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!


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tom, the Coolest Dog You'll Ever Meet.

This is Tom.
¡Hola! He probably understands Spanish better than you do.

Tom is a golden labrador, living The Dream. He runs, he hunts ducks, he gets his stomach petted. Life is good. 
Tom is also the coolest dog I've ever met. He's extraordinarily friendly, tolerant, and caring. He never lets the children roam away alone--he's always there, making sure they're safe. And even the adults, when he decides to walk with a group, he takes care to assure himself that every one is accounted for.

"Eso perro es santo."

I met Tom today in my adventure to the country. About a month ago, I had mentioned to one of the directors of my study abroad program that I loved horses. Coincidentally, she told me that she had a friend whose family owned a giant farm about an hour outside of Sevilla and that someday we could go out and visit it. With a bit of luck and a lot of sun, we set off to a farm on the outskirts of the famous Doñana National Park. The cityscapes of Seville gave way to the rolling countryside, filled with rows and rows of gnarled olive trees. The Seville province is actually the world's greatest producer of table olives, and Jaen (another province in Andalucía) is one of the greatest producers of olive oil. 
Eventually, we turned down a winding and unpaved road onto the farm. 

The farm is a family event. There are seven houses; a center one where the matriarch and patriarch live, and six others for their children which in turn house their children's spouses and children. You can basically kiss privacy goodbye. 

From the houses, we walked to the stables and saw beautiful Anglo-Arab horses, which are supposed to be the "perfect" breed of horse. When we walked into the courtyard, the dogs chasing after us, the horses stuck their heads curiously out of the stalls to observe the new visitors.

After our trip to the stables, we walked back to the house and got lunch ready. Well, actually just Maria got lunch ready; the rest of us contributed by eating pieces of incredible half goat-half sheep cheese. 
We were in the kitchen and they were trying to explain to me what made Iberian ham "pure," but I didn't know any of the vocabulary. We finally figured it out, but afterward, the mother turns to me and says, "Necesitas campo." 

I couldn't agree more. I love the city and its chaotic atmosphere, but there is nothing like an open field and the shade of a tree to ease your soul. Add in some sunshine, and suddenly even the most severe pessimist starts to see the other half of the glass. Sitting at the green picnic table, soaking up the rays and breathing in fresh air, I was content. Relaxed. Zen. Well, as zen as you could be at a table of four children.  
Lunch was nearly a religious experience. Nearly everything we ate was grown on the farm; meat, vegetables, potatoes, the most divine fresh olives, tortilla of asparagus picked that morning. The sun was shining, the food was delicious--I was in heaven! 

Sadly my hopes of horseback riding were dashed because of a little detail called liability, so instead of galloping through a flowered field, I drove a coach lead my a team of majestic steeds.

Ok, so maybe that was exaggerating a little...
It was an ornery Shetland pony hitched up to a cart. Ponies, as it turns out, are not as cute as they appear. I guess I understand...if someone tied me up to a wagon and expected me to drag around lazy humans, I wouldn't exactly be compliant. But Pony (who was quickly named "Hippy" due to his long and luscious locks), trotted through the farm after a stern talking to and I learned how to drive a cart. While we went, the children and Maria sang a little song: 

Corre, corre caballito
Trota por la carretera
Corre, corre caballito
El cuadro te ya espera 

These aren't exactly the lyrics, but this is what I remember them's the real song: 

I asked Maria how life was like here, in this idyllic swath of paradise. She told me that she loved it, at least until her parents wouldn't let her go out at night to Sevilla, which is an hour away. I tried to imagine what it could have been like with all of your cousins around you, surrounded by flowers and animals. When they were growing up, she said, they weren't allowed to watch TV or play videogames. They had to entertain themselves outside on the fruits of the land. With a backyard like this, I can't imagine it was too difficult. I have to say that agree with their parents' decision. It would have been a shame to waste all of this by staying inside. 

After perfecting my driving skills, we tied up the pony for a snack of chocolate and bread. This was literally a sandwich of bread and a bar of chocolate.
"The snack of the country," Maria assured us. I could get used to this. 

Eventually, the shadows began to lengthen and the children grew tired, signally the day's final stages. We returned Hippy to his stall, closely escaped being trampled by young mules, and pet Tom one last time. 

In a busy life of running around, it was nice to get away for the city, out to the rolling fields that I love; for a wonderful day spent entirely in Spanish. 


