¡Adiós España!

I can´t believe this is my last blog update from Spain. I seriously feel like just yesterday I got off the bus here in stinky Huelva ready to burst out in tears. Looking around me, I didn´t want to admit that this town would be my home for the next school year. Everything looked different from home and I wasn´t certain I wanted to embrace the differences. Luckily I sucked it up and, like always, tried my best to be positive. I´m grateful I did because these past eight months really have flown by and now I´m not sure I´m ready to go back to the United States. Part of me is done here and can´t wait to get back home to my friends and family and comfort of what I used to know. The other part of me looks back on life in the states and never wants to return. I know that through this experience I have gained an uncountable amount of knowledge. I´ve also acquired a self-confidence that I didn´t think was possible. Not because of the numerous times I hear ´guapa´ everyday, but because I know I´ve done something most people only dream of doing.
A few months ago, I couldn´t wait to go home. I had had enough of the Spanish life and just wanted to go back to the familiarity of the USA. After the past few weeks of good weather, great friends and fun new experiences, I think it will be very hard to get on the plane and go back to the same old grind day in and day out. A few months ago I made a list of things I missed and didn´t miss from back home. Now here´s my list of things I will and will not miss from España.
As vain as it is, I don´t know how I´m going to survive without the catcalls I hear oh so frequently. It doesn´t matter how I feel or look, I hear a dozen ´guapas´ and a handful of ´mi alma´, ´princesa´ ´corazon´, etc. daily. American men do not know how to make a woman smile like these Spaniards. I´ve read about Latina women coming to the United States and becoming depressed because they don´t hear the compliments everyday that they are used to and they feel like they don´t have their swag on, and I can see how that could happen. I don´t want to admit it, but I really will miss Spanish tortilla, I could get used to eating that egg and potato omelet everyday. And of course my taste buds will be having withdrawals from tinto de verano, the mix of lemon soda with iced red wine that I´m sure will not be the same if I try to make it at home. I don´t know how I´m going to afford to go out in Chicago when I´ve been so accustomed to 1 euro wine, beers, snacks, etc. Paying 3-5 dollars for a drink will be a shock. Just the idea of going out for a café con leche, tinto or copa and relaxing with friends in an outdoor café is much different (and nicer) here than back home. I´m not sure if I´ll miss it, but it will be strange eating dinner so early and coming home in the evening at the time I would normally just be leaving to go out…especially after this weekend where I went out till 8 on Friday and 6 on Saturday. I will find it out of character to greet someone or say goodbye with a hug or handshake instead of two cheek kisses. And in general, the overall closeness and touchiness will be difficult to leave behind. Now putting all of these positive memories and feelings into my head, it´s hard to think of things I won´t miss. I thought I would be happy to leave these shitty students and school, but they do hold a special spot in my heart and have helped me to become a better teacher, and hopefully I´ve taught them a thing or two. While their ´no pasa nada´ attitude and laid back lifestyles do irritate me at times when I´m in a rush or trying to be productive, I´m sure I will miss it dearly when I´m stressed out in the hustle and bustle of a big city. I guess one thing I can say I definitely will not miss is the adundance of cockroaches in the cities and buildings.
I can´t be sad that my time here is coming to an end, I knew it would. I am so blessed I had this opportunity. I´m sure in 50 years when I´m telling about my younger days, this will be a big section of it and something I´ll be happy I did. I may be heading back to the US broke as a joke and unsure of the future, but at least I´m coming back a changed woman… and I still three more weeks left here to put a few more notches on my European city belt. Who knows what can happen?

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Under the Tuscan Sun

I´ve really become a traveling expert at squeezing as much as possible into a short amount of time. Last weekend I managed 5 Italian cities in about 48 hours! I started my adventure flying from Sevilla into Bologna, Italy. This was my first trip completely on my own so I was both excited but nervous to do it all without anyone´s help. I decided to give couchsurfing a try, not only to save some money but also to get an insider´s perspective on the town. So once arriving to Bologna, my couchsurfing host showed me around the University area. Bologna holds the third oldest University in Europe, so there are international students everywhere. I didn´t get to see too much there because I arrived late but at least I got a feel for how the students live.

