Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Post 17: The end is near...

Me with "Puppy" outside
 of the Guggenheim
It's a very bittersweet feeling knowing that I will be home in three days.  I miss a lot of things from home, but I know that I will never be able to travel or experience the world in the way that I have this past semester again.  If I'm bored at home, I can't decide to just hop on a plane over the weekend and go to another country to experience an entirely new culture.  However, the U.S. is and probably always will be home to me.

I am looking forward to seeing my family and friends.  I'm also looking forward to a sense of routine and normalcy in my life.  My host mom treats me well, but it will be nice to choose what I eat, when I eat, and how much.  Vegetables sound delicious right now.  I realized last night that I haven't had a carrot since January.  I love carrots.  Vegetables are a rare thing and a lot of the food that my host mom makes me is fried, which is something that my stomach isn't used to.  I will definitely miss her though.  We have learned a lot about each other this past semester and have shared some great experiences.  We've bonded and she's treated me with kindness throughout the past four and a half months.
a typical street in Bilbao

It will be a little weird adjusting back to some aspects of home.  For example, it will be weird to receive texts or phone calls.  I have a phone here, but it's expensive and, along with the other students in my program, we usually have no minutes on our phones to even contact each other.  Other adjustments that I will have to make include: the current U.S. obsession with the song "Call Me Maybe" ( I don't understand it and am happy that the Europeans aren't into it), the saying "YOLO" that everyone at home seems to be using in their Facebook statuses (I just recently learned that it means "you only live once"), and speaking English to everyone.
the most expensive
condos in Bilbao

I've learned a lot about myself through my study abroad experience.  I know I will always hold a special place in my heart for Bilbao and will always remember this semester abroad as one of my best experiences in college.  I have gained an even greater appreciation for the U.S., but I am already trying to figure out when I can see more of Europe.

the park that I spend a lot of
time relaxing in next to the
Museo de Bellas Artes
I have taken three of my finals and will take my last final tomorrow afternoon (tomorrow morning in the U.S.).  It's a little tough to accept that I will no longer see some of the amazing people that I've met here every day anymore and that I might not ever be able to see some of them again.  We've been enjoying the time that we have left together and all promise to stay in touch.  Just last Friday, we all got together and celebrated the amazing semester that has brought us all together.

Bilbao has been amazing and I'm sure this summer will be great too.  I'll be living and working in Champaign.  I'll also be reconnecting with friends and getting in shape again.  I feel like I've made the most of my study abroad experience and have really learned a lot about myself as a result of it.  It is definitely going to be emotional getting on to the plane on Thusday, but I like to think of it as "see you later" and not "goodbye."

On that note, until next time..."¡Hasta luego!"

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Post 16: A trip to Portugal

The Marqués de Riscal vineyard's hotel
Last Tuesday was International Workers Day and, as a result, I had no classes.  To celebrate as the Spaniards do, I went to a local vineyard with my friend and her aunt and uncle.  We went to the Marqués de Riscal vineyard and learned all about the art of making wine.  The vineyard's hotel was designed by the same architect (Frank Gehry) as the Guggenheim in Bilbao and therefore looked very familiar.  I learned the proper way to taste wine, enjoyed a couple of tastings, and left the museum feeling much more cultured.  Plus, I felt like a good student for learning something on a day off of school.

On Friday, I embarked on my last trip before the big one back to the U.S.  I went to Lisbon, Portugal.  Before the trip, I didn't really know too much about Portugal, but I had heard from multiple people that Lisbon is definitely worth going to.

Just one of the many rooms with filled
wine barrels at Marqués de Riscal
After a long day of traveling (we had a 7 hour layover in Madrid because of an unfortunate flight change), we finally arrived in Lisbon.  We walked to the water and slowly made our way over to an Irish pub for dinner.  Yes, we went to an Irish pub.  As odd as it may seem, I've actually eaten or drank at an Irish pub in almost every country I've been to.  The Irish pubs always have great food and a fun atmosphere that reminds us of home.

