Tuesday, December 11, 2007

And that's that

It's been 14 and a half weeks, and it's nearly all over. Today was the last day of classes, with only finals standing between me and my departure from this land that has become my second patria. At the beginning of my stay here, I read a newspaper editorial criticizing Americans for their role in the Iraq war, deriding our young soldiers as "sturdy boys" who would rather just listen to their iPods and flirt with Susie Q. With my indignation stirred up, I discussed it with my señora and she told me, "Of course you're upset; it's your country." I never imagined I would feel the same way about Madrid, but at the protest last week in Barcelona calling for Catalonian independence, that same mixture of pride and umbrage swelled within my chest, surprising me with just how attached I have become to my second home.

It hasn't so much been the classes that have left an indelible mark, like they did so memorably for Justin this semester, but instead the process of adaptation - of settling into a city across an ocean and making it a home - that has really defined the essence of this semester. You can bet that the memory of my señora, Olga, easy-going and motherly, will remain with me forever. The same with my host-brother, Luis, party-animal and avid skier. But, most of all, I'll remember the unique experience of stepping out of my American life, if only with one foot, and forging a new path through an unknown terrain. The Vanderbubble, science classes, dorms, rowing, and many more things that are so basic to my life in the US were swept away for a semester to be replaced with bullfights, metro rides, eurotrips, and tortillas, the framework of my adopted Madrileño lifestyle.

From that first silent ride in the taxi from the airport to my new home to the final takeoff from Spanish soil this Sunday, it's been a wild ride for which I couldn't be more thankful.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

La Vida Loca in Barcelona

What a week it's been! With only 11 days left in Madrid (and only 3 days left of classes!), things are wrapping up after a very short semester. And, as I'm sure you all know, the end of the semester means final exams and papers. As such, my life last week centered around writing a paper on the independence of women in the works of Cervantes and searching for a theme from contemporary Spanish history to write about for my Civilization class (currently leaning towards the role of the Church in the Franco regime...exciting, huh?). Luckily, along the way, all the work was punctuated with a ridiculous trip to the bowling alley at "Ice Palace" and a great trip to Barcelona over this past weekend.

In Barcelona, I met up with some friends from Vanderbilt who are currently studying in Aix through Vanderbilt-in-France and some more friends who are in Ireland and Scotland. The day started off a bit late with the last of us not arriving until about 7 pm, so we took it easy the first night, just hanging out and catching up in the hostel lounge and then wandering around the city looking for a good restaurant (we eventually found a great pizza place: always a great standby!), followed by a trip to the Mediterranean beach.

The next day we rolled out of our warm beds trying unsuccessfully to not disturb our random Venezuelan roommate and headed out for some sightseeing. First on the list was the Temple of the Sagrada Familia, a fantastical church designed by Antoni Gaudí that has been under construction since 1882 and is not projected to be finished until around 2030. It's no stretch to say that it is the most unique and most memorable building I've seen as of yet on my European excursions.

La Sagrada Familia: a work in progress

After spending quite a while at La Sagrada Familia, it was time for lunch, which surprisingly even included some smoothies (though not as good as the ones you can get at the Smoothie place in Rand!), and then a trip to a champagne place that sells entire bottles of champagne for about 2 euros. The place was jam-packed with Spaniards and, as we soon found out, if you try to cross the threshold with your glass to get out of the mob, you are promptly pushed back inside by the doorman/bouncer!

The mob for champagne

With our stomachs full, we headed for the Picasso Museum, which featured both the cubist works he is traditionally identified with as well as paintings from his early years (15 and 16 years old) when he was still creating "normal" paintings. It's a bit odd to see the progression of his paintings from very accurate depictions of what he sees to the interpretive pieces he created later on. Being the nerd that I am, I remembered a quotation from him from one of my MCAT study passages where he said something to the effect of "It took me a whole lifetime to learn how to draw like a child." Seeing this transition in person really brought that idea to life.