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The next morning I took the train to Firenze, or in English, Florence. The trains in Europe are such an awesome concept, they are very cheap, convenient and run frequently. If only us Americans could adapt a system like that! Once in Florence, I had the day to myself to do and see whatever I wanted while my couchsurfing host was at work. Florence, home to Il David, the Birth of Venus is famous for its Renaissance art. I was not in an art mood so I didn´t wait on the three hour lines to see any of the famous masterpieces. Instead I strolled the small, crowded streets munching on scrumptious pizza, paninis and of course, gelato! The Tuscan hills and river running through the city gave a beautiful backdrop to such an interesting city. There were tons of little flea markets and vendors spread throughout the town in front of the high-end designer name shops. There were so many old churches and cathedrals that I felt a little overwhelmed and only entered the most famous, Il Duomo. The outside looks like a Monet painting, with the watercolors and visually pleasing designs. Inside, to be honest, it looked like any other church I´ve entered.

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That night, I was a little apprehensive about staying with this couchsurfer after my host the previous night had given me the creeps a little. Luckily, everything happens for a reason and I had an unforgettable time. First, Thommaso took me on the back of his motorbike through the winding Florence streets where we stopped at Piazza Michelangelo to get a gorgeous view of the Florence skyline with the sunset. It was breathtaking and definitely not something I would have seen without him showing me. From there, we stopped by a little wine festival to taste some treats from his home-city and headed to Piaza Santo Spiritu. This plaza was not jam-packed with tourists like the rest of the city is so we were able to grab a glass of wine and sit and relax. It was nice to talk to a local and hear his ideas on his city and country. We then had some of the best pizza I´ve ever tasted and drank some yummy Italian beer and their famous Limoncello. It´s basically a super sweet lemon flavored alcoholic drink, way too sweet for my liking. After bringing up my liquid courage we joined some gypsies in the square for a dance party and headed out of Florence to go salsa dancing. Even though I do not and can not salsa dance, I still had a fun time and had a good teacher. Driving back with the wind in my hair (through my helmet of course) I was replaying the night and felt like I was the princess in a modern fairy tale. Not the romance part, but being care-free and letting everything fall into place. My spirits were high and I was more than excited to see more of Tuscany the following day.

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On Sunday, I took a bus tour called ´The Best of Tuscany´and it really was. The day started the trek to Siena. The city is most famous for Il Palio, the semi-annual horse race where the small city gathers around 1 million spectators to cheer for the minute long race. Siena is an old city that used to be one of the richest and most important cities in Italy. Now, since Florence overtook it, they are big rivals. The city is broken up into 17 different neighborhoods and each resident is a member of their neighborhood or region for life. The locals are extremely proud of their roots and some even refuse to walk into the other ´hoods. One thing they all have in common is their grudge against Florence. The city was nice and quaint and I met another girl on my tour from Australia who I would be BFF with the rest of the day.

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Our next stop was an organic vineyard in the Chianti region. The sun had finally come out which made for the perfect day to get a little wine buzz and eat the mouth-watering Italian food. I´m no wine-o, my idea of a good glass is the cheapest one on the menu, but I was impressed by the freshness and flavor of the vino.

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Next door to the vineyard is San Gimignano, or the Medieval Manhattan. There are 14 tall towers remaining from over 70 that stood in the medieval ages. The city also apparently holds the best gelato in the whole world, which obviously we had to give a try. I´m probably a bad judge because I´ve never tasted a gelato I didn´t like (especially in Italy) so I of course loved it. We strolled through the old streets and popped into the numerous torture museums just before the clouds took over and it started to rain.

