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Quien se fue a Sevilla perdió su silla

This weekend, I returned to Spain’s lovely Andalusia region and visited Sevilla and Cordoba. Both cities lie along the Guadalquivir River. My first stop was Sevilla, which is actually Kansas City’s sister city. The famous Giralda Tower in Sevilla, once the tallest tower in the world, has a replica in the Kansas City Plaza.

The tower is attached to the beautiful and enormous cathedral that was built over the footprint of the mosque that was built by the Moors. I went on an illuminating tour of the city that explained the city’s influential and complicated history over about the last 1500 years. Sevilla lies in a strategic place along the river. The city has been ruled by Romans, Moors, and Christians. At one point, the city held Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in the same city without conflict.


I spent the next morning in the incredible Real Alcazar of Seville, a palace again originally build by the Moors. The style, called mudejar, is distinct and so beautiful.


Although the architecture was so beautiful, my favorite place in the palace was the gardens. The walled garden grounds are expansive. I went early enough in the morning that there were fewer people around, and it was a very peaceful place. I so easily could transport myself back in time with the absence of city noises. I’m sure it was quite the luxury being royalty and living there.

  

Sevilla was an influential city in the 1500s and 1600s because it was the only place where trade with the Americas could legally take place. This made Sevilla a very important commercial and cultural center. Related to trading in the Americas, the Archivo General de Indias (General Archive of the Indies) stores more than 80 million pages of documents in regards to the Spanish presence in the Americas and in the Phillipines. It was fascinating seeing plans, reading letters, and viewing city schematics from hundreds of years ago. The building neighbors the cathedral and is beautiful in its own right. Below, you can see the grand staircase and the courtyard.

[plans for the new Guatemala City]

   

Another famous place in Sevilla is the Plaza de España. The plaza is in the middle of a large park. In its center is an enormous town hall; the outside is decorated with alcoves for each of the fifty provinces in Spain.

I found Valencia!

Sevilla has an important role in Spanish history, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see it for myself, wander its winding streets, and hear some of the many stories from the city.

en castellano, por favor

I’m a language person. The power and precision of words moves me. I love to read and write. I value thoughtful speech and tend to use my words carefully.

So what does it mean to live somewhere I can’t understand language in a complex way or express myself thoughtfully?

It’s a struggle when I can’t remember how to conjugate a polite request; when I can’t express my opinions on film or art or humanity; when I don’t know how to compliment someone; when I don’t understand something funny. The list could go on.

I’ve always been curious about the way this would feel. Obviously it’s hard, obviously it’s challenging. It’s a reason I chose to study abroad. I wanted to know what being an outsider was like. What it was like to be at a store and need something but have no idea what it’s called or where to find it. What it’s like to talk with your hands too much because no one understands you. What it’s like to be unable to connect with people because you don’t have the words.

It’s a challenge. It’s easy to get discouraged and frustrated. But it’s also rewarding. I never want to forget the unusual kindness that’s confronted my expectations. People have laughed at my jokes despite grammatical errors; listened through my halting stories; and cheered on my progress. The kindness and patience of the people I’ve met here has brought me fresh surprise and joy every time I encounter it.

The more time I spend here the easier it’s gotten. My original fear and discomfort have abated. I still need a dictionary, and I can’t quite appreciate the subtleties of marvelous Spanish literature, but I’ve learned so much. Making mistakes in a foreign language isn’t stupidity; it’s growing. I think studying abroad is such an important experience for this reason. It’s not easy to land gracefully in a foreign country. But the things you learn on the way are worthwhile. You learn to be flexible, patient, and forgiving. Also, it’s the best possible way to learn a new language. In three months I feel like I’ve learned double what I did in six years of studying in the United States (although over the ears I had some spectacular professors whose humor and teaching I am so grateful for).

To end on a cheerful and cheesy note, here’s a reminder to grow your roots deep and keep looking up; featuring a big old beautiful tree in the heart of this big beautiful city, Valencia.

Cordoba

Another Spanish city of many stories is Cordoba. Walking around parts of the city made me feel like I was traveling back in time, although the city has an energetic modern center. My walk into the city from the train station was magical. There’s a beautifully preserved ancient city wall with a crystal clear stream running alongside it.

