Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Pat Conroy Lowcountry Charm Tour

It's not about the Destination, it's about the Journey 

Isn't it funny how we easily we can forget all about our own country? Sometimes I think we internationally minded folk disregard the wonders of Americana because we're so focused on exploring the world. But the fact of the matter is that the United States is 50 states of diverse, bizarre and fascinating and I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of it. What is American culture? Is it hamburgers, freedom and McDonald's? Or do we shortchange our own country, choosing to believe that we have no "culture" at all? In general, culture is a difficult concept to define because it can encompass so many different factors--music, dance, lifestyle, art. For me, culture is all of those things and a feel I get for a place and its people. I believe that I can't say I've truly been somewhere until I've been able to get a sense of a place's personality. In my opinion, the best way to accomplish this, to search for "authenticity" (whatever that really means) is to charge ahead, with an open mind and some decent walking shoes.

So to remedy this situation, I decided to take an adventure. One of my best friends, Erin, and I dedicated our spring break to a good old fashioned road trip. Instead of palm trees and margaritas, we opted for palmettos and grits and headed down south to the Lowcountry. 

But first, you may ask...who is Pat Conroy

This dapper Southern gentleman is the author of our tome of inspiration, South of Broad. This lovely novel traces the lifetime of a group of friends living in Charleston, South Carolina. I was once told by a wise teacher that the best way to learn about a place is through its literature, so we used Mr. Conroy as our guide to the Lowcountry. But first, of course, we had to get there. 

The distance from Richmond to Charleston is about 430 miles, give or take; that's about 6 hours if you don't stop. Spoiler alert: we stopped.

I quickly abandoned my dreams of filming an exciting video sequence of terrain changes when we realized that I-95 from Richmond to Charleston looks pretty much the same. This is the trade-off of a major highway; it gets you there faster, but the route isn't that scenic. However, taking 95 allows you to discover the wonders of South of the Border. Unofficially voted, "One of the Top 5 Worst Places to be Left in a Parking Lot," South of the Border is the consumerist wasteland of a kitschy, sprawling amusement complex that should have closed down long ago. For literally hundreds of miles before and after the South Carolina/North Carolina border, are vaguely offensive and strange billboards advertising "Pedroland" and "Alligator Park," among other things. 

It's one of those East Coast rites of passage that you do at least once in your life. Otherwise, how would you know about the charming smell of burning tires or statues of giraffes and giant chickens? The overcast, hazy sky added to the sinister feel of the place, and as we walked around, I couldn't help but wonder: what on Earth was this place like in its heyday? Because to me, it felt like the set of the newest post-apocalyptic blockbuster. 

The perfect venue for your next conference...
We came, we saw, we left shortly afterward. South of the Border was an experience, and I can't say that I necessarily recommend it, but if you're on the way down I-95, you may as well swing by and drive between the giant legs of the Pedro statue.

The intrepid adventurers...a rare moment of peace between Bob Dylan impressions

In total, we drove over 1,000 miles, passed countless billboards, farms, visitor centers and exits; listened to three playlists and sang loudly off-key. While the important part of any trip is certainly where it is you are going, don't forget to enjoy the ride. The greatest part about traveling by yourself or with friends is that you can dictate when, where, and how you get there. Not that family road trips aren't great (sorry parents), but traveling with similar-minded people as yourself can open the door to so many random and wonderful adventures that you never anticipated: like stopping at a roadside stand for peach cider and benne wafers or finding some authentic North Carolina BBQ. And nothing compares to that wild freedom of rolling over an open road, with miles ahead and behind you, and what feels like the world at your fingertips. That is until you run out of gas, of course.

So whip out your maps and pack the car, you've got a world to discover! 

Until next time, 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

¡Estoy de vueeeellllta!

Estoy de vueeeelllltta! It's been less than I year since I tearfully departed the country that cut off the ear of my heart, so to speak. (It was a torero joke...I tried). Although I've been here for less than a week, it feels like a month.

