Final Reflection Post

After 4 months, 10 countries, 26 cities, 19 UNESCO World Heritage Cites, countless memories, stories to last a lifetime and thousands upon thousands of pictures, I am back home and have had a week to reflect on this past semester that has been nothing short of a dream. I wouldn’t dare to say that I’m settled back into life here at home, because after all that I have done I’m not sure that I will ever be able to feel “settled” again, as I am already looking for the next opportunity I can take to get back out there. But for now, I can say that the unpacking is worse than it’s ever been, but I would be lying if I wasn’t enjoying consuming all of my typical American snacks.

As my final post, I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned and what this experience has meant to me. Living abroad is something that I will always cherish, and recommend to anyone who is thinking about it, or who needs to be convinced by it, 1000% percent. I do understand the sacrifice that is necessary, but I can assure you that the reward is so so worth it. Saying that, whether you have the opportunity to study or to just travel, take it. No matter your age, no matter the timing, take it. If you leave with an open mind and a willingness to try, everything that comes your way, good or bad, opens your eyes to a whole new understanding of the world. Being abroad allowed me to open my mind to others thoughts, as well as my own thoughts, forced me to notice everything, to critically analyze my thoughts, my actions, and everything I have ever known. Forced to function in a completely different society, this allows you to learn even more than you think you are capable of. Walking down the street is an experience in itself. Although many people question it, I did in fact learn a lot in school. I truly feel an improvement in my Spanish skills, whether it’s all technical or all confidence, I feel a change. Not to mention the people you will meet, oh, the people. Jumping into this experience I knew absolutely no one, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I came out of it the exact opposite, having a group of people that I share such a special bond with. I am so thankful for the people I studied with, I lived with, and I met on the street or in my travels. The amount of inspiration that can come from people looking for the same things as you are is incredible. I not only learned an immense amount about Spain, and the other countries that I traveled to, but about my own country as well. I was forced to present myself and my background to people who have only imagined about where I come from (yes, the New York thing was hard). Doing this forced me to take a deep look into how I’ve become who I am, so that I could learn about others in just the same way. This experience thought me to take advantage of every moment, to wake up at 6am on a Thursday, or stay out until 4am on a Tuesday, to spend that money that I saved, to hike that mountain, to eat that gelato, and say hi to that stranger. It also taught me to cherish the moments, realizing that I may never have this exact feeling again, but I sure as hell will chase it.

One thing I’m trying to remember as I am back home, is to not forget all that I have grown in these past 4 months, to not digress. I’d feel as if all that I’d done, all that I’d learned all that I’d noticed while being away would be a waste if I didn’t take that knowledge and that feeling with me for the rest of my life. Immediately and indefinitely. If I couldn’t take my own advice and apply it to my life back here, no matter where I end up. Being back in my hometown, I may not have the same opportunities to explore something new and exciting and worldly every day, but what I will try to do is find a little bit of discovery in each day, whether it’s a col festival or just a garage sale. Just because you’re in a place you might have always been, does not mean you have to do things you’ve always done or feel the things that you always feel. Make an adventure out of all that you do. I hope to keep thinking, feeling, noticing and reflecting like I was able to do in Spain, for the rest of my life, no matter where I may be (Rochester or Spain, South America or Niagara Falls) because I refuse to live a boring life now that I’ve returned.

Nobody can tell you how to live your experience abroad, no two journeys are the same. I think that going abroad is not only about the things that you gain in your head, but about the things that you gain in your heart and your soul. For me, the most important aspect is the thing you gain internally. It’s a feeling, it’s a mindset, and it’s a clarity that I haven’t found anywhere else.

Thank you with all that I have, to everyone who made this dream a reality for me.

wah

“We travel initially to lose ourselves, and as we live the experiences, we actually become destined to find ourselves”

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Bonus Travels!

After leaving Alicante at the end of my program, I was lucky enough to have two more weeks to travel in Europe, visit 3 more countries…and do it with my family! I am so grateful that I got to share not only my city and my experiences with them but we also got the chance to discover new places together. Here are our adventures in pictures…

Look who arrived!!!

Look who arrived!!!

Family in Alicante

Family in Alicante

She made it to Spain!

She made it to Spain!

Taking them to Castillo

Taking them to Castillo

Spanish Sistaaaas

Spanish Sistaaaas

Host family meets real family!

Host family meets real family!

My two mamas

My two mamas

Have to stop by my favorite gelato shop before we leave

Have to stop by my favorite gelato shop before we leave

Next stop, Barcelona!

Next stop, Barcelona!

Sagrada Familia selfie

Sagrada Familia selfie

Churroooooos!

Churroooooos!

Friendly birds

Friendly birds

Look who showed up!

Look who showed up!

Sunny day in the park

Sunny day in the park

Spanish-American family dinner!

Spanish-American family dinner!

Visiting Pals

Visiting Pals

At the Roman Ruins

At the Roman Ruins

End of a great visit in Barcelona

End of a great visit in Barcelona

Welcome to London!

Welcome to London!

Spanish festival in London...

Spanish festival in London…

St. Pancras train station

St. Pancras train station

London decor

London decor

Visiting Box hill

Visiting Box hill

Little windyer than Spain

Little windyer than Spain

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea

Spring in London

Spring in London

Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace

Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace

Camden market, my favorite place!

Camden market, my favorite place!

Shopping on Nottinghill

Shopping on Nottinghill

Classic tourist pic

Classic tourist pic

Ello Ben

Ello Ben

Getting cozy with the guard

Getting cozy with the guard

Now, Paris! Visiting Notre Dame

Now, Paris! Visiting Notre Dame

Love Lock bridge

Love Lock bridge

FRENCH french onion soup

FRENCH french onion soup

Loving Paris much more than I expected

Loving Paris much more than I expected

My first Macaroon experience

My first Macaroon experience

View from the top of the Arc de Triumph

View from the top of the Arc de Triumph

A beautiful day in a beautiful city

A beautiful day in a beautiful city

Ending the day at the Eiffel Tower

Ending the day at the Eiffel Tower

Back in London to enjoy some fish&chips

Back in London to enjoy some fish&chips

Touring Abbey road and the M&M store all in one shot

Touring Abbey road and the M&M store all in one shot

Quick stop at Hogwarts

Quick stop at Hogwarts

Then we headed to Brussels, Belgium!

Then we headed to Brussels, Belgium!

The best fries you will ever have. As the Belgians say "frietes"

The best fries you will ever have. As the Belgians say “frietes”

