Category Archives: fall semester

time flies, and apparently so does paella.

WOW how the time flies.  Two weeks left of my first semester in Spain.  Just as it is in the states, things are getting jam-packed as we near the end: exams to be taken, papers to be written, but also people and places to see and enjoy before saying goodbye.

In this spirit, a few of our Spanish friends organized a rather large fiesta in honor of Franco’s death which occurred on the 20th of November.  This day is not recognized nationally by any means, and it was barely even mentioned in school, so the fact that we attended a celebration of this was somewhat out of the ordinary.  It took place in the “OVNI CUADRADO” art gallery (which translates literally to the “Square UFO” gallery) that my friend Carlitos, a more than middle aged artist, runs.  More than a second apartment than an actual art gallery, its walls are covered in murals, out of place photos from magazines, and string lights.  General kitch is the theme.  After an interpretive dance performance, a few of our friends hit the stage to play some music, at one point asking me to come up and sing some jazz!  “When in Spain,” you could say.  The final spectacle of the night was just that: a live-action cooking show in the center of the dance floor, with Carlitos himself making an enormous paella right in front of our eyes.  Dressed in a sailor costume, and accompanied by a mock “faellera” girl (the equivalent of a “Little Miss” from American beauty pageants and parades) he started adding oil, peppers, garlic and onions to the pan.  All seemed to be running smoothly as he flung, dramatically, a passel of octopi and mussels into the mix, but things suddenly went south.  The paella pan starts tipping over (the physics behind this are still unclear to me) and seafood broth sloshes everywhere.  A close save, and a sigh of relief.  But again, it tips, this time definitively so, making the whole plate slip off the table and flip over, depositing sea creatures and green peppers everywhere.  It starts to smell.  Carlitos gets out his mop.  The police show up downstairs because of a noise complaint.  That’s when we made our exit, remembering the “Paella Bingo Show” party (as it was called) as one of the strangest events of the semester.

There seems to have been a lot to celebrate during the past few weeks, because shortly after the paella fiasco we were treated to a lovely Thanksgiving dinner at our school.  It was not easy to get off Skype with my parents, Aunt and Uncle after catching them at the start of the Thanksgiving festivities at home.  And I remember walking to the school thinking: this will not be fun.  It will just make me sadder.  But as the case often is when I start complaining required events, I was very pleasantly surprised (Mr. Kahuda: some things never change).  The supper was held in our school in the library, where the study desks had been converted into dining tables, beckoning us with a spread of various meats, cheeses, and drinks.  After a short moment of private reflection to think about what we are thankful for this year (there are so many things I don’t know if I could name them all.  But for me: this entire experience, Skype, the health and happiness of my family, the loving presence y’all provide me when you respond to these, Adela my Spanish madre, a break from economic hardships, etc.) we started to chow down on the incredible buffet that had been prepared: turkey, stuffing (actual bread stuffing! I couldn’t believe it), various potato dishes (but sadly, not the roasted garlic mashed potatoes my mom whipped up this year), veggies, canned cranberry sauce (brought straight from the US by a friend’s mom who was visiting) and sweet potatoes.  After supper we were served roasted pumpkin and whipped cream, an excellent and believable replacement for the pumpkin pie that cannot be found in this country.  Overall, it was a great night, and I was so happy to spend it with my new group of friends, my new family.

l'antiga universitat

More things gastronomic! This time the topic is cava, Spain’s equivalent to France’s champagne.  A few days after the Thanksgiving feast, a few friends and I met up to go to the first cava tasting held in Valencia at the old University of Valencia campus.  Stationed in the central patio of the building were dozens of wine makers and their work.  For 5€ we received four tastings of our choice, accompanied by various crackers and cheeses that were being promoted as well.  Not knowing anything about wine, my general plan of attack was to go over to any station manned by jovial-looking Spanish men and ask them: “¿cual es tu favorito?” (which one is your favorite?).  Using what I learned from the one wine tasting I’ve been to in Israel (a locale not exactly known for its wine), I swirled and swished and enjoyed myself thoroughly, crashing by 2 hours later at the extremely early hour of 12:30am.

