Week 2/3 — American in Paris

Week 2:

a) During my six months here, I’m renting a room in an elderly woman’s apartment. She has three spare bedrooms and rents them out exclusively to students, so I have two roommates that are in French college. The apartment is beautiful — it’s in a Haussmann style building and is classic Parisian. There’s a spacious living room with big windows and my bedroom overlooks a courtyard. I’m very lucky to have found this living situation – my other options would have been renting a studio. The apartment is between two big squares in the 16th arrondissement of Paris — Place du Trocadéro and Place de Mexico. The neighborhood is beautiful, but it’s quite calm and way too expensive for me to eat out. However, there are tons of great stores, take-out restaurants, bakeries and markets near my house.

b) Honestly, it has been quite difficult to meet students my age. For the first three weeks, I was the only intern at the office, and even now, we only have about five or six in the whole embassy. Originally, there were supposed to be more interns and some French ones, but there is a new law in France that interns can’t work more than two months unpaid, so many people aren’t allowed to participate in an internship here anymore. My roommates are great, but they’re quite busy and we’ve only hung out a few times. I’m hoping to meet more kids soon, though, by going to meetup.com events and through getting to know my roommates better. Luckily, I also have some family friends that live here, who will hopefully introduce me to friends of theirs, too!

Week 3:

a) For my cell phone, I brought my iPhone from home and bought a French SIM card from the carrier Orange. Thankfully, my friends that live here added me to their plan to make things easier for me. Otherwise, I couldn’t have gotten the plan and would have had to keep buying credit as my phone would run out. It’s 20€ per month and includes 4G coverage, unlimited texting, calling and 3 GB of data. Cell phones are such a bargain here compared to in the US!

At my apartment, all I have is my laptop and internet, but everything else I could possibly need in terms of technology is available at my office.

Lucy, I’m home!

I has been nearly two weeks since I got back to Boston and the words mixed emotions can’t even begin to cover how I am feeling. The joy of getting to see my friends again was immense. It’s always nice to come home to friendly faces. I never knew how much I missed them until I saw them. Unfortunately, the excitement was a little short lived since I immediately had to get everything together to move in and start class, but now that things have settled I appreciate the time I have to spend here again.

It feels great go get back on track with things now that I’m back at school. I missed campus and the city in general a lot. The cold, well that I didn’t miss so much, but it still brings beautiful memories of this time last year when I began to prepare to go aboard. It’s so hard to believe it has already been a full year since I began my journey to such unforgettable destinations.

On the other hand the longing for Florence lingers in me. I am constantly texting with my friends who are now all over the United States about how much we wish we could go back. I can’t wait to revisit Florence and all of those places I got to travel to for a different experience or in a couple of years when I am a bit older. But for now, I’ll have to wait, leaving the last four months of my life intact for a while and enjoying the time to sit back and soak in all I did in those short four months. Something I feel like I haven’t had the time to do since I had been going on non-stop for so long.

It really was an extraordinary semester. I keep going up to people and rambling about how they need to go aboard as soon as possible. And if you are debating whether to go abroad or not, GO! Just think about this, it is only a small effort to go for an immeasurable payoff. This is an experience that you won’t be able to understand until you experience it for yourself. There is no opportunity like going abroad during your college years, and hopefully it can be something you carry with you for the rest of your life. As for those who are already making their plans, I wish you the very best of luck. Always remember to make the best out of this amazing opportunity and dive in headfirst because you never know what you might encounter.

 

Until next time,

Carolina R

Beginning and Week 1 — American in Paris

Nick Grimes

Co-op Spring 2015

American in Paris

Job: Intern at the United States Commercial Service (a division of the Department of Commerce) at the American Embassy in Paris

*for photos, follow nick_grimes33 on Instagram

Beginning:

a)    The main reason I chose to do my co-op in Paris was to experience something new and to achieve fluency in French. Also, it is a very unique experience to move to a new city and country at only 19 and I think it will open the door to many great opportunities in the future.

b)   Overall, I expect this experience to make me a more worldly and mature person. Spending time abroad makes me look at my life in the US very differently. I enjoy gaining perspective on everything that goes on in the world and also being able to incorporate aspects of other cultures into my daily life. In addition, I think I am going to learn a great deal about myself during these six months in Paris.