Belgium open market

Belgian open market

Belgian waffle with white chocolate and strawberries

Belgian waffle with white chocolate and strawberries

Most beautiful group of buildings anywhere

Most beautiful group of buildings anywhere

End of our day in Brussels

End of our day in Brussels

Touring Bath, England

Touring Bath, England

Pit stop at Stonehenge

Pit stop at Stonehenge

I think its aliens

I think its aliens

Further proving my point

Further proving my point

An agonizing adios to Alicante

(Disclaimer: I wrote this post almost a month ago now, as I was actually leaving Alicante. After two weeks of traveling and my adjustment back home, I am finally finding the time (and the acceptance) to post about the end of my time abroad)
Well, as I’m posting this blog I write to you from the train leaving Alicante my eyes full of tears. This past week as been a huge whirlwind of favorite activities “lasts” final projects and (hopefully not) final goodbyes. Here are some of the highlights from the end of my time in the city that has become my home.
After returning from spring break we spent the rest of our school free days doing what one does, laying on the beach, taking ferry boats to islands, and dining on tapas and paella while catching up with friends and sharing endless travel stories. Sarah and I also experienced the holiday to our town, dia de Santa faz, which is celebrated by walking a pilgrimage from one section of town to another where at the end there is a huge carnival. After getting a late start due to our exhaustion from spring break, we underestimated the walk and took the bus with the rest of I antes over 70 population. Well, that would be the second bus we took after getting on the wrong one and taking a detour tour around a new part of the city. (It may have been 4 months but that doesn’t stop us from finding new and mistaken adventures) we celebrated like alicantinas buying street food which we enjoyed while people watching, playing a game or too and listening to music. We did one thing right that day by deciding to take the bus back at the time we did, since as soon as we left it started torential down pouring (as it never does in Alicante) as we drove by we saw all the dedicated pilgrimagers being soaked as there was absolutely no covering on the walk. Unfortunately, it continued for so long, adding in our first experience of thunder and lightning in Alicante ever, that even after we waiting for 45 minutes in a store, we decided to make the 20 minute trek back home in the rain without an umbrella…because we were hungry. Rain storm = more adventure. But the next day we were able to take advantage of the returning beautiful weather and take an hour ferry ride to the island of Tabarca where we enjoyed (free) sangria, crystal clear waters, and some form of beaches. We weren’t able to enjoy those crystal clear waters in the usual way because they were unfortunately filled with bright purple jelly fish. Swarms of them. Although everyone else saw this as a pain, I embraced the moment and took them in since this was my first experience face to face with jelly fish. Fortunately, and to my friends surprise, I didn’t have to “fully experience” all that they could do.
The final week of school included papers, presentations and tests that we put in as much energy into as you can when you live in a beach town, but all succeeding in the end. Luckily this whole idea of Spanish education leaves me with significantly less stress about “finals week” than the normal one at school in the U.S. The goodbyes then began when I had to say goodbye to my postcard scene of a campus and some of the most incredible professors I’ve ever had, who became not only our teachers but our go to people when we were planning trips, looking for something to do around town or just needed someone to talk to. We celebrated our last morning with our program directors as well by having a goodbye brunch where we enjoyed sharing memories and plans for reunions in the future. Although it was more of a celebration of our time together, the lingering feeling of the end was coming.
Another day we were able to go out to a special lunch with our host family, Sarah and I, Carmen, Roser and Alva. We dined on one of our favorites Kebap (Spanish adapted Turkish food) and had a nice day out. This was unfortunately my goodbye to Roser and Alva as she would be on vacation during the next week that I was leaving. Having to say goodbye to my family members made the reality of leaving set in a little deeper.
One of our next activities was a “family game night” style session with our intercambios where we played in mixed nationality teams and answered trivia questions about each others home countries. Funny to say that we all learned some new facts about our own countries as well. The group favorite though was headbands, including both famous people and characters from Spain and the U.S. (Ex. Bob Marley, Antonio Banderas, SpongeBob Square pants, William Shakespeare, Don Quijote..)
All time favorite.
After four months of being catered by Carmen’s delicious Spanish cooking Sarah and I thought it was only fair that we make a meal for her, and if we were going to make a meal, we would have to expose her to one of the most popular American delicacies…Mac and cheese. So we went to the store, bought our noodles, our blocked cheddar and scrounged up the materials at home for the homemade kind. No craft here. Carmen watched as we cooked our pasta, sautéed out sauce, and mixed it all together before popping it in the oven. Carmen mentioned a couple times during the process that she “liked all those things” so when it was done, she’s sure she would enjoy it. She also mentioned how they have something similar, but when she cracked into that bubbly crust and took her first bite she smiled and said how this was not what she had had before, and that it was so much better that she had expected. She even said how she wanted to make it again for Roser and Alva to try later. We obviously we’re thrilled with our dish as it tasted a little bit like home.  Chef Sarah and chef Briana succeed. And then the next day, we got our own lesson on the traditional Spanish dish, paella. Something we normally eat for lunch on Sunday’s, a classic, was a meal that Sarah and I both wanted to learn how to cook so that we can eventually make it back home in the states. Carmen started the hour and a half long process from the very beginning as we chopped vegetables, sautéed them, cooked the rice, added the water, mixed it all together and then, we had Paella! The whole time we were taking notes so that we would replicate Carmen’s recipe as perfectly as possible.
The week of “lasts” continued as we enjoyed our favorite Mexican place one last time with Sydney, and Sarah and I spent our last Thursday like all the others we had before, having a Mindy Project marathon in my room. Tradition is everything.
On our last weekday a group of us decided to seize the day and take in a sunrise at Castillo. So we met up at 6:30 am and hiked up the rocky hill in the dark, looking at our gleaming city beneath us. We did about half the hike, all without realizing that the very top, where you can actually see the part where the sun rises, was closed off overnight. So with 20 minutes till sunrise, that we definitely weren’t going to miss, me made a rash decision to change locations to the beach. So we ran down the mountain, hopped a gate and crossed a street illegally to get to the beach on time. Our efforts were rewarded when we got there on time and enjoyed the sunrise having almost the whole beach to ourselves. In the spirit of taking opportunities, we also turned it into a photo shoot, making it one of my favorite mornings by far.
Then, faster than any of us could have imagined, the last day snuck up on us. The saying “time flys when you’re having fun” never made more sense. We spent our last day all together as a group gathering on the beach, enjoying each others company, the warm rays of the sun and the cool splash of the Mediterranean (there actually was a literal splash war) After going home to enjoy one last dinner with our host families, we all gathered together again for one last night out, trying to soak up every second of our time that we could.
More than fortunately for me, I did not have to try and make myself get on a plane the next day. I spent most of Saturday anxiously awaiting the arrival of my family, in Alicante!!! When they arrived Saturday evening, after traveling for a total of 24 hours, I was ecstatic to be able to show them my Spanish home and ready to do everything on the first night. But we were able to spend the next 3 days doing the most famous tourist attractions and monuments, eating at all my favorite restaurants, visiting the university, uniting my American family with my Spanish family, and teaching them the amount of necessary Spanish the needed to look a little less foreign. “No pasa nada” is now my moms new favorite saying. Hopefully she can bring it back to the states, the Spanish would be proud. I am!!
Monday night, at the train station, was when reality really hit. Although I knew it was coming, and with the arrival of my family hinting at the fact that things were changing, it still didn’t feel like it was time to go. In the days leading up as I stalled and eventually was forced to pack up the accumulation of all my things, it still felt like another one of our weekend adventures, that I should be returning from in a couple days.
 I don’t think that leaving the city you have come to know, to grow in, to love, will ever feel right. My life in Alicante was nothing short of a dream, and something that I often referred to as feeling like I was in a movie, no matter if my friends made fun of me for it or not. Saying goodbye to the places and the people was needless to say very emotional. Thank goodness that my family was there to drag me on the train, because if it were up to me, I probably wouldn’t have bet money on the fact that I’d be on the train.
Luckily I have the rest of our trip to look forward to, as we are now heading to Barcelona, and later London! Stay tuned for an update from the rest of my travels, as well as a final reflection post.
For now, here’s my final week in pictures…
Leaving our city for the island life

Leaving our city for the island life

Our boat

Our boat

Welcomed by JELLYFISH!

Welcomed by JELLYFISH!

Popular sand sculptures

Popular sand sculptures

Living up our final days on the beach

Living up our final days on the beach

Some beach volleyball

Some beach volleyball

Last beach party

Last beach party

Chef Sarah and Chef Briana from America

Chef Sarah and Chef Briana from America

Final product

Final product

Game night with intercambios

Game night with intercambios

Adios for now to our new friends

Adios for now to our new friends

Carmen teaching us to make paella

Carmen teaching us to make paella

Middle of the process

Middle of the process

Mi familia Alicantina

Mi familia Alicantina

Festival de Santa Faz

Festival de Santa Faz

Chicassss

Chicassss

A hike to the top of the castle at 6am

A hike to the top of the castle at 6am

To take in the sunrise on one of our final days

To take in the sunrise on one of our final days

And capture some cool shots

And capture some cool shots

Energized by our adventure

Energized by our adventure

(Thanks Jacobo)

(Thanks Jacobo)

Last day at school

Last day at school

Our last hoorah

Our last hoorah

Alicante, mi amor

Alicante, mi amor

Spring Break: Backpacker Style

Yesterday afternoon my roommate Sarah, and our good friend Sydney and I returned from our 10 day Spring break backpacking adventure! This might not have been the average 19 or 20 year olds ideal trip seeing as we moved north to visit Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Stockholm, Sweden and Warsaw, Poland. But we weren’t looking to be average, being abroad is all about moving out of your comfort zone and accumulating as many different experiences as you can, and that is why we decided to take a break from the sun, and the beach…since we do live there…and explore some drastically different cultures not only from our own, but from Spain’s as well. And that is what we did! Here comes a big one…

Our first stop was Amsterdam, where we arrived late Saturday night to be welcomed by a birthday party on the bus from the airport. The people of Amsterdam are very excited to share their city and their culture, which we obviously learned early on. One thing they like to make clear is that although Amsterdam has recently grown to become a popular tourist destination for many Europeans, that there are many things important to their city besides just tourism. Our new friend on the bus made sure to warn us of this, unfortunately since we only had 2 days, some of the tourist attractions were our priority. After arriving late, unavoidably getting lost on the way to our hostel, and miraculously stumbling upon our two friends that we would be staying with, we called it a night. One thing to mention is that since it is a rising tourist city, many in Amsterdam speak English which is great, because our levels of Dutch are at 0. But overall we were able to navigate without really any issues. The next morning was Easter Sunday! And we wanted to get out and explore as soon as possible. We had an Easter breakfast of croissants with coffee and tea (traveler’s budget) in the beautiful museum square while we let the sun shine down on us. After enjoying a nice moment to appreciate where we were and what a day it was, we moved on to our first activity…bikes! Although many tourists rent bikes just as we did, Amsterdam is called the “biking city” for a reason, because that’s what all the locals primarily use. Yes there are quite arguably more bikes than cars. But this was no tranquil ride, more like a level 10 game of frogger. Quite comically I’m sure, the 5 of us tried to navigate the streets of the city on bikes while weaving in and out of all the Lance Armstrong’s that live on the roads there, ringing our bells all the way. I laughed to myself when I first saw that all the bikes came with those bells I always wanted as a kid, thinking “how cute” but in reality, this is what keeps you right on the other side of death. The bells are used by everyone riding to make others aware that they are coming through, and they won’t stop even if they have to run you over. Walking through the streets, this is something you have to pay even more attention to, because like I said, they will run you over. Our tour guide described them quite perfectly as “angry birds” from that popular game a few years back. Although we got a little bit more than we bargained for, as an avid bike rider at home I loved the experience. We rode through the center of the city, back to the square surrounding our hostel, to lunch and dinner, up and down the canals and even through a gorgeous (and confusing) park. This took up most of our day, so as night fell we decided that it would be nice to have a sit down dinner and appreciate each other’s company on the holiday. So since were traveling college students, we did it in the most appropriate way possible and went to a nice Italian place where we ordered…pizza because it was the cheapest and we could share. It’s the thought that counts right? To say the least if was one of my more memorable Easter dinners. The next day we started off with one of the activities we try to do in every city, a (free) walking tour! My favorite thing about these tours is that the guides are always fantastic. This particular one happened to be from Scotland and his accent made it about 10 times better. We walked around for about 2 hours learned the history of the city, the secret stories, learning about the locals and seeing some of the most famous attractions. This included the appropriately named Dam square, the Old Church, the Palace, the ever famous red light district along with the university, the canals and the Anne Frank House. This is always the best way to see the most things and learn a little bit of fun history along the way. One of my favorite stories from this tour was the fact that The famous Napoleon Bonaparte originally came to the city in order to rule, but hated it so much when he arrived that he decided it wasn’t worthy of his status, so he must give it to his little brother, Louis, who then went on to become King. The funny part is that Napoleon was also not fond of his little brother, so his line of thought was to put two bad things together and see what happened. Now it is a beautiful city that attracts many visitors every year. I wonder what Napoleon thinks now? Our time in Amsterdam ended quickly and we parted ways with the boys to each head to our next destinations.