Museums forbid pictures inside, so this is the best I could do

After a great dinner of tapas, walking through a huge demonstration for Catalonian independence, and enjoying the Barcelona night, we hit the sack to get ready for the next day, which we dedicated to Montjuïc, a huge area near the Mediterranean containing a castle, the National Art Museum of Catalonia, and the Olympic Park where the 1992 Summer Games were held. But, alas, the weekend had to come to an end sooner or later (but not before we stopped for a great doner kebab) and back to Madrid I came to finish up the last full week of classes!

Until next time, when I'll surely be lamenting the burden of finals...

Favorite picture of the Barcelona trip:

Looking at the port from the castle walls

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Commodores in Spain

Since my parents left last week, I’ve been experiencing the pains of homesickness a little more strongly. Their visit brought me a little taste of the United States (and banana bread!), and that little taste left me wanting more. Luckily for me, that something more came in the form of a whole bunch of ‘Dores coming over to Madrid, bringing with them that welcoming and comforting aura of the sometimes-ridiculed but always-enjoyed “Vanderbubble.”

With Vanderbilt on a mission to internationalize its undergraduate population, raising the percentage of international students from its current 3% to 8%, the admissions folk are not letting any opportunity go to waste. There was a conference of English-speaking international college counselors in Madrid this week and Vanderbilt captured their attention by hosting an after-conference reception, full of endless platters of hors d’oeuvres, free-flowing wine, delicious meals, and, of course, speeches and videos showing them just how vibrant and cosmopolitan Vanderbilt is.

Those of us students who weren’t traveling this weekend (long essays in Spanish on obscure literature topics tend to prevent that…) had the opportunity to help out at the reception, giving the counselors the chance to grill us on whether we really like Vanderbilt or not. My first duty was manning the shirt table, where each one of the 140 guests (and a hotel security guard!) got a pretty sweet black Vanderbilt polo shirt and a goody bag with information and stats on Vanderbilt. The other students manned the lobby, gave directions, mingled, and occasionally brought Sarah and I some of those delicious hors d’oeuvres to get us through until dinner.

Holly and Sarah at the shirt table

Next we all moved up to dinner, where admissions counselor Shari gave opening remarks, followed by Director of Admissions John Gaines, and then a little bit later by Associate Provost and Dean of Admissions (and a whole lot of other titles I can’t remember) Doug Christiansen. In the meantime, we all spread out to individual tables to avoid “clumping” and to maximize the mingling factor. When I say these counselors were international, I’m not lying; at my table they were from places as varied as Toronto, Milan, Switzerland, and India.

Left to Right: Amy Smith, John Gaines and his wife, Doug Christiansen and his wife, Carlos Jauregui (the Vanderbilt-in-Spain director) and his wife Tatiana, and Shari Sutton (not shown are Mike Drish, who coordinated all this, and Roberta, who volunteered time from her vacation to help out)

To wrap up the night, we watched a great short video covering the joyful time of graduation, which was apparently so moving that some of the women counselors shed a tear or two.

Hopefully our efforts will persuade these counselors of the magnetism of Vanderbilt so they can give us a strong recommendation to their students, helping us to make even more great strides towards a completely diversified student body!

From left to right: Sarah, Arielle, Holly, Vanessa, and me

Monday, November 19, 2007

In the South

The palm fronds swayed in the cool breeze while the sun’s rays warmed my back. No, I didn’t make the journey back to Florida with my parents, but went to southern Spain to visit the ancient paradise of Seville. This is a rapidly developing city with a long and storied history, beginning almost two thousand years ago with the Roman conquest of Spain. The city then passed through the hands of Visigoths until it came under the possession of the Moors, who left their indelible architectural mark on the area.

The first place we saw this Islamic influence was, surprisingly, the grand cathedral of Seville, which was constructed around a mosque dating from the Moorish occupation of the city. While work on the true cathedral began in 1402, the gigantic bell tower was repurposed from the mosque’s minaret, constructed in 1184.

The cathedral

I am not exaggerating when I say that this is a grand cathedral; it is the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in the world, with the central nave rising 138 feet above the ground, and it also houses the largest altarpiece. Almost eclipsing all of this architectural grandeur, however, is the tomb of Christopher Columbus, hoisted by four Spanish Kings above their shoulders.