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I really have had good luck with my travels and weather usually being pretty favorable. Once again, the rain got it all out of it´s system on the drive and gave us a beautiful sky for Pisa. We didn´t have much time in Pisa, but you really don´t need too much time to take the cliche pictures with the Leaning Tower. There are a few other things the city is known for, like its Field of Miracles, the echoes inside of the cathedral and some other towers. I´d seen pictures of the Leaning Tower of Pisa which made it look massive, but in real life, it looked much smaller than I´d imagined. It´s design and bright white color reminded me of an elegant (and really tall) wedding cake. I wish we would have had a bit more time to see some of the less touristy things but at least I accomplished my mission of seeing the Leaning Tower and getting some silly pictures.


Each time I visit Italy I love it more and more. Traveling alone ended up being a rejuvenating and fun experience. It was awesome being able to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. Now I can´t wait to travel around Europe solo for a few weeks before my trip is over.

Los Patios de Córdoba

Ornately decorated patios are a staple of Spanish culture. However, the colorful flowers and fresh smells are really more common in Andalucia than the rest of Spain, and especially famous in Córdoba. (In general, most of the stereotypes known for Spain are Andalucian but are generalized for the rest of the country.) On Sunday I went to Córdoba for the day to celebrate La Fiesta de los Patios. Along with Sevilla, Córdoba is the hottest city in Spain, so we got to enjoy the beautiful sun and sky. I´d already been to the city twice before so I wasn´t too keep on the touristy things to see, instead I wanted to see the typical neighborhoods and less known areas.

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Each neighborhood has routes of patios decorated with various themes. The tradition started in the 1920´s with a patio competition during May where the winner could win a few dollars. Now hundreds of homes enter the competition and could win around 4,000 euro. I think it originally started from the cruces which are decorated crosses for different virgins or saints. From there they started decorating their whole interior and exterior houses. There is also such beautiful weather, it´s the perfect excuse to walk from house to house and marval and at the beauty.

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We started with a less touristy neighboorhood, but the one where the winners usually come from. The patios were breath-takings. All different types of flowers flooded the walls, windows and floors. Each patio had it´s own decorations including bird´s cages, lemon and orange trees, water wells, fountains, tables, music, etc. There is every species of flower you could think of  and spectrums of colors I´d never seen before. Some were very creative in their placement while others looked like something from a Gaudi painting. The rainbow of colors would be the perfect was to spend an afternoon relaxing on a patio with a cup of coffee if they weren´t full of people. Luckily we got there early but apparently there can be waits of ten or fifteen minutes just to come in and look. After a few hours everything started to look the same so we enjoyed the rest of the afternoon eating and drinking and enjoying the serene suroundings. I´m sure to the trained eye, each patio has it´s specialties and differences, but for us they all just started to blend from one pretty flower to the next. If I had a patio, I would think of some completely different theme to decorate it so mine would be completely unforgettable.

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Summer Huelva

I arrived to Huelva in the beginning of October, when it was still hot weather and summer was just coming to its end. Within a matter of weeks, autumn swept over and out came the light jackets and boots. That lasted all the way until recently when summer decided to show up very late. So basically, my opinion of Huelva all this time has been the ´winter Huelva´, and let me say, it is a completely different place than ´summer Huelva´. Spain is already a country that is more slow paced and people love to be outside without a care in the world. Spaniard´s favorite expression is ´no pasa nada´ because they don´t get too worked up about anything. Now, summer in the south everyone has a new mindset. People just seem friendlier (and tanner) and really seem like they don´t have anywhere to be. The cafes are crowded with people all times of the day and they stay there for hours at end. When I walk past the plazas in the morning they are swarming with children and families and when I come home in the evening they are still full of people. The sidewalks are packed with people who are never in a rush. They stop every 100 meters to chat with someone else they recognize and don´t mind if they are in the middle of traffic. This is just the city, the beach has transformed from the calm, quite winter crowd, out only to excersize on the coast or bundle up and relax on the sand to the jam-packed beach bums. It´s hard to find a spot because people set up camp there all day. They bring large tents, chairs and coolers with food for an army. Luckily, we´ve found some other beaches out of the way that give some more space and aren´t quite so packed.