Now that you’ve gotten the culinary side of things, it’s on to sports: the program also provided us with FREE tickets to a soccer game this weekend to see Valencia CF go up against Lille FC from France.  This activity was made possible by one of our professors who used to play for Valencia (or the minor leagues, we think) until an injury made him quit and dedicate himself to his second passion: writing poetry.  He is a personal friend of many of the players, and not only got us the great seats for free, but a special chance to go on the field after the game, meet the players and ogle.  Despite the rain and cold, it was a great night, made only sweeter by the promise that the next day some of these very fine jugadores (players) would join us Americans for a drink.  And they did just that.  Sort of.  We showed up last night at the meeting spot, a noisy bar that overcharged, ogling again in wonder at so many attractive athletes in one small space.  Although my friends and I did not end up leaving the club with any marriage proposals, it was still fun to rub elbows with these guys for a few hours.  And at least I can say I gave Mata (the #4 ranked soccer player in the world currently) the obligatory dos besos (two kisses, the typical European greeting or goodbye).

But the weekend shenanigans don’t stop there.  That was two days ago, whereas yesterday, on my way to the train station to catch a train to Madrid for the long weekend (we have another one of those lovely “puentes” which gives me 5 days off!), I got the call that the friend I was going to meet there has come down with the swine flu!  Needless to say, I did not get on that train.  Instead, I high-tailed it back to the school just in time to see the bi-annual theater production the students of our program put on.  This year they did Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre (Blood Weddings), a tragedy that was interpreted by the students here and that was lightened up by such scenes as when Death comes out from stage right, catches the eye of her best friend playing a widow, and they both burst out laughing.  You could call it a “loose” interpretation.

Besides that, I’d say y’all are all pretty well caught up now.  Things are for sure winding down now, and the general tone at school is getting pretty sentimental.  It seems so strange to me that only 4 months can bring people together and make them so close, but it really has.  I love the friends I’ve made here, and the group dynamic in general, and I don’t want to lose any of that!  But I can tell that the change is necessary and for the better; if things were to stay exactly as they are I think on some level I’d be bored.  I’m glad to have a few core friends staying next semester, to help with the transition (we’re doubling in size, for starters!) and a few months here under my belt.  Who knows what the next half of this year will bring!

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post Post-Its: Halloween ’09

“I didn’t really feel like I was in Spain, until just now”

Not sure if I agree with this statement, said by one of my friends our first night in Barcelona, as we wandered the streets full of the excitement that comes from being in a place for the first time.  But I will say this: if you can only visit one city in Spain, Barcelona should be it, hands down, no question.  (Ok, maybe Sevilla too).  It represents the whole country so well: it’s such a vibrant city, just like the Spanish people, with streets overflowing with art, music, tapas and vino, all the things I’ve come to love about the country.  But it has its own distinct character too, being the capital of Cataluña, a very unique region with lots of its own history, tradition, and even its own language (Catalan, of which Valenciano, spoken in Valencia, is a derivative).

We got the idea for this trip from a few other people in the program, who were headed to Barcelona for Halloween after hearing that this city really knew how to celebrate the holiday (which gave it a certain appeal because as a rule Spaniards don’t recognize it).  The plan was only made sweeter by the fact that one of our Spanish friends, Sabata, has an apartment there since he teaches part time in Barcelona.  We agreed that us Americans (specifically: Emily Anne, Angela, Preetal, Shannon, Julia and I, all girls I’m really fond of) would come for the weekend and crash with Sabata and our mutual friend Rafa, who also lives here in Valencia and would join us for the visit.  The whole trip didn’t really cement until a week before, with us scrambling around buying train tickets and costumes.  But it was totally worth any hassle it caused.

After classes on Thursday, we hopped on a four hour train north to the city.  When we arrived, Sabata and his roommates were waiting for us with open arms, ready to show us around the city despite the arrival time (actually, midnight in this country means suppertime has just ended, a fact I still can’t get used to).  The apartment could not have been in a better location: right by the port, just a few blocks from the Cathedral of Barcelona (which of course we all mistook for Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia upon seeing it at night) and a 10 minute walk to Les Rambles, the city’s “main drag”.  So after a personalized tour of the area near our apartment that included lessons in sculpture (did you know when someone is sculpted riding horseback on a horse with one leg raised, it means he died in battle?), architecture and Catalan, we came home and crashed, excited for the day of sightseeing ahead of us…

me 'n' Paco (who is quite possibly in the running for love of my life.)

