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I'm Kirstie, and this is my blog chronicling my adventures as I spend my junior year of college abroad in Madrid, Spain at Universidad Complutense. Enjoy!

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Things I’ll Miss About Madrid
June 28th, 2010 at 10:45pm

I’m sure I’ll think of a million more items to add to this list, but, for now, some of the things I’ll miss most about this place:

  • Feelings triumphant when I speak Spanish well
  • Traveling almost every weekend for ridiculously cheap prices
  • Cobblestone streets
  • Botellones (and in general being able to hang out in parks all night without the police assuming you’re doing something illegal)
  • Awesome public transportation and the best metro I’ve ever seen
  • 100 Montaditos and its €1 Wednesdays
  • Kebab restaurants on every corner
  • Tortilla española
  • Taking a bajillion photos
  • Meals that last hours because people sit and relax and socialize
  • The general laid-back atmosphere
  • My EAP friends
  • Churros con chocolate

Churros con chocolate

  • Giving dos besos when greeting people
  • Chinos (the stores, not the people)
  • Toques, even if regular phone calls are way more convenient
  • Using the word “vale” about every other word
  • Lots and lots of fabulous parks
  • Streets being packed even at 4am
  • Warm summer nights
  • El Rastro
  • People being really passionate about fútbol
  • Being a short walk away from my friends’ pisos
  • Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

  • Having only 12 hours of class a week and virtually no other responsibilities
  • Frequently being called “guapa” by old ladies and creepy men
  • Sangría as an alcohol alternative for lightweights
  • Engrish shirts like Blanco’s “I’m in subconsciusly coastline”
  • Cheap crema al cacao (store-brand Nutella)
  • Being able to walk everywhere important
  • Sol
  • Strangers sounding less stupid because of the language barrier
  • Everything being much later, like dinner at 10pm and being able to go to sleep late and sleep in
  • Old people who are active and always out and about
  • Jaywalking
  • Being neighbors with the Royal Palace
  • Colloquial terms like “joder,” “hombre,” and “coño”
  • The street signs, each with their own individual artwork

A street sign. They may make it difficult to navigate the city, but they’re so cute!

  • Being able to act awkward/stupid/whatever with the excuse that it’s just because I’m foreign
  • Constantly meeting new people from all over the world
  • Planning trips
  • Tapas, especially the free ones they serve with drinks
  • Flamenco music (even if it’s not as common in Madrid as it is in Andalucía)
  • Always feeling pretty safe at any time of day
  • The majority of buildings, even unimportant apartment buildings, looking like architectural masterpieces
  • Walking anywhere and seeing cute restaurant after cute restaurant, unique store after unique store, instead of long stretches of houses or office buildings like we have in the U.S
  • Knowing that this is the best time of my life

The Final Days
June 28th, 2010 at 2:52am

I’m so unbelievably close to the end of Spain, and I can’t really wrap my mind around that fact. Maybe it’s because I spent two weeks in California for Christmas and then came back, but I feel like I’m again just going on a short trip home before returning to Madrid for another extended period of time. It hasn’t hit me that I’m truly leaving, but perhaps that’s for the better so I don’t spend my last few days wallowing in despair over leaving this amazing place.

I really wish I were a talented enough writer to successfully convey my love for this place. When I first arrived in Madrid in 2006, I wrote in my journal that I felt that I was happy and floaty and in love while walking around the city, and I still feel that almost every day.

Yes, I am looking forward to going back to California, and I’m extremely lucky to have such a great place and wonderful friends and family to return to, but, at the moment, it’s hard to get very excited when I’m living in this dream world. It definitely helps knowing that I can come back in a little over a year if I choose to do the Spanish Ministry of Education’s Cultural Ambassador Program.

Madrid has been even better than ever these past few weeks. The cold has finally gone away (though we’re still getting a lot of rain), I survived finals, which weren’t bad, I’ve been doing some more traveling, my mom and sister came to visit this week, and I’ve been having a lot of good times with friends.

The World Cup has been really fun to watch in a country that’s so passionate about fútbol, though, unfortunately, I’ve had to miss Spain’s three games so far due to an exam, traveling, and a wedding reception. But they play Portugal in the round of 16 on Tuesday night, so I’m super excited to go to a bar to watch that.

If I don’t write again before I leave, see you in California!

