Though my last two posts have focused on exciting side-trips, most of my time in Spain was spent in class. The combination of those classes and the necessity of using Spanish in most situations caused my Spanish abilities, and my confidence in them, to improve a lot, which was my primary goal for the summer. Outside of Spanish, I was also able to learn an extraordinary amount about art history, Spanish history, and literature. I’ve been able to go to art museums and truly analyze the paintings, visit monuments and understand their significance, and recognize Spanish literature and analyze the contents within. After two months of intensive coursework and restless exploration of all that Alcalá and Madrid have to offer, I’m exhausted. I’m going to miss Spain, and all of the excitement I’ve had here, but I’m also ready to go home to rest and reflect before the fall semester begins. This blog only scratches the surface of my experiences, and I’ve failed to mention many of the ups and almost all of the downs. Without delving too much into minutiae, its not only my Spanish and my knowledge gained in class that have grown on this trip, but also my comfort zone and my self-confidence in stepping outside of it and navigating a foreign country on my own. To conclude, here are some final pictures from my second month in Spain.
Since I am staying here for two months rather than one, I had a five day break in between the June and July classes. Some other OU students and I used this time to explore more of southern Spain. We spent a day in Córdoba and two days each in Granada and Seville.
In Córdoba, our first stop was the Mezquita-Catedral. Back during the 8th through 15th centuries, Córdoba was the cultural capital of the Iberian Peninsula. This was the period when the Muslim Caliphate extended through Spain, so the mosque there has a lot of historical and cultural significance. After the reconquista, when the Spanish Catholics reclaimed the peninsula, a cathedral was built in the middle of the mosque, and daily masses have been held there since. We also saw the Córdoba Alcazar (or fortress). The grounds of the fortress were beautiful and there were old Roman and Visigoth mosaics and pottery displayed throughout.
In Granada, we spent out first day visiting the Granada cathedral and an open air market as well as just exploring the city. The next morning, we began the long hike up to the Alhambra, which is widely known as Granada’s most famous monument. Granada was the last province of Spain to be retaken by Ferdinand and Isabella during the reconquista, which ended in 1492. The Alhambra is a large palace and fortress complex where the last Sultan of Granada ruled until it was converted into the Royal Court for Ferdinand and Isabella. Since it is a well-fortified citadel, it is located on a large hill and offers stunning views of the city below. After a long visit there, we got on a bus headed to Seville.
In Seville we did much of the same, touring the Sevilla Alcazar (which was a filming location for Game of Thrones) and the Torre de Oro. We’d also been told that there was a palace in Seville which had been used as one of the filming locations for Naboo in Attack of the Clones. Unfortunately, there are four palaces in Seville, and we had no idea which one was correct nor wifi with which we could find out. Over the course of the weekend, we walked to three of the four palaces only to be met with disappointment. Ultimately on Sunday, we abandoned the search and went to an archeological museum instead. Returning from the museum, I looked down at my map and suggested we walk through a park where there was a plaza called Plaza de España which looked interesting. As we drew closer to the plaza, we realized that we had accidentally ended up in Naboo. I’m not sure if this is because I’m a huge nerd or just because the plaza itself was stunning, but it was one of my favorite places I’d seen all trip.
Speaking of favorites, on Saturday night we went out to see a flamenco show. The association of Spain and flamenco may seem ubiquitous, but the dance form actually only hails from Spain’s southern region, Andalusia, and it is there, especially in the city of Seville, where it continues to be widely popular with dance aficionados, tourists, and locals alike. I’d seen flamenco performed once before as part of a school showcase. This performance was very different as it took place in a crowded bar on a small stage with only a single singer/guitarist as accompanist to the dancer. I was very impressed by the complicated clapping and footwork involved, as well as the strong emotion poured into the singing and the dancer’s movements. I always enjoy watching dance, and have been able to see several performances while here in Spain, but watching such a well performed example of a traditional Spanish dance in its birthplace was a special treat. Enjoy the photos below!
Almost exactly one year ago today, I left my beloved Alcalá de Henares and headed home. It was the end of a magnificent and life-altering four month stay, and though I was excited to reunite with family and friends, I was devastated to leave. These seem like very dramatic words, and they are, but it’s difficult for me to avoid bold terms when describing this particular adventure of mine. I had been dreaming of studying abroad in Spain and living with a host family for YEARS before I did it, and when the time finally came to actually get on a plane and go live the dream, I was terrified. It seemed like an insane leap of faith, and I was not at all confident that it would be as awesome as I’d been dreaming it would.