…but we got a little distracted.  The plan was to nail down our costumes (we had planned to go as Post-It notes, which only requires a colorful shirt and a marker for people to write on it) before checking out all of Gaudí’s incredible architecture and maybe some Miró.  No such luck; after dragging Paco, (one of Sabata’s roommates, and probably the nicest and most patient guy in the world) around for the whole morning in search of said costumes, we called it quits in favor of tapas and sangria, returning back to the apartment ready for our siesta.  There we found our friend Rafa (a freelance translator/writer/publisher), finally awake at 2:30 in the afternoon, perched in front of his laptop doing some work.  When we sat down and he picked up the guitar to play for us, we knew it was over; we weren’t going anywhere that afternoon.  We lazed about for a few more hours, enjoying the opportunity to be as fully immersed in a culture as it gets, and then headed out to the beach (5 minutes away!!) to watch the sunset.  There more lazing about ensued, as the night grew bluer and bluer while the lights of the city grew warmer and brighter.  We decided to thank the boys for their hospitality by preparing a supper for them of pasta and pizza, and for after-dinner drinks we girls made Agua de Valencia, the typical cocktail of our town.  Then it was off to a concert that one of Rafa’s friends was putting on in the city that night.  We managed to almost lose one from our group, Emily Anne, in the subway; the doors in Barcelona’s underground close QUICKLY and DO NOT REOPEN for anyone or anything.  The concert was good but we had far too much energy to sit still and listen, so we headed out in search of somewhere to dance.  This failed, however, and we abandoned the plan in favor of, you guessed it!, lazing about at home playing guitar and telling stories.  Definitely can’t complain about that.

family portrait.

Saturday we finally managed to do a bit of tourism.  The whole gang (Spaniards and Americans alike) hopped the metro to the Park Güell, one of the many legacies Gaudí left to the city; the park is carved out of the side of a hill, making it a great place to take in views of the city.  Right as you walk in, you’re greeted by two small “houses” (one now serving as a gift shop) that look like they’ve come straight from the pages of Hansel and Gretel.  But instead of candy they’re adorned with mosaics, glistening with color in the afternoon sun.  We found a spot to picnic towards the top of the hill, feasting on freshly purchased bocadillos, fruit and chocolate, talking both in English and Spanish of cuss words, UVA traditions and other cultural oddities.  I truly felt like a kid again, skipping around the park (keep in mind I don’t get much time in the great outdoors in the metropolis that is Valencia) with my friends, snapping goofy photos and taking in the spectacular views of the city below.  The day ended with some last minute Halloween shopping, at which point it became clear I was not destined to be a Post-It Note but a leopard (the amount of leopard print clothing in the dollar store we stumbled upon was staggering).  After a quick siesta we geared up, made sure the boys had an acceptable amount of costume on (they all took a liking to my eyeliner and their costumes therefore were decided on how the makeup was employed: black-lined lips? “Mom” tattoos?, and so on).

Our friends were right: Barcelona knows how to throw a good Halloween party; everyone in the streets was dressed up, ready to share with us what they were, curious to know what we were, etc.  It’s amazing how many foreigners were out and about (ourselves included); we probably heard more English that night than Spanish.  And I’m not often a proponent for nights out that end at 6am, but I made an exception this time.  Overall, a successful American holiday celebration in Spain.

