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!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Post 10: Madrid

The aqueduct in Segovia
This past weekend, I went with all of the students in my program to Madrid.  We also stopped in Segovia along the way to break up the five hour bus ride.  Not surprisingly, we looked extra touristy walking around in a group of eighty, but it was definitely a good time and a lot different than Bilbao.   

Segovia was a pretty amazing place to see.  In Segovia, we toured the Alcázar de Segovia, a beautiful castle, and saw a Roman aqueduct.  The Roman aqueduct is especially amazing because there is no mortar anywhere within the aqueduct.  The aqueduct is constructed solely out of granite blocks.  It's even more impressive when you learn that it has been around since the mid first century.

After Segovia, we continued onto Madrid.  We arrived at 9:00 pm, just in time for dinner.  There was no sarcasm involved in that sentence.  Dinner here is always around 9:00.  In fact, the afternoon is considered to go until 8:00 or 9:00 pm.  After dinner, everyone went their separate ways and enjoyed the night.

Alcázar de Segovia, an amazing castle
The next day, we saw the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Almudena Cathedral.  Both places were beautiful.  After checking these tourist attractions out, we hit the streets.  The street performers in Madrid were really something else.  Some were definitely more impressive than others.  Spongebob was an extremely common costume.  At points, I'd see five Spongebobs all next to each other.  For a child, I imagine this must be incredibly confusing.

On Sunday, we went to El Prado, a museum that houses some amazing pieces of art.  For me, this was definitely my favorite place that we visited.  I  saw some of the pieces that I've studied back in the U.S.  I think my excited reaction to seeing Diego Velázquez's piece "Las Meninas" might have freaked some people out though.  I've learned so much about the symbolism in this peace, so it was a real treat to see it in person.

One of the street performers in Madrid...
he never strayed from this position
Another highlight of the trip was when my friend Maggie and I were carded for the first time in Europe.  We tried to order drinks, but the waiter initially denied us.  The man guessed that we were both fifteen. If we truly look that young, then most of Europe should probably stop saying that they have a legal drinking age because we've never been questioned here before.  Also, we saw a vending machine that had beer outside of a hotel.  Obviously, a vending machine can't card someone.  I guess they just follow the honor system.

I did love Madrid and I do believe that it would be a great city to live in, but it is not my favorite city in Spain so far.  As of now, my favorite Spanish city is Seville.  I think part of the reason that I prefer Seville is because Madrid is a more Americanized city, so it didn't feel like it was as culturally enriching as other cities that I've seen thus far.  Madrid is still awesome and definitely worth visiting though.  It is the capital of Spain and it definitely has some interesting and unique people.

I realized this past weekend that I'm over halfway done with my time abroad.  So far, it's been the trip of a lifetime.  The U.S. will always be home, but I'll leave here with an even greater thirst for adventure.

Until next time... ¡Adios!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Post 9: "Remember how we're supposed to be in Granada?"

El Catedral de Seville
The plan for this past weekend was to fly to Seville, Spain, and then immediately get on a bus to Granada.    That was the plan; however, my friends and I decided when we arrived in the Seville airport to just stay in Seville.  The quote of the weekend quickly became, "Remember how we're supposed to be in Granada?"  We quickly called our hostel in Granada to cancel our reservations with the excuse that we were dumb tourists who didn't realize that the hostel we booked was in Granada and not Seville.   It might have been a little bit of a lie, but when people stereotype about American tourists, sometimes you need to turn lemons into lemonade and use that stereotype to your advantage.  We found a new hostel to stay in and were ready to explore Seville.  Our first impression: this city is beautiful.  By the end of the trip, it was truly hard to leave.  We all made the mature decision to return back to Bilbao, but the windy, rainy weather that welcomed us back really made us question ever leaving Seville.