The next stop on our tour of Seville was the Alcazar, a palace dating from 1181 and having a history of construction that lasts more than half a millennium.

A domed roof in the Alcazar

The Islamic influence is striking here, with a dizzying array of fountains, geometric arches, and large courtyards seen throughout the sprawling grounds. One of the most serenely creepy places in the palace was the Baños de Doña María de Padilla, which is a tank for rainwater collection.

Nicest rainwater tank ever

The last big stop during our stay in Seville was the Museum of Bullfighting, a sport that has placed a central role in Sevillian culture for centuries.

The bullfighting arena

A guided tour was required to explore the bullfighting arena and its museum, which actually ended up being pretty cool, especially since the tour was bilingual and we all got to get in the “Spaniards” group of the tour and leave all the other American tourists behind! The most memorable part of the museum was the bull heads mounted on the wall, ears cut off as rewards for the matadors with whom they performed a deadly tango.

The loser of the tango

On Sunday we took the high speed AVE (topping out at about 180 mph) to the cold of Madrid and the warmth of our señoras’ homes, embarking on what is sure to be the short last four weeks abroad!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Salamanca Sunday

Sunday, SUNDAY *in best Al Roker voice* (yea, I'm a little tired and getting delusional...)

On Sunday the 'rents and I made the journey to Salamanca by train. The two and a half hour ride with Renfe was nice, as the train was virtually empty and we got to look at the scenery (when the sun wasn't blinding us) and contemplate the age of all the rock walls that wind their way across the countryside. We were pretty gung-ho on renting some scooters to motor around the city, but upon walking outside and getting blasted with what seemed like supercooled air, we decided to sightsee by foot.

One of the cathedrals in Salamanca

And sightseeing we did; cathedrals, cathedrals, cathedrals, oh, and some palaces! The cathedrals were amazing in their gargantuan size, ornateness, and overall grandiosity. One of them (supposedly built around 1500) even had a suspicious carving around the door, which you can see below.

An astronaut?!

We had the chance to climb the towers (don't ask how many steps, or how much it provoked my nascent fear of heights) and see some great artifacts from the churches' archives, which even included an edition of one of Plato's works dating from the 1600's! Of course, we also had to go the Plaza Mayor while in the city, which, I have to say, is cooler than the one in Madrid. Not to mention there was this crazy group of women there, one of whom was dressed up as an old woman in a housecoat with an ample bosom and ample rear-end and another screaming something or another through a megaphone!

Plaza Mayor

All in all, with these adventures as well as some stops in little shops and visits to palaces scattered about the city, it was a pretty great day trip (although with lots and lots of walking...I have the hole in my sock to prove it!) and Salamanca is really a great little town. I definitely recommend it as an excursion if you'll be in Spain (plus, I've heard it has a great night life!).

Favorite sight of the trip:
The golden altar at one of the churches in Salamanca

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Americans in Madrid

The internet's back! You have no idea how excited this makes me; being able to get internet from my desk is a truly uplifting experience. The New York Times, in a great article on the study-abroad experience, tries to convince me that this fickle access to the world wide web is a good thing, however, when they declare that "being in a place a dozen time zones away, where Internet service and cellphones are unreliable, provides one of the first chances for true and prolonged independence." The good thing about this renaissance of the G604T wireless network I surreptitiously tap into is that I get to post again and let you know all about the 'rents.

My parents started off their Spain trip with a bang, having their four (rather large) suitcases lost somewhere along the way from Orlando to Madrid. Luckily, they were able to persevere for the luggage-less day and still enjoyed the sights offered by the city. Of course, with them arriving on Sunday morning I had to take them (my mom especially!) to the Rastro, the flea market I first went to in September. Being an inveterate bargain-hunter and lifelong flea market lover, the Rastro was like a playground to my mom. Not being tourists at all [sarcasm], we bought some T-shirts (prominently displaying the classic Toro), a flag for my dorm room (also prominently featuring a bull with the red and yellow background), and my mom went after some other items for Christmas gifts (whose identity shall be withheld, lest the recipients be reading this). With the weather being unseasonably warm (who ever heard of 70 degree weather in November in Madrid?!), I also led them to Retiro park to show them the great man-made lake, the mausoleum of Alonso XIII, the glass palace, as well as to the Plaza Mayor to check out all the sights it has to offer.