Monday, April 1, 2013

Me and Gaudí

When Antoni Gaudí graduated from the School of Architecture in Barcelona, the principal Elies Rogent said, "I don't know whether we have given the qualification to a madman or a genius."
When looking at Gaudí's work, one can understand the sentiment. It is colorful, passionate, and bizarre. It holds no reason, yet makes perfect sense.

I fell in love with Gaudí in the fading sunlight of a clear day, when the triumphant chariot glowed golden atop La Cascada in Parque de la Cuidadela. The park is pretty, wide, and interesting, but La Cascada is by far its best feature. It is a giant fountain that Gaudí helped to design for the Universal Exhibition in 1888. La Cascada is a delight to the eyes, a harmonious tribute to the ocean, complete with dragons, seahorses, and Aphrodite rising from a seashell. It was the most beautiful fountain I've ever seen in my life. My love only grew from there.

La Cascada
The root of Gaudí's genius lies in the blending of three key elements: the classics, fantasy, and nature. Gaudí studied everything, from the shapes of a leaf to the composition of a molecule. To me, Gaudí's work represents unlimited possibilities. He tackled a subject often tried by many, and made one key change: he didn't try to imitate it. He celebrated it. His art is weird, colorful, and intricate, because nature is weird, colorful and intricate. His buildings are unexpected and beautiful, rampant with organic lines waving and curling around. In Gaudí's world, straight lines don't exist.

Casa Milò, aka La Pedrera

La Sagrada Familia (which means "Sacred Family") was my favorite. In my time in Europe, I have been fortunate enough to see many beautiful churches. But as I have discussed before, the truth is that once you've seen one overwhelming, intricate cathedral, you've seen them all. I know, its a horrible thing to say that these behemoths have become passé, but they look awfully similar. With the exception of La Sagrada Familia. Gaudí started his pièce de résistance 1882 and even now, in 2013, it is not finished. Like a never ending story, it seems fitting that this temple of creativity and faith should carry on with a complex life of its own. 

La Sagrada Familia, Gaudí's most famous work
The Basilica, which looks like a wet-sand-dribbled castle, towers over you, overwhelming you with intricate details of the Bible etched into its facades. When you enter, you don't enter into a sanctuary. You enter a forest.

The ceiling of La Sagrada Familia 
Tall columns soar up into the high rafters of the Basilica, meant to imitate trunks of trees. Overhead, huge stone palms interlock to form a canopy to shelter the congregation. But the best part is the windows and windows of stained glass. Instead of having images in the windows, there are just millions of fragments of colors, all chromatically arranged to blend into the different hues of the rainbow. When the light shines threw, the Basilica is bathed in multi-colored light that can only be described as magical. It was so overwhelming--I can safely say that it is the only church that has ever rendered me speechless.

The stained glass in the Basilica. I know.

We traversed away from the city center to the Park Güell, which is built into the side of a hill. From a wide terrace, you can see all of Barcelona and the blue blanket of the sea. Here you can find the best example of trencadís, Gaudí's invention of using the broken scraps of azulejos (colored tiles) and creating mosaic-like surfaces. Just another example of his brilliance; instead of wasting a perfectly good tile, he incorporated it into his artwork.

Needless to say, my enthusiasm for Gaudí knows no bounds. Give me a good cup of coffee and about two hours, and I could talk about Gaudí until the mosaic salamanders came home. It's difficult to describe my passion; I just get him. His objectives, his weirdness, his colors--they all "speak to me" in that cheesy artsy way.

So maybe I'm a little biased, but before you write him off as a madman, consider his genius first.

Great example of trencadís

Antoni Gaudí and I met on March 16th, 2013, and I'll never stop falling in love. 
Me and Gaudí in Park Güell

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sale el Sol

After literally a month of rain, the sun came out. I mean actually came was almost hot! Despite the fact that over 6 pasos have been canceled this week, Thursday (thusfar) has granted us with beautiful sunshine. To celebrate the day, I walked out to Plaza de España, which is rapidly become one of my favorite places to sit. The Plaza was packed with tourists from all over the world, vendors selling fans and castanets, and the trusty flamenco guitarist, whose music echoes through the cavernous halls of the building. I settled down on one of the benches in front of the Huelva plaque and pulled out my notebook to catch up on some well-needed journaling.
About forty five minutes after I arrived, a family of four settled down on the bench beside me. I looked up for a moment and realized that the little girl was standing beside me, staring inquisitively at my notebook paper filled with strange English words. She wandered away. I switched from writing to drawing, and started to draw the Torre Sur of the Plaza's grand building. The girl returned and asked what I was doing. I explained I was drawing the tower, but it was a little difficult. Her tow-headed brother came over to check out the action and soon I had a little audience.
"You draw very well," she told me. I was flattered. When I finished, she took off running, jumping off the benches with her brother, whose name I discovered was Nico, because his grandparents kept calling for him to come back.
"She loves to draw," they told me about the little girl. "When she is at home, all she does is draw."
So I asked, "Could you draw me something?"
She smiled and agreed and began to draw the square of azulejos that were on the ground.
The tower is mine and her azulejos are on the right