However, faithful readers of the blog (if any exist!) will know that I faced my fears, got on the plane, and lived the dream. And it really was like living a dream – during that semester, I saw incredible places, met incredible people, and created memories that I will forever cherish. It is one of my accomplishments that I’m most proud of. I realize that seems odd – getting to live in Europe and travel the continent for four months in a country that values siestas doesn’t sound particularly difficult. However, in going, I overcame a great deal of personal trepidation and reached way outside of my comfort zone. I crossed the ocean, made friends, took challenging classes during which I debated interesting current events and learned a great deal, all in Spanish, built a relationship with my host family, also in Spanish, made great friends, became a more capable traveler, and got a great deal bolder and more confident.
My time in Spain was a time filled with learning. The joy of the trip was interspersed with mistakes and stress. To say that every moment was enjoyable would be a lie, but to say that every moment was valuable is the complete truth. Studying abroad taught me so much, about the world around me and about myself. I fell in love with the city of Alcalá and the country of Spain, and it all still feels as though it happened yesterday.
Ever since I returned, I’ve felt periodic pangs of missing Alcalá, but this semester has been particularly hard. Many times, I look at the calendar and think, “This time last year, I was roaming the medina in Rabat (Morocco).” “This time last year I was watching the sun set over La Alhambra while I listened to beautiful music and was engulfed in dancing and merriment.” “This time last year I was exploring the Sunday market in Madrid.” I absolutely love my life in Norman, but it’s impossible for me not to miss the grand and glittering adventure that was my semester in Spain.
What all this boils down to is that I’m itching to go back. A large part of me wants to continue to branch out and see more of the world that I haven’t yet, but another large part aches to return to my second home in Spain. I would love to get to hug my host mom, eat tortilla and drink some tinto in Indalo, to paddle across the lake in el Parque Retiro, and to get to revisit all the places that are so close to my heart.
Sadly, my days studying abroad may be over, but there is a silver lining – graduation is coming soon, and once I get a job and start saving, I can begin to save and scheme my way back to Alcalá. If anyone is reading this who hasn’t studied abroad yet, please do me a favor and seriously consider it. Everyone who has studied abroad sings its praises, and they are absolutely telling the truth. Go, explore, learn, and don’t be surprised when you come home and immediately want to go back.
Have you ever felt connected to a place you’ve never visited before? Have you ever felt called to go somewhere, but you don’t fully understand why?
Spain is my place. The culture, the music, the people, the food, the cities, the country – it calls to me. There’s a tug on my heart, something pulling me toward this country. I sometimes feel like I’m wrong living here in Oklahoma, even in the United States. I need to be in Spain. And no, I haven’t ever been before.
I can’t explain this feeling. I don’t understand it. I don’t know why its there or how to answer other peoples questions about it. —– “I understand why you want to study abroad, but why Spain?” —– “What’s so special about Spain?” —–“Can’t you get the same experience traveling the US instead?”
…Yes! No! I don’t know! I just need to be there….
I have this feeling that as soon as I get there, everything will click. I’ll know. It’ll finally make sense why I’ve had a relentless tug in my chest toward this country as soon as I get there. Man, I can’t wait.
I’ll wait restlessly with hopes that this tug won’t let up until I’m home. Spain, I’ll be there soon.
We are now nearing the close of my first semester back from Spain, and the end is coming alarmingly quickly. Facebook gave me my “year in review” video today, so apparently we are wrapping it up (we still have SEVERAL weeks left in the year, Facebook, but thank you for the reminder). 2016 has been a year for the books, certainly, and it’s hard for me to believe how quickly it passed by.
On the Wednesday of dead week last year, I was in the ER in extreme pain (it ended up being appendicitis. I had an emergency appendectomy, it went poorly, I stayed in the hospital for five days, I had to push back all my finals, and I ended up being in too fragile a state to travel for Christmas like my family had planned. It was not the jolliest Christmas season, but it was memorable). Thank goodness this dead week is going smoother and the pain I’m in is only mental! (Just kidding. Sort of – finals are rough, guys).
After my surgery and my delayed finals, I recuperated at home until pretty much the minute I hopped on my plane to Madrid (the day I boarded the plane was actually the first day I was cleared by the doctor to lift things over 20 pounds again). It was a little bit of a triumph for me – in 30 days, I’d gone from struggling to sit up or walk without extreme pain to starting a life for myself in Spain that I will never forget.
One blessing of having emergency surgery right before I went to Madrid was that it took my mind off the hugeness of the leap that I was about to take in going abroad. Everyone talks about how amazing studying abroad is, and how it’s an experience you’ll never forget, and they are not wrong – going to Spain is quite possibly my favorite thing that I have ever done. As soon as I stepped back onto American soil in April, I was itching to return to Alcalá.