c)    I have three goals for my time here in France. My first goal is to become completely fluent in French. I already speak French very well and I’m comfortable in pretty much any situation, but I want to speak like a native after my internship. It is a high objective, but I think if I work at it, I can do it. Second, I want to make contacts and start planning for future co-ops and careers. So far, I only have a few ideas of what I would like to do when I’m older and I have very few contacts. I hope to have a better idea of what interests me and to have a larger network. Third, I hope to make some life-long American and French friends while I’m here.

d)   Sometimes, I can be a bit inhibited and negative, mostly because I’m naturally an introvert. However, I’m hoping that these weaknesses of mine won’t inhibit me from making the most of this great opportunity. Thus far, I’ve taken every opportunity to meet people and to have new experiences here, so I plan to continue!

e)    What I’m most looking forward to while I’m here is traveling! I haven’t been to many places in Europe, so I’m very excited to get around more. I plan to go to London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and some other places in France during my stay.

 

 

Week 1:

a)    I’ve been to Paris three times before, so I didn’t really have a first impression this time. For the most part, I think this is, without a doubt, the most beautiful city in the world. There is simply so much to see and I know that I won’t even come close to it in my six months here. The neighborhood where I’m staying is new to me, luckily, so it’s been fun exploring. I’m staying in the 16th arrondissement, which is known as the wealthy area of Paris. While it’s beautiful, I find that there really isn’t much to do for young people here. The area is very quiet and most cafes, restaurants and bars are very expensive, which is quite difficult for someone on a college budget. However, I do really enjoy coming home at night to a safe, quiet neighborhood. Even in my neighborhood, I discover something new every day!

b)    As for a program orientation, all I can comment on was the lack thereof. There was nobody there to greet me on my first day and I wound up waiting for a half hour outside of the embassy. I was not at all pleased with the job the first day because not only was I the only intern, but they had no work prepared for me and they didn’t even have my computer log-ins set up. Thankfully, since then, things have improved tremendously. Several new interns have arrived, and I’ve gotten to work on some really incredible projects. My two favorite so far have been working with US food chains to enter the French market (names include Dairy Queen and Johnny Rocket’s) and working at two embassy events during which I got to go to the Ambassador’s Residence and the George Marshall Center (where the Marshall Plan was signed after WWII). Pretty cool stuff!

The End Is Near!

Hi All,

I just got back from Rome a few hours ago. I decided to take one last weekend trip before school ended. I didn’t really want to take any more trips after November because I felt like the time left should be spent experiencing every single bit of Florence (and finals, but that’s no fun). I also wanted to spend some time with friends I will miss oh so very much. It’s funny to think about the great friends I have made here. I never thought I would get the opportunity to get to know people so well while on this trip, but traveling with someone or even just studying abroad in the same program bonds people (and yes I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true). I already know that I might not see many of the friends I have made here for a while, but if we ever do meet up there will always be something that brings us back together, that joins us in a way, and that is this amazing experience.

Tomorrow marks the first day of my last month here. It hard to believe my time here in Florence is almost over. I really wish I could have just a few more months but I know soon it will be time to pack up and go. Fortunately, I will have a little extra time in Europe, even if it is not in the comfort of my temporary, yet very comfy apartment. My parents have decided to come visit my sister in London so I will meet them there and we will travel throughout the holidays. From there I will go straight back to Boston. They told me we might go to Brussels and Amsterdam, which got me excited because those are two places I wanted to go to while I was here, but didn’t get the chance. They also told me we might spend New Years in Paris, which made me even more excited. I think it will be a good way to say goodbye to the four months I have had here, and being with my family will make my departure a bit less painful.

I really cannot believe three months have already passed. My mind doesn’t feel it but my body definitely does. It’s funny because everyone always talks about how much you are going to learn and experience but no one ever tells you how tired you are going to be by the end of it. I’ve talked to a few people about it and they have all told me the same thing. The need to do as much as you can every day really takes a toll on you, but you just have to keep going. Now that I am so close to the end is not the time to focus on how tired I am, now is the time to do as much as I can before the time to leave comes. So, until then I am going to try to do as much as possible, and hopefully I’ll be able to take a very long nap once it’s all over.