Once I got to the old part of the city, I started to get a feel for the city. The narrow streets were bright and colorful, and some walls were covered in flowerpots. If you peek into gateways to houses, you’ll often see lush patios dense with greenery and flowers.

My first stop in the magical city was the old Roman bridge. The bridge, crossing the Guadalquivir River, was built over 2,000 years ago. While walking there, I got caught in a little rainstorm. It turned out to be for the best, because for one, most of the tourists had cleared out, and secondly, the view when the sun came out was stunning. 

 

 

 

Another relic of Roman life are the temple ruins. Cordoba is the kind of city you can wander around without a map; it’s not so large you’ll get lost, and there are always surprises. This was a big surprise for me. I turned a corner, and there were all these pillars. My time in Spain has given me a better glimpse at the Roman Empire that influenced so strongly the world that came after.

 

 

 

 

 

A mandatory stop for me was the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. This site has complicated history; originally a Visigoth Christian church, turned into a mosque, that was divided and maintained a Christian half; then, after the Reconquista, it was turned into a catholic church, how it remains to this day. This history is reflected in the diversity of decoration and styles inside the building. When I walked in, I was immediately blown away. First thing: it’s enormous. Second: the Moorish arches and pillars are totally unique and have a spectacular optical effect.

 

 

 

 

 

The catholic nave in the cathedral was also gorgeous. As I was walking around, the organ player began to play, and it lent the place an even greater solemnity and beauty.

My other favorite stop was the twelve courtyards at the Viana Palace. As I mentioned briefly before, patios are a really important element in Andalusian (southern Spanish) architecture. Each one was delightfully different; some were more austere and relied more on architecture, and some were overflowing with plants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last stop before heading home was to the synagogue. Cordoba has one of the three synagogues in Spain. It was a contrast from the cathedral. It was small and simple. The stone walls were carved and parts were inscribed with Hebrew passages from the Torah.

 

 

 

 

Cordoba reflects the great variety of religions that have cohabitated in Spain: from the Romans, to the early Christians, to the Muslims, to the Jews, and finally Catholics. It is evident the way religion has influenced the movements of history, especially in this country. I love that traveling is a sensory way of experiencing history, and it’s been one of my favorite things about Spain.

Celebrating Thanksgiving in Spain

At the start of last week, I had zero expectations about celebrating Thanksgiving in Spain. During my time here, I’ve celebrated some Spanish holidays, so, except for missing family a little extra, missing out on a holiday from the United States didn’t seem like a big deal (also that I missed having Thanksgiving break from classes). This being said, several events occurred and it turned out to be a really fun and special Thanksgiving week, and I’m so grateful for the wonderful people who made that happen.

Our ISA directors planned a special volunteer week last week in the spirit of Thanksgiving. Some of the optional volunteering activities were bringing food to a shelter and spending time at a retirement home. Due to my class schedule, I was only able to volunteer one of the days, where we went to the Ronald McDonald House in Valencia. If you aren’t familiar with Ronald McDonald Houses (and many people in Spain have never head of the foundation), they provide housing for families whose children are receiving long-term hospital treatment.  We went to hang out with kids, talk about what we do to celebrate Thanksgiving, and help decorate the house for Christmas. It was a really fun afternoon. I also thought it was interesting to tour the house, which is situated next to the newest hospital in Valencia. All of the volunteers we met were exceptionally kind. Overall, it was a really great experience, and I’m so glad our study abroad program planned it! I didn’t take many pictures except some of the decorations we made.

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Another thing the program planned for all of the exchange students in our program was a fancy Thanksgiving dinner. I was told it would be “traditional Thanksgiving food,” and to my surprise it really was! Turkey, salad, cranberries, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin pie, the whole deal. It was also fun to get dressed up and spend a night having fun and eating way too much.

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The night also served as a form of goodbye. As our program is wrapping up in the next few weeks (now mine is ending in nine days!), it was a perfect opportunity to look back on all the trips and adventures from the last few months. They also gave out personality awards, which was very entertaining. I received “El más entusiasta” (the most enthusiastic). Here’s a photo of me with my three wonderful program directors in Valencia.

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As if I didn’t already feel lucky enough, my host family also planned a Thanksgiving meal for me and my roommate. We did this the weekend after Thanksgiving. It was such a nice idea. The food was so delicious that we forgot to stop and take a photo of it before it was completely gone (obviously my host mom is an excellent chef). This meal was really fun, because it was all traditional dishes with a little bit of a twist. All in all, Thanksgiving week in Spain was absolute success.

