guess, but I know I will always always always remember the weekend as one of the happiest of my life. I think everyone deserves to feel as I happy as I did in Porto, and I hope everyone has the chance to do something as wonderful.

Enchanted Potions, Octopus Legs, and Beer Pong

30 Apr

At the end of March, a group of 10 of us (comprised of 3 Americans and 7 Spaniards, all of us teachers) made our way to Galicia for a few days. Galicia is a beautiful region in the northwest of Spain, famous for its grey skies, incredible beaches and for the all-important St. James Cathedral in the city of Santiago de Compostela. I was very excited to travel to Galicia for many reasons. First, I knew it would be absolutely gorgeous. Second, I always jump at a chance to be near the ocean. Third, we were to stay in a rural house that I had seen pictures of and looked just darling. Finally, I was excited to check out my “road not traveled.” Let me explain- while I was studying at KU, I had been planning on studying abroad. I would have gone to Santiago de Compostela, or as my father lovingly calls it, “The Compost Heap.” Sadly, the summer before my junior year, my car’s transmission lost its will to live, so we ended up pouring a bunch of money into that wonderful old stationwagon so that I could still use it… though I was still unable to ever go into reverse. I will always have fond memories of that summer: driving around the block to be able to park on the correct side of the street outside my house, and making a game with the kids I nannied saying, “Ok kids, first one to find a pull-through spot wins!” But I digress. I never made it to the Compost Heap to study, and while I have overcome the sadness of missing out on studying abroad (ultimately I think it worked out for the best: instead of paying to live in Spain, they’re paying me to be here) I was very excited to see my would-have-been stomping grounds.

Outside St. James Cathedral

The first order of business was driving to Santiago de Compostela. There were enough of us that we had to take 3 cars. Erin, Abel, Lucia and I all went in the second car of the caravan. The trip lasted about 4 hours and we drove through some gorgeous countryside, though by the time we arrived in the city we were all a bit tired and frazzled. That didn’t last long though, once we saw the beautiful square that housed the even more breathtaking cathedral, our spirits were revived. While I do have Leonesa pride and think my cathedral is the most beautiful in the world, it was mind boggling to (attempt to) process the thought that I was at one of the most important sites in Christianity. Catholic tradition holds that the bones of St. James washed up on shore here. And what do you do if you find the remains of an apostle? Why, you build a place to house them of course, and you better make it a pretty nice place because you’ll be having quite a few visitors. Ever since the cathedral was built (with the remains housed in a silver coffin in the basement), religious pilgrims from all over the world have been walking from hundreds of miles away to reach the final resting place of St. James. While we only walked a few hundred feet to get from the parking garage to the cathedral, it was still an amazing experience. Walking into the cathedral, I couldn’t help but get shivers thinking about how many people have gone there to worship. I won’t bore you with my contemplations on religion or spirituality; I’ll just tell you that even for someone who doesn’t really go to church, it was still an incredibly moving experience.

Our rural house

After spending some time being mesmerized by the cathedral and meandering through the city itself, we headed back to our cars to go to our house in a little village about 30 minutes outside the city. That drive turned into a 2-hour long ordeal filled with confusion and panic. Trying to caravan with 3 cars full of Americans and Spaniards, some of whom are just learning to drive, was an absolutely terrifying experience. I wish I could say that it was like one of those old movies where funny music is playing in the background while people run around in confused circles and the audience laughs hysterically. Sadly, it was more like a mystery movie: the mystery being will they or won’t they survive. I would have loved a massage and a cocktail after that drive. However, we survived and the reward at the end of the struggle was well worth it: our house and neighborhood were absolutely breathtaking. Our backyard was really more of a park, complete with glorious green trees, flowering bushes, and a fantastic view of the ocean. After frolicking around like a puppy while Erin and Kate yelled at me not twist my ankle in the dark, we went back inside for a delicious Spanish dinner and charades.