Next up was Stockholm! Like any place when we first arrive, confusion due to the fact that we have no idea where we are and also no idea where were going, sets in. But somehow we always figure it out. After only about a half hour of pacing and reading signs and asking questions we were on a bus to the city. I have to say that upon arrival there was not as much excitement as we had on the bus in Amsterdam, but actually quite a bit of familiarity. On our hour ride from the airport to the city we all commented on how much it reminded us of the US as we drove by lush green fields and full forests. This is probably what happens when you have country girls who have been living in cities for the past 4 months. Although we have some open space in Alicante, it is made up of dry mountains, palm trees and sand, so it was refreshing to see some different scenery. But as soon as we arrived in the city we were surrounded by buildings and bridges again. This time however, it felt different. Stockholm is actually an archipelago of small islands connected by numerous bridges and boats. This is something that I wasn’t completely aware of before, but found pretty cool. After settling into our hostel our first order of business was to get our hands on some Swedish meatballs. We took to the streets with our maps in hand and stumbled upon a small café, with huge meatballs and that was that. The meatballs were great, but I have to say the fact that they were served with mash potatoes was for me, so much greater. After our stomachs were full, we decided to check out the section of town secluded to its own island which is known as “old town” this is the original part of the city that they decided to build out from once the island was full. Our plans were to walk the streets and check out the sights, but as we were coming up on the palace we saw something much more intriguing taking place. There was some caution tape and one police van around the opening of the river, where there was only a small group of people and about 3 police that appeared to be towing a body, yes a body, out of the water. We watched for about 20 minutes as everything occurred very calmly and very organized. When the job was done, the caution tape was peeled away and the van took off. This left us with our jaws on the pavement not only because we definitely just saw a dead body, but mostly because there was almost no commotion. No news crew, no helicopters, no flashing lights, no crowd of people. We later on concluded that this was not because the Swedes take this as no big deal, but because they are extremely good at concealing tragedies like these and respecting private situations…just how we are not in the states. After that activity that night we then decided to take advantage of the kitchen in our hostel and cook ourselves dinner. Maybe because it was warmer to stay inside, maybe because it was way cheaper, maybe because we wanted to cook, who knows? But it felt good to have our own little space and a big pot of pasta in front of us. The next day we went on two of the cities tours, first the modern city where we heard about famous Swedish movie stars such as Greta Garbol and famous Swedish brands like H&M as well as visited the location in which the Nobel Prizes are awarded every year. After enjoying some delicious coffee and tea inside, we took a tour of the old town that we visited the day before to learn about the more historic aspect of the city and take a look at the astonishing Palace and cathedrals that made it up. The best way I can describe the feeling of Old town would be imagining yourself inside a Disney movie that takes place in a small village, with colorful, regal looking buildings and cobblestone paths with people milling about. And if I had to pick one movie in particular, it would be Frozen, because that’s what we were. We knew that it would be colder than our beloved Spain, but after 4 months in the sun we definitely forgot what if felt like to be really cold. To fix this, we just had to purchase some cozy hand-knitted Swedish mittens as “souvenirs”…or necessities. Then we had to of course duck into the oldest café in all of Stockholm and a favorite by the King, to enjoy some famous Swedish cinnamon buns. Obviously, they were delicious. After going back to our hostel for the night we enjoyed the company of our other roommates and travelers by sharing stories and backgrounds and “how did you get here’s?” over another home cooked dinner in the common room. One of the best things about traveling and staying in hostels are all the people you meet who are doing the same thing. During this particular visit we made friends with some Canadians, someone from Egypt and another one from France. Everyone has so many different reasons for traveling, so many different plans and so many perspectives on what you see, which are all incredibly interesting to hear about, especially from other people who are just as crazy as you about traveling. On our last day, we took a trip outside the city to the world’s largest IKEA store, which is also a company native to Sweden. I have heard many things about this wonderful place, but this was my first experience. And what a better way to do it in the world’s largest, in its own country of origin? My friends were actually so excited for me that they contemplated recording me as I first entered. This clued me in on the fact that it would be cool, and it was pretty freakin cool. We spent a couple hours milling through the various decorated rooms discussing what we liked and didn’t like, testing out the beds, desk chairs, and one or two of the bathtubs while finishing it up in the food court for lunch. Yes this furniture store is that cool that it has its own food court. We then missed the shuttle bus back to the city, so what were we to do while waiting for the next one, go to the mall across the street of course. Later on when we finally made it back, we took a ferry to another small island where we had heard about a great attraction, the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a Viking ship which is famous because although it had plans to conquer the Danes as the best military ship yet in the open sea, it sank tragically after only 10 minutes never even making it out of the Stockholm harbor. Now this is not your average museum, because the boat was found 300 years later in almost perfect condition and salvaged from the water and then put on land to have the museum built around it. When you’re inside the building, the center piece is the boat itself. Now this is exactly what you would picture a classic Viking to ride in, a massive wooden structure with carving of angry lion faces and cannons coming out the sides, huge sails that stick out the top of the building and railings that are intricately carved around all sides. The astonishing part to the Vasa is 1. How it only voyaged for 10 minutes before all the villagers watched it sink to its demise, and 2. That is was lost in the harbor for hundreds of years then salvaged in perfect condition. Another mention on the language factor, Swedish is not easy to understand, and intimidating to hear…but English for the Scandinavians is quite a common practice so again we were good. On our last night as we were packing up and printing boarding passes and such, we happened to be clarifying all our plans when we discovered to our surprise that the airport we flew into, was not the airport we had a plane ticket to fly out of. But not to worry, after some panicking and a total change of plans we figured it all out even to the point where we could transfer the charge of our round trip bus ticket to the bus we would take to the other airport, and we made it out on time!

After arriving in our final destination of Warsaw, we spent more time being confused than we probably had the whole trip combined. After not understanding a joke that a man made about the bus being our only option, we wandered the parking lot before finally getting on that bus, to then arrive in the city where we wandered the streets for an equal amount of time looking for a cross walk before we figured out that the only way to actually cross the street was to go underground. After finally finding the street our hostel was on, we wandered that as well because we weren’t aware that our hostel was actually on the third floor of an office building, which had no sign out front. Throughout this whole confused mess, we heard traditional Polish music throughout the streets which made us feel like we were in an oldies movie montage mixed with an episode of Punk’d. As it was already nighttime, we decided to grab food and call it a night. The next day we spent our time exploring (map in hand, all thought it’s not much help) and checking out the interesting things Warsaw has to offer. The center of the city where we were staying was very modern, with high rise buildings and interesting sculptures everywhere you look along with shopping malls and Starbucks thrown in here and there. But we soon came a crossed the old town of Warsaw which was quite opposite. On our way there, we saw other sections of the city that displayed the heavy communist influence placed on them by Russia not so long ago. But the old town itself is quite a special place. This is the same type of thing as Stockholm, the original part of the city, the most historic. But this old town is historic for some different reasons. All these beautifully colored buildings rising at different heights that reminded me of a scene from Beauty and the Beast, are only actually around 50 years old. Confusing right? This is because the old town of Warsaw was reconstructed to look exactly as it did when it was just as old as it looks. The city of Warsaw was completely demolished by bombs in the end of WWII and due to this there were pretty much no remains of what had been. After their harsh struggles and incredible perseverance through the invasion of Germany and then Russia, when Poland got on its feet again, they rebuilt the capital to look exactly how it had during is prosperous years. Now, it is a happy place where we saw the streets and squares full of families and visitors on a sunny Sunday afternoon milling through markets and restaurants, many of them with unique ice creams in hand. Something I thought was cool was that they sell postcards and maps and other souvenirs in shops where they put pictures side by side of the before, the destruction and the after of specific scenes around the town that you could even see now. As we wandered around Warsaw in and out of shops and restaurants we were obviously forced to interact with the Polish people (as we are in every destination) but here, it was quite a lot more difficult. As I have mentioned in every new city, how we dealt with the language was not too difficult. Well that all stopped in Poland. Many poles do not speak English, and we certainly don’t speak Polish. If you remember how I rated my Dutch as a 0, I’d say my polish is about at a -10. Unfortunately or fortunately for me, I don’t know which, I look as if I could be Polish, because more than one time a local felt comfortable enough to begin speaking polish to me on the street. Sadly, the communication did not foster. I have to say that this was the first time that I really felt a tad bit helpless. It’s not like we couldn’t get around, some people did speak some English and we were able to decipher the things that we needed to decipher, but the difficulty factor was much higher than anywhere I have traveled so far. It may seem weird, but it isn’t until now that I have realized how deep the importance of language really is. Although I wouldn’t say I’m 100% fluent in Spanish, it is something that I now feel 10 times more comfortable with my abilities in because of the ways I’m able to use it. I have never felt more like a (for lack of a better term – and the best description of my feelings while I was there) “stupid American” than I did here. I can surprisingly say that I felt much more out of touch in Poland than I did in Morocco. The next day was a very different learning experience for us, with a much more serious tone. We woke up at 4am to take a train to the city of Krakow about 3 hours away, where we would meet up with another group to take a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau, the German concentration camps from WWII. We knew that this was an opportunity we should take after learning about how close by it was from my professor, but still we had unsure feelings about what we were about to experience. These feelings of uncertainty, confusion, disbelief and shock did not go away all day. Being in the concentration camps s not something I am going to elaborate on too much, but what I would like to share is that even though this is not an experience I can say that I enjoyed, and I don’t think anyone is supposed to enjoy it, this is an experience that I feel was important to have in order to not only humble myself but to respect history, and definitely something that I am never going to forget. Most of the day just consisted of listening to our guide, followed by heavy silence. Although we didn’t discuss or comment, it was easy to see the same impact that I felt on the others faces throughout the tour. On our journey back home we befriended some polish men who happened to speak some English and were extremely interested in hearing about our experiences in Poland thus far. They asked why we were here and what we thought about it along as gave us some advice about the rest of our time. This only reinforced thoughts that we earlier had about how Warsaw and Poland in general isn’t a huge tourist area. More than one person even told us that we were the first Americans they had ever met. I don’t know if this is due to the harsh history, the huge language barrier or the colder conditions but it did become more apparent that it wasn’t normal for us to be there. But this didn’t make the experience less enjoyable for us, it only taught us more. After visiting Warsaw I learned that traveling shouldn’t be all about the glamor (trust me we discovered this early after living out of only a backpack) yes every city has renowned sites that are necessary to see, but there’s also more to the story, about how they got there. To really appreciate the triumphs, it’s important not to forget the many trials. For our last day in Warsaw, we met up with 3 other guys from our program back in Spain who happened to be traveling there as well. We strolled around the old town and ducked into a cozy little traditional place for lunch where we enjoyed a feast of pierogis. Having only tried the frozen version from the grocery store before, I was quite pleased with the famous polish dish. We were all served our own concoction in little frying pans to enjoy. My choice was spinach stuffed with a creamy cheese sauce to top them off. And after we were in a happy food coma, we said see you later to the boys and were off to do some necessary souvenir shopping to finish the day. The next morning it was up bright and early again to begin our journey back home, and after 10 days of sharing rooms with strangers and stuffing and restuffing our things into our backpacks, we were ready.