Until next time,

 

Carolina R

My dream trip to Barcelona!

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Happy Holidays!!! I have spent the past few days finally jamming out to all of my favorite Christmas carols. We even had a pseudo-Thanksgiving dinner here in Spain! It certainly makes me a little bit homesick. That homesickness is added to by being far away from home during the aftermath of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, which is very close to my home suburb of St. Louis. Though abroad, I am in solidarity with the non-violent protestors fighting racism and police violence in my city and across the country. I wish I was there with them in person. But as I am not, I am still trying to make the absolute most of my last few weeks here in Bilbao.

Granted, I spent last weekend away from Bilbao, and finally made a trip I have been dreaming about for years to Barcelona! And hold up, because this post has a soundtrack! Click here to listen to the amazing traditional Spanish guitar player I heard live on one night of my trip as you read. (Or just watch the video then resume reading. His finger work is astounding!)

I flew out of Bilbao early last Friday morning and was settled at my location before noon. I stayed with an Airbnb host again, something I highly recommend. I had a private room in an apartment for only about $20 a night, and the advice I got from a local Barcelonean was invaluable. Goldy was so friendly and suggested routes that I never would have figured out on my own!

Barcelona is an amazing city for so many reasons; it is on the Mediterranean Sea and had been conquered by Greeks and Romans in ancient history, and they left their marks in ruins and architecture. It is also in a very distinct province of Spain, Catalonia, which has been striving for independence for centuries, and where, like in the Basque country where I am living, they speak their own language in addition to Spanish, Catalan, which sounds like a mix of French and Spanish. There is a rich history of art and literature in Barcelona, preserved in the winding streets of its gothic quarters, where you can find designer shopping, museums, and wine bars all in a row on cobblestone streets. These amazing attractions make it pretty touristy at times, but it still manages to retain its distinct identity powerfully. At the end of the weekend, I decided Barcelona is my favorite city I have ever visited.

My main goal for this trip was to see as much of the architecture of Antoni Gaudí as possible. Gaudí is from Catalonia, the Spanish province where Barcelona is located, and over his career he designed everything from door nobs to cathedrals, all in a distinct surreal modernist style that is truly unique and incredible. My photos here don’t do him justice! His work was deeply inspired by his Catholicism and his love of nature. He strove to reflect nature, God’s design, in all of his creations.

I started off that first afternoon walking basically the length of Barcelona’s downtown, stopping at two of Gaudí’s most famous houses, Casa Mila (also known as La Pedrera), and Casa Batllo. Casa Mila looks like a giant wavy mountain, and the interior has beautiful tile work and wrought iron balconies. The most amazing thing about it to me, though, is its roof, which has over 30 sculptures designed to creatively cover weather veins, chimneys, and the like. If you’ve ever visited the City Museum in St. Louis, it reminded me an awful lot of that, as did much of Gaudí’s architecture. I’m sure City Museum’s founder drew inspiration from Gaudí.

My next stop was Casa Batllo. This house was designed to illustrate the story of St. George, patron saint of Barcelona, who slayed a dragon. The roof of the building is the back of the dragon; the spire is St. George’s spear that killed him. The balconies are the skulls of the women the dragon ate! The other amazing fact about this house is that there is not a single straight line or right angle inside the entire building. Every wall, stair, and window, curves at least a little, part of Gaudí’s assertion that there are no straight lines in nature.

After a few hours marveling at these houses, I wandered down “Barcelona’s 5th Avenue,” La Pasiega de Gracia, to the famous street “La Rambla” where everyone in the city walks in the evening to people watch and stop for a drink and tapas, small snacks similar to the pintxos I have described in Bilbao. It was a bit overrun with tourists, so I ducked down side streets in the old Gothic quarter and got lost among the centuries old stone buildings, many of which are now shops and restaurants, eventually finding my way to the Cathedral of Barcelona and the surrounding plaza, where street performers gather and crafts, cheeses, bread, jewelry, and souvenirs can be purchased from vendors. I found a place with several vegetarian options for tapas, had about 6 to make a meal, then went to bed early that night –I had probably wandered a good 5 miles!