It's funny how things never change. Eduardo Dato, my old street, looks exactly the same, though now there are empty spaces where stores used to be. The people come and go around me as always, walking and talking as if nothing has changed. Sevilla didn't care that I left, and it doesn't care that I'm back. While this may seem like a harsh realization, it's a necessary one. It seems massively unfair that the place that had such an impact on my life should now treat me with such indifference, but that is the reality of the world. What truly matters at the end of the day, is the friends that I have kept in contact with and the new people that I will meet.

To be back to the city you studied abroad in is very strange. Last spring, this was my home. I lived here for four months with no responsibilities and basically limitless freedom. I could do what I wanted, when I wanted, but was still protected beneath the umbrella of my friends who were here with me. Now I'm back, with friends, but essentially alone. This is ultimately a good thing. I'm back in Sevilla, but without the rose-colored glasses of studying abroad. Last year, almost everything was perfect. Sevilla or Spain in general could do no wrong. While I think I'm still in love, everything isn't perfect. Printing often doesn't work. My cellphone didn't work. The water in our apartment stopped working today. It's hot here. Like 100F hot. Like so hot you feel the need to take two showers a day.

When I walk around the city, it is filled with memories of my semester here. I feel a kind of loving nostalgia that isn't longing, but more of a fond reflection. Nothing can ever be the same twice, and I am beyond grateful to have the opportunity to explore mi ciudad another time. Who knows what these next days will bring, but I look forward to what I will discover.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Paris: Joie de vivre

What is it about Paris? Is it the style, the macaroons, the certain--dare I say--je ne sais quoi? That special something that keeps it a nearly mythical metropolis, the stuff of fashion magazines and artsy dreams? To discover that quoi, my friends, you'll just have to go and experience it yourself.

When I found out I was studying abroad in Spain, there were two place I knew I was going to visit. Paris. Italy. Boom. Boom. There was never a doubt in my mind. I, like most of the world, was in love with it before I even arrived. After seeing movies like Moulin Rouge and Midnight in Paris, and obtaining an adoration for classic French jazz, Paris was a legendary place in my mind; full of beautiful buildings, famous artwork, and fantastic food.
We flew into Beauvais, which is about an hour outside of the city, and took an overpriced bus into the center. As we shivered beneath our coats, Nicole and I slowly grew more excited as the countryside morphed into suburbs, and then--Paris!

Except, it definitely didn't look like this. We saw the infamous tour Eiffel, but it was through the hazy curtain of snow flurries. That's right, folks. It was around 28 degrees (F) when the bus dropped us off at the bus station, where we waited for Nicole's aunt to pick us up. At first, it was indescribably exciting. We were in a bus station--in France! In Paris! The snow was falling daintily around us and travelers were bustling around, speaking in French. And then, reality began to sink in. I started losing feeling in my toes. Then it was my face. Pretty soon, my fingers weren't bending anymore. With our last euro, Nicole bought a tiny espresso shot to share that was cold by the time she brought it back to me. I know I speak in hyperbole, but I mean it when I say that this was truly The Coldest I Have Ever Been In My Life. You have to understand that coming from southern Spain, we had brought our "coats." But let's be honest here, they were light cardigans in comparison to the frigid temperatures we found ourselves in.
Parisians are like, "That's not a coat." 

While Paris in the snow is certainly enchanting, I would highly advise against going in mid-February, or anytime in February, honestly, unless you have a serious parka. Eventually, her aunt did arrive and we were brought back to life by the careful licking of an adorable bulldog named Madame.

As we drove through the streets into the 16th arrondissement (what the major districts of the city are called), I truly began to see Paris. It was just as I had imagined; tall, but not too tall, sandstone buildings, artwork etched into every corner. Wrought iron gates guarded the windows, curling and intertwining into a labyrinth of metal. In this city, art is everywhere. It is not only sequestered to the palatial museums--you can find it on a street corner or on a bridge.

Like the Alexander III was my favorite.