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If it were summer Huelva year round I think I would have had a totally different experience and I don´t think I would ever leave.

Animo! Animo!

May 2nd

I still don´t know what animo means, but I heard it over and over this weekend when I ran the Rock n´Roll Madrid Half Marathon. On a spur of the moment whim, I decided I would sign up for a big race. I had been running for leisurely fun, but nothing too competitive when I´d heard about the Boston Martahon bombing. I read stories about runners lacing their shoes up and running in honor of the victims of the attacks. Not being a serious runner, I wanted to challenge myself and do something to honor them as well. So I took a late night bus up to Madrid on Friday night (I also had the reason of picking up my left behind luggage) and prepared myself for the race.

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I had no idea what to expect, I hadn´t run a competitive race in over 7 years and there was a three hour time limit to finish the 21 kilometers so I was worried about even finishing. The shorter runs I´d completed here in Huelva were in good weather, no blisters on my feet and the familiar surrounds. Madrid on the other hand, was really cold and I came with wounded feet from the shoes I´d previously worn. Luckily, on race day I felt motivated and confident surrounding myself with other athletes and crazy non-runners like myself. I bundled up to keep warm and bought special socks to support my toes. When the race started I felt so positive and ready, I had a good feeling about whatever was to come. Kilometer after kilometer, I had more and more fun watching the other racers and fans cheering us on. Although the city is a little hill-y, it was beautiful running around all of the history and beautiful landmarks. As I passed the finish line I didn´t want the race to end. I was still feeling great even though I hadn´t walked at all, and I was finally all warmed up.

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I finished in two hours, ten minutes, which is a time I´m very proud of for not having run in ages. I would love to train for a full marathon one day and now I know it is in reach. I loved the feeling of the running community, everyone cheering each other on and the support the runners share. At one point I noticed the crowd was pretty calm and quite so the runners themselves started clapping and cheering. If someone fell or seemed injured, other competitors were the first ones there to help. And even though it got crowded and people stepped on each other´s toes (literally), there wasno animosity. Someone ran in front of me at the water station, pushing me out of the way which resulted in me not getting water. To my suprise a few seconds later he came up to me with a bottle and apologized. Those acts of kindness do not take place with your ´competition´ in other sports. I had a great experience and I´m very proud of myself for this accomplishment. I think it´s not just a foreign thing of other racers being friendly and encouraging, I think internationally the running community is supportive and inspiring.

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Ferias de Abril

It’s official: the season of Flamenco and fairs has started in Andalucía with Sevilla’s Ferias de Abril last weekend. Truthfully, I’m not big into the flamenco culture here in Spain, I think the dresses are pretty and the music is catchy, but I don’t see what the big fuss is. That’s why I didn’t expect much from the ‘fairs’ last weekend in Sevilla. Here are Ferias de Abril in a nutshell: The women dress up in their fancy flamenco gear- dress, shall, earrings, flower, fan, etc. and the men in their evening wear. They hop on their horse carriages and ride around town showing off their wealth and beauty. Then they head over to the fairgrounds to show off some more. They pay thousands of euros each year to be a member of a ‘caseta’ where they go to eat, drink, dance and socialize all day and night for a whole week. There is also an actual fair carnival but only the ‘low-class’ people go to that who can’t afford to be a member of a caseta. Once the fairs are over the dresses go in storage, the horses nap and the fairgrounds are empty until next April.