Plaza de España
Seville truly felt like a vacation.  We ate some amazing homemade gelato, kicked a soccer ball around with some locals, toured the city in a horse-drawn carriage, enjoyed each other's company while sipping on sangria, relaxed in the sun's warmth, watched a little flamenco dancing, and saw some amazing things.  We saw the Catedral de Seville, which is the third largest gothic cathedral in the world.  It was huge (obviously) and absolutely beautiful.  It did make me a little sad though that the cathedral really doesn't function as a cathedral anymore and has become almost solely a tourist attraction.  They even charge admission.  We also saw the Plaza de España, which is definitely one of the most amazing sights I've ever seen.  It was built for the Iberio-American Exposition of 1929, a world's fair.  This plaza is decorated with beautiful hand-painted tiles.  This plaza is exactly how I imagined Spain to be before I came.  In the plaza, there is a small moat which people navigate through with row boats.  The tourists on the row boats entertained us for hours.  Apparently, it's not universally known that you have to use both oars to move the boat and that using only one oar will make the boat circle.  We also some beautiful gardens in the Alcázar, a royal palace in Seville that was originally a moorish fort.  The gardens here were awesome on their own, but the fact that there were peacocks roaming freely throughout the grounds made the palace even more amazing.

One of the gardens in the Alcázar
Another highlight of the trip was definitely the food.  Ironically, we ate very little Spanish food.  Normally, I would think of this as a bad thing, but we've all been in Spain for awhile now and definitely needed a change of pace.  We found an amazing little Mexican restaurant the first night here and ate spicy food.  This is what Charlie Sheen would refer to as "winning."  Spicy food in Spain is unheard of.  If they warn you that something is spicy, chances are it is usually about as spicy as an ice cream cone.  We also ate some delicious Italian food with shockingly small portions.  Being used to American portions, I almost split the pasta dish I ordered with a friend.  The dish came with about 10 noodles.  Thank goodness we didn't share.

I think a big part of why the weekend was so great was because I was surrounded by such great new friends.  I know that one of the hardest parts about leaving Spain will be leaving them.  Hopefully our newfound love of traveling will help us to see each other in the U.S.

In other news, I'll be exploring Madrid next weekend with all of the students in my program here.  I'm sure it will be another great trip!  I hope all is well for everyone and that my fellow Illini had a safe and fun Unofficial.  Until next time... ¡Adios!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Post 8

A famous basque tree stump
Apparently, Carnaval never actually ends in Bilbao.  It is supposed to be a celebration that leads up to the Lenten Season, but Ash Wednesday was almost a week ago and Carnaval is still being celebrated.  On a side note, I was a little surprised on Ash Wednesday to not see anyone with ashes on their foreheads because literally everyone here is Catholic.  I later learned that the ashes are actually put just above the hairline here and therefore no one sees them.

Last Friday, I went on an excursion with my university to Urdaibai, which is a biosphere reserve in the Basque Country.  I went into the day expecting to be exploring nature, but ended up spending most of the day in museums.  We went to three museums in total.  The museums were all about the history and culture of the Basque Country.  After all the museums, we finally got to experience some nature.  The wait was definitely worth it.  The Bay of Biscay is absolutely beautiful.  We went to the area of the Billabong Pro surfing competition and watched some surfers do their thing.  Unfortunately, we couldn't stay for long.  I guess I'll just have to go back to Urdaibai...studying abroad is soooo rough.
Me at the Bay of Biscay in Urdaibai

On Sunday, I ate lunch with eight members of my host mom's family.  The lunch was five hours, which is a little longer than I normally take to eat lunch, but it was definitely interesting.  One thing you should know about Spanish women is that they will always try to make you eat more.  I've had one too many stomach aches from this and therefore try to politely decline their offer of more food.  A lot of times they don't accept this and they might even yell at you or appear frustrated.  I immediately liked my host mom's granddaughter because she would tell her family to stop trying to force me to eat more.  She did it in a way that would have been rude for me to do, but that was okay for her to do because she is family.  She definitely got the point across and I left the five hour lunch feeling satisfied like I would have been from a fifteen minute lunch.

The docks in Urdaibai
Speaking of food, I can finally make my food a little spicy.  For those of you who don't know, I love spicy food.  I'm the type of person who will pop jalapeños into my mouth and eat them plain.  Spain doesn't do spicy.  They also aren't too big on seasonings.  Salt and olive oil are big, but other than that, the meat is plain.  Being the loving woman that she is, my mom sent me a mini Tabasco sauce bottle and spicy Montreal steak seasoning.  My life just got spicy again.  I also received some peanut butter, which is almost impossible to find here and is super expensive, and a change purse that has a picture of my family.  The package was definitely sent with love and put a huge smile on my face.