With only a few hours in the city left on Sunday, we high-tailed it to the remaining Gaudí grandeurs (I’m already planning my next trip back, since we didn’t have the chance to go into any of the buildings! They’re so impressive from the outside that I can’t imagine what beautiful things are inside).  What an incredible feeling to get off at the “Sagrada Familia” metro stop and literally step out, look up, and there it is.  Dripping with ornate stonework, built to represent the wild beauty of nature, this cathedral is truly awe-inspiring.  Exactly 100 years old this year, it is still being built; can you imagine how Gaudí must have felt, not ever having seen his own work completed?  Despite the distraction of cranes and scaffolding that surround the building, it’s interesting to see parts of the structure that are completed, while other identical parts are still being built.  We then strolled down to La Pedrera (wish I could tell you what this was originally, maybe just an apartment building that now serves as a Gaudí museum) and Casa Batelló (again, another apartment designed by Gaudí).  With only minutes to spare, we hopped on our train home, weary travelers ready to return.

This week has provided no similarly spectacular stories, since it has mostly consisted of getting back exams (I could rant for hours about the disadvantages of the Spanish grading system in which, all my teacher’s assured me, an 85 is “muy muy muy bien!”) and straightening out credits and classes with UVA from overseas, since I have pretty much determined that I’ll be graduating by the end of this summer.  Which is an exciting prospect, despite all the bureaucracy, because of what next year may hold for me: an internship here in Spain? In D.C.? a semester of living at home and working so I can travel/live somewhere new and different? (but like they say: you can take the girl out of Charlottesville but you can’t take Charlottesville out of the girl).  I feel like the world really is at my fingertips, and I’m just glad to be overwhelmed by possibilities rather than dead ends.

Other than that, next weekend I head to Paris to visit one of my closest friends from high school who is also on a year abroad program.  So more travel news to follow.

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Paris, and my entrance into the world of flickr.

WARNING: this email is just a shameless plug and excuse to promote my new flickr photo page. More info to follow.

Seine-ic view.

A bit of everything in this installment.  Firstly, made it to Paris, despite the nasty weekend-cold I had just gotten over a few days before, to see my good friend Isabella from Chatham, who is studying abroad there with Smith College.  I had been to Paris two times before and felt satisfied with the amount of tourism I had done, so the weekend was less about showing me the sites and more about catching up.  She lives in the 13th arrondisement right by the national library, a towering modern building (or, group of 4 buildings) that’s designed to look like four open books that form an enclosed courtyard at the center.

Bibliothèque François Mitterrand

She told me that although it is a lovely design, it was not a well-thought out one: the designer did not take into account the fact that his open window idea (he intended for the entire exterior to be windows, which they are, but did not realize that all that light would damage the precious materials that the library is indeed trying to protect.  Now these windows are merely covered up with a quick fix of Ikea blinds to shelter the books).  We spent most of our time just wandering around central Paris, drinking hot chocolate in a café on the l’île de France, scoping out the Bastille neighborhood by night and hanging around her apartment, a cute and cozy hideout from the November weather (which still has not hit Valencia).

SHAMELESS PLUG: and if you want to see the pictures from the trip, AND all the pictures from the semester so far, just check out my new flickr.com page. I realize I had been sending y’all links to facebook albums that I’ve made private.  So now everyone, a facebook member or not, can see what I’ve been up to.

This week has been relatively low key: my internship on Monday, my tutoring session on Wednesday (not sure if I mentioned but I’m giving English lessons to a 7 year old boy whose family wants him to learn enough language to go to summer camp in America.  He’s a great kid and I’m learning lots about my own language in the process of teaching it!), and on Thursday something cultural; the program bought us all passes to this art exhibit that’s here for a year, a collection of Sorolla paintings from the New York Spanish Society.  Ironic that they’ve been in the states all these years and I’m only just seeing them now in Spain.  It was finally time for my art history class knowledge to kick in, and it made the event more enjoyable, since I could actually see what we had talked about in class a few weeks back (Sorolla is a quintessential impressionist from Spain).

With only a short while left in the semester, the group dynamic and the individuals are definitely changing.  People are starting to get comfortable, starting to feel bad for not having spent as much time in Valencia, and starting to wish they weren’t leaving in 3 weeks.  It’s so hard to believe that the first semester is already over, and that after a month of traveling the program will refresh, start all over again, this time with a new batch of people (and much more of them!).  We year kids keep prophesying about what the experience will be like to be sitting in the orientation the first day, watching the newbies and their anxiousness while we already have 4 months under our belt.  But the change will be welcomed and I’m excited to see what will go on next semester…

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ciao, bella!

