Saturday, June 28, 2014

Turn and Face the Stranger

With one day left of work, two days left living in Madrid, and a lot of uncertainty ahead, you can imagine that things are getting... weird. I'm pretty terrible at processing upcoming changes. Is anyone actually good at that? When I went to Brazil, it didn't hit me until I was alone on the plane. I paused and thought, "Oh. Shit." Last year there wasn't really much need for closure or change because I knew that after a busy summer I was coming right back to Spain. But this time is different.

Yep, I'm moving back stateside. I wish I could impress you with my seamless plans to transition from life abroad to life back home, but I don't know what I'll be doing in two months. I'm still waiting to hear back from various job/internship applications I sent out these past couple of months.

So, lots of uncertainty. Loads of goodbyes. Seemingly endless packing.

There seem to be stages to closing a chapter in your life. At first, there's the vocalization or at least noting of a future change. Maybe you look at a calendar or count how many weeks you have left in a place. You make plans to do all the things you've been wanting to do for months (all those museums...). The weeks go by. Life is good, funner than normal. Then people start leaving. Sometimes without you even realizing it. Other times with heart wrenching goodbyes in the airport. You start to pack. Now, your list of to-dos doesn't seem to interest you (all but food related items. see below). You're internally displaced. Still living in the same place as before, but your old life has already ended. You're in Limbo, just waiting to move on.

Nothing fights depression like a cold beer and a calamari sandwich!
That's where I am. This happened to me in college. I felt like I had mentally moved on to another place but still found myself physically in my college town. Now, although I'm still in Madrid, living in my apartment, it feels like I'm just passing through. Not unlike all the travelers I've met around the city this year. "When are you leaving?" now is a relevant question for me! (Answer: too soon.)

To combat all the uncertainty and and a roller coaster ride of emotions, I've decided to do something that, for me, sounds slightly insane. On Wednesday, I'm going to start the Camino de Santiago. It's a 1000 year old pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The most famous route starts in France. So, you walk across the entirety of Spain in about 30 days. I'm going to walk the first half of that and hopefully return another year to finish. Here's a map!

This isn't the exact route, but I think the closest one to the Camino is the route at the bottom that goes through Estella after Pamplona. Anyway, I've never done anything like this before. I enjoy the occasional hike, but nothing like 20+ kilometers day after day.

Packing simulation. You can laugh, but how awesome is my hat?

I think it'll be a way for me to achieve some closure at the end my time in Spain. I'll be able to think a lot about my current situation: what I want, where I'm going. Hopefully, I'll be able to process a lot of these emotions I'm feeling. I don't know. Maybe I'll only be able to think about how much my feet hurt! Regardless, it'll still be a way for me to exercise some control over my life. I know it's my choice to move back home, but I still feel pretty unsure about my decision and the future. But on the Camino it'll be simple. I'll get up at 6 am, walk until midday, hopefully meet a lot of people, and get to see parts of the country I haven't seen before. For 15 days. Then I'll come home. Oh, did I mention I get to cross the Pyrenees the same way Napoleon did when he invaded Spain? 

That's the plan. I've decided to not use social networking on the Camino, so no Instagram or Facebook updates. Yes, mom, dad, and loved ones, I'll email you to let you know that I'm alive and haven't been eaten by the packs of wild dogs that evidently roam Spain's rural countryside. ;) Otherwise, I'll see you on the other side! 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Living the Dream

You know you had a good trip when you didn't have the time or the desire to post a status on Facebook or upload a photo to Instagram. Ok, maybe you sent off a message to your parents letting them know you made it to your destination safe and sound. (That's just the nice thing to do.) But your days (and nights) were so packed full you couldn't be bothered to find wifi, to sum up your experiences in a few words, or to crop and smack a filter on what you were seeing. I mean, it was stunning just the way it was. No filter, not on a screen, not being shared or bragged about. Just being taken in by you. 

That's what happened to me in Berlin. So, get ready for a crazy long post (and all those photos I didn´t post when I was traveling).

Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer

Yep, Berlin was that special destination I mentioned in my last post. I know I've already said it, but I'll say it again. I'd been waiting years to go! And sure, you're thinking, with all that hype and expectation, there's no way the city could match up.