I hope all is well for everyone and that everyone at U of I has a fun and safe Unofficial!  Until next time... ¡Adios!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Post 7

Nothing too exciting happened in class this past week.  Unfortunately, my favorite professor will be out of class for the next five weeks because he was hit by a car and broke his leg.  This guy is awesome; he finds ways to make things that usually bore me seem exciting.  He will truly be missed and his sub better step up to the plate because she has big shoes to fill.

A float with a sardine in the Carnaval parade...
the burial of the sardine symbolizes the end of
Carnaval and the beginning of Lent 
This past week has been a week of holidays.  The first holiday of the week was Valentine's Day.  Now, normally I do not celebrate this day at all because I find it silly; however, I did celebrate it a little this year.  It only took me being 4000+ miles away from Andrew to decide to honor the day with a card.  The card wasn't sappy or written in English; therefore, it was the perfect card for me to give.  Andrew doesn't speak a lick of Spanish.  I also went out to lunch with my closest friend in Bilbao and received an amazing Valentine's Day care package from one of my best friends from home.

The second holiday of the week isn't technically a holiday but it definitely should be.  My Dad turned 54.  I obviously couldn't be there to celebrate with him, but I sent him delicious truffles from Belgium.  I was also able to Skype him after he did P90X.  That's right.  My Dad woke up on his 54th birthday and did P90X.  If that's not impressive, then I don't know what is.

Holiday number three of the week was Carnaval.  I previewed what Carnaval is like a little bit in my post last week, but had the true experience of it this past weekend.  Carnaval is definitely a worthwhile experience.  There are little carnival rides for kids, plenty of parties for adults, and a parade for everyone.  The adults are rowdy and the children are cuter than cute in their costumes.  The parade floats were pretty awesome; however, the five float parade seemed a tad short in comparison to the U.S. parades that I am accustomed too.  There were also no politicians in the parade, which was mind boggling but a really nice change of pace.  For some unknown reason, there was a woman decked out in an American flag patterned outfit in the parade.  No other country was represented in the parade and the U.S. isn't exactly loved here.  It was rather peculiar in my opinion, but exciting nonetheless.
The America themed woman at the Carnaval parade

The costumes for Carnaval rival the Halloween costumes of the U.S.  Coordinating costumes is really popular here.  Families all follow a theme or groups of friends will all dress as the same thing.  Groups of friends that all dressed as Snow White or some other character looked rather goofy to me.  Instead of diversifying and dressing as different Disney princesses, they all had to be the exact some princess.  For these groups, I obviously judged which person wore it best in my head.  American magazines have trained me well.

My long "summer vacation" as my friend Tony calls my time abroad has been great thus far and I already know that it will be hard to leave both Bilbao and the amazing new friends that I've made here.  I do miss everyone at home though and absolutely love hearing from people.  I hope all is well for everyone!  Until next time... ¡Adios!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Post 6: the South of France

La huelga in the streets of Bilbao
It's hard to believe that I've already been away from home for a month.  This journey is going quick, but I still have so much to look forward to.  For example, next weekend is Carnaval.  For those of you who do not know what this is, it's a lot like Mardi Gras in New Orleans with a touch of Halloween, and a dab of U of I's Unofficial St. Patrick's Day.  I'm pretty excited to check it out with the new friends that I've made here in Bilbao.

Last Thursday, I saw my first huelga (strike).  I was slightly alarmed when I saw some protesters put a sign on the statue of my fellow American John Adams that read, "Queremos tu pensiones!" (or "We want your pensions!).  I was tempted to remove the sign like a proud American, but quickly remembered that I was completely surrounded by angry protesters whose favorite colors are not red, white, and blue.  Apparently, many people here believe that all Americans receive pensions and are trying to obtain the same.  It's a nice fantasy, but I highly doubt that John Adams is going to be able to help the U.S. or Spain with making this fantasy a reality.
In Bayona, France, we turned a corner and
were surprised by this breathtaking castle.