The problem with slacking in your blogging is that when you finally do, you have so much to say. So I’ll admit, I’m guilty of this week.  So sit back, relax, find your coffee/pipe/snack and settle in for the post-Fall Break update:

Started the internship at the publishing house, and am really enjoying it.  It’s less an internship and more of a personal tutoring session given by a publisher; we have a very defined checklist (yet another syllabus, if you will) of what we’re going to accomplish (such as learning to correct Spanish texts, formatting a page to be printed, translating and other general editing tasks), and none of what we do in the weekly meetings is actually used or published.  Instead, we’re given exercises from the real world (real letters or documents) but only use them as practice materials.  This doesn’t bother me too much, it’s just not what I expected. It’s also great practice for my language skills, since I’m correcting texts in Spanish, and having to remind myself of grammatical and stylistic rules.  Now all I have to do is work up the courage to ask the company for a summer job…

Apart from academics: last week was Fall Break.  And before I launch into my description of my TRIP TO ITALY (!!!!) I should explain the nature of the holiday itself.  In Spain they have this wonderful custom of «hacer puente» (“making a bridge”) between two holidays, in this case the Valencian independence day and an obscure national holiday.  When this happens, you get all the time off in between the two holidays since they’re so close together.  What an excellent system.

a puente

So the week of freedom started off with a traditional Valencian holiday (read: fiesta) called Nou d’Octubre (the ninth of October).  I would be lying if I told you I knew the full story behind it, but basically on this date in the 13th century, Valencia defeated the foreign occupants in the city and declared itself independent.  I honestly didn’t know how important this day was to the Valencianos, but it definitely is: EVERYTHING was closed, and EVERYONE was downtown, watching or

the moros y christianos parade

participating in an incredible parade.  I’ve never seen such elaborate costumes: glitter and fans spitting fire and medieval robes. Moreover, it’s the Valencian version of Valentine’s Day, and the traditional gift to give your lady is a handkerchief full of marzipans shaped like fruits and veggies, or erotic shapes if you’re into that sort of thing.  After a day of spectacles, our new Valencian friends (a very convoluted story that includes playing guitar in a plaza, watching magic tricks and schmoozing with artists who live next to the city’s cathedral.  The ending, however, is that I’ve made some very colorful Spanish friends) invited us to their annual Nou d’Octubre dinner party.

And the fun never stops! After celebrating my first October 9th, I headed off to Italy for a week!  The posse I traveled with consisted of 5 other girls from my program, half of whom were from different schools (Catholic University, Michigan State) than UVA.  I didn’t know them all that well going into the trip, but I loved having a chance to spend time with them outside of the school, where our communication is generally limited by the fact that we can only speak in Spanish.

The trip started in Rome, where we stayed in a suburb northwest of the city center in a quintessential hostel: 10 beds to a room with one shower in between us all, lockers for our luggage, overstarched sheets (at least they were clean!), a communal kitchen and dining room, etc.  The guys at the desk were all hilarious and liked to broadcast American rap music over the speakers in the dining room every evening.   We spent the first night wandering around the city and managed almost immediately to stumble upon the Coliseum, the Forum and the Palatine Hill.  The amount of history in the city is staggering; everywhere you turn there’s some archeological wonder, something you’ve read about in history classes but never dreamed you’d see one day.  The next night we decided to check out Rome’s nightlife, and signed up for the infamous “Spanish Steps Pub Crawl”, during which a group of 20-somethings take the pub crawl participants around to different bars around the city.  What was great about this was the people we met: everyone was travelling, most of them without a plan, just seeing where life took them.  It was also nice to not have to worry about getting lost in the city, since we had people leading us.  Overall, a good night.