HA! Think again.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

I decided to go to Berlin alone. A lot of people questioned that decision, but I felt like it was the right thing for me to do. The trip started off terribly though. I mean, just a string of bad luck. From ATMs not working to forgetting my trip notes (thanks Corina for whatsapping those to me!), I headed to the airport in a bit of a scatterbrained rush. I got there with ample time to spare though, and that's when I encountered low-cost airline bullshit at it's finest: my plane was delayed 7 hours! So, instead of taking off at 8pm, we took off at 3:30am. And yeah, I stayed at the airport the whole time. What a start.

But it was awesome from there on out. I was in Berlin about 3 and a half days. I stayed in a great hostel in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood filled with street art, amazing food, and even better nightlife. Roughly planning the trip in advance, I thought I'd have plenty of time to do all the things on my list, like check out super obscure museums and strange tours of abandoned bunkers from WW2. You name it. But, I barely got to scratch the surface. Typical.

Paste up in Mitte

I found myself facing a huge dilemma. Berlin has an incredible history, but it's also got an awesome alternative scene. I felt myself always being torn between these two parts of the city. Should I go to the Stasi museum or check out a local gallery featuring mechanical monsters? Should I get up early or stay out partying like mad? I tried to balance my two interests as best as I could, but in the end I'm just going to have to go back repeatedly. And I'm fine with that. To sum up my trip here are some highlights of the trip as well as some regrets.

Oberbaum Bridge

Highlights: (I'll try and be brief)

So, any of you that have even heard of football probably know that there was a really big game for Spain, specifically for Madrid, the other night. Two Madrid teams duked it out in the Champion's League final. I met some Belgian guys in my hostel, and, with my friend Johanna, we went out to find a place to watch it. Probably every bar in the city was showing the game, but we happened to find a Spanish bar in Kreuzberg where we stood on the street and watched the game on a huge screen. I honestly thought the game was pretty boring until the last bit, where Real Madrid (boo) came out of nowhere and tied the game, making the game go into overtime, where they then scored several more goals. There were fireworks going off everywhere in Kreuzberg, and I know it would have been even crazier in Madrid proper, but I was probably safer in Berlin. Crazy Madrid fans...

So, I stayed in Kreuzberg, which isn´t exactly the tourist center of the city. But, the neighborhood is famous for some great street art. That was one of my top interests in going to Berlin anyway, and it didn't disappoint. Wandering around you'd happen across enormous murals painted on the firewall of apartment buildings. Some were beautiful, others grotesque and strange. Even in Mitte, there are still some places avoiding gentrification where you can find alleyways chock full of paste ups, tags, stickers, and even mechanical monsters. And, of course, the East Side Gallery was amazing! I took an "alternative walking tour" to see a lot of these areas of the city, and my guide was a trapeze artist and hippie that had spent her days after the wall came down squatting and making art in all the abandoned housing around the East side of the city. She paid the equivalent of 5 euro for "rent" in the early 90s in Mitte!

East Side Gallery
I went on a pub crawl my last night in the city, somewhat skeptically because I normally hate those things. But this one was thankfully really fun and not all about acting like the biggest asshole around. We went to weird bars like a Gothic rock club (think lame haunted house + alcohol), a bar with free, old arcade games like Frogger (you can imagine how into that I was), and even to a ping pong bar, where you could rent a paddle for a couple euro and duke it out. To choose who played each game, you'd play "around the world." Everyone would run around the table, hitting the ball until all but two people missed a shot and were out. Not sure if I explained that well... but it was awesome, and I really regretted all those free shots I had ingested. My reaction time was, understandably, terrible.

Every Sunday there's a big flea market with tons of stuff to buy, great food, loads of music acts, and even karaoke. After going out the night before, I dragged myself out of bed and made it to Mauerpark by noon. I stayed for about 3 hours. There was just so much to do and see. The musicians were all really good, the second hand shopping was excellent, and there were people spread out in the grass all over the park just drinking and having a good time. My favorite thing about traveling is when you happen upon something real, where you get to see the locals of whatever city living their lives and being happy. Then maybe you can imagine yourself there as well.