On Friday I went to Bayona in the South of France and Hondarriba on the Spanish side of the border between France and Spain.  We didn't get to spend much time in either place so it kind of felt like I was speed dating each place.  Both places were beautiful, but if I had to choose, Hondarriba would definitely be getting the second date.  Both places were by the water, which is always a treat for a Chicago (or should I say Chicaaaaaago) girl, but the ocean view and the architecture in Hondarriba won me over.  Plus, I could actually understand what the people there were saying, which is always a big plus in my book.

On Friday night, I gave the Guggenheim a second chance.  I actually really enjoyed it this time; however, that could be because they were doing their monthly event "Art After Dark" and I didn't see any of the museum's so-called art.  For this event, they basically convert the museum into a club.  They bring in a DJ, bartenders, and set up a light display that reflects off of the silver exterior of the museum.  This month the DJ was a cross-dressing man who wore more make up than Mimi from "The Drew Carey Show."  

At this event, I tried my first calimocho, a drink that is a mix of coke and red wine.  It's really popular around here.  This was a bad decision for two reasons.  Reason #1: A calimocho is supposed to be the cheapest drink around; however, I ordered it at the Guggenheim so it ended up being the most expensive drink that I've ordered here.  Reason #2: I do not like coke or red wine.  This was therefore a poor drink choice, but it was definitely better than expected.  This just proves that you can't dislike something that you never tried.

At the beach in Hondarriba, Spain
My Spanish skills have definitely improved.  I don't think that I necessarily spoke slowly before, but I definitely speak faster now.  Sometimes I listen to myself speaking to locals and wonder to myself if I'm speaking too fast.  I know this is definitely not the case especially considering that this region of Spain is famous for having the quickest speakers, but it definitely gives me a confidence boost.  I've even made friends with a couple of women at a store located under the apartment that I live in here.  I made a  snack purchase at their store once and now they get excited whenever they see me.  They invite me into their store, introduce me to their friends who are hanging out with them in their store, and talk to me for awhile.  They love to ask me about home.  Many times, other customers will get excited and talk to me too.  It's an odd feeling to be liked here for being American, but I'll take it.  I definitely feel the love in that store.

Until next time... ¡Adios!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Post 5: A Trip to Brussels, Belgium

Brussels City Hall
I made my first trip outside of Spain this past weekend to Brussels, Belgium.  I went into the trip with no expectations partially because I knew very little about Belgium before the trip.  I knew they were supposed to have good chocolate.  I also knew that they are supposed to have good waffles, mussels, french fries, and beer.  Essentially, I knew about their food.  I also knew that I like LOVE chocolate and therefore the trip couldn't be a total bust.  The trip turned out to be more than I could have ever hoped for.

I should note that Belgium does deserve the respect that it has for all of the food/drink items that I listed above.  I should know; my friends and I sampled everything.  Upon our arrival to the city on Friday night, we checked into our hotel and picked up some fresh chocolate covered waffles on our way to a bar with some new friends that we met on the plane.  The waffles were great and the beer was too, but I think our time dancing at the bar/club was the best part of the night.  We learned that night that Belgians love Americans, which was a really nice change of pace.  Despite their love of Americans, they are very shy when it comes to actually saying anything to American girls; therefore, our friend John was pretty occupied talking for most of the night talking to Belgians about his American female friends.  We also learned that most people don't really dance.  Despite this knowledge, we formed a little circle and got our groove on to mostly American music and a little Spanish music as well.  Ironically, they seem to play more Spanish music in Belgium than in Spain.
Mannekin Pis

On Saturday, we explored the city of Brussels.  I saw some amazing architecture throughout the city, but was impressed the most by the buildings in the Grand Place which contained the Brussels City Hall, a beautiful building with perfectly done gold details.  After the Grand Place, my friends and I went in search of Manneken Pis, a statue that the people of Brussels seem to take a lot of pride in.  It's a little odd, but the statue is of a naked little boy urinating.  This statue is on almost every postcard for the city and is even dressed up in different outfits throughout the year.  Unfortunately, he was not dressed up when I viewed the statue so I saw a little more than I had hoped to.  The statue was also a lot smaller than I had anticipated; it was about the size of a garden gnome.  It made me really question how or why this is what has become the face of Brussels.  The city has much more impressive works of art.