Galician National Park

The next day we planned to do some sightseeing. We were going to go to a National Park, spend some time at the beach, have a nice lunch, and do some exploring of our little town. However, we forgot to take the weather into account. Galicia is notorious for rain: it’s like Spain’s version of Seattle… and then some. Because of this, we spent about 5 minutes at the National Park. The rain was being blown sideways by the ridiculous wind, and mine was not the only umbrella to be flipped inside out. After we got a few obligatory pictures, and spent a little time screaming with laughter at how wet we were getting, we got back into the cars, skipped going to the beach, and went straight to lunch.

The caravanning crew at lunch

Lunch. Such a beautiful word that is so important here in Spain. There are always copious amounts of food (seriously, I have no clue how Spaniards aren’t all obese with the amount of delicious food they consume) and that food is nothing if not delicious. Along with rain, Galicia is famous for its seafood, so we naturally ate a lot of it that weekend. For this glorious lunch, we ordered enough salad, bread, potatoes, and fried octopus to feed an army. I mean, look at that picture: there was so much food! And we pretty much cleaned our plates. It was fantastic. Afterward, half of the group continued exploring, while the smart half went home to fall into food comas. Erin and I went back to the house, drank some tea by a space heater, and then fell asleep for a few hours.

Erin and I as Gallegan witches

Once the explorers returned, we prepared another delicious meal (food is a never-ending delight here… I like it) and chowed down as if we hadn’t just eaten our weight in calimari a few hours earlier. After dinner, we made a Queimada, which is a traditional Gallegan drink. You basically pour a bottle of Orujo (which is a liquor that’s over 100· proof) into a bowl with coffee beans and orange or apple slices. Then, you light it on fire. There is so much alcohol in the Orujo that you have to burn some of it off so your head doesn’t explode. After a few false starts, we got everything lit and had a great fire-in-a-bowl going. My favorite part about Queimada is the incantation. Queimada is a drink used to purify the spirit and to ward off witches, so naturally, you need to recite a magic spell over the flames before drinking it. Duh. Erin and I volunteered to recite the incantation (did I mention it’s written in Gallego, a language specific to Galicia?) and I have to say we did a wonderful job, taking our inspiration from the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. After our valiant and hilarious effort, everyone enjoyed a few tiny glassfuls of the concoction. We all felt very pure. To shake off that weird feeling of purity, we Americans taught the Spaniards how to play beer pong. It was most certainly a good evening.

Kate and Erin in the Ocean

The next morning, we got up bright and early, checked out of our rural house, and headed north to Coruña, another beautiful beach city. There, we ate lunch and played in the surf. I have this tradition that every time I am near a body of water, I get into it, even if only to ankle depth. Maybe it’s just one of my quirks, but I love being able to get into the ocean, sea or lake that I’m looking at: I feel like I appreciate it more. Anyway, everyone joined me in frolicking in the surf and we spent about an hour having fun on the beach. We then headed back to León and got back at about midnight. Yes, midnight: we left our rural house at 11 am, and took the very Spanish way home. The Spanish way to get home does not mean taking a different route from point A to point B, but it does mean stopping in every little town or cafe to get a coffee and sit to rest for a half hour. While it was somewhat frustrating since we just wanted to get home, we all slept like babies that night when we finally did get home. Now, almost a month later, the memories of the stressful events that naturally occur when you spend a weekend with Spaniards have (mostly) faded, and I am left with fond memories of a beautiful part of the country that I would probably not have been able to experience as fully under other circumstances.

Spanish Bureaucracy

8 Apr

I am currently working on a blog update about my trip to Galicia. And by currently working, I mean that I meant to work on it today and went outside, laid out by the river and ate gelato all day instead. No rest for the wicked, eh?

