Touring

One Not So Quiet Last Weekend

As much as a quiet last weekend in Madrid did sound nice, I took my last traveling opportunity and left for England. Of all the countries I visited this semester, England was my favorite, followed by Spain and Brussels. Part of my love for England is likely due to the fact that I managed to leave London and see more of the country.

Tower Bridge (not to be confused with London Bridge, which is actually small and disappointing)

Tower Bridge (not to be confused with London Bridge, which is actually small and disappointing)

Without a doubt, we wanted to see London, so we spent the first day and night in the city center. We saw the major sites (Buckingham Palace, London Eye, Tower Bridge, etc.) and ate fish and chips. Before all this, we took a trip back to America. We ate Chipotle and I shopped at J. Crew and Anthropologie.

I proudly say I bought nothing!

I proudly say I bought nothing!

Except then I bought a shirt at Anthropologie. After all, I had no hope of resisting both my favorite stores!

The next day, after scrambled eggs for breakfast, we took the train the Stratford to meet my friend’s friends. The family warmly welcomed us into their home, fed us and showed us around. We saw Shakespeare’s birthplace, which, by the way, is older than the United States (yes, my friend Christian asked that) and went to a cafe for afternoon tea.

The following day these friends took us to Birmingham for the Christmas market, which is the largest in Europe. It was indeed very large, and warm cocktails and sausages were the specialties.

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Even though I’m somewhat still in denial that this was my last weekend, it was a pretty spectacular one.

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Eight Days of Family

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My lovely family and I spent eight whole days together. Leave it to three months away to make you welcome a family visit. After all, running around Europe is fun, but nothing rivals time spent with family.

I am far from calling myself an expert, but I do know a little about Madrid, and I loved sharing. I kept my mom, dad and brother Andrew busy. When I wasn’t dragging them along to meals and activities, my dad took over to fill the schedule.

When they arrived on Saturday, I took them for a familiar American brunch at Carmencita Bar, where my mom and I enjoyed eggs bennedict, my dad French toast and eggs and Andrew, never one for brunch, a hamburger. I was a bit embarrassed to not have found something more Spanish for the first meal, but I miss breakfast food in Madrid, so I easily reconciled the choice.

Carmencita Bar

Calle de San Vincente Ferrer, 51
28015 Madrid, Spain

http://www.carmencitabar.com/

The next day we headed to Valencia, Spain. We saw the special Sunday market, the cathedral and a traditional dance festival. Then, of course, we ate paella for lunch.

Can you guess who ate which portions?

Can you guess who ate which portions?

We returned Monday and stayed in Madrid until Thursday. I brought my mom, an academic at heart, to university with me and to volunteer with me and the family visited the Prado, Reina Sofia and el Palacio Royal while I was in class.

We also fit in a flamenco show and lunch at my wonderful hosts’ home. They served a Spanish meal with some of my favorites, including salmorejo, paella and Spanish wine, making sure each food item came right from Spain.

This woman, the owner, chose my dad as her crush for the night. She always turned back and smiled at him.

This woman, the owner, chose my dad as her crush for the night. She always turned back and smiled at him.

Unfortunately, the Christmas lights in Madrid turned on the weekend of December 1, and my family left that Friday morning. Luckily, we happened to be in Plaza Mayor one evening when the lights illuminated the street for only a moment, just long enough for them to witness the magnificence. I’ve been enthusiastic about Christmas light tours my entire life, so yes, magnificent.

We ended our time together in Paris. We went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, visited Notre Dame and ate delicious food, including crepes on the street and Café Constant. While my parents viewed the art museums, Andrew and I headed to Disneyland. We are Disney fanatics, so we could not wait. With a giant tree, decorations all along Main Street and a special Christmas parade, we loved it all. We found the rides similar to those in Disney World in Florida. The big difference was the weather, since Paris was cold and Florida rarely is. Regardless, we loved it.

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My mom, dad and Andrew left for Minnesota from Paris Sunday morning, and I flew back to Madrid. I loved (almost) every minute of our time together. It wasn’t too sad to say goodbye, knowing I would be home in 19 days!

Oh, one more thing: my dad ate the largest paella portion, I ate middle one and my mom ate the little part.

