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 jalapeƱos 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!