Right now I'm off to spend fall 2011 in Amman, Jordan, and then spring 2012 in Madrid, Spain, far away from picturesque Georgetown University on the hilltop and even farther from my hometown in sunny southern California to spend my junior year abroad! I'll be sharing photos (tons, since I'm lugging three cameras over there), tales (hopefully I'll end up with some funny/fun ones), and cultural observations (we all want to know if burkinis really do exist!) from my adventures to come.

"Adventure is out there!"

This morning I found some perfume that I haven’t used since being in Spain. When I sprayed it on my wrists, I immediately was transported back to my tiny room in my host family’s Madrid apartment. Cliché, but true. A couple weeks ago I went into a salon to get my eyebrows waxed (TMI? …whatevs) and the eyebrow lady had an Arabic accent. I asked her where she was from, and she told me she was Palestinian, from Ramallah, and we proceeded to chat in a mixture of Arabic and English for the next 15 minutes. These moments make me ache for those places I grew to know so well.

A lot of people talk about how their lives were drastically altered from studying or living abroad—their eyes were opened to new cultures and new personality traits they didn’t know they had. I can relate to that, but I don’t think my life was OMG-now-I-wanna-do-Peace-Corps changed. If anything, it was validated. I’ve always been interested in living and working abroad (that’s why I decided to go to the university I go to) and living in the Middle East and Europe further ingrained those interests. I now know I could and would live and work in an Arab country, but not for more than a few years at most. I would happily live and work in Spain, but in my dream world I would be U.S.-based with a vacation home there (based on the assumption that I marry a millionaire…). I now know that though I love change and adventure, I also appreciate routine. Since being back in the U.S, I’ve joined the Crossfit cult and religiously do a “workout of the day” daily. I make myself dinner and bring the leftovers for lunch, close to every day. I’ll always love spontaneity (random trip to Latin America, anyone? I wanna go!), but it’s been nice to get back into a “healthy” routine since experiencing the utter chaos of life abroad.

I’ve reflected SO MUCH over this past year via this blog and also a sketchbook/art journal (obsessed with creative outlets much?) about what I’ve learned and done and blah blah blah, but you know what? I’m so glad I did. I’ve reread my blog posts and looked through my photos from my experiences in Jordan, Spain, and all those other awesome countries I visited and I’ve been instantly transported back there while sitting in my cubicle waiting for new assignments at work. So, I’ve come to realize that I don’t want to just stop writing and posting photos here just because my “year abroad” is over. I’m going to travel again, whether throughout the U.S. or internationally, and I like having a reason to bring out my big DSLR and lenses and document things. Sue me, I like having tangible memories. That way when I’m 40 years old I can show my kids the awesome places I went during my junior year of college.

For anyone who’s followed along on my journeys via this blog (aka my immediate family), thanks for reading and commenting and appreciating my tales and photos and excessive documentation of my adventures. I have big plans for there to be many more to come.   

— 2 years ago with 1 note

Hasta luego, Madrid. But really…

So my year abroad is officially over. It’s back to the reality of a 9 to 5 internship in DC, the reality of Starbucks on every street corner, kegs instead of Sangria pitchers, Caesar salads instead of falafel, and Segways instead of scooters. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I’ve been back in the US for over two weeks. Two whole weeks!! I know, I should have written this “reflection” post sooner, but I think part of me was in denial about leaving Spain and finishing my year abroad. So to prolong the inevitable end of an incredible year full of unforgettable experiences, I’m going to wait even longer to look back on my year abroad in its entirety, so I’ll be splitting that into another post. Yeah, mainly I just like writing novels and I’m sort of lazy. 

Spain. What can I say? It’s quite a country. It pretty much has everything I could ever want, like good wine, delicious meats, and even my celeb-couple-crush Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. I’ve always felt a connection to Spain, probably because of my family’s ancestry there, which was strengthened by exploring Spain in high school. I could wax poetic about its diverse geography and culture—the Catalan and Basque identities in the north and the permeating Arab influence in the south. Really though, it all comes down to the fact that Spain is all about enjoying life. Siesta and fiesta, constantly. Family, friends, acquaintances—all are brought together with the help of tapas and free-flowing wine and beer. You don’t say good-bye when leaving someone, but always “hasta luego,” regardless of whether or not you actually will see them later. 