Here’s to New Adventures

As I enter my final month in Spain (on another note, what happened to the other three months?), I find myself reflecting on the study abroad experience. I take away this: utilize every opportunity. At first I attributed my exciting chances, be it a trip to Paris or Morocco, a Real Madrid game, a hike in the mountains or a performance of El Rey Leon, to being in a new place, but I recently conceded that a change in attitude was the defining factor.

Choosing to study abroad might be the most exciting and the scariest thing I, as a student, have thus far decided to do. After almost three months, I might add also one of the best things. I go to a private Christian college in the Illinois suburbs with 2400 undergraduate students. I chose a study abroad program in Madrid city center, attending classes at a public university because I sought a change, and as cliché as it sounds, I knew I would learn more about the world and about myself. Trite as it is, I was exactly correct.

First opportunity accepted: study in Madrid. Of course, in a new city, other CIEE students and I wished to explore. The first couple weeks, I used silly excuses such as “I’m tired” or “I should wait to see this.” Before long, I resolved to be more active in Madrid, and since then, options appear everywhere. I may never again live in Madrid, so I have to make this semester worthwhile. Writing this post having just returned from Brussels, I succeeded.

The question remains: What happens when I return to school? The truth is I’m not sure. However, I do know I will go back with a renewed sense of flexibility, adventure and global awareness. I won’t get ahead of myself; that’s still a month away. For now, I still look forward to a visit from my family, Paris again, London, Valencia, more time with my host family and more time to work on Spanish.

Chocolate demonstration in Brussels

Chocolate demonstration in Brussels

Grand Place in Brussels, right where we stayed

Grand Place in Brussels, right where we stayed

For the Love of Families

“Hey kids, we have a surprise for you: we’re going on vacation!” always brought a smile to my face. I love family vacations. I had a friend in elementary school who spoke of forced family fun (FFF). Family vacations are filled with FFF. Despite a few bumps along the way, you’ll come out with memories and and a closer bond. 

I’d been wanting to spend more time with my host family, so when my host dad suggested we take an overnight trip, I responded with a clear “yes!” Then it was so. We drove an hour and a half to Cuenca, visited the cathedral, Antonio Pérez Foundation modern art museum and walked around the town. And we ate, of course. What are Spanish family vacations like, you ask? Well, exactly like family vacations in the United States. Everyone wants to do something different, so everyone compromises. We take a break when we start to get on each other’s nerves. A lot of FFF, and at the end, we have  stories!

Traveling with friends is great and all, but there is just something about being with a family. I’m thankful to have a host family willing to take me in!

Fundación Antonio Pérez

Fundación Antonio Pérez

Owner of La Bodeguilla de Basilio

Owner of La Bodeguilla de Basilio

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Also this week, I went to see El Rey León (The Lion King sound more familiar?) at a theater in Madrid. Our seats were terrible. They were worse than you’re thinking right now. I leaned forward the entire show in order to see the stage, and even then it was a bit obstructed. Still, it was so good! I saw the show in the United States when I was younger, and this performance was every bit as moving as I remember. I’m not a crier, so I didn’t cry, but I got goose bumps during a few songs! The magic of Disney continues in Europe.

This weekend: biking along Madrid Rio and hiking in the mountains.

Weekend (and Midnight) in Paris

I confess, I have never seen Midnight in Paris. However, my traveling companion Alyssa has, and she often referenced the movie, so it kind of seems like I saw it.

I visited Paris, France this weekend. It was a short trip but one packed with many activities. After waking up at 4:45 to catch a taxi at 5:30 Alyssa and I boarded the plane and headed north. After two hours, we landed in Paris!

Friday’s agenda included a hearty English breakfast, admiring the city and a quick nap. We stayed close to the Gare du Nord train station, which is a large and well-connected station in the city. We knew we could get mostly anywhere from there, but the maps are pretty confusing. After the nap, we set off to navigate transportation. When we blankly stared at the map for 15 minutes, I knew we only had one option: ask for directions.  I had heard many times that the French hate Americans, so I tentatively asked a police officer, “Do you speak English?” He smiled, said that he did but that his friend knew more, and before I knew it four French police officers were giving us directions to the Louvre. They even walked us to the train.

We arrived at the Louvre and walked along the river. Which brings me to my first Eiffel Tower sighting! Soon it was time for the Louvre Museum. Like everyone says, the Mona Lisa is small. After spending Thursday evening at the Prado in Madrid and Friday evening at the Louvre, my head is sufficiently saturated with European art. Fortunately, appreciating the masterpieces is no difficult task. We walked through the Tuileries Garden on our way to dinner.