The next day was entirely devoted to Gaudí, starting with his unfinished masterpiece, the Cathedral La Sagrada Familia (the holy family). Gaudí believes he was born to build this cathedral. The first cornerstone was laid in 1882, and it is still under construction with plans to be finished by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death, though locals are pretty dubious that it will actually be done by then!

All construction following Gaudí’s death follows the careful plans he left behind for the church’s completion. Even unfinished, it is completely stunning. The outside is covered in sculptures depicting the life of Jesus spectacularly carved in absurd fashion. The inside is lit by stained glass and held up by white pillars that branch out to look like trees at the top. It has dozens of hidden sky lights, so all the lighting in the church is natural.

I really can’t do this place justice with words. Look at my pictures, then you should probably look for better ones on Google, because this is the most beautiful building I have ever visited in my life.

In the afternoon I took a long bus ride uphill to Gaudí’s park, Park Guell. It was intended to be surrounded by over 50 Gaudí designed houses for Barcelona’s elite, but the real estate didn’t take off and only 2 houses were built, including Gaudí’s own. Now the park is open to the public. It was a great place to wander around and stop to take time to rest and read, serenaded by the abundance of street performers.

I headed back to the gothic quarter in the evening and wandered until my feet were about to fall off, then had paella, a traditional Spanish rice dish, for dinner. We actually made paella in my cooking class a few weeks ago, and I personally thought ours was better. I will post recipes as soon as I get them all translated!

I started off Sunday with a trip to the beach! Of course, it was too cold to actually go for a swim (though it was overcast and in the 60s all weekend–my perfect weather!), but I put my feet in. I have dreamed of the Mediterranean Sea my whole life, and I know this was just the beginning of a long relationship to come! I did more wandering that morning (surprise!), since walking is my favorite way to get to know a city, and found my way into the Picasso Museum. It was incredible to see his transformation as an artist. He was basically a genius from the very start. Even his paintings from age 14 were museum worthy. I found another Gaudí site in the afternoon, the mansion he built for his financier, the Palau Guell. While it was more “normal” looking than many of the other sites he designed (at the insistence of Guell’s wife), it was still stunning.

In the evening I stumbled across a vegan restaurant, which was very welcome after months of living in meat-heavy Bilbao. I had a seitan burger! Do you have any idea how much I’ve missed seitan burgers?! It was bliss. In my post-dinner wandering, I found my way to a cathedral hosting a classical Spanish guitar player and bought a ticket for the evening’s concert on a whim. I am so glad I did. Hopefully you’ve been listening to his music while reading this post and are duly in awe. And he made it look easy! Just incredible.

My last half-day in Barcelona was less eventful, mostly just wandering around new areas and buying souvenirs. I also stopped in the Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona, one of the few places I didn’t enjoy on the trip, but at least it got me out of the rain!

Unfortunately, the weekend ended on a bit of an unfortunate note. While walking to the metro to head back to my room to pick up my bags, I tripped on uneven sidewalk and badly sprained my ankle! I ended up having to take a taxi to the airport because walking was not a possibility. The flight home was rather uncomfortable. I ended up going to the hospital to get it wrapped and checked out on Monday. Fortunately nothing is fractured, but I have been painfully and pathetically hobbling around ever since. Still, it is getting better, and I imagine within a week it will be all better, so I can still soak up the last of Bilbao before I go home on December 18th! I hope everyone reading this in the U.S. had a lovely Thanksgiving weekend. Eat a bite of leftover pie for me! Until next time!

Simply Being in Bilbao

It finally feels like fall in Bilbao, Spain! After months of weather wavering between high 60s to low 80s (I still can’t do Celsius, don’t make me try), an anomaly for this part of Spain in October, November has brought cooler, but never quite cold, weather, and lots of rain! I am thrilled by this change, because I love good sweater weather, but the fact that it came so late has been messing with my head a little bit. Like I learned last year in Cambodia with perpetual hot weather, I realize how much growing up in places with four predictably timed seasons conditioned me. While more than two thirds of my time in Spain has now passed, in some ways it still feels like it should be the beginning of October, not halfway through November — purely because of the weather. My inner weatherwoman has not caught up to the reality of the calendar, and now I find myself scrambling! Just as my fellow study abroad students and I are finding our routine and feeling truly settled, we are beginning the final countdown, just one more month to go! So I plan to pack this last month full, to use one of my favorite Spanish verbs, “aprovechar,” to take advantage of all the time I have left!