On Saturday, we started off the day with a little shopping and eventually made our way onto the bus tour of Lisbon.  Through the bus tour we saw a lot of Lisbon and learned some interesting history in the process of it.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon feels like a true vacation town, but the struggling economy is definitely more evident there than in any other place that I've visited.  Lisbon is still beautiful, but it is sad to see the economic struggle that the city is so obviously going through.

Before coming abroad, I knew that this semester would probably be my only chance to ever visit Portugal.  It just isn't a place that many people think of going to when they go to Europe, but I'm glad that I was able to experience it.  It was a good place to see, but it is unlikely that I will ever go back.

In other news, I will be returning to the U.S.A. in exactly 10 days.  I'm sure I will see all of you at the airport to welcome me home...

Until next time...¡Adios!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Post 15: A weekend in Bilbao

For the first time in over a month, I spent a weekend in Bilbao.  It was a nice change of pace to sleep in and enjoy a city that has come to be my home away from home.

La Ría in Bilbao
It was an especially fun weekend to be in Bilbao because the soccer team, Athletic, beat Sporting on Thursday night and clinched their spot to qualify for the Europa League final.  This was especially exciting because it's the first time that Athletic has ever accomplished this.  To say that people were excited after Thursday's win does not do their celebrations justice.  In Bilbao, the Athletic is so much more than just a soccer team.  Athletic flags are literally everywhere.  I would argue that there is not a street in Bilbao that does not have a red and white striped flag or some other representation of support for the Athletic.  It's almost impossible to find anyone in Bilbao who doesn't support and love the team.  To celebrate the victory, I went to an Erasmus party on Thursday.  Almost everyone was decked out in Athletic gear and the night was constantly interrupted by chants for the Athletic.  If Chicago were more like Bilbao, I would be taunted and possibly exiled for being a Packers fan instead of a Bears fan, despite the fact that the Packers are a superior team.

I also did something that I don't do often enough in Bilbao this weekend.  I acted like a tourist.  I went on a boat tour of la Ría, the river that runs through Bilbao.  I had been told countless times before that Bilbao has come a long way in the past fifteen years, but didn't fully grasp how far the city has truly  come until I went on the boat tour.

The rest of the weekend was spent relaxing, shopping, and enjoying time with friends.  The semester is coming to an end, but there is still plenty of schoolwork left to do.  I still have four essays and four finals before I leave in two and a half weeks.  I still have plenty more fun to have though too.  Tomorrow I will be visiting a local vineyard and I will be traveling to Portugal next weekend.

Until next time... ¡Adios!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Post 14: A weekend in Paris

Shakespeare and Company bookstore
Most people would decide after two straight weeks of traveling and living out of a backpack that it is time to take a break for awhile and stay in one place.  I, on the other hand, decided to go to Paris.  In all honesty, I didn't really think I would like Paris.  I went in with low expectations and left with a newfound love of the wonderful city.

The stereotype of basque people (the people from the area in which I study) is that the people are very cold.  Whether it's a result of this stereotype or just good luck in terms of which people I met, I thought that the people of Paris were very friendly, despite what most people say about them.  

One of the Louvre's ceilings
We arrived in the early afternoon on Friday and were immediately ready to explore.  We started off at the Arc de Triomphe, which was located just a few blocks from our hotel.  The arc was impressive, but the view of Paris from the top is the true reason to go there.  

After the Arc de Triomphe, we leisurely explored one of the main streets in Paris and made our way to the Fontaine Saint-Michel.  As a graduate of St. Michael's School, the fountain was especially exciting for me. 
Sainte Chapelle
Later on in the day, I spotted the Shakespeare and Company bookstore.  After seeing it, I quickly told my friend Maggie that we need to go inside.  We went in and both fell in love with it.  We loved it so much that we came back the next day.  Nerdy?  Yes, but if you have any love of books, you'd understand.  The place honestly feels magical.  We were also invited to register to vote in the U.S. while there.  It would have been cool to say that I registered to vote in Paris, but I opted to just wait until I get back to the U.S.

Notre Dame
On Saturday, we started off the day at the Louvre.  We knew we didn't want too spend the whole day there, so we went in with a game plan.  We wanted to see the following: Aphrodite, The Winged Victory, and Mona Lisa.  After getting lost for a little bit, we eventually found all three pieces of art.  It was cool to see, but my favorite part of the museum was the ceilings.  I realize how ridiculous this might seem, but the ceilings were remarkable.  I find that this is true in most monuments and museums in Europe.