Que aproveche!

Echoing the words of all the students around me: I can’t believe how quickly my time in Spain is going by! I’ve been here over two months and have less than two months before I go home. More than just talking about places I’ve gone, I wanted to take some time to write about one of the most important cultural aspects in Spain: gastronomy.

To start out with, there are five traditional “meals” a day here:

  1. Desayuno (breakfast): Much smaller than traditional American breakfasts; usually eaten around 8 am.
  2. Almuerzo (snack between breakfast and lunch; this word signifies something different in Spain than it does in Central and South America, as I’ve learned): sometimes just a coffee or a piece of toast. Usualy eaten around 11 am.
  3. Comida (lunch; again, slight differences in translation, “comida” here means more than just “food”): A large meal usually eaten around 2 pm.
  4. Merienda (snack): Small snack usually eaten around 6 pm.
  5. Cena (dinner): regular-sized meal eaten around 10 pm.

In one post it’s not going to be possible to summarize all types of food, but obviously the staples of the Mediterranean diet are very important here: grains, olive oil, and wine. Besides food, drinking is also an important part of meals. A distinct difference between the United States and Spain is the way alcohol is consumed. Here, it’s very common to see people drinking beer or wine throughout the day. This doesn’t mean that people are walking around drunk all day, it’s just a different attitude.

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Another difference is what I call the sacredness of eating. For example, today I was eating a croissant as I walked home from class. As meal times are several hours later here than I’m used to, and because I walk so much, I regularly eat snacks while I walk: sliced veggies, pastries, little sandwiches. At home in Kansas City, I spend all my time driving, and if I’m being honest, I used to bring food from home and eat in my car almost every day. So, to me, eating while you commute, whatever your commute looks like, is convenient and completely normal. In Spain, although people are very busy and lead lives much like people in the U.S., food is almost…sacred. So I received strange looks for the duration of the croissant. Even busy people stop and sit down to eat. I get a lot of glances that seem to ask what’s my hurry. In part I think this is generational; also I know there’s no way to summarize an entire country’s attitude towards food. But it’s still an interesting cultural difference, and it’s certainly rewarding when it comes to the art of mealtimes. Meals are a delicious part of maintaining connections with family, friends, and, in general, community.

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Churros and hot chocolate

Fiesta Nacional de España

On Saturday, my host family took me to the seaside city Xàbia. We were very lucky and had perfect sunny weather. The beach there is completely different than Valencia’s. It’s rocky instead of sandy, and the water is crystal clear.

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There are also other differences in the community in general. The city has a very large British population. You can see little signs all over; there are little English bookstores, English restaurants, and people with British accents. The city is about an hour and a half drive from Valencia and it was a perfect day trip. It was also very fun to spend the day relaxing with my host family!

Me with my host sister, Marta
Me with my host sister, Marta

On Sunday, a friend of my host sister came to Valencia for a several hour layover. It was really fun, because she invited me to come along as she showed her friend, who lives in Germany, around Valencia. Of course, I’d been downtown before, but it was fun hearing my host sister’s perspective on things. Also, because Monday was the National Day of Spain, the streets were filled with fair-like festivities: banners, booths, food stands, and pedestrian crowds.

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We were thrilled to find out that almost everything was free, too! We got to climb the Torres de Serranos (normally a charged entry), and we got to see the Holy Grail (housed in the cathedral downtown) for free. The view from the top of the tower was spectacular. Valencia is a very flat city, so I very rarely see an elevated view of the city. It’s lovely seeing the sea, the mountains, and the city all at once. Also, I thought it was so cool to see the Holy Grail! It’s one of Valencia’s famous treasures, but normally you have to pay to see it, so I hadn’t gone yet. It was a very successful afternoon, overall.

The Holy Grail
The Holy Grail
view from the top of the tower
view from the top of the tower

Happy Day of the Valencian Community!

Today is the Day of the Valencian Community! It celebrates the October 9th, 1238 when Jamie I reconquered Valencia. So, in light of the holiday, I thought I’d dedicate today’s post to the city I’ve been living in for almost 6 weeks! Of course I’m not an expert on the city yet, but I want to share some of the cool things I’ve learned about this place.