However. What no one talks about (and maybe this is because no one worries quite like I do, but I find that hard to believe) is how scary it is to embark on a journey that long. I have dreamt of studying abroad in Spain for YEARS, but as I got closer to actually doing it, I got more and more terrified. I started to wonder if maybe I didn’t really want to do it, and that it would just be a huge mistake. Many upsetting thoughts like this swirled around in my brain for much of the fall semester.
You already know this, but it was NOT a huge mistake. It was, arguably, my best decision to date. And my experience reminds me of a quote I love – “If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try.” I’ve talked about this a bit in a previous blog post, but to me, it merits repeating: just because you are afraid of something does not mean you should not do it.
I wish, before I’d gone abroad, someone had told me that it is very okay to be scared out of your wits about leaving the country for four months, and that this fear is BY NO MEANS an indication that you should not go. This time last year, I was feeling MOSTLY fear and VERY LITTLE actual excitement about going abroad. The dream had seemed so rosy from far away, and up close it seemed so formidable. But I took the leap anyway and I will be eternally grateful that I did.
Now, I find myself getting caught up daydreaming about sipping café con leche and eating delicious pastries while I chatted in cafés with my friends. I miss roaming the streets of Madrid by myself, wandering through the parks, stopping in museums, and browsing any shops that caught my eye. I miss hearing Spanish around me always, and feeling powerful every time I interacted with a stranger and got to use my Spanish in casual conversation. I miss my classes, learning about Spanish history and art and medicine, and having debates about the European Union (all in Spanish, of course) with my wicked smart professors. I REALLY miss the friends I made – some, blessedly, go to OU, and I get to see them from time to time, but many are scattered across the country and we can only text. I miss my host mom and sister, sitting at our little kitchen table and discussing current events and Spanish vs. American culture, or sitting in our living room watching Gran Hermano. I miss all of the trains and busses and metro cars. I miss the weekend trips to new and exciting places, with adventure around every corner. I miss feeling the history in every building I passed and every cobblestone I walked on. I miss the trivia and karaoke nights, the tapas, and the laughter.
I miss quite a few things, but mostly, I am grateful. Grateful for SUCH an incredible experience. Grateful that I attend a university that encourages study abroad as much as it does. Grateful to be a Global Engagement fellow, an opportunity that has added so much richness to my time at OU. Eternally grateful that I did not let my fear win out and that I completed my spring semester at la Universidad de Alcalá. At the end, 4 months didn’t feel nearly long enough.
Part of my heart will always reside in Alcalá de Henares. And I would not have it any other way.
If by any chance someone happens to read this blog who is currently apprehensive about studying abroad, I hope that you will take my words to heart. If it scares you, there is a distinct possibility that it would be an excellent thing to try. Please never let fear talk you out of something incredible.
If you’re only keeping track of my semester by reading my blog, it may appear to you that I only travel and never do any actual schoolwork! You will be happy to know (at least if you are my parents or an OU professor) that I am in fact taking classes, and that they have provided me with yet another great opportunity to improve my Spanish as well as to learn as much as I can about the local culture.
I have been blessed with a wonderful schedule – I have classes from 10:30 to 2 four days a week, with one morning class, a 30 minute break, and then one afternoon class per day. I do walk 20 minutes to get to school every day, but getting to wake up at 9 every day has been spoiling me. I actually wake up earlier on the weekends so that I can travel and explore!
I have also had the great fortune to take classes in a variety of areas – I’m taking one on the history of Spanish art, one on the European Union, one on the Muslim legacy of Andalusia (a region in the south of Spain), and one on Spanish for health care professionals. All of my classes are taught by Spanish professors and conducted all in Spanish, which has been amazing practice – when learning a language, once you have enough base knowledge, I think there is nothing more beneficial than simply using it as much as you can. This semester has been fantastic to that end, and my classes are the best part!
This semester, I am getting credits for my Spanish minor, and it has been an awesome chance to learn completely different things than I have been in past semesters. I have loved many things about these classes, but my favorite is how applicable the knowledge is. In my art class, we will discuss Spanish painters and their most famous works, and then I will go to different cities and palaces and museums and get to see the works in person. I’ve been to Toledo, the city that served as El Greco’s greatest inspiration. I’ve seen famous works in El Escorial (a Spanish palace) and in the Picasso museum in Barcelona. Best of all, Madrid (which has basically been my backyard for this semester) contains the Museo del Prado, the Museo de la Reina Sofia, and other small museums like the house of Joaquin Sorolla that contain some of the most famous artwork in the world. It is an incredibly cool feeling to spend days learning the life stories of various artists and intensely studying their famous works before getting to see them with my own eyes the next day.
Also very rewarding is my class about the Muslim legacy of Andalusia. After taking that class, I now see the Muslim legacy everywhere in Spain – in the architecture, in the clothing, in the food, in the festivals, and even in the words. Nowhere is this legacy more prominent than Andalusian cities like Granada, Córdoba, and Sevilla (which I will visit this coming weekend). In the first two cities, it was amazing to be able to point to an architectural detail and name the century it came from, as well as the group ruling Spain at the time. Everything I visit becomes that much more interesting when I have the historical information to back it up.