Chocolate-making in Belgium is considered a form of art; the chocolates are all decorated and shaped in very intricate ways that are nothing shy of extraordinary.  I can attest to the taste of the chocolate as well.  It was the best chocolate that I have ever had, which is really saying something considering I've definitely had my fair share of chocolate in my short 20 years of life.  

The Atomium
We started off Saturday night at a bar that has over 2000 beers on tap.  That is not a typo.  I know this is probably a big shock, but I am not actually familiar with 2000+ different beers.  Luckily, the bartenders were really helpful at listening and choosing the perfect beer for each customer.  I thought about trying all 2000+ beers that night, but figured that might be a little expensive and decided to just have a few instead.

On our last day, we visited the Atomium, a piece of art that is made up of giant silver balls that you can go in to see great views of the entire city.  It was actually part of the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels.  I only went into the highest ball, but you can go into all of the balls if you want.  In my opinion, one ball was plenty.  Not to be immature, but between the Mannekin Pis and the Atomium, I think Freud would have a lot to say.

Brussels was amazing and has made me even more excited for what lies ahead.  I still love Bilbao despite its constant rain lately.  I hope all is well for everyone!  Until next time... ¡Adios!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Post 4

A picture of the river next to the
university after a day of classes
Nothing too exciting happened this week, but it was a good week nonetheless!  Syllabus week (the first week of classes) is now over and I have homework every night.  I am reading books in Spanish for two different classes right now.  While the books are not overly difficult, I must say that I miss being able to read books of my choice on my Kindle in english, or as some students in my program have begun to say, American.  Oh well...this just serves as extra motivation to finish the required books ASAP!

On Wednesday, I went to the Museo de Bellas Artes, a fine arts museum located in the heart of Bilbao.  The museum does not charge admission on Wednesdays, so I toured the museum for free.  The museum made up for all of the disappointment I felt after going through the Guggenheim.  There were beautiful paintings of all different styles throughout the entire museum.  Like the Guggenheim, there were a couple of pieces that really made me question how the artists ever gained any respect or even received the privilege of being called an artist.  If the whole being a Spanish teacher thing doesn't work out maybe I'll just take a square shaped black sheet made of silk and hang it on the wall and call it art too.  This piece already existed in the museum so I might have to do it in a different color just to be original.  The amazing part about the silk sheet art piece is that the ends were fringed and not in what I would deem to be an artsy way either.
El Museo de Bellas Artes

Spain is changing me and not for the better in terms of my bank account.  In the U.S., I absolutely positively do not like shopping.  Shopping is something that I know I need to and should do but will not do until my loving mother tells me that I have to.  I also normally shop only with my mom.  Spain has transformed me into someone else.  I find myself shopping several times each week here.  Needless to say, my wardrobe might look a little different when I return to the U.S.

To counteract all of the clothes shopping I have done I went on a little airfare shopping spree last Thursday and Friday.  Unfortunately, this does not translate into me saving money.  At least I will be seeing parts of the world that I might never have the opportunity to return to again.  Plus, I'm young.  Aren't I supposed to be doing things like this?

A bridge that I saw on my walk in Bilbao
I went on a walk yesterday because I needed some time to myself to just relax.  I explored my neighborhood which was long overdue.  I still can't believe how beautiful it is here.  I know the locals must think I'm crazy for taking so many pictures here.  I was told before I left the U.S. that I should attempt to blend in as much as possible and not look like a tourist.  This probably means keeping picture taking to a minimum.  Be honest though.  I have light skin, light hair, and hazel eyes.  I'm not fooling anyone into thinking that I'm a Spaniard.  I do find it amusing though when people realize that I can actually speak and understand Spanish.  Instead of being able to make fun of me for being American, they are usually the ones that end up blushing.  I like to think of it as instant karma.

I'm still getting used to some aspects of the culture here.  Staring is done quite frequently and for rather long amounts of time.  Even when you catch people staring at you, they do not seem to feel any need to stop.  They might even start whistling at you.

Until next time... ¡Adios!