“Valencia” is one of the 17 autonomous communities in Spain. Valencia capital, where I live, is Spain’s third largest city. It is a very popular tourist destinations for Europeans. Beyond Castellano (Spanish), Valenciano is spoken in the community. I haven’t encountered any problems from not knowing the language, except that my university’s official language is Valenciano; all of the computers run in the Valenciano, and also most of the signs posted around the university are in Valenciano. I’m sure linguistically this isn’t terribly accurate, but it looks like a mix between French and Spanish.

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I really love Valencia because it’s so much easier to be healthy here. This province grows the majority of the fruits and vegetables in Spain, so the diet here contains more of these things than in other regions. The traditional Valencian dish is “paella,” a rice, vegetable, and meat dish (usually rabbit, although there are many many delicious variations). There’s a giant, lush park that runs straight through the middle of the city, dividing the old part and the new part. The park has an interesting history. The river Turia used to run through the city to the Mediterranean Sea, but in 1957, the river flooded and caused catastrophic damage to the city; to prevent this from ever happening again, the river was redirected. The old riverbed was used to create the park! They almost built a highway there instead, and I can’t imagine how much that would detract from the beauty the city has today. Valencia is called “the running capital of Spain” which is related to the incredible 10 km running path in the park. Roughly between 6-8 pm, the running path is packed! I really enjoy running there because there’s so much energy. There are many lovely bridges that cross over the park, and here’s a photo of the flower bridge.

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In the eastern part of the park, there is a series of constructions called The City of the Arts and Sciences, usually called the CAC (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias). The architecture here is crazy. I don’t know how else to describe it. I feel like I’ve stepped into a sci-fi film set every time I visit. There are five main complexes: the Hemisfèric (an IMAX theater), the Umbracle (a garden), a science museum, the Oceanográfico (the largest aquarium in Europe with over 500 marine species), and the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía (an opera house).

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Last Friday with the ISA group, I went to the Hemisfèric and saw half of a beautiful documentary about Jerusalem (it was cut short by technical difficulties). After that, we went to the Oceanográfico. I was enchanted. I didn’t expect to love it so much, but it was amazing! We saw a dolphin show first, then spent hours touring the different areas in the aquarium. The exhibits are amazing and divided by region (tropical, arctic, etc.). They have tunnels that you can walk through and watch sharks and sting rays and all types of fish swim above your head. It’s such a cool experience and one of my favorite things I’ve done here.

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Of course, there’s so much more to this city; the old part of the city deserves an entirely separate post and a thousand photos. So until next time!

Sierra Mariola mountains and Granada

It’s difficult to know where to start with the last ten days of my life in Spain. Time feels like it’s evaporating. Lately, I’ve been stopping at different moments to think about what I would be doing at that time if I were at home in Kansas City. My lifestyle here is very different; it’s certainly more relaxed, even though my days have been so full.

Last weekend, I travelled with a few friends to the Sierra Mariola mountains. I’ve been wanting to go to the mountains ever since I arrived, so I was thrilled when we planned a very short notice adventure. The entire weekend was so much fun, and it was really interesting seeing the less cosmopolitan side of Spain. I felt a distinct increase in how much we stood out as foreigners in the small towns we stopped in. Also, the regional dialect here, Valenciano, was much more prevalent. We took a train and a bus to get to Bocairent, a small and historic town nestled at the base of the mountains. We took a hike right outside the town and were rewarded with a spectacular view.

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The next day, we took a hike from the campgrounds we stayed at to the tallest mountain in the Mariola range, Montcabrer. We got a bit lost at first, but ultimately it added to the experience. The ascent took about two hours. I still don’t know how to describe the feeling when I reached the top. The view, hidden until the very end, was breathtaking.

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Our hiking day has been one of my favorite experiences in Spain so far. I was also thrilled to get out of the city for the stargazing. The stars are spectacular, when you can see them! It was so clear we could see the Milky Way running through the sky. It was a weekend of pure magic.

On another high note, I went to Granada this weekend with the ISA group. Granada may be my favorite city I’ve been to in Spain. There’s a diverse mix of culture that creates such a distinct atmosphere. Also, the city is in the mountains, which thrilled me to no end.

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I can’t really talk about Granada without talking about La Alhambra, a Moorish palace/fortress that was primarily built in the 14th century. There are spectacular gardens, fountains, engravings, arches….everything. If you find yourself in Spain, you need to go here. Photos can’t do it any justice. Also, it’s up on a big hill, so you get a panoramic view of Granada.