Of course, it is also in the palatial museums. Later this same day, now prepared for the cold, Nicole and I headed out to the Louvre, where we had free admission with our passports (Student win!).  It was a long walk from the apartment, but it was along the Champs-Elysées, so we didn't really notice. I first knew Paris in the gray light of twilight, when even the dismal cast of a snowy sky couldn't leech the beauty from it.

We crossed into Place de la Concorde, passed the illuminated Ferris wheel and a casual ancient obelisk from Egypt, and walked through the Tulieries, littered with sculptures.

Hark! An 3,300 year old obelisk! 
I had been told that one simply can't do the Louvre in one day, and I didn't really believe it until I entered. It is enormous. The Louvre used to be a palace back in the day (I learned this from The Three Musketeers) and it is a magnificent building. If you only have a day to take on the Louvre, make sure that you do two things 1) Pick up a guide, 2) Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. There is literally no way that you will be able to see everything you want to in one day. Not possible.

I would love to tell you I took my own advice, but like they say, experience is the best teacher. We didn't actually find these guides until after we were finished, but we still were able to successfully wander past the Venus di Milo and...drum roll please...the Mona Lisa!  

That's front of the Mona Lisa!
There is definitely a large amount of hype surrounding this painting, and to be honest, I adopted the hipster position of "It has to be overrated." The Mona Lisa is the centerpiece of a giant wall in a brightly-lit chamber. And if that description didn't help you find it, just look for the huge crowd of people. When I first saw it, the first thing I noticed was its size. For all of its fame, you'd expect it to be the size of a mural, but it's actually fairly small. My next reaction was awe. It was the Mona Lisa, after all. Da Vinci painted this. How amazing is that?! We continued our tour around the museum and after 2 1/2 hours, we felt sufficiently cultured and headed back to the apartment for a delicious French dinner. 

The next morning we set out with Nicole's aunt and her classy French friend through a farmer's market down the street. We passed cheese, crepes, bread, fresh flowers, knick knacks, clothes, chickens.

The Parisians bustled around us, bundled up and going about their business on a Saturday morning; all the while, we gaped at everything as if we'd never seen a farmer's market before. Afterward, we strolled along the Seine and stood beneath the imposingly regal Eiffel Tower. 

Yet another point of contention amongst Parisians and the world, I happen to like it. And even you don't care to see it, too bad, because it's visible from basically everywhere. From the Eiffel Tower, we wandered past the bouquinsites, selling posters and CDs along out of their green boxes alongside the Seine and onto the Ile de Cité, the little island planted in the middle of the river. Here is where we uncovered the mysteries of Notre Dame, which happened to be displaying its new bells at the time. 

One of Quasimodo's friends.
Notre Dame is a great Gothic cathedral with incredible stained-glass windows...I wouldn't miss it! Our next stop was the Musée d'Orsay, the temple of the Impressionists. Housed in a converted train station, this museum contains classics by Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, and Renoir (among many others). This is a much more manageable museum, full of classics. Bonus: the main corridor of the museum is stuffed with statues of every shape and size.

The rest of the day was spent the best way you can pass the afternoon in Paris--strolling. We stopped in  a market and bought cheese and almost made it past a bakery, when a window display of magnificent colors caught our eye. Meringues. Gigantic, magnificent meringues. So we did what any true traveler would do--we went in and bought one! It was the size, by Nicole's approximation, of an adult male hedgehog. It was violet flavored and turned our mouths violently purple. Along with the meringue, we bought baguettes, which we carried with us from Saint Germain, all the way to the Eiffel Tower. Snow began to fall again and this time, it really was enchanting. We made it the Tower just as the sun set and it began to sparkle and we paused to take pictures and enjoy the lovely, if chilly evening.

Paris really is an incredible city. It's a thriving metropolis, architectural gem, hub of influential culture, and unparalleled cuisine. How could I not fall in love? Although I was only there for two days, I had an amazing experience and would return in a heartbeat. This time, however, I think I'll go when it's a little warmer.

Au revior,

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Italy: Three friends, three backpacks, and a whole lot of adventure. Part One.