Inside the Reichstag dome


I think I only have two, which is good. The first would be that I didn't rent a bicycle. I had NO CLUE how spread out Berlin is. I'd take a look at the map and think to myself, "Oh, that's only a few blocks. Won't take more than 10 minutes." Right. Try an hour. Distances were incredibly deceiving, and I used Berlin's awesome public transportation system a lot, but I still found myself desperately wanting a bike. Seeing everyone speed by looking, not only cool as hell but in significantly less pain than me, made me curse my stubbornness. Next time.

The incredibly renovated Neues Museum. Go for the Egyptian Collection. Stay for the architecture.

The other is that I didn't (try) to go to Berghain. If you don't know what that is, it's the "best" techno club in the city with a pretentious, insane door policy that various hipsters proudly tried to explain to me at a house party. I barely avoided punching them in the face. I'll paraphrase their baffling advice:
  • Wear dark colors. (Easy enough, right?)
  • Go there for the music. It's a "musical experience." (Ok, that still sounds good)
  • Don't talk in line. (Uh...ok?)
  • Don't look excited or happy. Don't smile or giggle. Look like you "don't give a fuck." (Right, I'll put on my serious face)
  • Two girls together will never get in. Oh, but a heterosexual couple won't either. Just go alone. 
You can see how I might have been frustrated at the end of all this. I mean, it'd be one thing if you can just walk up and get rejected in 5 minutes flat, but after waiting in line for a couple hours? That would suck. So I went to a smaller, more local club called Chalet, which was really cool in its own right (abandoned old mansion, garden outside, bonfire, etc.) and less hyped up. But at the end of the trip, hearing everyone's stories about Berghain, I know I won't be satisfied until I go back and give it a go.

You can find this throughout the city where the wall used to be

So, yeah, that's Berlin! I feel like I want to go back next month. One cool thing that a lot of Berliners told me was that Berlin doesn't really have a set identity, that it's always changing. So, the Berlin that I got to know could be totally different next year. Makes it the perfect city for endless visits and exploration.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Holy Week in Istanbul

Ever since I went to Marrakech this past Christmas I've been wanting to go to Istanbul. Loads of people I met in Morocco told me that if I liked Marrakech, I'd love Istanbul. Well, I really liked Marrakech and what they said turned out to be true. I absolutely loved Istanbul.

I mean, with views like these, what's not to love?

Last year for my long Easter break I took a solo trip to Budapest and Vienna, which was awesome. This year all the places I was looking to go (Iceland, Berlin, Istanbul...) were markedly more expensive, but with my approaching move back to the States, I figured I might as well go all out. So, 325 euro later I had my round-trip, direct flights from Madrid to Istanbul. That's the most expensive European flight I've booked to date! So, I guess I'm not doing so bad.

Some told me Tulips are from Turkey, but in Prague I was told by a guide that they're from Kazakhstan. Anyone know?

Anyway, getting to the actual trip. I'm ashamed to say I didn't do my pre-trip homework. Sure, I booked a hostel for Matt and I, and I looked up how to get from the airport to the center of the city (using a bus, funicular, tram, and a ferry), but that's about all I did. I had no idea how huge Istanbul is, had no idea how crowded it would be, and, most embarrassingly, had this idea that it would be somehow similar to Morocco based on the associations so many travelers there had made. So, I obviously learned a lot. For example, McDonald's in Istanbul delivers!

The New District's Galata Tower: amazing views and a neat surrounding neighborhood ( or where I smoked the most nargile)

We stayed in Sultanimet, the old, touristy part of the city, which was a pretty convenient base camp to see all the main sights and even to catch the ferries to other parts of the city. We booked a reservation for five nights in Cheers Hostel, which I really loved. It probably had something to do with the Turkish breakfast they served every morning: soft white cheese, cucumber, tomato, olives, hardboiled eggs, and coffee. They also served free tea throughout the day. There's also a terrace with a view like this.

The Hagia Sophia was by far my favorite on Istanbul's must-see list

By staying in Sultanimet, every time we stepped out of our hostel it felt like we were entering Disney World. All the main sights (Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace etc.) had lines out the door that stretched for blocks or, once, across an entire plaza. There was even a museum "fast pass" available. Seriously, it was like a big theme park. It was madness, but despite the crowds, the sights were incredible and worth all the hassle.