Even though my final week in Spain was full of final exams and last-minute errands, I still managed to fit in some typically madrileño activities. I met friends for tapas and cañas con limón, stopped at Zara for some last-minute shopping, and spent a beautiful afternoon in Parque del Retiro. The night before I left for DC, after taking my last exam that afternoon and packing for my flight the next morning, I stayed out with friends until 5 am, savoring my final moments out in Madrid, a city that truly never sleeps. It’s crazy to me that before studying there, I thought I didn’t like Madrid. Little did I know that it is one of the most alive, vibrant cities in the world, an internationally-minded metropolis with a purely Spanish heart.  I discovered Chueca, the hip yet quaint “gayborhood” full of funky cafes, ethnic restaurants, and posh boutiques; Malasaña, the hipster mecca with alternative bars and plazas of botellon-ing college kids; La Latina, where El Rastro spreads its treasure-filled stalls on Sunday afternoons. My own neighborhood, right next to Ventas, home of Madrid’s Plaza de los Toros, was a haven for working upper middle class families and little old ladies walking their miniature dogs. 

I think the one word I would use to describe Madrid as a whole is “fun.” I know, pretty simple, but it’s the truth. I. Had. So. Much. Fun. At all times. Going out with friends, grabbing a drink, going on a walk, stopping into a store—it was all across the board enjoyable. I found myself having a bit too much fun at times, going out at night too much and fighting too many hangovers and feelings of unproductivity. If my experience in Spain taught me anything, it’s that sometimes situations that are too easy are the hardest. My life had very little structure at the beginning, no parameters but the hour at which I was planning to meet my friends for a copa. Soon enough, despite the fun I was having, I didn’t feel fulfilled. So I adapted. I started taking an extra Arabic class at Casa Árabe and teaching English to three Spanish eight-year-olds. I still slept in too often and indulged in many the Mahou and relished my nights out with friends, but my life felt more balanced. My friends in the program were incredible, and I know that I’ll stay close with some of them well beyond our semester abroad together. 

I can’t talk about my semester in Spain without mentioning my wonderful host family. I spent dinners chatting with them, soaking in their kindness, discussing current events with my host sister Ana and laughing to TV shows with my host dad Miguel. My host mother, Elena, was quite possibly the most perfect host mom in the universe. Nothing fazed her, and her easygoing attitude kept me at ease always. They were emblematic of the new type of Spaniard—people at once in touch with everything current and modern but grounded in traditional Spanish values. 

It’s funny to reflect on this past semester because it really doesn’t feel like it’s over. Spain isn’t a closed door for me. I know I’ll return many times in the future, and I know I’ll have similarly incredible experiences there, whether it be siesta-ing or fiesta-ing or just strolling through Madrid on a beautiful afternoon. 

— 2 years ago

a Madrid Phenomenon: las corridas de toros

I have never felt more foreign in Spain than at a bullfight. I got used to feeling like an out-of-towner in Jordan, but Spain is western Europe. It’s got normal toilets and people watch CSI:Miami and wear mini skirts. At least once a week I’ve been mistaken for a Spaniard (or at least someone who looks like they live here), and all around I feel mighty comfortable in Madrid (though I do miss entree salads with grilled chicken and arugula—enough with the jamón!) Heck I’m even a fourth Spanish! I have relatives, albeit distant ones, throughout Spain, some of whom I’ve actually met.

But sitting in the nosebleed section of the cement bleachers of Plaza de los Toros, watching a slender man in a glittery coat hold a red cape and a sword as a bull came charging towards him, I felt decidedly un-Spanish. Frankly, I found it a very bizarre experience. I’ve been on an Ernest Hemingway kick lately, which all began after reading The Sun Also Rises. It’s set in Spain, mainly in Pamplona (home of the famous Running of the Bulls), and bullfighting is the backdrop for the American narrator’s time there and the drama amongst his group of foreign friends. Hemingway (through Jake, the narrator) talks about afición in bullfighting, which few have but is something to be admired and respected. That deep knowledge and understanding of a cultural pasttime that to Spaniards is not a sport, but an art. 