Pisa: Specificity and aggressiveness
Our adventure began like most good adventures do, or at least, should: in a train station. The train took us from Sevilla to Madrid and we watched the sunrise over the slowly changing landscape. Rolling fields covered in olive groves were replaced by rockier terrain and then after two hours, we entered into the capital. 
After successfully navigating the labyrinth of Madrid's train system, we were on our way to the airport and then sitting in the terminal, contentedly munching on a gigantic bar of dark chocolate. 
"Guys...we're going to Italy!" We kept repeating the same line, but I still couldn't grasp the reality of it. Italy is one of those places that's always on the "To Go" list. For as long as I can remember, it's been on mine. Before too long, it was time to go. 
The plane soared across the rest of Spain and over the azure Mediterranean and into the great boot of Italy. We touched down in a cloudy Pisa to the sound of...trumpets. 
"Congratulations!" the enthusiastic Irish recorded voice trilled. "This Ryanair flight has arrived early! We pride ourselves on excellent service...Thank you for choosing Ryanair." 
I'm not really sure why they were offering us congratulations (we were ten minutes early), but we all burst out laughing and the passengers gave the flight a round of applause.
In the airport, all of the signs were in Italian. We had arrived.
Now this, dear readers, is the beginning of what we like to call the Series of Fortune Misadventures. You'll understand soon. 

The confirmation for our B&B instructed us to take "the bus" that met "in front" of the airport entrance. When we walked outside, we saw no bus, and three entrances. Uhhh...
"Maybe we should ask someone," I suggested. 
"I'm pretty sure it's that one," Erin said, pointing to some people congregating near a bright orange bus stop. 
"But we don't want to get onto the wrong bus," I pointed out. Barbara was still looking at the piece of paper. Specificity. 
Fortunately for us, a bus (the only bus) pulled up to the orange station and we all climbed aboard. The bus rattled into the city center and we caught our first glimpse of an Italian city. It was beautiful; red, green, yellow buildings lined the riverbanks, just weather-beaten enough to stay charming. 
As the bus wound out of the center, we entered into a more residential area. Apartment building, apartment building, Pam Supermarket, roundabout...
"Where is this place, anyway?" I asked. 
"Here!" Barbara said, and we hopped of the bus. We were right across from the Pam Supermarket, and I didn't see anything resembling a bed and breakfast. 
"It says we have to walk down the road a little," Barb told us and we finally stumbled upon the B&B--at least, that's what the sign said. All I could see was a tiny office attached to a cheery yellow house.
"Are you sure this is it?"
"Yes," Barbara said. So we walked inside to an empty kitchen, where we were soon greeted by a friendly Italian man who spoke very little English. Our room was right off of the kitchen, with pictures of adorable Italian children and a replica of the Last Supper hanging on the wall. 
"So where are we on the map?" we asked him, spreading it out on the table. 
He pointed to a spot farther down on the kitchen table. Right. 
"Here's the bus schedule," he told us, and explained the best way to come home. The last bus left at 9 o' clock from the center of the city. I wasn't too worried--after all, I was experienced in extreme bus-catching.

As we walked through Pisa, I experienced something very strange--the complete full-fillment of expectations. It was exactly as I had always imagined it...exactly as it had always been portrayed to me. It was like Busch Gardens!  The worn-out paint marks, the windy streets, the outdoor café was great. I kept expecting to see Escape from Pompeii around the corner. While that never came, there was something else that we couldn't seem to find...the Leaning Tower. I, who prides herself in navigation skills, declared myself the map-master and had set us down the path that would surely lead to the Tower. But it was no where to be found. 
"We can't just miss it," I said, looking at the map and then looking down the street. "Where is it?" 
"Oh my God, Shannon," Erin said beside me. I was still looking the other way.
"It's right there!" 
I turned my head and literally down the other side of the street was the top of the tower. A woman (who must of have surmised the whole situation) began to laugh at us as she crossed the street. I shrugged sheepishly...maps are helpful, but sometimes you just need to use some common sense. 
But no matter, we passed through the giant gate of the old city wall and right before us was the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. I am pleased to report that it does, in fact, lean. Quite a bit, actually.