Because this ticking clock only really hit me this weekend, the past three weeks have been relatively chill and routine, not too many exciting things to report, which is why there’s been a chunk of time between posts. It has been nice, though, to feel settled enough to just spend weekends hanging out with friends, crashing in coffee shops, finding a flow, and even as I run around to do things before I go, I think that sense of confidence and calm will remain with me.

My new host mom has continued to be fantastic. Our meals together are almost always nearly hour long affairs during which she talks my ear off about any number of topics, from her family history to cooking techniques to Spanish politics. It is fun and fascinating, even when I can’t get a word in edgewise! And she is a fantastic cook! Though she herself isn’t a vegetarian, she is super accommodating of me, and has had fun experimenting with new recipes. I even cooked a meal for her one night. The menu was standard fare for me: rice, puffy baked tofu, and a simple pepper stir fry. Easy enough, I’ve made this dozens of times for myself at home, and even several times for over 60 people when I cooked in my co-op at Oberlin. But I have never cooked it in a Spanish kitchen. For those of you who don’t know, European ovens are quite different from American ones. It’s not just the Celsius factor, which is obnoxious but convertible. They are also almost all convection ovens, meaning instead of having heating elements at the bottom and top of the oven, like ours back home, they have a fan that blows hot air throughout the oven. Now, they are arguably more effective at evenly distributing heat and cooking food faster, but if you aren’t used to them, it can get…interesting. My cooking had been going well. My tofu was pressed and had marinated in a mix of balsamic vinegar, white wine, olive oil and herbs for several hours. The veggies were cut, the rice was steaming. All that was left to do was pop the tofu in the oven at 400F (204C) for 15 minutes on each side while I cooked up the veggies, and we’d be in business! My host mom’s oven is “old fashioned,” according to her, so it still has heating elements on the top and bottom that can be turned on optionally in addition to the convection setting. I figured I would just use those, since I was more used to them, so I preheated the oven as I would at home. I don’t want to say it is fortunate that no buildings in Spain seem to have smoke detectors (seriously?! It is 2014), but at the moment I was grateful for that fact, because when I opened the oven door to stick the tofu in, billows of black smoke came pouring out, filling the small kitchen and leaving me wheezing! It turns out that since my host mom never uses the heating elements, grease had caked up on the bottom one, and it was burning! Well, things were dramatic for a moment, but we just turned the oven off, my host mom cleaned it off once it had cooled, and we let the smoke out through a window.

While she was in the kitchen, though, she remarked on the “strange” ways I was cooking my rice and veggies. Apparently in Spain, it is customary to cook rice more like pasta — put in way more water than you need, boil it for 10-12 minutes, and then drain it, not put in double the amount of water and then let it steam like I am used to. She also was astonished at the small amount of oil I had heated in the pan for my veggies, probably about two teaspoons worth. She said the veggies would never taste good like that, because they wouldn’t absorb the oil, and to have flavor and cook properly, they have to soak up lots of it. I watched in horror as she poured about a third cup of olive oil in with my two handfuls of veggies, as she insisted all Spaniards cook with this much oil, and all the food she’s made for me has been prepared like this! (It helps that the olive oil here, even of a low quality, is astoundingly good, the type I would pay big bucks for at home.) When the food was finally done cooking, she brought the customary baguette to the table to accompany it. When I told her that usually this meal wouldn’t be eaten with bread because of the rice, she looked stunned. “But I wouldn’t know how to eat without bread!” Still, she wanted to eat it my way, since it was my meal, and just broke off the smallest possible piece of bread for herself to use as a utensil — she always uses bread to push food onto her fork. Overall the meal was a success, despite the road bumps along the way, and my host mom has since bought and cooked tofu several times for me! Yay!

Classes have also been progressing pretty well. I am worried that my acquisition of Spanish might have plateaued; unless I was truly living, breathing, consuming only Spanish 24/7 with intensive grammar study, it’s not going to get naturally better at this point. That said, the level I have is certainly better than it was when I arrived, and I can truly communicate and understand just about everything. I rarely even have to ask my host mom vocabulary questions anymore! The only issue is continuing to stay motivated in classes where I don’t feel like I am really learning too much. The one class that continues to just be pure fun is my gastronomy class. Two weeks ago we made a field trip to Bilbao’s old town for “pintxos,” the Basque version of what is called “tapas” elsewhere in Spain, small bites of food, tasty and well-presented, valued for being yummy, creative, and inexpensive.