Overall, the spring break adventure was a huge success. While traveling, and really traveling, you learn that things will always go wrong, and to have a plan is sometimes quite detrimental to what you actually want to do. We learned to explore, we learned to go with the flow, we learned to decipher maps (as best as we could) we learned to ask A LOT of questions, and to not be embarrassed for being lost, we learned the importance of language, and we learned a whole lot about each other while learning about 3 new and very distinct places. Some of the best memories we made were from the things that went wrong. For example: Sarah not being able to ride a bike, or missing the bus back from IKEA, or getting caught sitting in the IKEA bathtub, or buying the wrong bus tickets, or walking into the wrong bathroom, or accidently speaking to Polish people in Spanish, or breaking glass in a store, or giving the airline the wrong boarding pass…The point is that things will go wrong, but that’s the best part because you never know what to expect, those are the moments you will never forget, and I am thankful for every single one of them.

See below to experience some of these fantastic memories through pictures…

Excitement on flight 1 of 4

Excitement on flight 1 of 4

Easter Morning in Amsterdam

Easter Morning in Amsterdam

The museum square, surrounding our hostel

The museum square, surrounding our hostel

The Amsterdam crew canal side

The Amsterdam crew canal side

Ready for biking adventures

Ready for biking adventures

Dutch Clogs

Dutch Clogs

IAMsterdam sign

IAMsterdam sign

First order of business in Sweden, the meatballs

First order of business in Sweden, the meatballs

Posing at the Palace

Posing at the Palace

Keeping warm in our new mittens

Keeping warm in our new mittens

Enjoying old town

Enjoying old town Stockholm

The famous swedish cinnamon buns

The famous swedish cinnamon buns

Caught: in an IKEA bath tub

Caught: in an IKEA bath tub

The Vasa ship

The Vasa ship

300 years later...

300 years later…

Park time in Poland

Park time in Poland

The Polish Royalty building

The Polish Royalty building

With some sort of memorial set up

With some sort of memorial set up

Old town in Warsaw

Old town in Warsaw

Polish markets

Polish markets

Common travel in Warsaw

Common travel in Warsaw

Entrance to Auschwitz

Entrance to Auschwitz

Traditional Polish dolls

Traditional Polish dolls

One of the many plates of Perogies I enjoyed

One of the many plates of Perogies I enjoyed

Chronicles of the backpackers  (Sarah had a rolly bag)

Chronicles of the backpackers
(Sarah had a rolly bag)

Semana Santa & Alicante Activities

So sorry there has been a bit of a delay with this post, but I promise there will be lots of info to fill in the gaps! Since returning from Ireland and Morocco the week before, I have been spending my time really enjoying Alicante again. These past two weeks have been filled with plenty of typical Alicantina activities and Spanish traditions which is only appropriate as I will be traveling again these next two weeks through Eastern Europe! But ill get to that later.

Some of the great Spanish cultural activities I have been enjoying include watching the Madrid vs. Barcelona game with friends in a bar last week. For those of you who don’t know, this is soccer, but here its futbol. Futbol is obviously a big deal (like our football, but more intense) but what’s an even bigger deal is Madrid vs Barcelona. These are the two biggest and best teams in Spain, and they are huge rivals, and their fan bases are even bigger rivals. This rivalry divides people, you are either Madrid, or Barcelona even if you aren’t from these cities. What team you support is kind of more important than your job, your house, your morals…my professor told us that he knows someone who was speeding on the highway and when the cop pulled him over he only asked one thing “Madrid or Barca?” and when the driver quickly replied Madrid, he was let off the hook. Here in Alicante almost everyone is Madrid, so guess who we cheered for? Madrid (Sorry Maria). But whoever you are cheering for, the environment is great, even if you don’t know soccer you’ll know when to get rowdy because EVERYONE else in the bar will be jumping up and screaming and throwing their arms at the TV just like my dad watching a Bills game. The drinks and snacks that come along with the game aren’t a bad touch either.

Another event this past week was get this, ANOTHER strike!!! Tuesday we didn’t have school again, and it wasn’t quite as exciting as the first time, but believe me I’ll take it. Unlike last time, we didn’t even try to go to school, because we were told by our professors and our program directors not to bother…so by not as exciting I mean we didn’t get to be pushed away with a piece of cardboard and hear screaming as we walked away. This strike was different because it wasn’t just the students who were participating, it was also all the professors and parents of students and even others around the city. This was a much bigger effort than the last time, and apparently the biggest effort Alicante has seen. Even though we didn’t go near school that day, on our way to dance class we came across (and actually had to cross through) a protest parade with picket signs and chanting that closed down the street. The reason that these efforts have been so much bigger than what they have had in the past is because at the rate that the prices for university are increasing, the students will be paying double what they are now in 10 years. Now this is a little hard for us US students to grapple with, because I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but IF they ended up paying double…they would still be paying less than 10,000 a year for tuition. So that means, right now the average cost of university is around 5-6 thousand BUT Spanish students only need to produce 20% of this amount, and the government foots the rest. So, although we appreciate the strikes, we are somewhat less sympathetic because if our tuition was this cost, wed be jumping for joy. It is important to remember though that Spain is in a huge economic crisis. Their current unemployment rate is at 23%, higher than the US rate has actually ever been. So for them, it’s a much bigger threat, which is completely understandable. So what did we do this time you ask? Well do the best thing we could do and support the Spanish economy…at the mall. Our culture teacher did however, turn this into a lesson and gave us all an article about the Spanish university system to present on the following day in class. Which was very helpful because now when I’m sharing this information with all of you, instead of just saying “we didn’t have school, again!” I can provide you with all of the information surrounding it.

Something else occupying our time is the end of our cultural dance class. After finishing up salsa where we learned combinations of solos and in partners, we began Flamenco for the last few weeks. If you remember the pictures and what I said bout the show we saw in Granada, this is what we are learning! But a little bit more scaled down…Flamenco is a traditional Spanish dance that is found more popularly practiced in Andalucía. It is many rapid combinations of stopping and clapping while gracefully moving your arms and twisting your wrists above your head and around your body. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the special shoes or dresses, but it was still a blast. Flamenco is known to be very fast paced, passionate, and intense. So intense that we actually would fog up the mirrors when we were dancing! This week we had our last class, which was quite sad for me. I will definitely miss being in the studio again!

Another thing to mention that took up the time quite literally, is daylight savings. Here in Spain, we don’t change the clocks until the end of March. So as many of you know, for the past couple weeks we have only been 5 hours ahead due to the change earlier in the month in the US, instead of the normal 6. But now we are back on track. Daylight savings isn’t really talked about here in Spain, since my host mom only mentioned it to me when I had asked! But this would only make sense because the Spanish don’t put very much importance on time anyways….So then over the weekend we took advantage of the increasing temperatures and soaked up all the sun we could at our beach. We also visited a nearby town called San Juan for the day on Saturday, to soak up their sun as well. We just can’t get enough! Mom & Dad, I’ll try to save you some, but no promises.