When she was finished, her brother came over, pointed to the multitude of carriages parading around the Plaza and started to yell "There are a lot of horses! There are lot of horses!"
The girl turned me to me and explained, "My brother is crazy."
"I have a brother too," I said. "He's crazy as well."
I thanked her for the drawing and soon afterward her grandparents told the children that it was time to go. 
But before leaving, the adults gave me a quick lesson about the Plaza. The two towers that are attached to the end of the great U-shaped building are called (appropriately) the North and South tower. These towers were added later and were not included in the original design! It's funny because they have become such a presence in the Sevillan skyline. Additionally, when the Plaza was built, there was going to be much more of a structure, but they ran out of time and had to stop, leaving the building as it is now. And at the very end of the Plaza is a sculpture of the architect, Aníbal González, staring contentedly at a job well done. 
The family said goodbye and walked away, leaving me with a smile on my face. These little moments are what makes this whole experience special; these things you can't plan. 
I walked away from the Plaza, my skin warmed from the sunshine and my heart warmed from the innocent curiosity of child that brightened my day more than the weather. 


A bit of a creeper shot, but there they are!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Puerta Jerez

In quiet moments like these, we can eat ice cream and relax, and let the sun shine through.
One of my friends working in her sketchbook, outside in Puerta Jerez.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Survival Guide to Klepto Monkeys and Extreme Bus Catching

Gibraltar is a bizarre place. It is referred to as a "British Overseas Territory," because "colony" just doesn't the same ring to it. Gibraltar sits at the very tip of Europe, a lone English rock in the midst of the Spanish sea (and the Mediterranean sea).
To get to this Anglo-Saxon oasis you must take a bus first to Algeciras, a port city on the edge of Spain, and then take another bus to La Linea, the town adjacent to Gibraltar. After passing through immigration (where our passports were NOT stamped!) and crossing a live air field, we walked into the famous territory.
The city is composed of a hodgepog of quaint British architecture, practical concrete blocks, and ancient stone tunnels and walls. We were quickly disappointed at the lack of accent we heard from the people around us. Everyone was speaking in Spanish! Wasn't this supposed to be a part of Britain?
Our worries vanished, however, when we heard a woman yelling in a wonderful British accent at her English bulldog as she tried to drag him down the street, "Nelson! You're being lazy!" Hail Britannia!
We continued our march to the cable car station at the center of the city (wow, alliteration) and were assailed by a man who assured us that he worked for the tourist office. He explained to us that it cost 20 for a round trip ticket up the rock, and then another 14 to enter into the nature preserve when you got there. To combat these ridiculous prices and give us the best tour of Gibraltar, he offered a tour via mini-bus for just 25! It would take us through....and we stopped listening. We decided to us walk to the station and take a look at the prices for ourselves; good decision, because the ticket only cost 13!
We rode the rickety and somewhat terrifying cable car up the side of the rock of Gibraltar, watching the land fall out from beneath us and open up into an incredible vista of ports, blue mountains, and colorful rooftops.

When we reached the top, someone spotted an infamous Barbary macaque, a breed of monkey unique to only the rock of Gibraltar. It sat, nestled in the boughs of a tree, its beige fur waving majestically in the perpetual wind that buffets the top of the mountain. Even from a distance, I could see that it was pure evil.
The cable car erupted in excitement as everyone clamored to take a picture of the trip's first monkey.

But the eagerness was quelled when the cable car man paused before unlocking the doors.
"Be careful of the monkeys," he said wisely. "I'm not trying to scare you, but they're still wild. And dangerous." He didn't have to tell me twice.

Which brings me to the survival guide portion of today's post: Klepto Monkeys
Here are some nuggets of advice to assure that your trip to Gibraltar doesn't go horribly wrong!