Though pintxos are typically consumed standing at a bar with friends while drinking a small glass of wine, hitting three or four different bars over the course of an evening, since we were a big group, they set up a table for us and brought over several different pintxos for us to try, including a special vegetarian plate for me (most pintxos are very meat-centered), along with the typical red and white wines of Basque country. Yum! This week we cooked a meal for ourselves again, making stuffed tomatoes, paella, and the Spanish version of what we call French toast! We are working on a cook book for our final class project, and if anyone is interested, I can translate some recipes and post them here at the end of the semester!

I have been on only one excursion since my last post, to the nearby town of Loyola (spelled here “Loiola”), birthplace and home of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. Though I am not religious, I went with the campus faith group, and enjoyed hearing about the history and significance of this saint, city, and the Jesuits, who I had only really been exposed to through their numerous universities in the US. It was a pretty uneventful trip, just a tour of the basilica and the museum, but I still enjoyed it.

I will be making a few more excursions before I leave Spain, the biggest one being a solo trip to Barcelona next weekend. Other than that, I have made a list of things I don’t want miss before I go, and I will be wandering around Bilbao as much as possible to soak it all up before I come home! More to come on how that all goes soon! Thanks for reading! <3

Fall Break

Hi all!

So, since we last talked I went on my Fall Break and, to say the least, it was amazing! The first stop on my trip was Berlin and all I can say is that if it weren’t for the fact that I cannot speak a word in German I would probably runaway and live there forever. The street art, the museums, the city landmarks, it was just an all-around incredible experience. The city has so much history, it was hard to try and see everything in just 3 days, but luckily we managed.

About half way into the trip I split from my friends and went to London to visit my sister, who is currently studying there for 4 years. It was great to finally see her and where she has been living since I had never been to London before. London had so much to offer and since I was there for a longer time than I was in Berlin I could slow things down a little bit and take my time going to all the sites.

Coincidently, my sisters Fall Break was the week after mine, so after London both her and I came back to Florence for the week. Here I took her to all my favorite spots around the city and we had some great food. It was nice having her around since it was like having a little piece of home in my current home. After an action-packed week in Florence, we headed to Paris for the weekend. She had been there before but I hadn’t and it is safe to say that Paris has been one of my favorite cities so far!

It has been an eventful couple of weeks but thankfully this weekend I can rest and relax. Even though the cities I have visited recently have been amazing, I am glad to be back in Florence and appreciate what an amazing city I get to live in for 4 months. Finals are soon approaching and I can’t believe I only have a month left. Hopefully many more adventures are to come. I’ll be sure to keep you guys updated.

Until next time,

 

Carolina R

Siena and Fall Break Adventures

Hi all! A lot has happened after my last post and I am really excited to tell you all about it. Last Saturday my roommate and I decided to go on a last minute trip to Siena, a small town about and hour and a half away from Florence. We got on a bus and spent the whole day wandering around the small Tuscan city’s piazzas and rich architecture. It was much prettier that I expected it to be, even though I had heard nothing but amazing things about it.

When we got there, the first thing we did was eat, obviously. We did our research beforehand and went on the hunt for a local pizza place called Pizzeria Poppi where we enjoyed some freshly made Ciaccino Ripieno, which can only be described as a pizza sandwich (Yes, it’s a pizza made into a sandwich. Genius, I know). We sat in Piazza del Campo as we ate our food and then enjoyed a delicious cup of cappuccino; even though you aren’t supposed to drink cappuccinos after noon, but whatever, sue me. After that we spent all day going in and out of shops and wandering around the famous sites. Siena is such a small town that you can walk from one side to the other in less than an hour, which was nice because we really had a chance to see as most as possible within out timeframe.

Although Siena was amazing, what has me really excited in my next adventure. This Friday marks the start of my Fall Break. I’ll be going to Berlin with a few of my friends for a couple of days and then I’m heading to London to meet up with my sister, who is currently studying right outside the city. I can’t wait for my next adventure, but unfortunately before all that begins Mid-term have to end, so for now I’ll be studying until the weekend comes by again. I hope to tell you all about it as soon as I get back. Wish me luck!