Sevilla’s Feria de Abril
June 14th, 2010 at 7:00pm

I said a few posts ago that one of the reasons I wanted to be in Spain in the spring was Semana Santa. Another was Sevilla’s Feria de Abril, the city’s major spring fair and one of the biggest festivals in Spain. Plans for the trip kind of came together at the last minute, but on the Saturday of the week-long festival, I met my EAP friend Robin, my Spanish conversation exchange friend Francisco, and his Spanish friends José and Almudena in Sevilla.

We started by walking through the Barrio Santa Cruz and visiting the Plaza de España, which I’ve mentioned visiting in my previous trips to Sevilla, and then we returned to our hotel to rest before heading out to Feria.

Robin, Francisco, José, and Almudena in Plaza de España.

Feria was amazing. Sevilla’s fairgrounds are lined with casetas, tents run by individual families and organizations where people eat tapas, drink drinks (especially manzanilla wine), hang out, and dance Sevillanas, a flamenco-style dance. Most of the casetas are private, open only to people who know the families, but a few are public, and you can always listen to the music and watch the dancing from outside the tent.

It’s a bit dark, but Robin, Francisco, and me at the entrance to Feria.

A caseta.

Row of casetas.

There’s also a section that looks like a typical American carnival, with rides, cotton candy, games, etc., although I’m fairly certain these rides would result in a million lawsuits if they existed in the U.S. Things are so different when a country isn’t as litigious as the United States.

Ridiculously dangerous carnival ride.

We walked around the carnival side for a bit and then returned to the casetas, where we stopped in one and drank some manzanilla while listening to flamenco music (I love love love flamenco music). We then left the tent, walked around some more, and tried to dance Sevillanas. Though I clearly have no future as a flamenco dancer, it was fun trying to make up flamenco dancing.

Robin and Francisco dancing Sevillanas.

Spain really does throw the best parties and festivals, and Feria was a perfect example of this. I loved that tons of people, from infants to people in their 80s, were out past 3am, enjoying the music, the warm night and the festive atmosphere. And it was especially great getting to experience this very Spanish tradition with true Spaniards. I really can’t describe just how great Feria was, but I really, really loved it, and if you ever have the opportunity to see Sevilla’s Feria, go.

Robin and I had taken buses to Sevilla to meet up with the others, but we drove back in their car, because they were amazingly generous, letting us stay in their hotel, making us dinner, and driving us back to Madrid. Before leaving Sevilla, we stopped by the Real Betis soccer stadium. On the way home, Robin and I thought the others were joking about making a detour to Córdoba, but the next thing we knew, there we were in Córdoba, so we spent a few hours exploring the city. The drive was super fun, singing along to music, demonstrating American/English accents for our Spanish friends, and generally enjoying each other’s company. We dropped Almudena off in her small town in the outskirts of Madrid, which was adorable, and the surrounding countryside was gorgeous.

Countryside near Madrid.

Though it was a short trip, it was one of my favorites of the year. I love Sevilla, I love Andalucía, and I love Feria. See the rest of my photos here.

June 3rd, 2010 at 7:14pm

Look at me, finally getting all caught up on this blog! I hope you aren’t suffering from Kirstie overload, because I’m back to write about my trip to Amsterdam in April.

The trip started off a bit rocky: we spent the night at the airport (to avoid paying for a taxi since the metro wasn’t open early enough for our flight), which left us all exhausted because it’s not exactly easy to sleep on cold tile floors in noisy public places, Ariel had problems getting to the airport the night before and ended up lost in the middle of nowhere until he finally stumbled upon the airport a few hours later, the next day Ariel realized he had left his passport at home, so he had to catch a later flight, and I was dealing with some personal drama. So when Connie and I arrived in Amsterdam, I was initially in a horrible mood, but we found an American/British store down the street from our hostel where they sold Cherry Coke, my favorite drink, and my mood did a complete 180 as soon as I drank it. And I later found out that Cherry Coke, which isn’t sold in Spain or most European countries I’ve visited, is sold throughout the Netherlands! Most people in Amsterdam have marijuana; I have Cherry Coke. I think there must be drugs in it, because it made me insanely happy. Or maybe I’m just crazy.