  • Do NOT, under ANY circumstances, pull out food in front of the monkeys: They will literally attack you. It got to the point in the day when we hadn't eaten since breakfast, and one of my friends was about to pass out. So she whipped out a muffin from her bag to nibble on, and from across the street, the monkey's tactical food-vision sensors went off and before any of us knew what was happening, the monkey sprinted over to my friend, scaled up the side of her body and tried to grab the innocent pastry. Natalie, like a ninja, hurled that muffin into the convenient trash can nearby and the monkey leaped off her and onto the receptacle, screeching. She waited to eat until we had made it down the mountain.
  • Don't look like you have food: They will take your bag. When we stepped off the cable car, just moments after the fateful advice of the worker, we had to walk through a terrace that happened to hold three monkeys. Oh, how cute, one of the baby monkeys was gnawing on the rope from a flag pole...he's probably imagining its your finger. Anyway, there was a man in our lift group who was holding a large green bag with just a corner of another plastic bag showing from within. A monkey skittered across the terrace and leaped into the air at the bag. The man remained impressively calm, and simply moved the bag out of the monkey's trajectory and walked away. The rest of us, on the other hand, stumbled up the stairs to escape the primate.
  • Don't stare at them for too long: These monkeys are celebrities with high-pressure schedules. The looks and the paparazzi occasionally get to them--sometimes they just want to go the grocery store without wearing makeup, alright! When you stare curiously at them, they stare right back, a challenge in their eyes. Shannon vs. Monkey...that's not even a fair fight. 
  • Don't take your children to the Rock of Gibraltar: You will scar them for life. A family in front of us had paused to look at a baby monkey running around in the trees. Its two parents were on the asphalt, snacking on peanuts from the ground. A little girl reached out her arm to the baby monkey in the trees, and the mother monkey suddenly seized the bottom of the little girl's jacket and yanked it. The little girl burst into tears and her father moved like he was about to kick the monkey, but a man behind him yelled at him to stop. If he kicked the monkey, they could throw him in jail. All the father could do was hoist up his terrified child and quickly walk away from the victorious monkey parents. 
  • Exercise extreme vigilance with your passport and credit cards: The monkeys will steal your identity and then go on bank-robbing expeditions and/or wild shopping sprees in Northern Africa and the French Riviera. 

Monkeys aside, the view from the top of the rock is breath-taking. It feels like you can see everything--La Linea, Algeciras, Morocco, La Costa del Sol, the rolling mountains of southern Spain. It makes me think, how must the people have felt, when they first found this towering landform and then reached its summit? Like a ruler of the world.

Me and the Med

The Mediterranean sea rolls out to the east of the peninsula, like a lapis lazuli blanket dotted with cargo ships and sailboats. If you look straight down the harrowing cliff at the beach, you can see even more colors in the water as the sea bed grows shallower. I feel as if I can just stand here for hours, taking in the glorious sight around me. Seagulls float on the strong drafts of wind that sail up the side of the rock, merely shifting their wings to take off into another direction. This is my favorite thing from Gibraltar--the birds. In this moment, I wish I could be a bird, and fly on the salty breezes without a care in the world. 

Instead of taking the cable car all the way down, we spot a precarious set of stone stairs that almost vertically descend the mountain. Who needs transportation? It turned out to be a great idea...the view was amazing and it was good exercise; that is, until, our calves started to ache from the 86 degree slope. We caught the lift at the mid-way station, where we had to wait for five minutes on a petrifying platform that stuck straight off the side of the mountain.

When we made it back down to the town, it was time to catch the early bus back to Sevilla, which brings me to my next advice section: Extreme Bus Catching
Remember when I told you we had to catch 2 busses to make it back home? This is how to catch a bus...the XTREME WAY! 
  • EYE OF THE TIGER: The only thing you need to remember. It was 5:30 and we were at least 20 minutes away from the bus station where we would catch a 40 minute bus back to Algeciras, where our final bus left at 7. It was go time. We hauled across the Gibraltarian border and sprinted to the bus station, only to find that we had another 15 minutes...which meant that now it was 6:15, and we only had 45 minutes for the ride back. It was all good; spirits were high, thoughts optimistic. We got on the bus...and so did everyone else in La Linea. We stopped at every stop on the bus route. Seriously, I think it was every single one. The minute hand on my watch edged slowly closer and closer to the fateful hour of departure. We had all nearly resigned ourselves to missing the bus and getting ice cream, when I decided that hope was not lost. All we needed to do was remember: eye of the tiger. My optimism appeared to be prophetic, because we pulled into the station two minutes late and our bus was still there! We leaped out of our seats and tore over to the bus, and found out that we had to run to the ticket office to get our seats confirmed (whatever that means) and then come back. But we did it, and made it successfully onto the bus. It was extreme. 


Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Every day at 4:30, my host mom watches a telenovela called "Herederos," which means "Heirs." It's about a family who spends half of their time working with bullfighting and the other half sleeping with each other. It's insane...the wife of one of the men (who is also sister's with the matriarch of the whole clan), is having an affair with her sister's husband. Meanwhile, one of her sister's daughters is in love with her psychiatrist and the other one is in love with a bi-sexual bullfighter. Confused yet? 
And don't even get me started on "Amores Verdaderos." At least "Herederos" is well-acted and well-filmed. "Amores Verdaderos" looks like a community theater troupe found a semi-professional camera and an encyclopedia of clichés decided that it would be a good idea to make a television show. It focuses on a rich family, whose members are protected by two principal body guards (In Spanish, they're called "guardaespaldas," which literally translates into "back guards," which delights me to no end). The younger, incredibly handsome bodyguard is in love (surprise, surprise) with the gorgeous and spoiled daughter. But the daughter has a boyfriend, who is pursing the daughter of the other bodyguard. Said other bodyguard is also in love--with the mother of family that he guards. Meanwhile her husband is--the expression in Spanish is "se pone cuernos", which means "to put on horns" (get it, like the devil?!)--sleeping around with his predatory secretary who wears skin-tight dresses and five inch heels! 

Alright. Let's just take a moment to catch our breath...
...we're back!

So the wife of the married bodyguard finds out that her father wasn't really her father all along, and then has a long sequence of crying and yelling and stumbling against trees in a park while a confused inner monologue laments her situation. But the crowning achievement of the show happened when the mother of the rich family found out that her beloved bodyguard had left, leaving her a loving note. She sits down to read the note and then gently sets it down and the "love theme" begins to swell and for the next five minutes--I wish I was exaggerating--the camera zooms in and out on her quivering lips until she finally bursts out in a fit of overdramatic tears. 

Needless to say, I was in hysterics. 

At this point, you may be wondering...what is the point of all of this? The point, my friends, is that I had a very intriguing realization the other day. At the university, I'm taking a contemporary history of Spain class. Before coming to Spain, my knowledge of its history was as follows:

   The Inquisition happened. At some point.
   Ferdinand and Isabel got married, and there was much rejoicing. 
   Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada.
   Muslim kingdoms occupied Spain. Yeah. 
My professor's name is Francisco (feel free to repeat like Elf...we all do) and he has an awesome mustache, and after a couple weeks of class, I realized....

Spain history is like a telenovela.

It really is. And I'm completely hooked! Drama! Intrigue! Betrayal! It's all there! 
Two examples: 
Back in the day of the great Spanish monarchs, there was a king (Carlos IV) and a queen (María Luísa de Parma) and their minister (Manuel Godoy). It was rumored that María and Manuel had a little thing goin' on, but no one really knows for sure. During this time, Napoleon was raging through Europe, and hadn't yet obtained Spain. But more importantly, France was interested in occupying Portugal, Britain's only access to the New World. So France was like, "Hey Godoy, if you let us pass through Spain, we'll give you the bottom of half of Portugal." Godoy, who was little power hungry, was all, "Let's go!" So they arranged to call the king and queen to France, and when they got there, the French imprisoned them! Meanwhile, the French marched through Spain and decided, what the hell, let’s stay in Spain too. Obviously, more happened, but you’re going to have to look that up! Yay Wikipedia!
The other story deals with the son of Carlos IV, Fernando VII, the most “torpe” of all Spanish kings. At this point, Spain was running low on money and resources, but its colonies were fighting for their freedom in the America. Fernando ordered his armies to defend the territories, but one complete bad-ass, Rafael Riego, knew that sailing to the New World would be suicide. So instead of obeying his king, he said, “I don’t think so.” But wait…there’s more! Riego was just a powerful general in the navy—that’s it—but he had the support of the whole army. Riego told Fernando that he wasn’t going to defend the colonies, because Spain couldn’t afford to keep them anyway, and ordered the king to reinstate the old constitution of 1812! Fernando complied with Riego, because he literally had an army—his army (awkward)—and for three years Spain operated beneath the constitution and new ideals of liberalism.

Then class ended. I begged my teacher, “¿Qué pasó con Riego?” (What happened with Riego?!)
Francisco, of the cool mustache, told me that we’d have to wait until Wednesday.

In conclusion, I am a gigantic nerd. I regret nothing.