Ciao,

Carolina R

The wheels on the bus go round and round, all over Spain!

Wow, have the last few weeks been busy! I spent three weeks before arriving in Spain traveling Europe rather than making weekend trips all over the continent like many of my study abroad peers are choosing to do because I wanted to become intimately familiar with the city and region in which I am situated, to be more focused on Basque culture specifically, rather than jet setting to every famous European site. While friends’ tales of Oktoberfest and Romania might be interesting, I am glad I made my choice. And let me tell you, I have not lacked for travel destinations nearby!

This is my first weekend just chilling in Bilbao after spending the past three moving around and exploring other parts of Spain (and France) by bus! The first was my trip to Madrid, described in my previous post. In this post, I am mostly going to fill you in on my trips to San Sebastian, Vittoria-Gastiez, southern France, and Guernica.

My first trip was with a large group of friends to Bilbao’s sister city, San Sebastian, recognized as the other cultural capital of Bizkaia, the province of Basque Spain in which they are both located. San Sebastian is a much more high-end touristy town than Bilbao, with designer shops and gourmet restaurants, and every opportunity to feel fancy. Any weekend would have been a fabulous time to visit this ocean-side town, with its lovely beaches, superb shopping, and pintxos (Basque tapas) bars, renowned nation-wide for their creativity and quality. We got lucky, though, and went on the weekend of the San Sebastian International Film Festival. The town was bustling with international film critics and stars, with dozens of independent movies playing in venues across town. American movie stars Josh Hutcherson and Denzel Washington were there that day to receive awards! We like to think that even if we didn’t see them, perhaps they saw us! Of course, we had to go see a movie. We basically picked at random the first film we could find in Spanish with English subtitles, not really concerned with what type of movie we saw but simply want to have the experience of seeing an artsy independent film at a festival. Well, artsy and random is in fact what we got with “Gente Buena,” a Columbian film about a kid from the slums of Bogota sent to live with his deadbeat dad, who tries hard to take care of his son, but just can’t. The story was non-linear and depressing, the scenes seemed incomplete, and the dog died at the end. So while none of us really enjoyed the movie, at least we had plenty to complain about after, which is half the point of film festivals, right? ;-) We spent the rest of the day swimming in the ocean (the last weekend warm enough to do so), and exploring the historic old town center, before hopping on an evening bus home.

After a brief sleep, I headed off the next morning for another hour long bus ride with three friends to the historically political capital of the region, Vittoria-Gastiez. Vittoria might not be worth more than a couple of hours on a normal day, with few tourist sites or museums to enjoy, and a pretty, but rather small, historic center. But we got lucky again and were visiting during the once a year Medieval Market (similar to a renaissance fair), situated in the architecturally medieval heart of the town! Super cool. Wandering among the stalls bearing artisan crafts, traditional instruments, and foods galore, we sampled cheeses, pastries, and olives to our hearts’ delight, sipping cider as wandering minstrels serenaded us along the way. It really was like stepping back in time, if you could look beyond the pushing modern crowds, and it was a thoroughly delightful afternoon.

After a busy week of classes, including our first trip to the kitchen in my gastronomy class, I was back on a bus for another busy weekend of traveling. We made Spanish Potato Tortillas, Fried Pencas (swiss chard stems stuffed with cheese), rice pudding, and served it as always with bread and Coke.

Basque culture is not exclusive to Spain and stretches into a unique region of Southern France. My study abroad program took us on a day trip to the French Basque towns of Saint Jean de Luz and Biarritz. The architectural styles of Spanish and French Basque towns could not be more different. On the French side, all houses look very much the same, but to great effect, white with stripes and shutters in the same shades of either red, green, or blue, lined up in orderly fashion along the cobblestone streets. We had brief walking tours around each town, with plenty of free time afterwards to explore, a lovely change from how overbearing the group leaders were on our Madrid trip. I made sure to buy French snacks at each stop, including croissants and cheese from a local market, a whole baguette, and some artisan chocolates! Both towns were coastal, and I put my feet in the ocean in each place. Waves there were big enough for surfing, and standing alone barefoot in the sand, jeans weighted down by salt water despite my attempts to roll them up, felt renewing. It was quite the whirlwind tour, and I hope to be able to head back to France in the coming weeks!