Although this past week was busy with all these events and some homework thrown in here and there, the biggest events are just beginning. This past Sunday (which we call Palm Sunday) was the beginning of Semana Santa, which in English translates to holy week. Being a society founded on Catholicism, this is obviously a huge deal here. Although I am not the most religious, it is still a very interesting and cultural experience for me. All week long there are celebrations with different meanings, mostly done in the form of processions which are like religious parades. Saturday and Sunday began vendors selling hand crafted palms at the market which we saw people carrying all around the street, weather back to their house or on their way to mass. Sunday morning Sydney and I ran into our first procession on accident while we were on our way to hike up the castle. We were entranced by the huge crowds lining the streets that were filled with the traditional music of drums and horns while giant sculptures were being carried down the street by people in amazing costumes. It took us a while to notice that we looked slightly out of place in our workout cloths, since everyone else was dressed in their Sunday best…at this point we weren’t sure if this was the norm or if it was just a coincidence that everyone had come after church, but the next time we were sure to class it up a bit. Monday we attended more processions with our program directors and enjoyed some gelato as we watched, since it was the hottest day of the year yet. I can’t imagine how it would have been for the ones walking, because as you will see in the pictures most of them are covered from head to toe. Something else really important to mention is that the giant sculptures I mentioned before, and that you’ll see in the pictures, are all carried by MAN. These are all carved wooden structured with depictions of the bible displayed on top, weighing who knows how much, but are like an equivalent to a float in the parades we have in the states. Except there are no tractors or trailers being pulled by high powered engines, these are all carried smoothly down the street on the shoulders of groups of men. For HOURS through the streets of the city. An example of a procession that we saw on Wednesday, was the scene from the last supper. Many cities across Spain celebrate Semana Santa in such was, Sevilla being the city with the most grand celebrations. Alicante is known to have the biggest depiction of this specific scene. Over 100 people were carrying the massive display which had not only the 12 apostles sitting at the table, but real food and real wine covering the table! (Which is all donated to a shelter at the end so it doesn’t go to waste) Thursday the theme of the processions were much different. This day is famous for silent processions which become very serious and happen very late at night. A friend of mines host dad usually participates in this procession, so we got to go with her family to watch, which was a really cool experience not only to see it the way that the Spanish do, but because we got to go to the “backstage” area before where they were preparing! We watched them begin to lift the sculptures and saw all the other props like giant wooden crosses set up before they went out. We even got to pick up one of the crosses to see how heavy they were…not as heavy as I would have thought, but I bet they start to weigh on you after you’ve been carrying them for oh, three or four hours. During the evening of Semana Santa, I swear that everyone who’s ever lived in Alicante and all their relatives are out, because the streets are packed, and everyone is all heading in the same direction. My host mom also told us that there’s a huge influx of people here during this time, from bigger cities like Madrid because they like to come here on holiday due to the warmer weather and the celebrations, I don’t blame them! The street vendors are also out with their mixtures of fresh churros and waffles on the street, along with people selling balloons and cotton candy for the children. No matter your religion, you can easily tell that this is a special time in Alicante.

Unfortunately, we will be missing the actual celebration of Easter because we will be traveling. But we have been assured that it’s okay because most people spend it with their families in their homes. I am really glad, however, that we were able to see the processions and experience the tradition before we left in a couple of ways. In my last class before break my professor brought us all a traditional Semana Santa treat (chocolate and eggs are not so popular here) which is a sweet bread with a hardboiled egg in the middle. Yes, a whole egg with the shell and everything inside. Tradition goes, when you receive your bread you have to dig the egg out of it with your hands, and then to eat the egg you have to crack it open…on somebody’s head!!! Obviously he made us all do it the proper way, so we were all smashing eggs on each other’s heads in class. Only in Spain! Sarah and I did try to share one of our American Easter traditions with Alva, but we failed quite miserably. We thought it would be a good idea to teach her how to dye Easter eggs. Well, the issue is that at every store there was only brown eggs, which wouldn’t be so good for dyeing. A bigger issue, was that we couldn’t find any food coloring or dye. So that tradition didn’t quite get shared.

During the day on Wednesday, we did what all our Spanish student counterparts do and attended a huge music festival by our campus. This is to celebrate the two week break that we will all be getting from school, as well as the holiday. The name of the festival is PaellasLive which is pretty funny to us. Paella, if you don’t know is a traditional Spanish dish, and along with the hours of music they served us this and some drinks. It was great to hang out in the sun and spend time with the other university students as we celebrated all of the good things coming our way!

Friday, we might have done not only the most stereotypical, but the most controversial Spanish activity of them all. We attended a bullfight. Before I share with you my experience, here is a little backstory. Although many foreigners have always associated the Spanish with bulls and bull fighting, this is not really a common event anymore like it was in the past. Now, it has become quite controversial. Many Spaniards do not take part or support la corrida de toros (Spanish for bull fight) because it is considered animal cruelty. The groups who still to attend and support it are very traditional. For a long time it has been argued weather it should still be allowed but on account of tradition it is. Catalunya, the province in which holds Barcelona has actually outlawed bullfighting entirely, but here in Valencia it is still practiced although it doesn’t have tons of support. Many of our families don’t support the corrida, but have told us that they don’t think us going is a bad idea because in order to form a valid opinion about it we need to experience it for ourselves. So that is what we did, and it was an experience for sure. I have to say I was pretty nervous since I knew what was coming, but I wasn’t as prepared as I thought. Thinking I would have a much more cultural experience than I did, I was quite disappointed and disgusted. The beginning was exciting, when the toreros (bullfighters) paraded around in their fancy costumes and the band played traditional music, but as soon as the bull came out the tune changed, and this is where I could no longer bring myself to take pictures (Warning: this will get semi-graphic) They begin by taunting it to the point where it gets confused and runs into walls, before they poke and prod it with a spear to make it even angrier. One bull even ran into the wall so hard that he broke horn. While they do this, the bull tries to run at their colorful capes and they can hide behind walls when he comes too near. After a little bit of this, they begin to tag team him and shoot him with smaller spears that stay in his back as they continue to chase him around the ring with their capes. Finally, after way too much agonizing pain, the last torero standing stabs the bull with his sword after putting on an all too cocky show of how he can conquer the bull (unfairly, in my opinion). Then, they wait for him to get too weak to stand and fall to the ground until they grab him by the horns and snap the neck, right before they cut off the ears as souvenirs. (Sorry to burst the bubble of all of you who weren’t aware that there would be a death at the end) When this happens everyone in the stand cheers and waves something in the air. For me, the feelings were just not there as they seemed to be for everyone else, like if somebody had just scored a goal at a sporting event. In one event, there are normally 5 sessions, but we exited early because we couldn’t stand seeing anymore. Although it was gruesome and sad, I do not regret my decision to go because as others had told me before, there is no way to form an opinion on it unless you can experience it for yourself. Although I will join the ones who do not support the bull fights, and although it is hard for me to understand the tradition, I do realize that all cultures have things that not everyone supports and that ignoring essential or controversial parts is no way to really learn and accept the culture as a whole.

The past two weeks have had lots of action, Spanish style. And the next two weeks will consist of nothing less, as we are off on a 10 day adventure through Europe on our spring break where we will see Amsterdam, Stockholm and Warsaw. Lots more stories are sure to come, so wish me luck! Ill definitely need it as I try to figure out how to fit 10 days worth of stuff in one backpack…

See pics below!

Palm Vendors

Palm Vendors

Intricate creations

Intricate creations

Gelato before Processions

Gelato before Processions

Our group hanging with some band members

Our group hanging with some band members

Traditional music

Traditional music

Traditional outfits...with a  much different meaning than you are thinking

Traditional outfits…with a much different meaning than you are thinking

One of the massive float like sculptures

One of the massive float like sculptures coming down the street

More traditional dress

More traditional dress

Sunday mornings procession

Sunday mornings procession

Monday afternoon procession

Monday afternoon procession

Palm parade

Palm parade

Paellas Crew!

Paellas Crew!

Joining up with Spanish friends

Joining up with Spanish friends

Excited for sunshine and break

Excited for sunshine and break

"Backstage" at Thursday processions

“Backstage” at Thursday processions

Some of the crosses we tested out

Some of the crosses we tested out

Getting ready to lift the sculptures

Getting ready to lift the sculptures

Excited and nervous before the Bullfight

Excited and nervous before the Bullfight

Benidorms Plaza de Toros

Benidorms Plaza de Toros

Beginning with a traditional band

Beginning with a traditional band

Parade of Toreros

Parade of Toreros

The toreros warming up

The Toreros warming up

The Bull comes out

The Bull comes out

Head to head (or horns)

Head to head (or horns)

My traditional sweet bread thanks Santiago!!

My traditional sweet bread thanks Santiago!!