Barbara with the obligatory pose. 
They say that it leans because of the earth beneath it, but don't worry yet. The tower has stood for over 800 years and will probably be around for at least another century. Whew.
While the Tower is incredible and gravity-defying, the tourists steal the show. Lined up in every possible space are rows of people pretending to hold it up, push it over, lean against it. I have to say we took greater pleasure in laughing at the interesting poses people came up with, which are just so much entertaining when you take the Tower out of the frame.

Sadly, I'm ashamed to say that we also took these clichéd pictures...come on, wouldn't you?!
Besides the tower, there isn't much else to see in the old center of Pisa. There's a baptismal building and an old church (both very pretty), but after an hour or two, we were done. We found a restaurant and ordered our first Italian meal: pizza! 
We learned two things from that first meal: one, "caprese" in Italy means an ordinary cheese pizza and two, there's a little something called a "cover charge." It's a fee they charge you to sit at the table. 
After dinner, we wandered back toward the river, through the dark streets lit by hanging lanterns. Our hearts were happy as we strolled down Arno and found our bus stop. Or so we thought.

"Wait a minute...what was the bus number?" 
"Are we sure it hasn't left yet?"
We debated for a few more minutes and then decided that this was the stop. We wanted to be sure because it was 9 o' clock. 
At 9:15, the bus rolled up. The doors opened and a woman got out. Barbara and I moved to enter the bus, but before we realized what was happening, the doors closed and it drove away. The last bus. 
We were all speechless. Was that even allowed? 

After we recovered from our shock, we realized what we'd need to conquer Pisa: aggressiveness. We remembered that our host had told us there was a night bus that ran after 9 and all we could do was hope it'd drop us off close to our hotel.  
We devised a plan; Erin would run from the two bus stops that lined the street, making sure that we'd know which bus to choose. Barbara was to stand on the corner, searching for taxis if they drove by. I was the one who walked into a gelato shop and ask about the taxis. Apparently, they all gathered on the other side of town. Of course. But the woman gave me the phone number and Erin dashed back, announcing she had found the stop. 
Across the street, we noticed a little supermarket and decided to stop in and get some food for tomorrow. As we passed the rows of Nutella and boxed pastas, a singular bag caught my eye. It was an unassuming bag of decent size; yellow and white with the name: Riso e latte. Cookies. Everything was in Italian, but the picture looked pretty good, so I bought them. (Remember these cookies. They're important.)

We readied ourselves at the bus stop, spread at equal bus-length distance to run into all doors when it pulled up. We weren't letting this one get away. 
But when the bus came, it calmly pulled up and opened its doors. 
"Guys..." Erin said as we climbed aboard. "We had to wave it down..."
Apparently the 13 year old boy to her right had signaled at the bus driver to stop. Well. I'm glad someone knew how the world worked. 
The bus rolled away, rumbling down the street. I mean literally rumbling. I'm not sure if it was the road or the internal structure, but with every acceleration, the bus would shake violently and toss you to the side if you didn't have a good handhold. 

And if all of this wasn't enough, we made a friend on the bus.  A man heard us speaking English and started chatting, informing us he was from Mexico, but studying his masters in Pisa. Huzzah, fellow North American! He was very friendly and it was all well and good until he asked, "So what are you guys doing tomorrow?" 
As if this night hadn't been bizarre enough. 
"Going to Cinque Terre," we told him with faux-sadness. 
"Where are you guys staying?"
"Oh, this B&B," we answered vaguely. Thankfully, before any more awkward conversation could continue, the bus had reached the faithful Supermarket Pam. We bid our new friend farewell and hightailed it out of there. 

The eventful day was finished off by learning a truly intriguing fact: 
the movie "Elf" in Italian is "Elf di elfo nome buddy." 