How fitting (or ironic, really) that after a night out my next day would be spent at the Vatican.  A word to the wise: when Rick Steves tells you in his Lonely Planet guide that Monday is NOT a good day to do the Vatican, listen to him.  He’s right.  A lot of the other museums and monuments in the city are closed this day, making it a perfect time to go visit the Pope and his pad.  So along with everyone and their uncle, I made my way to the northwest corner of the city.  Any visit here is divided into two parts: St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum.  Out of the two, the former was my favorite; you can just tell there’s something special about the place.  It’s not just a church, it’s THE church.  The interior is ornately decorated with gold, vivid paintings and incredible sculptures (such as one done by Michaelangelo when he was only 19).  Downstairs you’re led through the basement to the tomb of St. Peter himself, a shrine dedicated to the discovery of his remains that occurred rather recently in the 1960s.

Then onto the museum.  Imagine trying to fit all the attendants of a rock concert into one room.  Now multiply that by 20 (the amount of rooms it felt like we saw in the museum. Probably entirely inaccurate.), and imagine all these people moving in the same direction from narrow hallway to narrow hallway (in the direction of the Sistine Chapel, in this case).  That’s the Vatican Museum.  Not exactly my favorite experience of the trip.  I didn’t realize how vast this museum was going to be, and the amount of visitors there not only made it hard to maneuver, but hard to understand the significance of what we were seeing.  And once you start the tour you can’t backtrack (read: THERE IS NO ESCAPE).  But the payoff of walking into the Sistine Chapel is pretty incredible.  EVERYTHING in it is painted: the columns on the walls aren’t columns, they’re paintings.  The curtains aren’t fabric, but paint on walls.  And in the very center of the ceiling of this vast room: the creation of Adam.  Truly an amazing sight (there was no way the “no photos” rule was going to stop me from snapping a few shots).

My final day in Rome I spent at a Dada/Surrealist art exhibit at the Museo di Risorgimiento, right next to the Coliseum.  It was truly an incredible show, with pieces from Duchamp, Breton, Miró, Calder, etc.  For me, even if the message of the art escapes me, I am simply just excited to be in the same room with such famous works (ok, so call me an art groupie).  The rest of the day we just wandered around the city, trying to hit all the leftover spots before leaving the next day.  What we found was an adorable little neighborhood called Trastevere, a nice change from all the tourists and hustle and bustle of the downtown area.

sunset from the Ponte Rialto

Wow, we’re only on city 2 of 3 (or 5, depending on how you look at it) of this trip.  You’ll have to forgive me for rambling.  But onto Venice: what an amazing city.  There’s truly nothing like it anywhere else in the world.  We stayed in this adorable little town of Oriago, 30 minutes from downtown Venice (since lodging in the center of the city is way expensive), which was a great taste of what small-town life in Italy is like.  The town literally had one stoplight. So on our first day we caught a bus into town, and then hopped straight away on a water taxi to visit two of Venice’s outlying islands: Murano and Burano.  The first is known for its hand blown glass, while the second is a lace-making island.  Just to give you an idea of how incredibly beautiful it was: don’t be surprised if you hear I’ve escaped to Murano, eloped and started my apprenticeship as a glassblower.  When you’re in the factory watching them make it, it’s incredible to realize that this task has been done the same way for hundreds of years, and the skills the workers possess come straight from their fathers, grandfathers, etc.  It seems so picturesque and perfect from a tourist’s point of view, but can you imagine growing up with that kind of pressure?  With that decision having been made for you almost from the day you were born?  Phew.  Heavy stuff.  So after grappling with that reality, it was time for a change of scenery.  On to Burano (the prettiest of all the islands, according to the guy in the lobby of our hotel).   He knows his stuff; all the houses on the island are painted bright, cheerful colors, and a babbling canal runs through the town, where the locals park their boats for the commute to Venice proper.  The lacework is also gorgeous, even for those of us (aka: this chick) who aren’t that into it.  After snagging a slice of pizza and a few pastries, we headed out on the water taxi to downtown Venice.