My class on the EU has been rewarding in a different way; I have always loved discussing international politics and analyzing current events, and every day at the beginning of class, we do just that for roughly half an hour. Then, I get to learn about how the EU, one of the worlds largest and most successful, international organizations, works. It is incredibly interesting, and every day when I leave, I feel like I’ve gained more valuable knowledge about how the world works. (As a terrifying side note, it has been alarming to keep track of the presidential race back home and watch everyone here doing the same. Many Spaniards know just as much about the candidates as we do, and if you think they haven’t noticed Trump, think again. His rise in popularity has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world – I actually just saw a headline in El País, a popular newspaper in Madrid, talking about him. Cue the shudders).
All of my classes have been wonderful, but my medical Spanish class can’t be matched when it comes to giving me new and crazy opportunities. The class actually only met for the first half of the semester – this time was dedicated to learning medical vocabulary and talking about the differences between the private health care system in the US and the dual public-private systems here in Spain. During the second half of the semester, in lieu of going to class, we were each assigned a medical resident to shadow. I have had the great fortune of shadowing a gynecological resident (though here, that really means gynecology-obstetrics). Throughout my time in the hospital, I have met numerous doctors, residents, and nurses, observed patients, and gotten to scrub up and watch two c-sections, one laparoscopic hysterectomy, and one live birth. There has been a great deal of life experience packed into just a few weeks!
I knew about the shadowing opportunity coming in, but I had no idea before this program that during my time here I would get to watch several babies take their first breaths (I tear up every time, and my resident tells me you never really get used to the feeling). During my shadowing, I frequently have “someone pinch me” moments – the opportunities I’m getting here are just crazy! Listening to doctors and patients talk has been excellent practice for my Spanish, and getting to observe the Spanish health care system has been an awesome experience.
All of this basically boils down to an incredible academic experience here, one that I will never forget. I knew that I would enjoy studying abroad, but I had no idea just how many wonderful opportunities would be handed to me. As classes ramp up toward finals, I am a bit swamped with papers and presentations, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. This semester has taught me a great deal in so many ways, and I will forever be grateful.
It appears I have let an entire month slip by without posting anything. Not to worry – I have still been having adventures and writing them down, but my personal trip journals are far too rambling and verbose for anyone but myself to find them interesting, and I am just now getting to editing it down to something that others might be wiling to look at! (You’re now, I’m sure, wondering how on earth it is possible that I could be more verbose than these posts already suggest. Just trust me – you are actually getting off fairly easily with the length of my blog posts! It could be infinitely worse).
Nearly a month ago now, I had the great fortune of a visit from my family (my mother, father, and brother) for an entire week during my brother’s spring break. It was an incredible week – I am quite close with my family, and they have always been my very favorite traveling companions – and it gave me some valuable perspective on just how far I’ve come in my time here.
I had not realized just how much I’d adapted to the Spanish culture until my family came, just as unfamiliar with it as I was on day one, and I got to teach it to them. After living here for several months, it now seems perfectly normal to me that, when crossing the street, you don’t wait for the cars to pass, but rather walk in front of them – pedestrians truly have the right of way here, and the cars will stop for you, even if it seems like they won’t. I am no longer phased by the fact that the waitstaff in restaurants are in no hurry to get you out the door, and can in fact be incredibly difficult to track down if you’re looking to pay and leave. My family was shocked that Alcalá wasn’t more full of life by 10 AM, but for the past few months, the reality of life has been that waking up before 9 is “madrugando” (rising incredibly early), and that the Spaniards like to take their mornings slowly.
These are but a few examples of how I’ve grown accustomed to the pace of life here – there are many. On the whole, it took my family visiting to remind me that, as comfortable as Spain now feels to me, I am living in a significantly different way this semester than I have in the past. And I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to do so. For a few months, I have been able to live as a Spaniard, eating their food, keeping their schedule, and seeing their sights. At first, it was a little uncomfortable (it was a lot to adapt to, and as you’ll recall, I am not always the biggest lover of change) but now it is hard for me to believe that I have only been here for just over three months.
Another great thing about my family being here was getting the chance to translate for them – mainly in sales and restaurant interactions. Being able to converse in both English and Spanish begins to feel somewhat like a super power when you are the force uniting two groups with no common language and allowing them to communicate. Of everything I have learned in school, Spanish may be what I am most grateful for. It has literally opened up new parts of the world for me, and that amazes me. I often heard fellow students in high school complain that what they were learning would not help them in the real world. I am here to tell you – without the Spanish that I started learning in high school, the real world of Spain would have been exponentially more difficult to navigate.