Inside the Blue Mosque

We could only take so much of the lines and crowds, so several times Matt and I tried to escape touristy Istanbul. We thankfully succeeded. We spent one afternoon in Kadikoy, a cool, youthful neighborhood on the Asian side of the city filled with markets, bars, book stores, and cute clothing shops. It could have easily passed for an American college town, with more nargile or hookah. Ferries leave from Sultanimet every 20 minutes and tickets only cost 3 lira!

These teal, blue, and white tiles were everywhere!

We also took a ferry up the Golden Horn on Friday to Eyup, a more traditional Muslim area. It was great for people watching, especially considering it was Friday. The mosque there was one of my favorites. There's a funicular that takes you up the hill and we had tea on a terrace overlooking the city.

We stayed in Istanbul for five days, and there was still so much to see and do. It's definitely a place I'll go back to. The prayer calls were beautiful (if you go try to catch it in the park right between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia), the food was delicious (though I wasn't brave enough to sample the mussels being sold on the street), people were incredibly friendly, the culture and history was out of this world, and most importantly, cats were everywhere (and taken care of!). <3

Good look for me?
Stayed tuned for more posts. I'm going to try and catch up and write about all the trips I've been taking since: Prague, a short weekend in Seville, and a very special destination I'll be visiting soon that I've been waiting years to visit!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Road Trip in the Rain

Last weekend, I had Friday-Monday off thanks to Carnaval. A couple of friends and I rented a car and decided to head north to Asturias. The north of Spain is awesome. It's super green, has amazing, rocky beaches, mountains, and what I think is the best food in the country. So, on top of all of that, Asturias also has sidra, seafood out the wazoo, and cabrales, or, what I now call, zombie cheese. Oh, and other things besides food, like the Picos de Europa.

We planned our road trip around three categories: urban, mountains, beach. Awesome, right? Well, yes. It was awesome. But it unfortunately rained 90% of the trip. So, hiking in the Picos was replaced with Lauren driving as far up wet, foggy mountain roads as possible before turning back out of fear of death...but we'll get to that.

Let's start with the first day: our urban day. In Oviedo, we went to a sidrería on Gascona street, which is a street lined with big taverns specializing in, well, sidra: bitter Spanish cider carbonated by pouring it from great heights into your glass. Yes, it gets everywhere. Dinner that night was three bottles of cider (they insisted we drink the third!) and a plate of cheese. This is when I first tried the zombie cheese or cabrales, which I'll describe as a hardcore blue cheese: so hardcore it's grey. I had the most insane dreams that night...

Anyway, the next night we stayed near the Picos de Europa in a small town called Congas de Onís. We got there at night, so it didn't look like much, but in the morning just down the street I saw this:

Congas ended up being one of my favorite stops due to that amazing old Roman bridge above and a bustling street market where loads of vendors let you try all their different varieties of stinky cheeses: my favorite being some amazing brie-blue cheese hybrid. I ended up buying local honey. Typical.

We then drove to Covadonga, where I had to pull the car over at least three times on our way into the village because the views were so breathtaking. Overreaction? Hardly. This place has a church high up on a hill in the middle of a forest next to a holy sanctuary built into the part of the mountain that overlooks a waterfall. WHAT? Just look.

I don't know what it is with me and waterfalls, but for this one, in the middle of the rain and cold, I decided to walk out onto a partially flooded walkway to approach the waterfall in hopes of drinking out of a legendary fountain. For single ladies who drink from all of the fountain's seven spouts, it's supposed to grant marriage within a year, but who wants that? I drank from just one and then made my way back to land, somehow avoiding falling into the water. Covadonga combines some of my favorite things: waterfalls, caves, and legends. Go see it.

We then decided to drive into the Picos to check out some mountain lakes near Covadonga. Great idea, right? Wrong. It got incredibly foggy, I'm talking not even 20 feet visibility, and Spain loves to screw drivers over by not building barriers to, you know, stop cars from driving over a cliff. Thanks Spain. We somehow made it to the first lake alive, but at our wits end, so we decided to drive back, which was thankfully easier. I can now say I'm an awesome driver. I mean, you didn't think I was driving an automatic, did you?

Enjoy the view! Oh wait...