By this time I was fading, very aware that I hadn’t had a siesta in 4+ days, so I opted to sit for an hour in St. Mark’s Square, people-watching and dodging swarms of low-flying pigeons.  Sounds boring, but was perfect to just sit there and soak up the atmosphere. All around the square are cafes and shops, and each café has its own band to serenade its diners.  And for the fellow-coffee fiends: the [allegedly] first café to serve espresso in Italy is in this same piazza.  After reconvening with the group (all people-watched out), we splurged and got a gondola ride (I say splurged, because, well, it isn’t cheap.  But what’s interesting is that there’s no set price for these rides, you just haggle until you get it down to where you want it.  After this trip I can honestly say I have improved greatly in this skill).  Much to our dismay, our gondolier didn’t/wouldn’t sing, but just being in a gondola, floating serenely down the Grand Canal was enough.  What’s also so special about Venice (something you really notice during one of these rides) is how quiet the back streets/canals are, since there are no cars or buses or even people walking around; all you really here is the calm lapping of the water against the ancient foundations of the buildings.  Post-ride we strolled/explored some more, taking in the sunset from the Rialto Bridge, and bingeing on gelato (despite the howling wind and impending rain that seemed to follow us around the country).

After the short stay in Venice, we were headed to Florence.  Almost can’t decide which I loved more between the two.  In Florence we had the luck of staying in the heart of the city, right near the cathedral.  We got in at night, so we headed straight out to see what we could: the cathedral (Duomo), the Ponte Vecchio, the church (and nightlife neighborhood) of Santa Croce.  We decided we were less interested in museums and monuments (being at the end of our spending money) and more excited to see the town, and the Tuscan countryside.  I’ll admit now that I regret not doing the obligatory Uffizi/Academia visits, because the amount and quality of art in them is staggering.  Next time, I guess! With the alternate plan in mind, we got an early start the next day, with our first stop being the leather market.  This place is just three big streets that are lined, everyday, with stalls selling leather, behind which are actual stores.  Again, my haggling skills came into play and I left satisfied with my purchases (a cashmere scarf and leather bag).  When I started contemplating leather pants, I knew it was time to get out of there. (¡BROMA!).  We then made our way to the town’s famous Duomo, the Pitti Palace (home to the Medicis, I think?) and the Ponte Vecchio for the second time.  In the afternoon, we hopped on a train bound for Siena, a tiny, quaint medieval town in the heart of Tuscany.  After general wandering and exploring (are you sensing a theme here yet?  If not, it’s the verb “explore”.  This translates roughly to: walking around, snapping photos of picturesque scenery and buildings, eating gelato, getting lost at least once, being ambivalent about what to do next, and eating dinner.  Not a horrible system, really.  I mean, when can I honestly say I’m going to be in Italy next?  At least I got out and saw it), we settled into a café in the town’s main piazza.  Warmed by a dinner of salad with roasted vegetables and a steaming plate of gnocci, we hopped back on the train back to Florence.

The next day was our last, with our plane leaving from Pisa in the early evening.  So OF COURSE we had to go see the Tower.  But really, there’s not much more to do in that town.  So we checked our stuff at the train station, power-walked over to the other side of the city, and stared in awe.  It’s really leaning, I’ll tell you that.  Made me kind of nervous to think about climbing it (that being the second most popular activity in this town, coming in just below taking the obligatory “I’m so strong I’m holding up the tower” optical illusion photo).  So we opted for the latter.  And that’s when my camera died.  That’s when I knew the trip was over, that it was back to the real world and back to Spain (if this dream life of mine can really be classified as “the real world”).

The trip (and the break from schoolwork) was an awesome experience.  Almost more so because of how much it taught me about travelling (and I don’t mean the kind I did in high school, when everything was planned for me and I just got to go along for the ride.  Don’t get me wrong, I kinda miss that style).  Like how you should not forget a towel when you’re staying in a hostel (don’t worry, Mom, I remembered shower shoes), not plan late afternoon flights so you don’t waste a day travelling, and not stress when there’s a plane delay.  And the time away made me realize how much Valencia feels like home; I was honestly EXCITED to get back to the country, back to a language I can communicate in, back to Adela’s awesome cooking, back to my new Spanish friends and my other friends in the program.  Of course I miss home, but I’m so grateful that this place has become comfortable to me.  It’s MY city; I’m not just visiting anymore.

And with that, I’m out.  I know I talked (wrote?) your ears off, but just think of it this way: there will be absolutely NOTHING of worth to report this week, as it is exams.  Enough said.