See it way back on the left?

See it way back on the left?

Walking across the Seine, we stopped to admire generations worth of love locks.

Walking across the Seine, we stopped to admire generations worth of love locks.

This week is fashion week in Paris. I expected to see more events, advertising or something, but we did run into one designer. Nina Ademar proudly displayed a “mobile fashion show” in a decorated delivery truck. Even though they turned away the woman in front of us, the guys let us come inside. A few dresses awed me, but I remained indifferent to some others. In other words, not preppy enough for this shopper. I miss you J. Crew!

Inside the truck

Inside the truck

We enjoyed Friday night dinner at Pinxo in the 1st arrondissement. We enjoyed curdle goat cheese with eggplant, steamed shrimps in garden herb broth, prawn tails and a glass of vin rosé in this Alain Dutournier establishment. I enjoyed all, but the prawns, served with coconut rice, emerged as my favorites.

Saturday brought a new set of recreation. When in France, a tourist must eat crepes, hence Saturday morning crepes and coffee. After crepes, off to Champs Elysees. Translation: shop ‘til you drop. After hours of shopping, a few minutes in the Luxembourg Gardens sounded magnificent. That was about the time I had to best crepe I have ever tasted. We met up with Alyssa’s friend who is studying in Paris, and he ordered a crepe from a stand on the street. There was a miscommunication, he got two crepes, and he shared. Tuna, mozzarella and magic seasoning (the man called it magic) for four euros. Anyway, we sat in the park while enjoying the crepe, and it felt surreal. It felt like we were in a movie, maybe Afternoon in Paris.

Bliss in crepe form

Bliss in crepe form

Luxembourg Gardens

Luxembourg Gardens

As soon as it got dark, Alyssa and I headed for the Eiffel Tower. Since it was our first time in Paris, we went all the way to the top.

Obligatory photo

Obligatory photo

We ended the night at Constant, which was so special it gets its own post tomorrow, or maybe later today if I don’t get distracted.

We concluded the weekend with mass at Notre Dame. Even though the service was in French, I felt engaged and happy to be there. The cathedrals in Europe are unlike anything in the United States. If you haven’t been, go.

Outside Notre Dame

Outside Notre Dame

That’s the trip. Although there are many more stories, these were the highlights. Even though my French spans from bonjour to merci, I managed well. Paris holds much more, but we feel good about our trip. When I go back, Disneyland Paris is first on the list!

Toledo

The city of Toledo is one giant hill. My Nike FuelBand tells me took 15,499 steps during the day trip. A 45 minute bus ride from Madrid, Toledo had much to offer.

Starting at the Tagus River, I saw the Infantry Academy.

Tagus River

Tagus River

Infantry Academy

Infantry Academy

King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I constructed the Monastery of Saint John of the Kings to commemorate the birth of their son Prince John and to celebrate victory at the Battle of Toro. The property is beautifully decorated with noticeable Gothic influences.

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My favorite stop was the El Greco museum. Born in Greece and trained in Italy, El Greco later moved his studio to Toledo, where he worked the rest of his life to become an influential artist of the Spanish Renaissance.

These portraits come from a collection of 13 paintings, recognized by neutral backgrounds and contrasting figures.

These portraits come from a collection of 13 paintings, recognized by neutral backgrounds and contrasting figures.

I was not surprised to learn that UNESCO designated Toledo a World Heritage Site. The cobblestone streets, bakeries, museums, and shops kept my friends and I busy all day.

Also, since I walked uphill all day, I told myself I didn’t need to run. I thought that was good reasoning.

Experiencing Tradition

It turns out my host family has an incredible mountain house in a village outside Madrid. I visited today, and I went to the village’s annual celebration. Many cities have a festival like this one, where the whole city comes together. Some wore traditional dress, while others, like me, wore a blue and white plaid bandana.

With my host parents on the porch at their mountain home

With my host parents on the porch at their mountain home

Each family or group reserves a space in the park, where they set up tables and chairs. Tradition says every group must create an exhibit, similar to a float in the U.S., but stationary. At the end of the day, a committee votes on the best one.

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I enjoyed this opportunity to experience another part of Madrid.