Plaza Mayor: cafe central?

One of the best things about parents visiting (other than getting to see them after two months, of course!) is the opportunity to get some great food and experience the "gastronomical" side of the city. Between my señora cooking some great meals and the rising prices in Madrid, going out to eat is a rare treat. The first dining stop I made with them was at a little restaurant/bar down the street from my apartment where I introduced my mom to the wonders of Spanish tortilla (great site with a recipe and step-by-step pictures...try to make some for yourself!). The waiter also overheard me telling my parents about the paella I enjoyed in Valencia and brought out a plate of shellfish paella free-of-charge! Now that's what I call service! The next stop was Bazaar, a Mediterranean restaurant in Chueca, a Madrid neighborhood that most definitely has its own personality. My dad and I had some buey tierno, which translates to tender ox, which was much more delicious than it sounds. The best part was dessert; I followed Fodor's recommendation and got the chocalatisimo, the most notable feature of which was that it came with a dinner plate covered about one-fourth of an inch deep in dark and white chocolate. By the time I was done eating, I was sweating! Last but not least on our list of dining-out experiences was El Botin, which has the distinction of being the oldest restaurant in the world (as determined by the Guinness Book of World Records).
One of the dining rooms at El Botin

Not having closed its doors since 1725 (that's 51 years before the Declaration of Independence), the restaurant was full of nooks and crannies, steep stairs, and a lot of history. Their specialties are roast suckling pig and roast leg of lamb, both of which were delectable.

Parents posing outside El Botin

This weekend we'll be heading out to Salamanca, and I'll be sure to bring my camera to document our adventures (something I've been forgetting recently...forgive me!).

Most fulfilling (and filling) picture of the week:

34 power bars, courtesy of my mom, after hearing of my previous struggles

Craziest picture of the week:
The largest bra ever, with my mom's (normal sized) hand as size reference

As a side note, since it doesn't really have anything to do with anything in this post, I made treasurer of crew! I'm just excited about it and wanted to share. Peace.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


So much time has passed since my last post but, sadly, not much has happened in my life. This unfotunate dearth of activity is due to the fact that last Wednesday to this Wednesday was midterm week! Advanced Spanish Grammar, Spanish Civilization, Phonology, and Women Models in Cervantine Literature, all conspiring to make my week one of studying and, consequently, limited fun. Luckily, they didn't entirely succeed.

On Wednesday Vanderbilt treated a bunch of us to a Real Madrid game (with 45 euro seats...I'm glad my ptogram fee is being used for such sweet events!) So, for those of you not familiar with "football" teams, Real Madrid is basically the Roger Federer of football. Since their founding in 1902 they've won 30 La Liga titles, 17 Copa del Rey, and have been European champions 9 times. All this resulted in FIFA naming them the Best Club of the 20th Century, which seems like a pretty huge deal. David Beckham just left Real Madrid recently for a $250 million contract at the L.A. Galaxy, which basically goes to show you the kind of talent that Real Madrid keeps stocked up.

Real Madrid in white

They play home games at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, which is actually just down the road from my Senora's house, eliminating the need to fight the typical 70,000-person crowd coming in at the metro stop.
View of the stadium from the street outside my apartment

So, taking our Senora-made packed dinner (consisting of an egg and cheese sandwich as well as a tuna one), we headed over to the stadium to watch the game against the Greek Olympiaca team. After 90 solid minutes of being cheered on by my loud-as-possible shouts, Real Madrid was victorious, as expected, with a final score of 4-2.

In other news, my parents get into town to visit in three days! Let's hope I can find a way to show them the greatness of Madrid in the time they're here!