Language utilization and cultural realizations aside, my family’s visit gave the the fantastic opportunity to show them around my home city here, as well as several other cities I visited. We explored Alcalá, Madrid, Toledo, and Barcelona, and all were incredible. Though I repeated cities, I had entirely new experiences (exploring the Prado, touring all of Gaudí’s magnificent architectural treasures, climbing one of the towers of La Sagrada Familia, wandering through the Olympic venues of Barcelona, and just getting to know all of the cities better) and I had a lovely time. Showing off Spain is the best, traveling with my family is the best, and it was a fantastic week.
Two weekends ago (I’m slipping on the blog posts here, I know) I had the great pleasure of stepping foot on a new continent for me: a group of friends and I traveled to Tangier and Rabat in Morocco! After visiting Andalusia, I was excited to experience the country that had such a profound influence on it. And also, I got to visit AFRICA! Throughout the weekend, I ate a sandwich made of a cow’s head, experienced my first real culture shock, saw many new and wonderful things, and drank more delicious mint tea than you can imagine. All in all, I would consider it a resounding success!
The weekend started on an iffy note, for when we touched down in Tangier, we discovered that our cards didn’t work in the ATMs in the airport. Fortunately, we had cash in Euros that we could exchange, but it added another layer of discomfort to the weekend – while we all had a working knowledge of English and Spanish, these were practically useless, for despite their proximity to Spain, people in Morocco really only speak French and Arabic. So with limited cash in hand an an inability to communicate very much at all, we hopped in a taxi to take us to our hostel and prayed that it actually would.
And it did! Mostly – we were staying in the Old Medina of Tangier, and the further into it you go, the smaller and more winding the streets get. We reached a point where the taxi could go no further, and we were handed our backpacks and sent on our way. Fortunately (and alarmingly) people throughout our time in Tangier would seemingly appear from nowhere and direct us around the city. Now, we are not (that) naive, and knew that they would be expecting money, but as it turns out, the money was not coming from us – the man who led us to the hostel worked with the hostel owner, bringing him business, and the man the next morning who called us a taxi got a commission from the driver. There was a whole web of relationships living beneath the surface, and as outsiders, it was a bit baffling to navigate.
Our day in Rabat was rainy and somewhat dismal, but we walked all over the Medina and saw some amazing things – artisans making their wares by hand in little shops, beautiful spots of color and architecture typical of the Islamic world (which I have completely fallen in love with – the use of geometric designs and color is utterly beautiful to me), stores filled with impressive handmade metal decorations as well as massive rugs that covered the walls, and much more.
One thing that surprised me (though not much) was the extreme disparity between the number of men and women out in the streets. The fact that we were foreign AND women meant that we got quite a few stares (as I am quite pale and taller than almost everyone in this country, I feel like I may have contributed a bit). But we had a great first day, staying inside the hostel after 8 PM, as the few women who were out and about disappeared around this time AND it was raining.
We spent the remainder of the weekend in the country’s capital, Rabat! In this city, we had the great fortune of having a guide who spoke both fluent Arabic and English and who we could trust completely! He was a friend of one of my friends on the trip with me, and he was an incredible asset – suddenly, interacting with shopkeepers became much easier, and having a very tall male present who can speak to people is never a bad thing.
With Daniel’s help, we explored this city’s old Medina (FILLED with places to buy cheap and delicious food, as well as fun souvenirs if you are so inclined), walked along the beach, drank many cups of mint tea, wandered the city, ate the infamous cow’s head sandwich (it wasn’t SO bad, but it isn’t something I would seek out again), dined on the incredible milwee (a type of bread that in this case contained tomatoes and peppers and onions and is indescribably good), sat by the sea in the dark and watched the waves crash into the coast, and ended the night with cakes and a big bag of incredible strawberries in our quirky little hotel room.
The next day, we were without Daniel but in a better position than Tangier – Rabat is a bigger city, and just felt safer and easier for us to navigate. We attended a mass in French with readings in English and Spanish, explored some awesome Roman ruins, walked along the street with all of the embassies on it (minus America’s – we moved to a different location where we could have a bigger building. Typical.), viewed the ruins of a mosque and the outside of a spectacular tomb, and spent all of our remaining dírham (the currency of Morocco) on food in the Medina before we caught a taxi to the airport!
It was my strangest airport experience yet – it was next to the king’s house, and for security reasons, you can only fly to Paris or Madrid from this location (what luck!). We were the only flight out of the airport that night, and we got there much too early (thanks to an email from our airline advising us to do so). Getting to our gate took a while, as what seemed like every single employee checked our boarding passes and passports. Luckily, we were cleared to fly, and after a long wait (made longer by the fact that they let us board 30 minutes late…) we were on the plane home!