After the Louvre, we visited the Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame.  Both churches were beautiful, as expected, but I found the Sainte Chapelle to be absolutely astounding.  Upon entering, I think it's impossible not to utter, "Wow."  The stained glass that lines the walls and the colors that decorate the ceilings are simply beautiful.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling at night
Later on in the day, we climbed our way up the Eiffel Tower and watched the sunset and then ate crepes while we were waiting for the tower to start sparkling.  The Eiffel Tower sparkles every hour on the hour for five minutes after dark.  Watching it sparkle, I couldn't help but feel giddy in the way that I do when I am in Disney World.  It's beautiful and enchanting.

On Sunday, we relaxed in the Jardin du Luxembourg before heading to the airport to come back to Bilbao.  The trip was definitely a success and left me with a desire to return back to the wonderful city of Paris.

The semester is winding down and I'm beginning to freak out a little bit about the fact that I will be home in three and a half weeks.  I'll just need to make the most of the time I have left!

Until next time... ¡Adios!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Post 13: England, Ireland, Germany, and Italy

Westminster Abbey in London, England
I just returned back from my two week Spring Break.  I went to four countries (technically six) since I've last posted and therefore have A LOT to write about.

The first stop of my trip was London, England.  To be honest, the thing that I was most looking forward to in London was the fact that the city has Chipotle.  No other Chipotles exist in Europe and I've been craving some spicy food.  While I did eventually get my Chipotle (it was disappointing in comparison to Chipotle in the U.S.), I really enjoyed learning about all of the history in London.  Going through Westminster Abbey with a guide was especially fascinating; the drama that has taken place between the royals throughout Britain's history is truly entertaining.  Even though I didn't watch the royal wedding and don't follow the royals, I have to admit it was pretty cool to see where such a huge global event took place.

The Cliffs of Moher in Claire, Ireland
I also checked out the Tower of London, a fortress that has been used for various purposes throughout its history.  Apparently, they used to have a bunch of exotic animals such as lions in the Tower of London.  People would visit the lions and bring their cats and dogs from home to feed the lions.  There are no longer lions housed there and this tradition obviously does not continue anymore, but I was still relieved by the fact that my dog, Harry, is safely at home in Illinois.

Kensington Palace just opened to the public at the end of March, so I figured I should check it out.  To be honest, it was pretty disappointing.  I did see some of Princess Diana's dresses and other interesting artifacts, but there was an odd mix between modern and traditional that never quite settled with me.
Berger Street (Berger Strasse)
in Frankfurt, Germany

In London, I also stopped by the Buckingham Palace to admire it from the outside of its gates.  Interestingly enough, I saw "The Bachelorette" being filmed here.  I won't give too many details because I know some people are huge fans of the show, but it just proved to me that the whole show is fake.

My next stop was Ireland.  Maggie, my travel buddy for the trip, has family in Limerick and we were fortunate enough to stay with them for a couple of nights.  We kissed the Blarney Stone, admired the Cliffs of Moher, and, by the end of our visit, I felt like I had become part of their family.  It was a real treat to get to know all of them.  The first night with them, we enjoyed a great Chinese dinner.  Despite what many Americans think, the Irish do not eat corn beef and cabbage every meal.  We enjoyed some Guinness and learned how to distinguish between a good glass of Guinness and a bad one.  On our second night there, we had an amazing dinner and listened to some of Maggie's relatives play their instruments and sing.  To call this family musically gifted would be a major understatement.  The strong love that ties this family together was impossible not to notice when watching them sing and play together.  It's amazing to see the way that music can connect people.

After we parted ways, Maggie and I moved on to Dublin.  People aren't lying when they tell you that if you want to see Ireland, don't go to Dublin.  While it is a great city, it is nothing like the rest of the country and you will miss out on the amazing landscape of Ireland if you choose to just stay in Dublin. Touring through Dublin, I learned a lot about the great sense of humor of the Irish.  For example, the Natural History Museum is referred to by locals as "The Dead Zoo" because there is a large taxidermy (stuffed animals) section in the museum.