Sunday, June 2, 2013

La Despedida

It's over. I can hardly believe it. I've been back home for nearly a week now, but it feels like a month. Four months passed me by like the blink of an eye, and as disgustingly cliché as that sounds, it's true. It would be impossible for me to document the ways in which I've changed, the moments that made me smile, the things that I've learned; but this semester has been the greatest four months of my life. When I boarded the plane for Spain, I had no idea what was in store for me. I had no idea I would find a place so beautiful, so rich in thousands of ways, so full of music, where I would lose a little piece of my heart.   Perhaps one of the most exciting discoveries I've made in my time here is the realization of just how wonderful the world is.

Warning: Hippy moment coming up.

I just got to know Andalucía, with its amazing people and incredible culture. Andalucía is one community in an entire country. That means that there is so much more fascinating things to discover in Spain. But Spain is just one country! Can you imagine what the entire WORLD holds?
Our world is filled with limitless possibilities and discoveries, all waiting for you to explore. We are blessed to live in such a marvelous place that is both so vast but also small. For example, those friends that you meant in Spain really aren't that far.
I take solace in this knowledge as I adjust to my life back at home. I think the strangest thing is that everything here is exactly the same as it was before, but I've changed. Now it feels too small.
So what do I do?
I hold on to my memories, but I move forward and keep what I've learned (and a little bit of Spain) in my heart.

Thank you all for reading this semester, I hope you've enjoyed! I'll be posting a few more things throughout the summer, mainly things I never got to earlier.


Thursday, May 23, 2013


I saw my first flamenco show when I was in the 7th grade, but it was in a giant auditorium at George Mason. I don't remember much from it except for the fact that I thought it was rather boring and that I was more interested in the lunch afterward. My next flamenco experience happened a few months ago, when I discovered that I was coming to study in Spain. I looked up flamenco music and videos, but even then, I didn't really get it. It's not that I didn't like it, necessarily, it just seemed too strange for me.
The second day after I arrived in Sevilla, our program took us to a flamenco show in the Museo de Baile Flamenco, a museum dedicated to the art of flamenco music and dance. The setting was very intimate, with a small stage in the center and chairs on three sides, so close together it was impossible not to touch your neighbor. Suspended from the ceiling were fake orange trees mixed with wooden stools and the lighting was dim and reddish. Overall, the place had ambiance.

A few minutes later, a well dressed man appeared on stage and welcomed us to the performance, first in Spanish, then in English, then in French, then in Italian, and then in German. I thought he was going to keep going, but I suppose he just ran out of time. Anyway, with a hearty applause, the master of ceremonies left and the singer and guitarist walked on stage. The lights dimmed, and the guitarist began to play. When the other man began to sing, the first thing that struck me was how similar it sounded to Arabic music. With its lonesome and emotional wail that rises and falls, it seems to strike a chord within you and suddenly, you are giving him your undivided attention.

And then, the dancers entered. There isn't a set time when you start to dance flamenco--you're supposed to feel it. You can see it on their faces when they decide that it's time and suddenly, you're swallowed up in a spectacle of stomping feet and twirling skirts. It's amazing how flamenco can be both extremely feminine and manly at the same time. When the woman dances, she's elegant, but powerful, commanding the stage. And when the man dances, he's strong and manly, like a torero in the bull ring. Flamenco is moment it's silent and everyone is still and then in the next, there's the frenzied strums of the guitar and the rhythmic steps weighted with so much emotion. There were moments when I realized that I was holding my breath. Flamenco definitely needs to be seen in an intimate environment, because otherwise you loose the most important part: the emotional connection to the performance. 

I can understand how flamenco isn't for everyone, but if you find yourself in Spain, especially southern Spain, you shouldn't miss an opportunity to see a show. You can find one basically anywhere, in special restaurants, hotels, or tablaos, which are sort of like flamenco dinner theatre.
But if you are stuck on your couch, here's a good example of in-casa flamenco. Carlos Saura, a Spanish director, created a trilogy of movies about flamenco, all based on great works of literature. My favorite one of his is Carmen, based on Mérimeé's famous novella-turned-opera, which actually takes place in Sevilla. Fun fact: the tobacco factory where Carmen worked is now the University of Sevilla. It's gorgeous.