So, I am going to be a lazy blogger and share a video (“That’s Spain Amigos” by Brian Semmens) that my good friend Kate brought into my life. It is a short that deals with the bureaucracy in Spanish government operations. At the beginning of the year, all of us Auxiliares had to jump through hoops to get our paperwork to be considered legal. And by jump through hoops, I mean we had to run back and forth all over the city, going into office after office, asking people for help and getting all sorts of different, contradicting answers, and generally wandering around confused as all get out. However, we all survived… somehow.

Now, the new batch of Auxiliares are getting assigned to their positions. I just got an email from a girl who will be taking over at my school in September. I’m very happy to help her (I’m a big believer in paying it forward- my friend Erin from Madrid helped ease all my tensions about the program as I was getting ready to come to Spain), but it makes me think of all the ways I have changed over the year, and how many challenges she has facing her upon her arrival. Over the course of this year, I have become more confident, more knowledgeable about what I want (and more willing to do what I need to in order to get it), more self-assertive, and a hell of a lot more organized. Looking back, I feel that I have come a long way. If only I had been as put together as the girl in this video, I would have been saved a lot of “jumping through hoops.” But I suppose it’s all part of the process.

And now, without further ado, here is the video. While it has a Western feel, which Spanish government offices lack, it is a dead-on portrayal of how crazy it is trying to get anything accomplished here. Not that I don’t love it here, I do… especially in those few, fleeting moments where I feel like I’ve beaten the system.

Grand Canal and Grand Times

23 Mar

Grand Canal, Venice

After finally leaving Florence, Meagan and I took a midnight train to Venice (great, now I have Gladys Knight stuck in my head). We had been planning on walking to our hostel, but since we got in so late at night, we took a taxi. We had absolutely no idea where we were going, and only really knew the name of the hostel. Thankfully, our taxi man was incredibly nice to us and didn’t charge us as much as he should have, and gave us instructions on how to get from where he dropped us off to our hostel. We were a bit confused why he couldn’t just take us directly to our hostel… until we realized it was on the other side of the canal. After a tense ten minutes of searching, we finally found our hostel, climbed into bed, decided not to set our alarms, and woke up the next morning at about 10 am. After that, it was off to explore the city. Venice is absolutely charming: it’s actually quite big, but all the small alleyways and old buildings with peeling paint overlooking the slow-moving water in the canals make the city seem more like a quaint little town. It almost felt like we were going back in time as we wandered around. There were so many wonderful little treasures to find everywhere.

A random, awesome door in an alley

There’s not much to do in Venice. There are a few museums and some art galleries, but after seeing so many sites in Rome, and soaking up as much art and culture as we could in Florence, we were ready for a mental vacation. So, instead of wandering around in search of things to do, we just rambled, soaking up the lazy, almost sad atmosphere of the city. After wandering around in search of a mask (I wanted one so badly, and Meagan was a great sport and wandered with me into each store and up to each booth that had masks), and finally finding one (yay!), we decided to take a gondola ride.

Happy, though freezing

Even though it was brutally cold (and I do mean brutal: I’m not sure I’ve been colder in my entire life), we knew we couldn’t visit Venice and leave without taking a ride through the canals. We found a very nice gondolier with a very fancy boat, and off we went around the city. While we were miserably cold (did I mention it had started drizzling?), we had the canals to ourselves. No one else wanted to be out and about in the awful weather, so our gondolier took us through areas that we normally wouldn’t be able to see without risking a boating accident. We definitely got stared at by anyone we passed, but it was well worth it.