The designer stores in Milan, Italy
After Ireland, we made our way over to Frankfurt, Germany.  We arrived on Good Friday and left early on Easter Monday, so we weren't sure if we were going to be able to do much there.  The trip definitely exceeded our expectations.  One of the things that impressed me most about Frankfurt was the amount of green park space that the city had.  It was pretty cool to be walking along a bunch of skyscrapers and then stop in a beautiful and well-landscaped park.

Maggie and I had one slight difficulty in Germany.  People refused to accept that we don't speak German.  We can both pass as German, so people would come up to us and speak in German.  We would let them know that we don't speak German, so the people would speak to us in English; however, after they said a few things in English, they would switch back to German.  We still didn't speak German after they switched languages, but it was kind of nice to not stick out for a change.

While in Germany, we made a day trip to Heidelberg and just explored the city.  We saw the outside of the beautiful castle there and admired the beautiful scenery of the city.  It was a short trip, but definitely a good one.

One of the many bridges in Venice, Italy
On Easter Sunday, Maggie and I paddle boated our way through the botanical gardens in Frankfurt.  It definitely was not your typical Easter, but I did find a way to at least eat some variation of ham.  For lunch, I had barbecue ribs.  Easter wouldn't be Easter without dessert, so we treated ourselves to a piece of chocolate cake from Starbucks at night.

Our only real bump in the trip was when we were trying to get from Frankfurt to Milan.  Because of some communication difficulties, we were given directions to the wrong airport.  Luckily, we found this out before we went to the airport; however, the airport we needed to get to was two hours away from where we were and we would therefore be late for our flight.  It was 4:00 am in Germany when this was all happening and 9:00 pm in the U.S., so I was able to send a quick message to my mom for help because we had no computer access to even look up other travel options.  For the first and only time, the major time difference worked to our advantage.  My mom confirmed our thought that a train would be our cheapest option and I was reminded that, even though I am getting older, my mom is always there for me and willing to help.  As a result of our train ride, we traveled through Switzerland and were even on land there for nine whole minutes!  I'm not sure if that counts as me visiting another country though...

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
We finally got to Milan and toured the city.  I would like to share some advice to anyone who might be considering a trip to Italy... Don't go to Milan.  One more time, do NOT go to Milan.  Unless you have a ton of money to spend on designer clothes, you will most likely be disappointed by the city.  On the other hand, our next stop, Venice, was absolutely amazing.

Venice is truly a city of water.  The city is built around the large canal and the many rivers that flow out of it.  Cars are nowhere to be found.  Instead, boats provide all transportation.  Mail, furniture, and almost everything else you can think of is transported by boat.  The water is a beautiful blue and everything about the city is breathtaking.  As you might be able to tell by now, I loved Venice.

Making a wish at the Trevi
Fountain in Rome, Italy
Venice is a city that you can enjoy by just walking down the streets.  The architecture is impressive.  The people are incredibly friendly and the food is delicious.  While in Venice, we went to the island of Murano to check out the handmade glass artwork there.  It's pretty amazing to see what people can create.  I have a lot of respect for artists.  As much as I might try, I lack the artistic touch.  I've learned to craft, but I'm still hoping to find my artistic talent some day.

After Venice, it was time to move onto Rome.  Upon arriving in Rome, we immediately went in search of the Trevi Fountain.  Through finding the fountain, my Hilary Duff obsession finally came full circle.  I hope everyone immediately realized that the previous sentence is a joke.  I actually didn't know that the fountain is the location of her wish in "The Lizzie McGuire Movie."

In front of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican
We also checked out the Colosseum in Rome.  It was pretty cool to see, but definitely weird to think of how many people died there in brutal ways.  After the Colosseum, we went to another country, the Vatican City.  Yes, it is a country.  It even has its own passport (only about 600 people have one).  I enjoyed the Vatican far more than I had anticipated.  Shockingly enough, it didn't feel like a religious place at all.  The artwork in the Vatican Museum was amazing.  It's a pretty incredible experience to see the original pieces of art.  It was also fascinating to learn about all of the symbolism and stories behind each piece of art.