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movies, music, museums. or: cine, canciones y cultura.

HOWDY, Y’ALL!

I start my update this way only to mention that the American Rodeo has arrived in Valencia this week.  So periodically throughout the past couple of days we’ve spotted these rodeo cowboys wandering past us in the streets or, (no joke), eating at the Burger King.  There are some aspects of American culture I guess I’ll never be able to escape…

Over the past few days I’ve been focusing my attention on the people and places of Valencia, trying to find my niche.  This quest started with a mid-week trip to the movies.  I had heard about this one film called Gordos (literally: “Fatties”) by Daniel Sanchez Arévalo that had just come out; our cinema teacher at school had showed us one of his short films in class, which everyone enjoyed, so I thought it’d be interesting to see another work by him.  So a few friends and I embarked on a somewhat confusing walk to the center of town, unsure of just what exactly was awaiting us at the cinema.  Would we even be able to understand it?  Would it be funny? Depressing? Totally artsy and incomprehensible?  To our pleasant surprise it was an EXCELLENT movie on so many levels.

The plot basically centered around a weight loss group and its members, all of whom had un montón de issues (identity crises, infidelity, ambiguous sexuality, to name a few) revolving around food.  I picked this one since it dealt with issue of obesity in Spain, which, after being here a few weeks and checking the people out on the street, doesn’t seem to even exist (EVERYONE here is thin/healthy). Thought it would be interesting to see the contrast (or the similarity) to the American obesity problem.  And of course there was the obligatory damning statement about Fat Americans.  Another interesting element was how graphically sexual the film was; somewhat similar to the level HBO likes to take their shows.  But the audience didn’t seem to care; only we Americans were scandalized.  I’d say a large part of what was so interesting about this evening at the movies was being a part of the audience, right alongside Spaniards (as opposed to sitting in a classroom watching a film for class, or even renting a foreign film and watching it at home).  In the end, everyone loved the movie and the evening out itself, the perfect jolt of culture shock to get us through the rest of the week.

me 'n' Diego, at the concert

I’ve also recently been getting a taste of Spanish music.  Have been to two concerts now: the first in a smoky bar right next to my apartment, accompanied by some girls from the program and Diego (my exchange partner) and his friends, and the second in another neighborhood bar where my friend’s hermano (host brother) was playing.  A lot of Spaniards have told me they don’t like Spanish music, that the lyrics are really poetic and beautiful but the music itself is nothing special.  I’d say that’s true.  It’s much more “fun” music than anything else, but still enjoyable.  These bands also had an affinity for classic American/English rock, so between both concerts I think I heard selections from CCR, Rolling Stones, AC/DC.  It’s also great to hear them play what I think are the Spanish equivalent of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” and all those songs you hear in bars and everyone starts singing along to.  The bar will erupt with slurred Spanish lyrics that I don’t understand but I know make people happy.  So again some cultural norms span many continents.

This weekend was our first one without class on Friday (3 day weekend woohoo!) so a lot of people went out of town.  This only helped me further my campaign to see more of Valencia itself: I woke up Friday morning and went to MuVIM, the Museum of Video and Illustration (I think?).  It was bizarre: a somewhat shabbily put together interactive tour through the entire history of western civilization, starting with illuminated manuscripts which would be replaced by the printing press, and ending in a video montage which was meant to sum up almost everything after industrialization.  The images on said montage were just looped segments from the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the Spanish Civil War, etc. etc. Guess they don’t really have high hopes for modern society?  But the visit was free so I can’t say I lost anything by going.  Afterwards a few friends and I walked to the Plaza de la Reina, where the Cathedral is, and climbed to the top of the cathedral’s tower.  The view from the top was incredible.  A lovely mid-morning adventure.  To top of the weekend I went to the Museo de Bellas Artes, which houses quite a collection of famous works (Goya, El Greco, Velazquez, Sorolla, etc.) and later today I’m going to try and visit the modern art museum (hoping that the impending rain won’t spoil the rather long walk there!)

now, if that isn’t a cultured weekend, I don’t know what is.

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Filed under fall semester, travel, Valencia