Being cultural eating our bread and cracking eggs

Being cultural eating our bread and cracking eggs

Galway Girls

Only three days after returning from our adventure in Morocco, I hopped on a plane (yes, not directing our own transportation this weekend) with 2 friends to Ireland and it was absolutely MAGICAL. I had heard a lot about Ireland from friends and family who had traveled there before, and let me tell you it was everything I expected and more. As soon as we arrived around midnight, we were welcomed by the incredibly friendly and helpful and jokesters of Ireland. After not knowing which bus was the one our directions stated we needed to get to our hostel, I asked a security man, “Do you know where bus L16 is?” and he replied with “yes, I do” then after a minute of staring at each other and him laughing, he said “If you want I can help you find it!”. Throughout our journey to our hostel we had conversations just like this with at least three more friendly Irishmen who not only assisted us with our directions but started conversations and were just genuinely friendly and interested in where we were from and what we were doing here, all of them wished us well as we were on our way. We were also welcomed by free wifi…everywhere! This is a rarity in Europe, and not that we always need it, but it’s nice to have. This is something that was very exciting when we first arrived, but I soon realized that this country was so great that I didn’t need to spend my time on the wifi because I couldn’t miss any minute of our short time here. As we were walking down the streets of Dublin to the greatest hostel in the world (shout out to Generator) Many of the buildings were illuminated in bright green, now I don’t know if this was special due to only having 2 days pass since St. Patrick’s or if thesis an all the time kind of thing, but it excited us either way. One thing we quickly realized was how nice it was to get a little break from Spanish speaking. Although we do have some English in our lives back at home its different when you can just walk up to anyone on the street and speak English…those accents don’t hurt either. Although it is English, the Irish have their own little differences that were interesting and hilarious when they snuck up on you. For example, rubbish instead of trash, toilet instead of restroom, and the infamous Cheers! That we got almost every time we talked to someone new or passed by, kind of like a good luck.

As we were checking in late Thursday night at the front desk, of like I said the best hostel chain anywhere (we also stayed in a generator in Barcelona) we were getting our key cards from the attendant and a guest came up and said, “umm, excuse me but there is a toilet in the women’s bathroom that was just ripped off the wall” After making a funny comment that I can’t remember, the women went to go check it out as we headed up to our floor laughing (different bathroom from ours) and this was our welcome to Ireland.

The next morning we met the others in our tour group and set out for a walking tour of Dublin. Dawning our heavier coats was definitely necessary, as Ireland is no Alicante (about 30 degrees cooler). But seeing the sights and the castles in this weather was worth it. The typical Irish weather of grey skies with some drizzling rain doesn’t seem to be so bothersome when there’s green everywhere you look and old stone work under your feet. We did get lucky later on though when the sun came out to play. Through the tour we learned interesting facts about the hard Irish history as we saw castles and cathedrals and famous bars and my favorite part, Trinity College. After walking through a huge clock tower archway into the courtyard where you’re surrounded by stone buildings, you see a massive bell tower right in the middle of campus. Sorry NU, there may not be falls and a gorge but this place was pretty picturesque. No worries of transferring though, this is the most prestigious school in Ireland and actually tops Oxford on the list of most grueling schools, placing number 2 right after Harvard. Unfortunately, I have no hope of joining the fancy Irish students (among other Europeans and some famous actors) carrying they’re stylish satchels through the beautiful courtyard and studying with them in the library that’s so cool it costs 10 euro to enter if you aren’t a student. Besides this, my favorite parts of the tour were hearing the old tales like this one about St. Patrick and the four leaf clover. The reason that this is the symbol of Ireland and strongly associated with the holiday is because when St. Patrick himself was becoming a priest he was looking for a new and improved way to explain the holy trinity. He chose the shamrock to represent how three entities are connected and separate at the same time. And from then on the shamrock was not only the symbol of St. Patrick but went on to represent the country as a whole and eventually the holiday we all know and love. This is just something you can’t learn until you visit Ireland!

After the tour we had lunch at a great pub with authentic Irish food. We all had a massive bowl of the beef stew, cooked with the one and only Guinness in the broth. Not only did it have Guinness, but huge chunks of meat with tons of vegetables and…MASHED POTATOES. One of my favorites and something so comforting to eat. Even though stew isn’t something that I would say is my favorite, this was delish. After lunch we had some free time to enjoy the streets of Dublin, and of course do some damage to our wallets. It didn’t take long for us all to find something we love. For me, it was a turquoise knit hat with a small leather Irish label that I bought partly because it was necessary in the colder climate of Ireland but mostly because when I tried it on I fell in love and my friends encouraged me with they’re strong suggestions to buy (featured in the pictures at the Cliffs). We also found a little shop that advertised family crests. We went in and there was all sorts of souvenirs with Irish names and designs, but also a women who would look up your name and read you the family history that they had done research on each name. Neale, showed up right away, and whether or not their info was true, it was pretty dang cool and was also available to print out on fancy paper and in a frame. This would have been a cool gift but for 25 euro and no real proof I figured I would just talk about it instead (sorry dad).

Next activity with the group was a tour of the Guinness storehouse. Let me tell you the Irish are damn proud of they’re beer. Not only is this a huge tourist attraction but everywhere else around the city it is very true that almost everyone has a pint of Guinness in their hand and a smile on their face (if not, it’s some great cider if I do say so myself) As I am not an avid beer drinker (sadly enough for my family) I honestly was a little worried about what my reaction would be to my free pint at the end. But throughout the whole tour I enjoyed looking at the ingredients, learning the process and the facts, taking a lesson on tasting and smelling in specially designed environments and viewing the most famous advertisements and commercials (my favorite part) all while thinking about how much my dad would love this place if he had the chance to see it. Once you made it to the top of the building, you entered the gravity bar, where you received a complimentary pint and were able to enjoy it with all your new knowledge, while looking through the glass only walls at the city of Dublin from high up in the air. To my own surprise, and that of my family I’m sure…I finished the whole pint! I have to say it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but still not my drink of choice (obviously that’s still diet coke…) But I was in Ireland, so I sucked it up…literally. On our way back from the factory we were walking with our group when I accidently overheard a group of guys behind us talking about Buffalo in their conversation about sports. Now first I thought, okay there could be plenty more buffaloes around so it’s probably not mine. But as soon as I heard the name Sammy Watkins thrown out (yes dad I do know who he is) I whipped my head around to say, you guys are talking about the Buffalo Bills?! And they all said yes and then we traded hometowns and connections and it turns out that it was actually one of the trip leaders who was in the conversation and he’s from Syracuse but worked in Cheektowaga, Buffalo before he took his job abroad. Who would have thought I would hear anyone talking about the Buffalo Bills on the streets of Ireland??? Somehow they just keep coming up!

Friday night we got our taste of the Irish pub life after visiting bars and enjoying Bulmer’s ciders (sorry Guinness) which are actually home brewed in Dublin as well, while listening to live music. Everywhere we went, weather in a restaurant or pub, our hostel or in the street there was someone strumming their guitar and singing a tune. We heard a wide range from covers of pop songs to authentic folk music and I loved every second of it. The homey and comfortable atmosphere that the Irish create was one of my favorite things about the country. Also, attractive men playing guitar and singing…I don’t hate any of that. But really everywhere we went, even in stores and in the taxi, there was great music, songs I knew and songs I could sing along to. We discovered quickly that the famous song, Galway Girl, from the movie P.S. I love you (based in Ireland) was so famous because everyone and I mean everyone plays it in Ireland. I think we might have heard it in every bar we visited, and by the end of the trip if we didn’t, we were ready to request it (hence the title). Bottom line, I applaud you Ireland for your fantastic taste in music (among many other things).

The next day we were up bright and early and boarded a bus to the Cliffs of Moher. This is one of the most famous sites in Ireland and for good reason. It was breathtaking. 700 feet up from sea level these huge rocky edges are topped with Ireland’s famous green landscape and look down on bright turquoise water crashing into the rocks at the bottom. You can walk up to 8 miles along this dangerous coast…very dangerous coast. Although I had seen pictures before, I didn’t realize until after hearing from both my grandparents and the tour guides that this is no joke. There aren’t any railings or people keeping watch so it is pretty much walk at your own risk. Since high winds are very common, you need to make sure not to stand very close to the edge even if you think you re “good” The beginning of the trail put all this into perspective even more where we saw that there was a memorial for all the people who have died on the cliffs!!! So, needless to say we walked quite a ways back from the edge only venturing a teeny bit closer for pictures. Luckily, the winds weren’t so high which would have made me much more nervous. After we had all made it out alive, some of us with more adventurous selfies than others…our bus driver told us that on average about 4 people die a year! Weather by accident or by suicide, no one has ever survived. After that adventure, we drove for about two hours more on the windiest roads I’ve ever traveled (whether or not this feeling was due to the actual windiness, or the fact that the driver was on the opposite side I don’t know), by the most green pastures, and saw the most sheep I’ve ever seen in my life on our way to Galway (pronounced like Gulway…I learned this from experience). This was by far my favorite part of the trip. Galway is a smaller and more authentically Irish town like atmosphere than Dublin. We walked down cobblestone streets by store fronts and markets with the Sunday rush of Irishmen, in the sun! While here, we had the most fantastic sandwiches that included pickles and chips (here that means French fries) at a pub while locals shouted (and I mean shouted) at the rugby game playing against Scotland, walked through the streets of stores and merchants, and over quaint bridges through paths of ivy and small tunnels. One of our big moments in Galway was purchasing rings at a small jeweler. For those of you who have seen or heard of the Irish tradition of Claddagh rings, Galway is where they originated from. Although I looked at many, I decided to purchase a different style that is made up of a pattern of Celtic knots instead. But let me tell you they must have sold hundreds of Claddagh’s and other styles that day because the stores were packed! Besides that hat I didn’t really need, this was my special Ireland souvenir. Unfortunately, our time here ended quickly and we headed back to Dublin on the bus all exhausted from the day’s events. We did however, manage to go out for one last drink when we were back.