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Castles and Cathedrals

I have so many amazing things to share from the last week, but I’ll focus on the two highlights: visiting the old Roman town of Sagunto, a half hour bus ride from my campus (!!!), and visiting Barcelona.

For my Mediterranean Society class, we took an excursion to see the castle of Saguntum, which is over 2,000 years old. The walk through the sleepy town of Sagunto was absolutely wonderful.
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First, we stopped to see the restored amphitheater. It was designed to carry sound all the way to the top.
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Strategically, the castle is on a large hill, so the view from the top is impressive:
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The castle itself is incredibly beautiful. The grounds are overrun with cacti which were imported from Mexico a few hundred years ago.
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It was incredibly fun running around the battlements, imagining what it would be like to be a soldier defending the castle. From the other half of the castle, you can see the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. This castle was so important because of its strategic location on the coast.
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A very famous battle occurred here around 200 B.C., when the castle was Roman occupied. Hannibal made a great victory for Carthage using elephants to attack the Romans. You can see here the ground where they made their attack from. Also, check out these stunning mountains. Overall, this day was a highlight of my trip. It’s also incredible that my university is barely 18 miles from here.
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This past weekend, we went to Barcelona. The city is as beautiful as its reputation warrants (even if it was raining half the time). Here’s a view from the port.
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We visited La Sagrada Familia, of course, and I was surprised by how much I appreciated the experience. I’ve never admired Gaudi’s work, but in person, the cathedral was amazing. There were so many details and strange things to look at. The designs are fascinating. Of course, it’s still under construction, although I found out that they “have to” complete the project by 2026, 100 years after Gaudi’s death.
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In addition, we visited the Gothic Quarter. It feels like walking around in a movie (if you can tune out the thousands of tourists). I think this area is what I pictured most when I imagined Spain before I came here.
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I feel so lucky to be in a place where I can take a day trip to a castle and a weekend trip to Barcelona!

Week One

As of today, I’ve been in Spain for one week. It feels like it’s been one month! I arrived in Madrid last Wednesday, spent three days there, one day in Toledo, and then came to Valencia. It was such an excellent opportunity to see other parts of Spain besides the city I’m studying in. Each city has it’s own diversity and wealth of history.

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[Madrid sunset]

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[Me in front of the Temple of Debod in Madrid]

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[Toledo]

 

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[the courtyard of Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo]

The first week has been a rollercoaster of experiences and sensations. There have been moments where I basically went numb from overexposure to foreign language, smells, sights, behaviors. If I could go back and prepare myself before I left, what would I have said? I’ve been trying to figure out what’s so different about the United States and Spain. Both are Western cultures, with similar levels of technology, similar manners of dressing, modern gender concepts, etc. etc.. The differences are not necessarily the big things, but the many everyday things. For instance, Spain is very conscious of energy and water expenditure. My host mom told me that here, water is like gold. At home, I always pretended to be eco-conscious (I recycle cardboard and don’t litter), but here I realized that it’s much more than that. Now, I turn off the water while shaving my legs, brushing my teeth, turn off the lights when I’m leaving a room even if I’m about to come back to that room. Clothes dryers are rare; everyone hangs their clothes to dry, even if they have a dryer. In addition, even though it’s very warm here, many people don’t have A.C. in their homes, and if they do, they use it for perhaps one hour in the morning and one hour at night. For the most part, open windows function as the HVAC system.  Having the mindset of conservation impacts most movements I make in my home here.

Another difference is that people don’t drink very much water here. It’s actually been one of the hardest adjustments to make. As one of the directors of my program joked, nothing is free in Spain. For example, you don’t get a free water with your meal. Actually, a glass of wine with lunch costs the same as a bottle of water! In theory: awesome. However, my body has had a difficult time adjusting to drinking less water.

There are so many spectacular new things that I’m adjusting to as well: living three miles from a stunning beach on the Mediterranean Sea; being able to walk ANYWHERE; the friendliness of the people here; the way people seem comfortable in their skin (as opposed to how much body shaming there is in the U.S., especially for women); the incredible seafood; the weather; the stunning scenery; the relaxed pace of life. I am so lucky to have this experience.

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[la playa]