So naturally, what with my new Hemingway obsession, I had romanticized bullfighting a bit. He points out the gruesome parts, but focuses more on the grace of the bullfighter and the reactions of the fans to different toros and toreros. The problem is, real life isn’t so pretty. Shocker, I know. When you’re sitting there watching a little man stab a bull, and then you see men on horseback dragging the dead bull around the bullring, which then elicits roars of applause from the crowd, you get a little freaked out and tend to focus on the bad parts. I even found myself sort of rooting for the bull, hoping that he would give the bullfighter a bit of his own medicine. Oddly enough, it wasn’t even the killing of the bull that bothered me, it was the selfishness of showing off a helpless dead animal to earn praise. Not cool, Spain, not cool.

Now beyond the gruesomeness of the bull dying and getting presented as a trophy, I actually enjoyed the bullfight. It truly is quite the spectacle. It’s an event if I’ve ever seen one, with spectators munching on sunflower seeds and drinking wine from old-fashioned bladders. Hundreds of fluttering fans attempting to cool off overheated patrons create a wave of motion throughout the crowd. The bulls are regal, and you get the sense that it really is an honor for them to die this way. As my host family told me (my host dad is a bit of an aficionado), these bulls are only alive to enter the bullring, and beforehand, they live long and happy lives. 

I won’t say I love bullfighting now, but I do appreciate it for what it is, even with its disturbing parts. I live mere blocks from Plaza de los Toros (the most famous and most important bullring in Spain), and every night until the beginning of June there is a bullfight. Throngs of people, young and old, mainly Spaniards with a smattering of tourists, fill the streets before heading into watch the toreros. It’s Spanish culture at its most extreme, and even though I didn’t entirely feel like I was living inside a Hemingway novel, it was pretty darn close. 

— 2 years ago

third time’s a charm

Two weekends ago, I went to Paris for the third time over the past year. My life sucks, right? My sister has been staying in Paris on a grant from her university to do research for her senior thesis. They’re paying for her adorable little loft apartment right in the heart of the Marais. Her life reallyyyy sucks. Anyways, she’s my twin sis, so obviously I had to jet off to Paris to see her for a weekend, which because of yet another holiday in Spain, turned into a five day trip. Win.

We did our usually favorite things, which include cooking together, drinking cappucinos at adorable cafes, meandering through funky neighborhoods that neither of us had been to, clothes shopping, exploring antique print shops, watching period piece movies, taking artsy photos, and doing some fine dining. Some highlights included a trip to the European Museum of Photography, where there was a perfect mix of fine art photography and photojournalism on display, and spending the day exploring an adorable neighborhood in Montmartre.

My favorite day, though, was our trip to Giverny. Can you say MAGICAL? And idyllic. And quaint and lovely and quintessentially French. On the most perfectly crisp yet sunny day (with not a cloud in the sky), we took the train out to Vernon, where we rented bikes and rode along a trail parallel to the Seine to Giverny. Sadly upon our arrival to Vernon, I realized my camera was dead, so I only have photos from my small Lomography film camera, which have a kind of dreamy/funky quality (I will say though, it was freeing to not be obsessing over my photos and just snap away!). 

Giverny is only an hour from Paris, and it’s a different world! No wonder Monet came here to paint, it really is that magical. We found a nice restaurant where we lunched outdoors, leisurely taking in the view of French country homes and the fields surrounding them. Heavenly. Then we headed to Monet’s garden. Unfortunately, it was a popular day to be in Giverny and tourists were aplenty, but that didn’t take away from the beauty of the gardens and the surreal-ness of seeing Monet’s lilypads and that wonderful bridge in person. After being awed by the gardens, we stopped for homemade ice cream from a stand, and took our cones to the gardens of the Impressionist Museum, where we plopped down in a field of long grasses and little white flowers to take an afternoon reprieve. Let’s just say it was a little bit picturesque, what with the French children running through the fields as their parents picnicked. As the sun started to go down, we hopped back on our bikes and rode the beautiful path back to Vernon, past the quaint cottages and the statuesque church with a backdrop of green hillsides. Despite Elena’s multiple near-catastrophes on her bike, we both survived, and ended the afternoon with a quick drink at an outdoor cafe before boarding the train for Paris. 