Sunday morning we were up and at ‘em at 3am to catch a taxi back to the airport and fly back to Spain at 6am. As we were waiting at I don’t know 4:30, we were shocked to see people drinking beer and wine in the airport! We were in Ireland after all. We, instead had some porridge which was surprisingly good to me as well. After our first flight we were back in Madrid for a solid 5 hours where we ate too much burger king and got lost walking in too many straight lines. We finally arrived back in Alicante Sunday afternoon and it seemed as if we had brought the Irish weather back with us, because there was absolutely no sun.

Ireland, you definitely have me looking for Moher (get it?) The three days we spent were absolutely amazing, but this is a place that I will definitely look for an opportunity to travel back to. The people, the food, the music and the views had me feeling right at home…even if I’m only part Irish!

Erin go bragh!

Ready to go!

Ready to go!

Walking through the streets the first night

Walking through the streets the first night

Dublin Castle

Dublin Castle

The "lego" buildings

The “lego” buildings

Cathedral

Cathedral

Entrance to Trinity College

Entrance to Trinity College

Trinity Campus

Trinity Campus

Forever wishing we were students here

Forever wishing we were students here

The famous Temple Bar

The famous Temple Bar

Dublin Streets

Dublin Streets

Clovers everywhere!

Clovers everywhere!

Decorated buildings

Decorated buildings

Typical pub

Typical pub

Guinness beef stew

Guinness beef stew

St. Andrews

St. Andrews

Guinness gate

Guinness gate

Lots of horses around

Lots of horses around

Tasting room

Tasting room

Aroma room

Aroma room

We made it to the top!

We made it to the top!

My festive glass

My festive glass

View from the Gravity Bar

View from the Gravity Bar

Some of the reasons my heart was melting...Irishmen on guitar

Some of the reasons my heart was melting…Irishmen on guitar

Feeling at home...

Feeling at home…

Drives through green pastures

Drives through green pastures

Cliffs of Moher

Cliffs of Moher

Disclaimer: there was more land under my feet

Disclaimer: there was more land under my feet

Galway Girls

Galway Girls

The experience

The experience

Cathedral in Galway

Cathedral in Galway

All green all the time

All green all the time

Quaint parks in Galway

Quaint parks in Galway

Morocco: Plan B

This past weekend I had one of the most unforgettable experiences, for many reasons. I will remember this trip because of the uncertainty and the stress, and the experiences I was given, the people I traveled with and the people I met  long the way, but most importantly the uniquely eye opening Moroccan culture. Over the past 4 days, a group of 5 friends and I traveled by car, bus, and boat to fulfill our dream of visiting Morocco, Africa. Fulfilled, being the most important word….

We arrived at the airport to pick up our pre-rented and pre-paid for rental car, to drive cross country to Sevilla (about a 7 hour drive) in order to meet the group that we would be traveling to Morocco with. As you might imagine due to the title of this blog, it didn’t all work out how we had imagined it. We weren’t able to receive our car because none of us had our international driver’s license…even though the website we booked through stated that this was not a necessity, we were told no car. So, you can imagine how we are feeling at 6pm, standing helpless in the airport with all our luggage knowing that we had to somehow get to Sevilla by 9 am the next morning. But of course that didn’t stop us, I am typing this after all! After wasting about an hour re-configuring our plan to find out that the busses to Sevilla were full, there were no direct trains, and absolutely no flights, we decided to try our only other option which was another car company. Somehow by the grace of God (still somewhat unsure of the legality) we got a car! Everything is great, were all ready to split the 7 hour drive, listen to some good music and have some good conversation. We are feeling hopeful. Until…we find the car. Imagine our surprise when we discover that it is a manual car! So after discussing with the lady who rented us the car and remembering that we are in Europe (where almost every car is manual) and being told that there was absolutely no automatic cars, we only took about 5 minutes to stare at each other with blank faces and then decide that if we didn’t chose this, we weren’t going. Important note, out of the 5 of us who were planning on splitting the driving, one of us knew how to drive stick (kind of). Huge shout out to our friend Kelsey who dominated the drive. So off we went, chugging along…

…And then 9 hours later, after a couple detours, one dead bunny, a some necessary pushes and a very very low gas tank, we made it to Sevilla!!! We then got 2 hours of sleep before we had to be up and on our way to meet the group. Fortunately, all we had to do was park our car and meet a bus where for us it would be worry free transportation for 3 days, which never sounded so good. The way we were getting to Morocco was through a travel group called WeloveSpain, (highly recommended!!!) this not only was a much safer way to travel through Morocco but easier because everything from transportation to meals and activities was planned for us. We met our awesome tour guide Jorge who would take us around for the next three days and we left Sevilla for Algeciras, which is the final tip of Spain.

After two hours of driving our first stop before we got to Africa was a visit in Gibraltar. Technically Gibraltar is connected (land wise) to Spain, but is considered a different country and is actually a territory of England. We were able to walk across the border (yes I did have flashbacks to Canada) into a beautiful English speaking land!! We spent only about 4 hours here, but they were incredible and refreshing. We first saw the point where the Mediterranean Sea meets up with the Atlantic Ocean, on our trek up a huge mountain of tropical greenery and construction on historical buildings where our tour guide informed us of the incredibly dynamic historic control of the province. Many of the monuments we saw on the way up were related to wars, because most of Gibraltar’s history revolves round being conquered and re-conquered by many including by the Spanish, The Moors, The French and the British who now remain in control. When we arrived at the top of the massive mountain we overlooked the whole city (very small) and then the real fun began. We entered into the Caves of Hercules, which were covered with stalagmites and stalactites going in all different directions, and were accentuated with colored lights which kind of made it feel like the club version of a cave. After touring through, we came out on top and were greeted by the monkeys who reside on the mountain and keep watch over the city. It isn’t known why the monkeys came originally, but they remain here now as a tourist attraction but also as protection, they are fed by the government and maintained because if they are not, they proceed to enter down and impede on the city. So, we played with the not so shy monkeys for about a half hour, feeding them some fruit, acting as a perch, taking pictures and observing them in their habitat. It was all fun and games until we quickly realized how comfortable they were with people, and they started jumping on our heads!! That made it even more fun. Yes, my head acted as a chair for a monkey. The experience was kind of a hilarious chaos.

After visiting Gibraltar we boarded a ferry (my first time) which would take us to AFRICA. Now, we all are saying Africa 1, because it sounds cool. 2, because geographically speaking that’s where Morocco is. But it’s important to point out that Morocco is usually associated as a part of the Middle East because of its culture and tradition. After a 45 minute boat ride we boarded another bus and then had to go through customs. I’ll start out describing the Moroccan border with the fact that Jorge began singing “Welcome to the Jungle” as we pulled up. Some of the things we saw during our about 50 minute wait included 3 physical fights between citizens and the Moroccan police, and about 8 trucks that pulled up behind our bus and proceeded to throw what seemed like 500 boxes of what looked like laundry detergent over the fence illegally. The best part was that Jorge created a hilarious commentary of the whole thing for us, and also let us know that it was quite normal.  As a bus full mostly Americans, a group of Mexicans and some other members of the European union, you can imagine how far our mouths were hanging open to see behavior like this at the border. As someone who frequents the Canadian border where I believe it is quite tense even when they’re asking questions I couldn’t believe the lack of professionalism shown by the police compared to the US. We were sure to be very careful to only watch, because although the government isn’t so strict with their own citizens, they are stricter when it comes to visitors. We were told before that it is considered rude to take pictures of people specifically while we were here, but that at the border it was prohibited and if they saw you with a phone, their most common reaction would be to smash it on the ground in front of you. Now although this is different, I felt way more adrenaline (as someone who loves action) from these events than I ever did scared. We also all felt an incredible sense of pride in the fact that we now had a new and exotic stamp on our passports. After arriving while the sun was up and leaving after dark and making it through the most exciting border crossing I’ve ever seen, we drove through the city of Tangier to our hotel. This was our only exposer to the country so far and the best words I could use to describe it would be hectic. Due to the border scene, and streets of the city that were more crowded than I have ever seen with people who just seemed to be around. This isn’t a crowded like you would see on the streets of New York, because there everyone is constantly moving. Here, there seemed to be just as many people but not necessarily of sense of movement, just being. When we arrived at our hotel we were all very presently surprised at not only the quality but the size. It was placed in the middle of the city, but our room was huge with nice beds, a hallway, a tv and even a bathroom that’s bigger than mine at home. We had our first meal (which I will discuss along with the rest of the food later) and were all extremely ready for bed.