The Sistine Chapel was incredible, as expected.  Unfortunately, you aren't allowed to take pictures in it.  The reason for this is not what you would expect.  You can't take pictures in the Sistine Chapel because Canon has a copyright on it.  I don't think this is really helping the Catholic Church's efforts to prove that it isn't corrupt...

All of my belongings for the trip
St. Peter's Basilica was also amazing.  Every little detail of the church is beautiful and it all flows perfectly together.  When we were leaving St. Peter's Basilica, we actually got to see the changing of the Vatican's guards.  The guards are all part of the Swiss Army.  They all know five languages, are all Swiss (not a huge surprise if they're part of the Swiss Army), all take a vow of chastity (which is supposedly not enforced now), and all dress like jesters.

After Rome and Vatican City, it was time to get back to Bilbao.  It was nice to get back and not have to live out of a backpack anymore (I never checked any bags on the trip).  My days here are numbered; I return back to the U.S. in 31 days.  While I am definitely excited to see friends and family, I know I'm really going to miss this amazing time in my life.  It will also be nice to be able to do something about my shrinking bank account.  Luckily, I still have some time left.

Until next time... ¡Adios!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Post 12: I went to Barcelona and turned 21!

Andrew and I in Barcelona
This past week has been a big one for me.  First off, the 6'5" monster (aka Andrew) was with me for the week.  I also went to Barcelona, turned 21, and trekked to what has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.

To mix things up and show Andrew a place I haven't seen yet in Spain, I decided to take him to Barcelona.  We got there late Wednesday night and were quickly greeted by some youngsters trying to pickpocket Andrew.  Personally, I don't know why you would want to mess with someone of his size.  After Andrew stared at one of them straight in the eyes, they ran away looking terrified and all of our belongings remained with us.  I think they will reconsider who they choose to target next time.

The inside of La Sagrada Familia
On Thursday, we started off the day by slowly making our way to La Sagrada Familia, a basilica that has already been under construction for over 100 years and will take another 30 to 80 years to finish.  Next time you complain about how long the road construction is taking in the U.S., be thankful that it hasn't been going on for well over 100 years.  La Sagrada Familia was designed by Antoni Gaudí, an amazing architect.  It was pretty cool to learn about Gaudí's artisitic style; he takes a lot of his inspiration from nature.  Before we toured the inside of La Sagrada Familia, we enjoyed a lunch of paella and sangria.  Up until this point, Andrew only liked the chicken and coffee in Spain.  This lunch made him change his opinion a little bit about Spanish food, but I'm pretty sure he still prefers the food in the U.S.  I can't say that I blame him.  After lunch and the Sagrada Familia, we went to Plaça de Espanya, then went to the top of a shopping center and saw an amazing view of the city.  At night, we explored La Rambla, a street filled with street performers and little souvenir shops.   

Park Guell
On Friday, Andrew and I did something that is rarely done by students abroad.  We went to a zoo.  For those of you who know Andrew, this shouldn't come as a surprise.  He's practically the next Steve Irwin.  For this reason, it's a real treat to go with him to the zoo because you learn a ton of information about the animals.  It's hard not to feed off of his enthusiasm.  Seeing a 6'5" tough guy get giddy about baby animals is definitely fun to observe.  After the zoo, we checked out more of Gaudí's masterpieces.  We went to Park Guell, a beautiful public park that has an almost whimsical theme.  Tiles decorate the park in a way that just accentuates the nature within it.  Later on, we walked by La Pedrera and Casa Batlló, two other buildings that Gaudí designed.  We returned to Bilbao late Friday night.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Saturday was my 21st birthday.  Most Americans celebrate their 21st birthday by becoming heavily intoxicated.  I spent mine in a rather unconventional way.  I actually spent most of the day hiking to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe and I did it wearing a Green Bay Packers t-shirt that my friend customized for me for my 21st birthday.  One girl asked my if it was a Georgetown t-shirt.  I took this as a sign that she needed to be educated on the greatness that is the Green Bay Packers.  The hike was hot and a lot of it was uphill, but it was definitely worth it.  Our final destination was a little island with a church at the top of it.  I made a wish and rang the bell at the top, just as the Spaniards do, and enjoyed the amazing view of the Bay of Biscay that the island had to offer.  At the end of the hike, I couldn't resist the water, and found myself soaked in the salt water of the Bay of Biscay.  It didn't necessarily feel like my birthday, but it was definitely a great day.  I finished off the day with some drinks outside of a bar in Bilbao and called it a night.  The next morning, I had to leave at 4:00 a.m. to get Andrew to the airport.  It was sad to see him go, but I'm so happy that he was able to come over and share some of my experience abroad with me.  He even picked up some Spanish along the way.