Anyway, our plans got changed around a bit because Ariel wouldn’t be arriving until the next day, but Connie and I started by taking a train to the nearby town Haarlem. There wasn’t a lot to see, especially because it was Sunday so everything was closed, but it was very cute, and we got to see a windmill. Connie went from there to some big flower garden in another city and I returned to Amsterdam where I napped for a short time (thank goodness) and then visited the Anne Frank house because Ariel and I had bought tickets for that day ahead of time. Seeing the house was incredibly powerful, moving, and thought-provoking (and I was in just the mood for something powerful, moving, and thought-provoking). Being in the house makes her story seem all the more real, and it’s horrifying that innocent 15-year-old girls like her were victims of such tragedy. I mean, that’s kind of a “duh” thing to say, but, like I said, it’s all the more real when you actually see her house. I really love this quote by her:

It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.

Windmill in Haarlem.

On the way back from the Anne Frank house, I had a conversation with some random, sort of crazy but really nice, Dutch guy who stopped me and talked to me about life in Amsterdam. I know you’re always told as a kid to not talk to strangers, but one of my favorite things in Europe is the crazy conversations you have with strangers on the street. That’s kind of fun anywhere, but it’s especially great when you get to talk to people from foreign countries and learn about their country and culture (and sometimes practice languages, too, like the time I had a conversation with a crazy, drunk Italian guy in Madrid).

Our first night in Amsterdam.

The next day, Ariel arrived, and the three of us walked around Amsterdam together, seeing things like the flower market, the Sex Museum (a bit too much for Connie and I to handle), Cannabis College (a tiny museum-like place with scientific information about marijuana), and the Red Light District (by day, it’s a lot tamer, of course).

A flower market.

Clothes made of hemp at Cannabis College.

The following day, Ariel and Connie took a train to The Hague to see the painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, but since that didn’t interest me, I stayed behind and had a relaxing day, visiting a few cute shops I had seen on the way to the Anne Frank house and walking through a really nice park called Vondelpark. I also experienced Febo, a chain of, well, I guess you could call them restaurants, where you put money into a slot and get meals out of a machine. Definitely an experience.

Febo. Oh, Dutch people, you’re so crazy.

Connie and Ariel returned from The Hague, and Connie rented a bike for about an hour before having to catch her flight back to Madrid, and then Ariel and I revisited the Red Light District by night. It’s fascinating, because prostitution is legal, so prostitutes rent out booths (that literally have red lights). Most prostitutes I’ve seen elsewhere are kind of creepy, ugly, and trashy, but prostitutes in Amsterdam are surprisingly attractive. Maybe because there’s more competition because it’s legal? Who knows. But it’s definitely interesting to visit a place where there’s a lot less stigma surrounding sex and drugs. People think of Amsterdam as some crazy, sinful city, but, in my opinion, it’s to the contrary. There are still lots of tourists looking for Vegas-like wild times, but making marijuana and prostitution legal seems to lead to a healthier attitude about the two. It’s like how some teenagers like to drink just because it makes them feel cool and rebellious, and once they hit 21, they calm down because it’s no longer exciting and dangerous. I’m a very tame person, but Amsterdam, to me, seemed lovely and tranquil, not crazy and sinful.

The Red Light District is surprisingly pretty.

Anyway, the next day, our last day in Amsterdam, Ariel and I rented bikes, the true way to see Amsterdam since that’s how most locals get around, and we rode around the town and through parks. We stopped for lunch at the Pancake Bakery because pancakes are a specialty of Amsterdam (or maybe all of Holland? I don’t know), though their pancakes are more like crepes that can come with meats, vegetables, etc. They were huge and delicious. We continued biking for a few more hours, which was really nice, I had my last Cherry Coke of the trip, and then we returned to Madrid.

Delicious pancake.

Riding a bike through Vondelpark.

I really liked Amsterdam. I loved that English is spoken everywhere (it’s nice to have a break from constantly having to speak a foreign language), it’s a small town that’s easy to get around on foot or bike, I saw more cute guys in my four days there than I have in my life, everything’s very laid-back (and I don’t mean because of all the marijuana), and people seem really friendly. Most of my trips are short, so we spend a day in each city and rush from sight to sight, and I actually like this form of travel because it keeps things interesting and forces you to take advantage of all the time you have, but we were in one small city for four days on this trip, which meant we had a lot of downtime to leisurely explore the city and get to know it. Ariel and I both commented on the end of the trip that it almost felt like the place had become our home because we knew the area around our hostel so well. Amsterdam was one of my favorite trips of the year (which is saying a lot), and I’d love to go back again. See the rest of my photos here.

Italy Round Two
June 2nd, 2010 at 4:41pm

I have my first final exam of the semester in about two and a half hours, but I’m feeling pretty well prepared for it, so I’m allowing myself a break from studying to write about my trip to Italy in April.