una caseta

una caseta

OK, so that’s a little exaggerating, but that’s really what it looks like from the outside. We got to Sevilla Friday afternoon- the fair started on Monday and ended on Sunday. We’d planned to go during the afternoon to see all the horses and people but the heat in Sevilla is unbearable and would surly force us to have an early night. Instead we spent hours beautifying ourselves (ok maybe the other girls spent hours, I think I put a full 20 minutes into the act) and then headed to the fairgrounds once the sun was set. There were thousands and thousands of people sporting trashy carnival clothes (ie: a woman in a white dress…and black panties) all the way up to personalized designer flamenco gowns. There were children and grandparent, Spaniards and tourists. We thought we’d stick out being the giris (foreign girls) dressed up like gitanas (gypsies) but pretty much anything flies there. We first went to a caseta that Liz’s friend was a member of. There are around 200 casetas, which are big tent like structures decorated with typical Andalucian décor and jamming out flamenco tunes. The majority are private, meaning you have to pay to be a member and can only enter with an invitation; this means there is a friendly vibe inside where most people know one another. The public casetas are jam-packed and not everyone knows each other. They can attract some scummy people so it’s much more enjoyable if you are in a private. Once in the caseta, we ordered some typical Spanish food (ham and cheese) and drank rebujitos, a sweet but dangerous mixture of white wine, 7-up and manzanilla. They go down so smoothly it’s easy to go overboard and be stuck with a killer hangover the next morning.

jamon, queso y rebujito

jamon, queso y rebujito

We were in need of a change of scenery so we headed over to the fair where there were the normal carnival sights of drunken people, teenagers, fried foods and silly games. It’s funny to see the big flamenco ruffles flying around on the rides and women squeezed in their dresses attempting to sit on a roller-coaster. We opted for the safest ride being the Ferris-wheel and got the benefit of being able to see the beautiful view of Sevilla and the fair. Once we’d gotten some more to drink (the bottle of mojito we’d snuck in with us) we headed back to a different caseta with a nice buzz on. There, we were not afraid to sing and dance and socialize with the locals. We stayed out till about 4 or 5 in the morning, until our feet were throbbing and the bed was calling our name. The next day was just as much fun as we slept in most of the afternoon and then pulled the beds into the living room for an all-day snuggle party and movie marathon. It proves that as fun as it is to party and get yo’ drank on, it’s just as fun to have sober girl-time.

girls dressed in their flamenco trajes

girls dressed in their flamenco trajes

I still may not become a gitana anytime soon, and you surely won’t see me with a flamenco dress on, but I do have a new view of ferias and am looking forward to attending a few more throughout Andalucia. Come May each city has its own festival similar to that of Seville’s (not nearly to that scale but the same concept) so each weekend will bring an opportunity to bring out my inner-Spaniard.

sonrie! all smiles!

sonrie! all smiles!

L’Chaim!

(April 18th)

One more continent and country on my list of 2013 travels was added this weekend- back to my homeland of Israel. OK, not really my homeland, because I can hardly even be classified as a Jew, but still, the homeland of my people. I’d already been to Israel on Birthrite in 2008 with my two friends Lauren and Sarah, so this wasn’t my first time, but it was my first time seeing it in not on an organized tour. Birthrite is an awesome program for American Jews between 18-25 years of age where they are taken to Israel for about 2 weeks for free. We got to see pretty much all of the country north to south. We hiked, stayed in a kibbutz, listened to speeches, swam in the Dead Sea, went to museums, rode camels, partied and everything else Israeli. The best part was it was all free and we did it with members of the Israeli Defense Force.

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My trip last weekend was not at all like that. I stayed with my friend Lauren, who is living in Petah Tiqva as an English teacher. When I first arrived she was getting over a flu bug so our options were limited on what we could do. Luckily, she lives about an hour from the beach and she was filling healthy enough for that so we took the bus to Tel Aviv and had a nice day exploring the city. The next day was Shabbat so there was no transportation which left us stuck in her suburb. It was really cool to see the way actual people go about Shabbat. Previously in Israel on Saturday we stayed in a touristy hotel where we saw no one partaking on the day of rest. To me the concept of Sabbath is a little confusing to decide what is considered work and what is not. For example, on Saturdays the elevator door opens on each floor automatically because people can’t press buttons to get up to their floor. The doors of buildings aren’t locked so you don’t need to buzz in. You aren’t even supposed to cook, just eat pre-prepared food. If you’re going to follow the rules so strictly, I would think even getting out of bed or getting dressed would be considered work. Regardless, we went to the park and went on a jog where there were lots of people enjoying the sun and their day off. (Schools in Israel meet every day except Saturday and I think many businesses are the same) As I went on my run in the hot sun wearing shorts and a tank top, I was expecting the creepy looks and vulgar catcalls I’m so used to hearing in Spain. I was surprised (and truthfully a little offended at first) when the men not only didn’t make a peep but looked down and out of my way when I ran (ok maybe slowly jogged) by. The orthodox men do not look at other women in any way, whether just walking down the street or especially scantily clad.