Another fun example is the Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo. This comes in the point of the movie when the village has to perform a dance to release the two lovers from the ghost of woman's dead husband.

An amazing mix of elegance and power
Flamenco songs are usually about youth, love, beautiful women and loss, and the dance is always infused with passion. En fin, flamenco is an impressive art. Someday, I hope to learn a few steps myself!



Thursday, May 2, 2013

Feria: ¡Yo soy del sur!

Every spring, as the blossoms of azahar and the temperatures rise, something happens to Sevilla. After the bleachers from Semana Santa have been packed away, the atmosphere begins to crackle with a heady anticipation. I read once that every April, Sevilla erupts into Feria, and, after having experienced it, I believe that's the best way to describe what happens. Feria doesn't just arrive; it parades, with coaches and bells and dresses and music.

I arrived back into Sevilla on Wednesday morning, so exhausted from a night spent in the airport that I couldn't even feel. As we rode the bus into the city, an advertisement flashed onto the television screens, with the cheery message, "Ya es la primavera!"(It's spring!) and an image of a woman and a man astride a horse.
"I'm too tired to feel anything," I told my friends. "But after I sleep, I'm going to be really excited."
So I slept for four hours, hopped out of bed and was about to charge out the door to buy my accessories when my host mom stopped me.
"Today is a holiday," she explained. "All the stores are closed."
Well. Convenient.
The problem was that I couldn't wear my flamenco dress without--at least--a flower. It just isn't done. I already look enough like a guiri (a foreigner) with my blue eyes, blonde-ish hair, and general face shape. At that point, I didn't have anything, no shawl (called a "mantocillo"), flower, or pendants.
I had resigned myself to wearing just a normal dress, when my host mom suddenly exclaimed that she had accessories in her closet. She opened up a drawer and pried open a rusty box.
"I haven't opened this for ten years!" She laughed.
Inside, lay a purple flower, earrings, necklace and combs, which looked perfect with my bright yellow dress. She helped me tie my hair up into a bun and affix the combs and flower onto my head, the smile on her face recalling old times of staying out late, eating and dancing the night away.
After I was deemed Feria-ready, Nicole and I headed out to the fairgrounds, which lay about a twenty minute walk away on the other side of the river. About ten minutes in, after the sweat began to collect oh-so-beautifully on our faces, we found a lady selling fans near the Parque María Luisa.
"Shannon," Nicole said. "You're going to want to buy a fan."
"Nicole," I told her confidently. "I don't have my own flower yet. The fan I buy might not go with my new accessories." (This is also important. Coordination is key.)
"Trust me," she assured. "The Feria is boiling."
I found a yellow fan that was pretty cheap, so I went ahead and bought it. Probably one of the best investments of my life. By the end of the week, I was convinced that there was just a giant aluminum funnel that channeled all heat and sunlight onto the Feria, making it about ten degrees hotter than everywhere else. Besides just relief, a fan is also a great way to make friends. You see someone desperately waving a pathetic napkin at themselves? Offer your fan, with a smile. Instant friendship.
After our fan purchase, we crossed into a fairytale.

"I think I'm going to cry," I said to Nicole as we walked across the river. It was magical. The fairgrounds in Los Remedios is lined with rows and rows of tents, called casetas. These range from tiny to ridiculously huge, each one similar in appearance, but unique in interior design. Some are lined with lace, others covered in lanterns, some have pictures and others plaques. Within each caseta, there is a space with chairs and tables for dancing, eating, socializing, and of course, drinking. Usually behind this area there is a large kitchen, where workers tirelessly shuffle back and forth, cooking up tortillas, fried fish, pinchitos (delicious grilled chicken shishkebabs), and mixing the ever important rebujito. I was warned about this before, but I didn't quite understand it until I tasted it. Rebujito is made from some type of sherry called "manzanilla" and Sprite swirled into a dangerously refreshing drink. Warning: this is not water. You probably shouldn't treat it like water.