That night, we went to dinner at a local eatery that makes all their own food in front of you. I ordered risotto, and it turned out to be one of the best, most simple meals I have ever eaten. Thinking about it even now makes me hungry. After dinner, we headed back to our hostel, had a few beers with our Chilean roommates, and went to bed early. The next day, we did some more wandering around the city. We did spend a few hours searching for an internet cafe, wandering in frustrated circles. We ended up finding the cafe (after we had walked past it at least 5 times)… just in time for them to close for siesta. I am used to planning my day around siesta after living in Spain for so many months, but Meagan was not. In order to calm her nerves (and my appetite), we stopped at a local bar and had delicious spaghetti and beer for lunch. Afterward, we went home and took a nap. Hey, don’t judge: it had been a long morning and I still remember how awesome that nap was. After our nap, we made our way back to the internet cafe, let our friends and family know we had safely arrived in Venice and confirmed all our reservations to travel back home. We also sent a message to our Aussie friend, Dave (whom we had met in Rome and then run into in Florence… what are the odds?) because he was going to be in Venice that night. We told him we’d like to get dinner with him, just so we could see him in every city in Italy. Then we headed back out to wander the streets, before meeting up with Dave that evening.

Snow on Grand Canal at night

For dinner, we went back to the risotto restaurant. We munched a bit there and drank some delicious red wine (on tap!) and the three of us laughed and chatted for quite some time. We then left the restaurant and headed to a pizzeria. Yes, we went from one dinner to the next. Our last meal in Italy had to be pizza: it would be sinful to leave the country without having one last delicious bite. After staying up late and getting into shenanigans on the canals, we parted ways with Dave and headed back to our hostel.

Meagan, Dave and Me

We only had a few hours of sleep before we had to get up and head to the airport to return to Spain. Once we got back to Madrid, Meagan and I parted ways: she caught her plane to head back to the US and I caught a bus to head back to León. It was strange saying goodbye to Meagan. I was sad that our trip was over, and that she was heading back to the states, but I was so happy that I had been able to spend so much time and have so much fun with such a wonderful friend! There were no tears when we said goodbye: I think we were both so exhausted from our two week whirlwind adventure to muster up anything more than a hug and a “See ya.” It was also weird going back to León alone. It was like I had a split personality: I felt like I was going home and like I was lightyears away from home at the same time. I was heading back to my Spanish home while my friend was heading back to my “real” home. Which just brings to mind the saying “Home is where the heart is,” but don’t worry: I’m not going to get all sappy on you here. I loved going to Italy, and am now able to check that off my bucket list. My trip to Italy was a ridiculous, crazy, shenanigan-filled, exhausting and exhilarating experience, and will always be something I remember with fondness.

Waving goodbye to Venice and Italy

Fun in Florence

22 Mar

Il Duomo

After our whirlwind adventure in Rome, Meagan and I headed North to the beautiful city of Florence. Once again, our hostel turned out to be in a perfect location: about 15 seconds away from the famous cathedral of Florence, Il Duomo. This cathedral was started in the 13th century, finished in the 15th century and is one of the many impressively gorgeous buildings in the glorious city. While we didn’t actually take the tour up into the dome of the cathedral (the lines were incredibly long and it was freezing outside), we did admire the beauty of the architecture as we passed it every day on our way to find more pizza and gelato. I loved staying so close to this amazing historic landmark!

Statue of Dante Alighieri (and a nerdy Samantha) outside Basilica di Santa Croce

Being the great friend that she is, Meagan had no problems with me completely nerding it up all over Florence. We went to a number of monuments and historical sites, and I was excited to see all of them! However, the English major in me couldn’t help but giggle like a 6 year old girl when I saw the giant statue of Dante outside Santa Croce. There were even more treasures inside: beautiful art and tombs (some real, some ceremonial) of some of the world’s most famous people (think Dante, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Galileo, and more).

Dante’s Ceremonial Tomb: Poetry mourning his death

The building itself is the largest Franciscan church in the world. The Franciscan order is big on humility, so there are also countless tombs built into the floor so that worshippers actually walk on the graves of those buried there. It was truly an amazing experience to be able to walk around (and occasionally on) the remains of some of the greatest, most influential minds in history: strange, but amazing nevertheless.