This was when we all came to our senses and decided to head to the beach. We drove to the coast and saw a lot of little villages like Ribadesella, Llanes, and San Vicente de Barquera, where we stayed the night and ate a big, delicious seafood dinner for 35 euro. And then, the next morning we woke up to sun! The first sun we had seen since leaving Madrid on Friday. But, it was really gusty, and the waves were absolutely enormous, like crashing up over seawalls and onto roads and houses. Fun!

We kept driving through beach towns and eventually arrived in Comillas. We only stayed there for a few hours, but it was definitely one of my favorite stops on the trip. We got to see Gaudi's Capricho, a little house he designed before he was famous, and one of the most amazing cemeteries I've ever seen... all in the sun (and hurricane winds, but let's focus on the positives). 

Guardian Angel with Sword. CHECK!

Singin' in the rain indeed...

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Past Four Months in Trips

One of my original reasons for moving to Madrid was that traveling around Europe would be a lot easier. Last year in Valladolid I normally had to take a three hour bus ride to the airport and then fly to my destination. So now that I'm in Madrid, I've been trying to take advantage of how close the airport is: try 40 minutes on public transport. A huge improvement! Here's where I've been since the end of September:

A Coruña, Galicia, Spain

Hey, that hair move I'm doing was not posing. It was actually super windy.

I had always wanted to go to Galicia. It looks like Oregon or Scotland, so super green. It has amazing food, especially seafood, and its own language that sounds a lot like Portuguese. It rains a ton, but on quick trips I don't really mind. Also, that's where Matt is living this year. General win.

El Escorial, Madrid, Spain

Sometimes you just have to get away

Sometimes the best part of living in Madrid is escaping Madrid, even just for an afternoon. Luckily there are loads of great places perfect for day trips. This is one of many. They help me keep my sanity as I struggle with my newly developed pedestrian rage targeted against all people who walk slowly in front of me.

Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

Yeah, I went over Halloween weekend. Can't you tell?

Probably the place to go in Galicia and the famous end of the Camino, Santiago is a must see for anyone who wants to say they've been all over Spain. It's gorgeous.

País Vasco, Spain

I will never get over how beautiful this is.

No, really. Never.

I'd been to Spain's Basque Country twice before, once to San Sebastian with my mom and once to Bilbao last year. I got the excuse to visit again thanks to a friend. It was his idea to rent a car, and I really think that's the best way to see Europe. I should do it much, much more.

Marseilles, France

View from the Chateau d'If
The amazing Notre-Dame de la Garde

Mom popped over for a long weekend in December, and we bought the cheapest tickets we could find: 45 euro round trip each! France seemed like a good option based on the trips to Nice and Paris we took together when I was in high school. Christmas markets, cool churches, shopping... We even had time to take a day trip to Avignon.

Marrakech, Morocco

Outside Marrakech

Djemma el-Fna "deserted"

Outside Marrakech

I finally made it to Morocco! Considering how close it is to Spain, it was only a matter of time. That and the fact that a friend from uni has been living there the past two years. It's always better to go where you know people. She made what would have been a really cool trip into an amazing one. I had been looking for a trip that gave me the same sense of adventure as when I first came to Europe. Or when I went to India. Or to Brazil with just a big suitcase and a handful of words. It's a complete adrenaline rush. You're lost, overwhelmed, struck dumb. Completely taken in by a new place: prayer calls, tajines, mint tea, endless haggling, that feeling of pride when you're called a "Berber woman" for even trying to strike a fair deal in the souks. I'm most definitely going back.

Milan, Italy

Yeah, I went in. But where I really freaked out was in the Alexander McQueen store.
Cappuccino + croissant with pistachio cream = 2.50 euro. 10 more please!
It's a bit simple, don't you think?

I just got back yesterday from Milan. I was expecting it to be cool despite being assaulted with loads of general negativity about the place. Seriously? It's Italy; so for me that means several daily cappuccinos, pastries, and alternating meals of pizza and pasta. Combine that with Milan's shopping reputation, and the opportunity to see The Last Supper, and, well, what the hell could go wrong? Nothing! It was really fun. It rained the whole weekend, and it was still awesome. Can't wait to go back, specifically for more food, shopping, and to visit a cool cemetery I missed out on.

Not bad for four months, right?