This was definitely my most challenging weekend so far – Morocco is unlike any place that I have ever been. And I am incredibly grateful for every minute of it. Everything we did there, pleasant and less so, has helped me to see more of the world and to become more culturally literate. I could not have asked for a better weekend.
“A ship is safe in its harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” – John A. Shedd
Those of you who know me personally realize that I am a creature of habit who has never taken particularly well to the idea of big life changes. I love to feel comfortable in a place and to develop a routine, and I don’t love it when I am forced out of that routine.
You may be asking yourself: why would a person such as this choose to throw herself into an entirely new situation and live in a foreign country with a foreign family for a semester? That is an excellent question, and to be honest with you, the closer I got to leaving for Spain, the more I began to question my decision. Was I setting myself up for months of unhappiness? Would it actually be one of the best experiences of my life, as so many insisted before I left, or was I making a massive mistake?
As I always do when facing a major change, I agonized over it for weeks. Eventually, it came time to actually leave for Spain and begin my semester abroad, so I swallowed my fear, got on the plane, and took a leap of faith. Now, I have been here for seven weeks, almost half of my time abroad, and I can honestly say that taking a semester to study abroad was one of the best decisions I have ever made. No, every minute has not been better than the last, and at times, things have been frustrating, uncomfortable, and exhausting. But the vast majority of my time here has been spent exploring, gaining cultural awareness and memories that I will treasure forever, and generally having an incredible time. Even the bad moments have taught me valuable life lessons. I have already seen and done so much, and I cannot imagine how much I would have regretted missing this experience.
The moral of that slightly rambling story is this: comfort zones are great, and I will never dislike feeling at home somewhere. But I have grown to realize that they can also be dangerous, because they can cause me to become complacent and to believe that venturing out and doing things that scare me is a mistake. To be frank, studying abroad scared me. But so did coming to college. As did going on my first mission trip. And all of those leaps out of my comfort zone have brought me immeasurable joy. Each time I have pushed myself to do something great that terrified me, I have learned and grown and found myself wondering what on earth I was so afraid of.
I have been alive for two decades now, and I am fairly sure that I will not be experiencing a major reversal of opinion as far as change goes. Despite my best efforts, I am never going to love it. However, I can embrace it, and to me, that is just as valuable. From now on, my goal for myself is to never become too complacent, and to never rest in my comfort zone for too long. There is a lot of life left for me to live, and I want to spend it experiencing as much as I possibly can.
My third weekend here was a four day weekend. Meaning that my third week of school was only three days long! My classes are all in Spanish and I do receive a good amount of homework, but with the limited class hours and the number of days I have off, I have a nasty suspicion that this semester is going to spoil me! (I’m devastated, of course, but I will find a way to move past it).
One great coping mechanism was spending the third weekend exploring Granada and Córdoba in the lovely Andalusia region of Spain with two of my friends! Once again, we rose VERY early to catch our bus that would take us to Granada! (Okay, first we took a train to the station, THEN we caught a bus. Travel involves so many little pieces!). But it was all very worth it – this trip was my favorite of my time in Spain so far! Granada specifically was breathtaking, though I loved it all.
The ride was roughly five hours, and I spent most of it unconscious, but that made it all the more fun to wake up in Granada! Our first day was largely spent exploring and getting our bearings. We wandered around, walking into whatever old and intriguing buildings we could (we stumbled upon a university building containing strange art exhibits, such as concentric circles of ceramic pigs on the ground and a patio filled with slightly deflated red balls). We also stopped for pastries (which were MASSIVE and DELICIOUS and only 0.60 each. Have I mentioned how much I love the pastries here?) and shopped a little bit. Even on a slightly dreary Thursday afternoon, Granada was beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to see it in the sunlight and when more people arrived! Before that could happen, we ended our night with tapas with one of my friend’s friends who was getting an advanced degree in Granada. One of my favorite things about this city is the fact that you can order a drink (any drink, even water!) and get a free substantial and delicious tapa. I’m not sure how I lived before tapas and I’m not sure how I’ll live after, but for now I’m going to enjoy them while I still can!).
We spent a while at the bar, chatting with each other and even meeting some other people (also Americans, funnily enough) who were also studying abroad in Spain, before calling it a night and heading back to our small but wonderful Airbnb. The next day would start early, as we were off to see Granada’s most famous sight: La Alhambra.
This palace and its grounds are so famous that you must buy tickets well in advance in order to enter, and each ticket has a specific time printed on it. If you do not arrive within your 30 minute entry window, you will be turned away. Fearing this, we left ourselves plenty of time to get there, so as to be sure we would not miss anything. And then we promptly ran late and made a few wrong turns that put us on a time crunch. Worse yet, La Alhambra is on top of a massive hill, so we sped up the hill to get to it, and were very winded by the time we arrived.