Michelangelo’s David

Continuing on our nerd-venture, Meagan and I (along with our newfound Aussie friend Dave) headed out and about the city to check out Florence’s most famous people: David and Venus. First, we went to the Accademia Gallery to take some secret snapshots of the David. I could have stood in that gallery for hours, just staring in awe at this statue. Everything was so real, so incredibly lifelike, from the muscles in his legs to the veins in his arms, that I was half expecting him to walk off his pedestal. After Dave accidentally used his flash while taking a picture (which is the moment that cemented our new friendship), we dashed off to the Uffizi Gallery.

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

While David was incredible, the one piece of art that I knew I could not leave Florence without seeing was the Birth of Venus. I have always been fascinated by this painting, since the first time I saw it in one of my mom’s old art history books as a little girl. Everything about it is just stunning. While Meagan and Dave were wandering other rooms in the gallery, I stood in front of this painting for a solid 25 minutes, just soaking it all in. I can’t even begin to describe how I felt in those moments, knowing that I had accomplished a lifelong dream of getting to see this painting in person.

Library ceiling in Siena Cathedral

Meagan and I had originally planned to spend 3 days in Florence and 3 days in Venice. However, we both fell so hard for Florence that we extended our trip by one more day. This way, we were able to do almost all that we wanted to do within the city limits of Florence, and then take a full-day tour around the Tuscan countryside. While we ran into some problems when we tried to change our tickets at the train station and ended up having to pay for brand new tickets (I’m still mad at the grumpy man behind the counter who almost made us cry), being able to see Tuscany was completely worth it. We started our tour early in the morning and our first stop was the beautiful Siena. If I ever make it back to Italy, I’m going to spend at least a few days in Siena- it is small and charming, but full of a vibrant history and gorgeous architecture. While there, we toured the most interestingly breathtaking cathedral I have seen. This church was comprised of so many different styles from different eras that it made my head spin. However, I truly felt dizzy when we were allowed to enter the library of this cathedral. Painted in the early 1500s, the frescoes depict the early life of Pope Pius II, who was originally from Siena. Thankfully for me, the library was never really used and the people of Siena went to great lengths to protect it. Because of this, we got to see the original paint: the ceiling had never been restored because it had never needed to be restored. We were only allowed in the room for 2 minutes, and they asked us not to talk (they’re serious about protecting the place: the Carbon Dioxide expelled from tons of tourists talking would eventually take its toll), but in those 2 minutes it took everything I had not to cry like the big nerd I am.

San Gimignano (aka “The Medieval Manhattan”)

After calming down from seeing the wonders of Siena, our bus went to a little farm outside San Gimignano for lunch. And oh man what a lunch. The farm grows most of its own products, so we had homemade bruschetta, pastas, salads, and desserts. It didn’t hurt that each course came with its own wine, also made at the farm. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten so well as I did that day. After lunch, we headed down the road to San Gimignano, an old fortress town. The whole city just feels old, quiet and tired (and it’s built as one big hill), but the view from the top of the fortress at the top of the city is a breathtaking 360 degree look at the Tuscan countryside surrounding the city. If I were to choose a place that I think Heaven looks like, it would be that view from the top of the city.

Gravy holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Before heading back to Florence in time to catch our night train to Venice, our tour made a quick stop to see Pisa. There’s really not much to see in the city of Pisa, so we were only there for an hour. Really, the only thing of touristic importance is… you guessed it… the Leaning Tower! Meagan and I took quite a few of the typical tourist photos while we were there: I think it might be a requirement. Between bouts of giggling at our pictures where we’re “supporting” the tower, it was a really amazing experience to see such an impressive tower just… lean… like that. The tower itself is beautiful, and it was really interesting to think of the amazing architecture that went into a building that can still be supported (with a little help from tourists… and tons of internal stabilization done by engineers) even as half of its base is sinking! Crazy. After Pisa, we piled back onto the bus and drove through Tuscany on our way back to Florence as the sun went down. It was an absolutely amazing day; one that I know I will never forget.

Looking out over the countryside of San Gimignano, aka Heaven