The second big adventure of last weekend was a guided tour to Guernica (spelled Gernika locally) and the neighboring town of Bermeo. Guernica is most famous internationally for the bombing during the Spanish Civil War that nearly destroyed it, and Picasso’s famous painting depicting that grim scene. For Basques, it holds additional political and cultural significance. Guernica was the historical epicenter of Basque self-rule, and its famous oak tree was a symbol of democracy. We toured the old parliament building, a nearby sculpture garden, and the historic center, where we witnessed a weekend market and got to glimpse some traditional Basque sports like rock lifting and wood cutting competitions which were part of a monthly cultural festival, before we were whisked off. We were only in Bermeo briefly, but it was a lovely port town, famous for its highly stacked and distinctive houses.

So it’s easy to see why after those three jam-packed weekends, I have been ready for sleeping in and down time this weekend. Yesterday I enjoyed an easy going day with friends similar to one I might have at home: taking a long walk together, finding Vietnamese food for lunch, and coming back home to watch some How I Met Your Mother together. It’s nice to have a little taste of home every now and then when I am surrounded by constant newness. I big thanks to everyone reading this from back in the US. Your support means so much to me. Thanks for keeping me in your thoughts. You are also in mine. <3

Islands and Iron

Hey everyone!

In the past month I’ve grown accustomed to almost everything in France. Almost everything. The reverse dates and 24 hour clock still trip me up (and constantly force me to subtract ’12′ from any evening time) but I’m getting used to them. My classes are all settled and I just took my first week’s worth of mid-terms. Everything’s running smoothly at “home.” So, how about some travel?

Around three weeks ago the CEA group all went to St. Tropez, a popular island south of the Riviera. The city was at the bottom of a hill, with an ancient unused fort at the top. A nice clock tower looks over the city and there are plenty of beaches. We toured the island a bit, and then checked out a local art museum. The art was nice… I think. I’m not a huge art connoisseur, and the museum did not allow pictures. But take my word for it, there were some pretty cool paintings.

St. Tropez was a nice little day trip, and introduced us to a fluffy local cake called Tropezienne, which is popular in bakeries around the Riviera. The original recipe is a secret, but the cake tastes of cream and custard. It’s delicious. I bought some for my roommate’s birthday which passed recently; we had plenty of friends over our apartment for a dinner party then went out on the town.

My roommate and I have also been frequenting Versace Gym in Antibes. The gym is family owned and is packed with style and character. Most of the gym-goers are quite fit elderly men, who resemble classic mustachioed macho Frenchmen. The gym owner has a dog who runs around the place, and whose face is painted on the wall in a mural (please see pictures. It’s amazing.) The gym is a great place to pump some iron and burn off the truckload of baguettes I’ve eaten.

Speaking of iron, the CEA group took a trip to another island, St. Marguerit, where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. It’s still a mystery who the man was, but his cell and prison were open to the public. When we arrived we headed straight to the prison, which is found in a dusty abandoned fort. Walking through the fort felt like I stepped back in time. The prison cell of the Man in the Iron Mask was actually pretty spacious. Bigger than my freshman college dorm, and the guy even had his own toilet!

After looking around the prison a bit, we walked through the paths of the island which were surround by high lush bushes, creating a hedge-maze feel. We reached the rocky beaches where we went snorkeling and had some lunch. The water was crystal clear and the sea floor was full of starfish and vegetation. Before we left, I decided to explore the island a bit more. I ended up finding an ancient ruin from pre-Roman times, which had been restored multiple times throughout history and still stood. I also found overgrown ruins which nature had taken over, and peaceful pine tree forests which reminded me of home. St. Marguerit island is my favorite place visited so far, but that may change soon.

I’m writing this a couple of hours before my first big non-CEA trip: Paris. I’m going for a weekend with my roommate and some friends and I’ll be sure to write all about it in my next blog. My next 6 weeks are packed with travel plans, including trips to Provence, Barcelona, and Amsterdam, so exciting!

Thanks for reading, stay tuned!