Fortunately, we made it at exactly 9:30, giving us an entire half hour to wait in line for our physical tickets and get inside! At 9:47, we confidently walked through the gates and breathed sighs of relief. That is, until I noticed a sign that said “You must enter El Palacio de Nazaries at the time printed on your ticket or you will be denied entry.” Horrified, I realized that we could have arrived at the gates any time after 8:30 in the morning. The time limit was only for this specific palace, the most famous and ornate part of La Alhambra. And a quick scan of the signs around me taught us that that palace was a 15 minute walk from where we were standing, almost as far away from the entrance as something could possibly get.
Determined to make it on time, we actually ran across the grounds, dodging leisurely tourists and glancing nervously at the time as we made our way through. Finally, we made it to the palace. With 3 minutes to spare! We entered, and I was flooded with what may quite possibly have been the greatest relief I have ever experienced. We were in! And incredibly worn out, but after stopping to catch our breath, we explored one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever been inside. Because the Muslim religion forbids the representation of people in its art, this building was covered in intricate geometric designs and beautiful writing in Arabic. It had weathered with age, but the tiles were full of color in some places, and the effect was still magnificent.
There were many interior rooms as well as patios and fountains, and the whole thing was really just a joy to explore. In addition, peering out any of the many windows offered an excellent view of the city (remember, La Alhambra is on a huge hill, making it taller than anything around us). In another palace, we climbed the tallest tower and were rewarded with a magnificent view of the entire city. We also explored another building that appeared square on the outside but which contained a great circular patio (confusing, no?) and all of the Generalífe gardens (don’t be fooled – this word is pronounced in a Spanish way and does NOT sound like the English words “general” and “life.” No one actually made any embarrassing mistakes while we were there, but we died laughing a couple days later when we realized our mistake). The gardens were incredible and every part of them afforded vistas of the beautiful city below (I feel like I’m raving about the views a bit much, but honestly, they were incredible).
After nearly five hours in La Alhambra, we decided it was time for lunch and a siesta (as it turns out, Spaniards take the idea of siesta VERY seriously, and the whole city practically shuts down between the hours of 2 and 5. This provides excellent opportunities to relax and rest your feet when you are a weary traveler).
When siesta time was drawing to a close, we headed out again in search of El Mirador de San Nicolas, an outdoor terrace in the historic and adorable Albaicín neighborhood of Granada. As with many things in this city, it took quite the hike to get up there, but we arrived just in time for the sunset and I cannot explain just how worth it the trek was. The view (the header for this post) was too beautiful to put into words, and we couldn’t tear our eyes away for over an hour as the sun set and the city began to light up and glitter as the darkness fell. To make things even more perfect, as we watched, a Spanish man began to play the guitar and sing, at which point the crowd of locals watching with us began to sing and dance along. It was the most “Spanish” moment I have experienced since I arrived, and it reminded me just how much I love this country and this culture, and my happiness at getting to be in this beautiful land for four months hit me hard. Watching that sunset was my favorite moment of my trip so far, and if you ever find yourself in Granada, I highly recommend it.
When we finally made the hard decision to move on, we headed to an adorable tea shop called Acabo Te. Granada is famous for its teas, and we couldn’t leave without trying some! Like the Mirador, the shop we found was filled with locals, no tourists in sight, and I loved it. When I explore a new city, I always try to be as much of a traveler as I can, being sensitive to the local culture and attempting to get an authentic experience of the area, while I avoid at all costs being a stereotypical “tourist.” Obviously, I never avoid the most famous attractions, though they are populated with tourists – going to Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower just seems foolish, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that you must deny yourself an amazing experience at a famous landmark simply because it is the touristy thing to do. However, I do try to choose more local restaurants and venture off the beaten path as much as possible, because I would rather be living like a Spaniard in Spain than living like an American who is just checking sights off my list.
I feel like now is a good time to get off my soap box and back to the tea, because it was INCREDIBLE. We asked the waitress for her favorites and I ended up ordering a black tea she suggested called El Turco. It was delightfully cinammony and piping hot, which was wonderful after the cold of the outside. We each received our own little red teapot and a small glass to drink it from. I tried to savor mine but finished it embarrassingly quickly (I like tea, okay?).
After tea, we ventured forth in search of tapas, and after some wandering, found some that were quite delicious. I had a plate of patatas canarias, little baked potatoes covered in red and green sauces that were honestly some of the best I have ever had. Each time I find a new Spanish dish that I love, I experience I mix of both delight and sadness, because while each makes my trip here all the more enjoyable, I live knowing that when I return to the states in a few months, I will be able to find none of them. It is very unfortunate, but trust me, these potatoes were worth it.