I made my first trip to Italy in November, visiting Cinque Terre, Lake Como, and Milan, and I absolutely loved it and wanted to go back to see some of the better-known cities I hadn’t yet visited, so Connie and I made use of our second half of spring break to travel to Bologna, Florence, and Venice.

Our plan was to take a train to Florence as soon as we arrived in Bologna, but, it being Easter weekend, the train we were planning to catch was full, and the man at the ticket window told us there were no open trains to Florence that day. We panicked momentarily, as this would be a problem with hostel reservations and other train plans, but, using the automated ticket machine, we found that the man was wrong, and we were able to book tickets to Florence later in the day, which were a little more expensive, but at least our plans were still on track.

That gave us some time to explore Bologna, which we were originally going to do the last day of our trip. We started with pizza, as authentic Italian pizza is to-die-for, even from cheap counter-service restaurants, and then walked around the main part of town, seeing some shops, old, fancy buildings (Europe is good at old, fancy buildings), a book fair, and the park. The weather was overcast, Bologna’s a little dull, and we were tired, so I wasn’t thrilled to be there, but the trip improved from there.


After arriving in Florence, our route to our hostel took us by the Piazza del Duomo, which contains Florence’s giant cathedral (very cool) and across the River Arno. Unfortunately, the city was flooded with tourists, which made hauling luggage rather frustrating, and it was a big relief to finally make it to the hostel. We went back out to check out some of Florence’s other main landmarks on foot. The day was dreary, so I wasn’t enchanted by Florence, but, once the sun set, the city was gorgeous.

Florence’s cathedral.

The River Arno.

The next day was Easter, and Florence is big on its Easter celebrations. We ran across a small procession of traditionally-clad marchers and then watched a flag-throwing performance. Then we headed over to the Piazza del Duomo to await Florence’s major Easter festivity, il Scoppio del Carro (”Explosion of the Cart”). We arrived about an hour and a half before it began, but we were glad we did, because we were in the second row of people, and by the time it started, there were thousands of people behind us. A cart filled with fireworks and explosives is brought into the plaza and then set off, each explosive setting off another in a chain reaction. Lots of loud noises and smoke, like Valencia’s mascletà but better. Il Scoppio del Carro was surprisingly really, really cool, and I loved getting to witness such an important Florence tradition.

Flag-throwing ceremony.

Il Scoppio del Carro.

Our next stop was Venice where we spent the afternoon and evening touring the city’s countless canals and bridges, eating more pizza and gelato (of course!), and eating shops with handcrafted glass and Carnevale masks. I also bought the original Italian-language version of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, yay.

The next day consisted of more touring the canals and small streets of Venice as well as checking out some of the more populated areas like the Ponte di Rialto and the Piazza San Marco. One of the highlights of the day was an adorable used books shop that calls itself the most beautiful bookstore in the world. A bit of an exaggeration, but it was cool. We ended the day by taking a ferry to Murano, an island just across the water from Venice that’s known for its glassblowing. By the time we arrived, most of the glassblowing shops were closed, but we got to look in the windows. The sun finally emerged from the clouds for the first time this trip, and the island was very quiet and lovely. We concluded the evening with another round of pizza and gelato.

Venice! Gondola rides cost about 80 euros, or so we hear, so we were content just watching from above.

Carnevale crafts.

The following morning, we took a train to Bologna, but we realized that we could get off at Padua and get back on the train for no extra cost, so we made a detour to the city that’s probably most known for being the setting of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. It’s a small town with not a lot to see, but we enjoyed exploring it for a few hours before continuing to Bologna.

In Bologna, we visited the Università di Bologna, the world’s oldest university still in operation and the alma mater of such people as Dante Alighieri and Copernicus, and where one of my favorite authors, who I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, Umberto Eco, currently works. We spent some time in a book store, ate more pizza, re-visited the city’s main plaza by night, and then flew back to Madrid the next morning.

L’università di Bologna.

I think I preferred my November trip to Italy to this one, mostly because I fell in love with the tiny towns of Cinque Terre, but this was great as well. It confirmed my desire to continue studying Italian so I return to the country one day with a better grasp on the language, and also confirmed my assertion that Italian food is ridiculously delicious. Though I didn’t get to visit Rome or the south of Italy this year, I’m really happy I got two fantastic trips there. See the rest of my photos from the trip here.