The majority of casetas are private, but there are some public ones sponsored by political parties and districts of the city. I was told that it's not about having a caseta (which can cost up to 800 euros), it's about knowing someone who has a caseta. I had the fortune of not only having multiple friends with casetas, but friends who had friends who had casetas. This meant that we went caseta-hopping every night, trading one dance floor for another, drinking, talking and eating. The casetas play mainly sevillanas, which is a type of folk dance that branches from flamenco, and has its own corresponding dance. Sevillanas is composed of four pasos or steps and they are always the same. The only thing that changes is the tempo and sometimes your partner.

Here's a great example: Yo soy del Sur

A coach in front of the enormous portada
Whenever you get tired of staying in a caseta, you can stroll along the streets which are full of beautiful horses. I am obsessed with these animals, so you can imagine my excitement knew no bounds. The well-groomed equines toss their heads proudly, setting of the red and gold pom-poms that decorate their bridles as they trot down the cobblestone street, pulling a coach full of gorgeous women. My favorite part was caballeros. I'm not actually sure what they were called, but that's what I named the strapping men astride their steeds, dressed in sharp suits and hats dipped rakishly to the side.

Oi! Mi corazón!
Whenever they passed by, my fan waved faster to cool down my beating heart.
Once you make it past the parading horses, you walk into Calle de Infierno (Hell's Street), which looks like your typical carnival except 10x more intense. We're not talking about your average carousel and Ferris wheel, people. Two giant wheels, legitimate roller coasters, log flumes, live-pony carousels, bumper cars, arcades, scramblers, a circus...that's right. There's even a circus! Around the edges of the Calle are tons of churro stands--but these aren't frequented until 5 in the morning!

Waiting in line for Super Kangaroo

The Calle is pretty overwhelming, with music blaring at you from every angle and little kids running around like little monsters. And you can forget about changing--everyone wears their dresses on the rides! Although, make sure to secure any loose adornments, or they will join the graveyard of combs and clips that lay at the bottom of every ride.
We all got dragged onto a ride called "Top Gun," which flips you upside down multiple times and then sprays water on your face. Besides being ridiculously terrifying, it really offered a great view of the Feria. After that, I picked out the next ride I wanted to try out: Super Kangaroo. This is like a mega-scramber, except that it violently bounces you up and down. When I told my friend that was the one I wanted to ride, he shook his head disapprovingly.
"That's a soft ride. You like soft rides."
Whatever--Super Kangaroo provided some of the best four minutes of my life.
After two rides, however, we were done. The rides are diverse and awesome, but they can set you back quite a few euros.

Feria during the day is brilliant, but Feria during the night is wildly romantic. The streets are strung with lanterns that softly glow above you and the Calle de Infierno beckons with its neon lights that pulsate into the dark sky.

(Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of this. I was enjoying myself too much to take photos.)

I danced and danced until I could barely walk. There was one moment on Saturday when we were all lined up in our partners, while the men clapped and beat the drum, singing the line in a popular song "¡Yo soy del sur!" I think that's what represents Feria for me. It's more than just the raw visual--which is stunning, don't get me wrong. But Feria is a dream, a dream that never seems to end; where your head spins from dancing and laughing, your heart full with the happiness of being with friends and feeling beautiful. Time ceased to exist...there was one point when we were in the Feria for 12 hours and I barely noticed. It had only felt like four!

Me and Gabbie, my partner-in-crime on the dance floor.
Feria was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Add it to your bucket list. In a form, it captures what Andalucía is--colorful, vibrant, loud, alive with music, beautiful. At the same time, the reality of today's Spain is visible within this festival. Although it is difficult to tell in the display of good fortune and wealth, the Feria has changed with the economic crisis. We were told by our friend that this year the Feria was less crowded, and even a little less lively than in more prosperous times.  And yet, if no one had told me, I never would have realized. Even in the face of hardships, the sevillanos can sing and dance and take pride in their rich culture.

I know some day I'll return...there are more sevillanas to be danced!