Andrew and I at the top of
San Juan de Gaztelugatze
My Spring Break starts this Friday and ends on April 15th.  I will be starting off in London, then hopping over to Ireland.  After Ireland, I'll be spending Easter in Germany.  I've done a little research and apparently Easter is a HUGE deal in Germany.  It should definitely be interesting.  Also, everyone in Bilbao seems to think I am from Germany.  They will literally point at me and say, "¡Alemanian!," which means "German" in Spanish.  Hopefully, this means that I'll actually blend in somewhere, which would be a nice change of pace.  After Germany, I'll be touring my way through Italy.  I'll spend a little time in Milan, Venice, and Rome.  To say I'm excited for break would be a complete understatement.  It should be the trip of a lifetime (kind of like the rest of this semester).

Being that I am basically backpacking the next two weeks, I will not be carrying a laptop and will therefore be unable to post on my blog.  I know this might put a damper on people's Mondays, but I assure you that I will try my best to make up for it when I come back.  I should have some amazing stories to share after spending time in four different countries.

I hope everyone is having a great Spring so far!  Until next time...¡Adios!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Post 11: I have a visitor!

Andrew and I at the top of the bridge overlooking Getxo,
the city right next to Bilbao.
In terms of school, I've actually been pretty busy lately.  I had a midterm this past week and three essays due this week.  It's probably a good thing; it can be easy to forget that I am here to STUDY abroad and not just explore.

On Thursday night, the Athletic Bilbao soccer team played Manchester United in Bilbao.  The cheapest tickets to the game were 220 euros, so I decided to save my money and just check out the crowds around the stadium.  It was crazy!  Imagine the world is ending, but people are happy about it.  This is what the streets looked like.  There was garbage everywhere.  Broken glass was inevitable.  There were police there, but I guess it wasn't wild enough to intervene because they just stood to the side in a small group.  The people were friendly enough, but it was definitely one of the craziest sights I've ever seen.  After realizing that we'd only be able to see a fourth of a small TV screen from 30 yards away, my friend and I opted to hop on the metro and watch the game elsewhere.  As luck would have it, we ran into some friends in the metro station and ended up having a great night.

View of Getxo
In other news, I have a visitor here for the week!  Andrew arrived in the Bilbao airport in the early afternoon.  After dropping off his bags, I immediately started showing him around.  He was exhausted, but letting him sleep would have just made it more difficult to adjust to the time change.  We grabbed some lunch, walked the beach, went to the top of a bridge to see an amazing view, and watched the Bilbao Athletic soccer game against Valencia while sipping on what Andrew now refers to as "dope" hot chocolate.

Andrew took a picture of this cafe.  The owner ran out
and looked like he was going to yell at Andrew.  The
owner was then stunned at Andrew's size, so he
just turned around and ran inside.  He looked scared.
My host mom is very nervous about how tall Andrew is.  She keeps on thinking that he'll hit his head on everything.  She is constantly telling me that she has never seen someone so tall in her house before.  All of the people here seem shocked at his size; they point at him and talk about how tall he is.  The average Spaniard is probably like 5'6" (and that's being generous).

In other news, I had my first beer from a Burger King today.  It was a mediocre draft.  I felt obligated to order one.  My meal included a beverage choice of water, soda, or beer.  I don't like soda and I already had a full bottle of water with me, so beer was really the only logical option.

I hope all of the U of I students are enjoying their break!  My Spring Break isn't for another couple of weeks, so I guess I'll just have to suffer through the rough life of a study abroad student for a little longer...

Until next time...¡Adios!