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Once the sun sets the country goes comes back alive when public transportation starts again and people can touch things again. Friday nights becomes a mad rush to do all the chores you need to do before the next 24 hours of relaxation. Unlike most cities, no one goes clubbing on Friday nights and the bars that are open are not crowded. Even Saturday nights are calm as some people are still in Shabbat mode. Thursday and Sundays are the best nights to get your groove on.

When I told people that I was going to Israel, the first thing out of their mouth was almost always ‘be safe’, not ‘have fun’ or ‘take lots of pictures’, but something about my safety. The funny thing is that I felt safest in Israel than in any of my other travels. After your 18th birthday in Israel, you must serve 3 years on the Israeli Defense Force. So unlike the US where when you see a soldier you give them a nod or a handshake, in Israel you don’t acknowledge them because the soldiers are everywhere and everyone has already served in the IDF. Most of the time they are off duty, just coming from or going to work, but they are still in uniform and fully armed. I knew that in the case of any attacks, they’d have my back. Also, each house and public space is equipped with rocket shelter. Fortunately most people do not need to use them, but with the constant unrest in the Middle East, it is best to know they are available. Luckily with the ‘dome of safety’ that detects and deactivates incoming missiles, most Israelis feel very safe and are not continuously thinking of an attack. They have trainings in school what to do in case of any emergencies, so truthfully they are more prepared than any American in dangerous times.

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I was also in Israel for their equivalence of Memorial Day (I won’t even try to type it in Hebrew). Our American end-of-May celebration is full of BBQs and fun celebrations, kids enjoying the day off school and families going on vacation. In Israel, being that so many people have lost loved ones in wars and terrorist attacks, the day is anything but fun. The day starts, obviously, the night before at sunset. Lauren and I were on the bus back home when we heard the sirens signifying the start of the memorial, when everyone stood up and the bus driver got out of his seat as well. Being in Tel Aviv for the rockets last fall, Lauren thought it was another drill or attack and was ready to haul-butt to safety. Luckily it was just a moment of silence. The next day, it was considered poor-mannered to go to the beach or do anything fun and celebratory so we instead went to a park to relax, read and sunbathe. The cemeteries were full and there were many services full of crying eyes and mourning families. The siren went off again in the afternoon and this time I was able to people watch the locals as each and every one had a serious face and stopped their day to truly be thankful they were alive. Throughout the day we heard the prayer of mourning being sung in the streets.

The Jews had the right idea when they put their happiest day of the year right after their saddest because again at sunset the mood changed from tears to laughter. The next day was Israel’s Independence Day and also the day I had to head home. Being that the country was only celebrating its 65th birthday, people were really celebrating it. I only got to see the beginning of the celebration as I made my way late-night to the airport, but everyone was wearing blue and white, decked out in Israel’s colours. There were street festivals and parties, fireworks and people celebrating on every corner. The people were genuinely proud to be Israeli and proud to celebrate their countries birth. Too bad I had to leave on what I assume was a spectacular day.

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My trip to Israel was way too short for my liking but I’m really thankful I went. For one, it was amazing to see one of my best friends and in the country where our friendship really started. However, I thought going would bring back my inner-Jew but I think if anything it did the opposite. Looking at the people who were so confident in their religion and sure of their beliefs and traditions, it made me realize I know nothing about Judaism, or any religion for that matter! I respect their beliefs but I can’t say I’m on the same level. I like to say I’m a Jew, but I think I just like the holidays and celebrations, I’m not sure if I really know what it means to be Jewish, at least not at the level of the Israelis.