We woke up bright and early to take a tour of the city in the day light and to make our way to one of the main events, camels on the beach! This was another experience topper, and one of the things we were all looking forward to most. Since there was less camels than all of us (84 students, 5 camels), it took many turns. Our group precisely planned out who would go when for the maximum picture taking opportunities for everyone. Riding the camel was kind of like what I remember riding horse to be like, but way cooler. The going up and down part was slightly unnerving because you leaned forward to an almost vertical point before you popped up all the way to the point where the camel was standing. Then it was smooth sailing even to the point where we could ride with no hands. The camels themselves were pretty well behaved, and not as mean as I could have imagined. In our group we all made it out without even being spit on! (One guy wasn’t so lucky)

Next we spent about another two hours in what seemed like our traveling hotel for the weekend, our bus. Between driving from Sevilla to the port, and in-between all the different cities in Morocco we probably spent about 3 hours on the bus each day at the least. But this was by no means a waste of time. Besides the recuperation that we needed, we were able to see ton of the Moroccan country side which was actually a lot different than I expected. Most of the time what we saw was lush as green, instead of what you would picture being desert like. There were many small towns along the way which brought me back to my time in Central America. One of the best parts about the bus was that we had a Moroccan tour guide (apart from Jorge who was more like a trip leader) Who would fill our ears with information about every aspect of the Moroccan culture from politics to agriculture, religion, history to family life and education to women’s roles while we were driving along. Some of the information I found most interesting was about education and women’s life. Some small facts that stand out were how the schooling system continues through Saturdays, so we saw students walking to school on one of our journeys. This is for elementary age students, the older students have a very different system. The system has more or less two tracks, public or private. Our guide Mohamed explained how his daughter began in a private school and had around 14 students in her class where as his son attended a public school where there was up to 50 students in one class! He also explained to us how contrary to popular belief about their culture, the women have the freedom to choose how they present themselves in the culture and in public in most areas. This means the common dress where everything has to be covered up isn’t always required, but from what I noticed it is almost always respected. He did say that in the more rural areas the rules tend to be more traditional. Something else important to mention about our time here was language. Although this was a trip sponsored by Spain there were many more international students along. Besides the U.S. Mexico and Germany seemed to be the most popular. Almost everything was spoken to us two times, once in English and once in Spanish because there were many people who couldn’t understand both. This was actually really nice for me because it reinforced all the ideas twice. In Morocco, the primary language is Arabic, which was the most common to see on most signs in public and on store fronts and even the labels on our water bottles. I was surprised however at the amount of Spanish that was still infused into the society. Most people at restaurants spoke some Spanish and the shop owners that we bartered with in the streets switched between some lose English and Spanish.

Our next stop was the city of Chefchauen, or more popularly known as the blue city, and what I am now calling my homeland due to my love of all things blue. This small village is known for all of its buildings being covered in blue paint about four times a year, the main reason being to detract some of the heat that they contract during the hottest summer months. Almost every ally and every wall you looked at was bright blue, with tons of unique doors to all the houses and shops, also in blue. You could say I was in my element…here we had a tour of the city and then after were given free time in the markets to explore and practice our bartering skills. Well, we might have practiced a little too much. By the time we left Morocco we probably had about double the stuff we came with (which actually was applauding sparse for me, only a backpack!) Unlike America where it’s almost always not even an option, bartering for goods in market is the norm and not at all considered rude or disrespectful. I walked away with a small painting, two new scarfs, some jewelry and natural products I will discuss later on.

Our next big event when we arrived in the city of Tetuan on the second night was an authentic dinner experience. It all began as we walked through winding streets and into a palace like building where we walked down hallways as we were welcomed with live music on horns and drums. We sat down to a 5 course meal and were treated to more music as well as dancing and fire performers all in traditional dress as we ate. There was even a woman walking around doing henna which I obviously took advantage of. At the end, was the grand finale where two students from our group were chosen to dress up in traditional ensemble and join the show on a big thrown in the center of the room. Then at the end we were all invited to the carpet in the middle for a giant Moroccan dance party! From the moment we walked in it never ceased. I was always turning my head to look at something whether it be the man spinning in the fastest circles I’ve ever seen, or the intricate work on the ceiling or the new plate of food that was being placed in front of me. So, when it comes to food in Morocco, I was very impressed. Although am not a very picky person, I was slightly worried due to my lack of exposure to really any Middle Eastern culture. The first night for dinner we had a type of fish with rice and vegetables which was pretty standard, and for the following breakfast we had a choice of many different breads (Moroccan bread is quite fantastic, usually having a nice think and hearty crust of some sort of seeds) eggs, Moroccan pancakes (eaten with honey and best described as a mix of a pancake and a crepe) along with pellet like disks made of chickpeas and spices that tasted somewhat like falafel. For another one of our lunches we were served a traditional chicken dish which was all legs, that was cooked in a red sauce which seemed to be a mix of tomatoes, lemons with peels included and olives. The chicken in this dish was probably the most tender and delicious chicken I’ve ever had, served with more bread of course. Before most meals we also got salad, which I have now learned is not a universal term if you are thinking of American salads. In Spain, they are quite different (lacking a lot of ranch), but in Morocco it is like something else. Each time we were served this, the parts which included a tiny amount of lettuce, chopped cucumber, beet root, tomato, corn, and cold potato which were all separated in sections on the plate, as dressing we could us oil and curry powder. One meal which I don’t remember when, had tomatoes cooked in some sort of way (it must have been with magic) that was so delicious I was shocked that I was eating them, since I don’t usually like tomatoes at all (hint: mom start buying Moroccan tomatoes). During the fantasy dinners 5 courses, we first had a vegetable soup with a salad afterwards, and then continued with a meat ball dish in a red sauce, and then mounds of couscous with more vegetables and chicken. We then finished with a pastry for dessert and tea. Oh my goodness the tea. Morocco is famous for their herbal mint tea, and I now understand why. It is minty and sweet at the same time, and served with all the herbs directly in the glass, without a bag or anything to steep it. I don’t think I could get enough of it even if I had it coming to me in an IV. We were not allowed to drink the water here for safety reasons, so we had to purchase bottles at all times, but the tea was fine. Something interesting about the food was that it was almost always served to us family style, coming in big dishes for the whole table. This was nice because you could take as much as you wanted to just try, and then more if you liked it. Another funny thing our guide told us is that Moroccans do not use silverware, ever. He says that they’re not needed even for soup. Every food has a way to be eaten according to hm. Since we were a foreign group we were given silverware just in case, but we all definitely had to try a little eating with our hands, to get in the culture right?

Our final day we spent in the city of Tetuan walking through the streets and by the royal palace to get to a couple places where we would get to see some Moroccan goods being made by the citizens who used this as their livelihood. We stopped into a home where bread was being made, as well as a rug shop where a man made almost a whole rug on the loom in the short time we were there, I’ve never seen someone move their hands so fast. My favorite location we visited though was by far the pharmacy. We got a presentation and a test of all their products before we had the option to buy. This included fragrances, oils lotions, lip color, crèmes and more that’s uses ranged from shiny hair to hangover cures to soap that were all natural. I ended up purchasing Argon oil (apparently very expensive at home, but cheap here) for my hair, and a “magic” lip color that comes in all bright colors such as neon blues and purples and greens but is actually clear and all made from the same exact materials (so there’s no shades) and the changes when put on each person’s lips to a different color according to the PH level, so basically like a personalized lip stick, or magic. Whatever you prefer.

After this, we began the long journey home. Long doesn’t cover it, and I don’t think there’s a word that will. We went back across the border, back across the sea on the ferry, 2 hours back to Sevilla in the bus which arrived at about 8:30pm, and then began our all night journey back to Alicante. Since it was a Sunday where nothing is ever open here in Spain, we purchased our dinner and our caffeinated drinks at a gas station before heading out. Due to our own stupidity, we did not bring directions back home and there is no such option as GPS or help from our phones. But to our pleasant surprise, those ancient things called street signs actually work and we were able to make it back to the airport (at 3:00am) without one wrong turn using only our memories and highway signs. After conquering this in a foreign country, I feel more than a little bit bad about not understanding the highway system in my own home town. Oh, and about the whole manual situation, I’m thinking I need to learn that too. After returning our car we all had a mutual feeling of thousands of pounds flying off our shoulders and I don’t think it needed to be said that if we had another option, we probably wouldn’t have chosen this one again.

All in all, this weekend is definitely one that none of us will ever forget. No matter the feelings or the stress on the way there or on the way back, we all would say “Vale la pena” (which means it was worth it) 100%. Not only did I learn more about a culture that I had never been exposed to before, check a new continent off my list, but I learned much more about my friends, and myself and what we can conquer. As much as we might have doubted it (many times) WE MADE IT! Africa, Check.

The beginning of a long journey...bocadillos in hand

The beginning of a long journey…bocadillos in hand

First stop in Gibraltar...where the Atlantic meets the Meddeteranian

First stop in Gibraltar…where the Atlantic meets the Meddeteranian

Caves of Hercules

Caves of Hercules

View of the Port of Gibraltar, from the mountain

View of the Port of Gibraltar, from the mountain

Very comfortable monkeys!!!

Very comfortable monkeys!!!

The ferry that took us to AFRICA

The ferry that took us to AFRICA

First meal in Morocco

First meal in Morocco

Handmade souvenirs waiting to be bought

Handmade souvenirs waiting to be bought

Moroccan countryside (Green?)

Moroccan countryside (Green?)

Camel rides!!!

Camel rides!!!

With our awesome tour guide Jorge

With our awesome tour guide Jorge

My personal paradise

My personal paradise

Blue EVERYWHERE!

Blue EVERYWHERE!

City of Chefchauen

City of Chefchauen

Handmade camel leather bags are all the rage

Handmade camel leather bags are all the rage

Fountain in one of the restaurants

Fountain in one of the restaurants

The famous tea

The famous tea

Moroccan dyes in the street

Moroccan dyes in the street

Ready for the fantasy dinner

Ready for the fantasy dinner

Moroccan salad

Moroccan salad

Traditional performace

Traditional performace

Authentic henna

Authentic henna

A palace like place for dinner

A palace like place for dinner

Man at the loom

Man at the loom

Showing off our new magic lipsticks

Showing off our new magic lipsticks

The group!

The group!

A representation of our rejoice at 3:30am when arriving home

A representation of our rejoice at 3:30am when arriving home