At this point, we were exhausted and it was late, and we made the executive decision to sleep so that we could make the most of our next (and sadly, last) morning in Granada. We rose early and headed up through El Albaicín to El Camino de Sacromonte, the beautiful street that houses Granada’s gypsy neighborhood, where the buildings are all white and blue and built into the sides of the mountains. Because we rose early and because this is Spain, there was practically no one out while we were walking around, but the hike was an awesome way to start the day, and it was beautiful whether or not there was anyone to share it with us!
We also explored a little outdoor market in a square where flower pots hung on the walls and everyone seemed very merry (this was, of course, when people had woken up) and El Bañuelo, an old Arab bath house that sits hidden among many modern buildings. Compared to La Alhambra, it was very drab, but still an awesome piece of history to explore.
At noon, we returned to our apartment to check out and meet our landlord for the first time. He was wonderfully nice, and we chatted for a bit (in Spanish, which is still so cool to me. Obviously mine is far from perfect, but it is incredibly satisfying to speak to people in a language that is not your own and to be understood, and to understand them! It has been one of my favorite parts of this experience by far). He told us that Gwyneth Paltrow had studied in Alcalá! I have googled this and can neither confirm nor deny it, but I’m going to go ahead and believe it because it’s just so fun.
Back out in the city and backpacks (sadly) on our backs, our next stop was the magnificent Catedral de Granada. I was not expecting it to be as massive, or as ornate, as it was, but this building was spectacular. And our entrance fee came with a free audio guide, so we got to learn about the history of the building while we were staring around in wonder. When we could look no more, we made a quick kebab stop for lunch (my love for this food cannot be overstated) and made the long, sad journey to the train station to leave.
I did not want to say goodbye, but our reward for leaving was to get to visit the beautiful Córdoba, so I was not too devastated, all in all. Our first night consisted of not much more than checking into our hostel, finding and devouring some tapas, and tucking in for the night (traveling really does have a way of taking it out of you!).
Sunday morning, we (once again) rose early to see as much of the city as we could. The first thing we visited was El Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, an awesome palace that contained old Roman mosaics, an Arab bathhouse, a tower with a great view of the city (the second time we climbed it – the first it was too foggy to see anything!), and magnificent gardens filled with fountains, greenery, and more citrus trees than I have ever seen in one place in my entire life (I saw many more oranges that weekend than I was expecting. They are the unexpected, citrusy scourge of Andalusia).
From the tower, we had spied the Roman bridge of Córdoba, another site we wanted to hit, as well as a spectacle happening on the opposite side. Upon crossing said bridge, we discovered a wonderful medieval market/fair! Stalls lined the street where vendors sold crafts, many types of food, and (best of all) amazing looking desserts. Never one to turn down an opportunity to consume something delicious, I ate a piece of cake with a white chocolate coating on top covered in milk chocolate designs that made the cake look like it was covered in lace. To be honest, it looked better than it tasted, but I have no regrets.
The whole area was wonderfully alive, and the crowd frequently parted to let musicians and performers pass through. It was like a very long, very delayed parade. My favorite was a man shuffling along through the crowd atop a giant ball – I have no idea how he managed to keep his balance, but I applaud his spirit.
After a lunch of amazing tapas (surprised?) we entered Córdoba’s main attraction: La Mezquita. Over the years, this building has been both a mosque and a cathedral, and is now this crazy mixture of both. It feels sort of like someone dropped a cathedral in the middle of a mosque and added ornate Christian niches along all of the walls. The result is the largest, most ornate room I have ever had the pleasure of admiring. My favorite parts were the ceiling of the cathedral portion (I could have looked for hours and not absorbed all of it) and the mihrab, the most detailed and important part of the mosque (that I returned to at least three times because it was difficult to tear myself away from). We looked until our eyes were tired and then retired to the patio portion of the mosque (filled with, you guessed it, orange trees) to rest a bit before continuing to explore.
In our last several hours in the city, we visited the famed flower lined street (which was really just pots filled with green because it is January and thus not the season of flowers), took pictures in the narrowest street in the city (named after a handkerchief because at its narrowest, it is as wide as an open handkerchief), walked along the river, and saw the awesome ruins of an ancient Roman temple. After a rushed dinner and a quick (but necessary) gelato stop, we headed back to our hostel to pick up our backpacks and headed home!
I realized that I have rambled quite a bit, so if you made it to this point, congratulations! You’re at the end!
My love for these cities has led me to be a bit more verbose than anyone likely wants to read, but it couldn’t be helped. This was an incredible weekend that I will not soon forget, and I HIGHLY recommend visiting both these cities if you get the chance. Granada is my favorite city in Spain so far, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.