The rest of the trip was a whirlwind of fun. Elena’s American friend was staying with us (to see her French boyfriend), so the three of us had fun shopping and walking around Paris. One night I made sure that Elena and I got the fabled Marais falafel for dinner (being that after my time in Jordan, I am a falafel connoisseur), and it didn’t disappoint. Honestly, I didn’t want to leave Paris at all. AT ALL. I think this trip really cemented for me what Elena has been telling me all along—that it is truly a city full of never-ending treasures. I love Madrid, but the reality is, it will never, ever have that same magic as the City of Light. 

— 2 years ago

traversing the Amalfi Coast

A two-and-a-half hour commuter train from Rome to Naples. Easy, right? Kinda. Then a metro-style train ride from Naples to Sorrento. Even easier, right? NO. NO NO NO. While waiting for the Circumvesuviana train, a gypsy woman approached us begging for money, but what I didn’t immediately notice was that her boob was out and a baby was sucking on it. Yeah, she’s definitely got the shock factor down. Then on the train a gypsy woman opened Margo’s zipped tote bag and attempted to rob her. Luckily to no avail. And soon after we witnessed a fight between gypsies. And also saw the ugliest person either of us has ever seen in our lives (not trying to be mean, it’s just a sad fact…she had a beard). We ultimately stood for an hour, in wall-to-wall people (including a massive group of Asian tourists), to get to Sorrento. Oh, and then we got there and quickly realized we weren’t  where we need to be, and had to take a 20-euro cab to the hostel. So what did we do? Slept the rest of the day. Obvi. Fail numero dos of the trip. Our hostel (which was super modern but luckily our two-person room was great with a wonderful view of the coast) was a 35 minute walk from the main town square in Sorrento, but we trekked over there for a nice pizza dinner.

Sunday morning, we woke up at a decent hour and headed to Pompeii. Beautiful weather once again while exploring the incredible remains of the ancient city, all beautifully preserved in ash after the explosion of Mount Vesuvius. I was really fascinated by Pompeii as a kid, so this was pretty darn cool. We expored the ruins for two hours, and as afternoon hit and we got more and more confused (shoulda bought the audio guides), we decided to head back to town and hit the beach. We got about an hour of sun in before clouds filled the sky, but it’s really something to be sunbathing on the Italian coast. I just loved the beauty of the cliffs hanging over the Mediterranean. Swoon.

We decided to head to the town square for gelato before cleaning up at the hotel and researching dinner options. After drinks at the hostel (a 10% discount for staying there, how could we not?) we headed to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant we had heard about online. Oh. My. God. The owner was an old (yet still dashing) blue-eyed Italian man who (according to a website) knew English but refused to speak anything but Italian. The six-table restaurant was full, so he showed us on his watch when we should come back. 11 pm. Oh man, I’m so glad we waited. Not only was the young waiter tall, dark, and handsome, but the food was delicious.

Monday we set off for Positano, known as the most beautiful town on the Amalfi Coast. What we didn’t know ahead of time is that a landslide had closed the coastal road from Sorrento to Positano. What we also didn’t know is that Italian buses are notoriously off-schedule. So that’s how we ended up standing for two hours on a bus that traversed the mountains and cliffsides and that ended up in Amalfi, not Positano. Another thing we didn’t know was that you need to take a bus from Amalfi to Positano, and that day very few were running. So we waited, determined to make it to the fabled Positano. It ultimately took us FIVE hours to get from Sorrento to Positano. It should have taken an hour and half. That’s Italy for you.

Luckily, Positano didn’t disappoint. It is gorgeous. Really. A town built right onto the steep cliffs hanging precariously over the turquoise water of the Med. And in 80 degree weather, it’s even better. We were in heaven. We paid for beach chairs, and with tanning oil (and sunscreen) in hand, we basked the day away in the sun, taking occasional dips in the sea to cool off. Totally worth the trek.

We ended up waiting for a bus to get back to Amalfi, where we luckily made onto the last bus heading back to Sorrento, thank God. It was very surreal, just us and two Italian girls, an Italian couple, and the bus driver. We arrived back to Sorrento at midnight, starved, so we stopped for a late dinner at a pizza/pasta joint. Nothing to write home about, but it hit the spot.

We were terrified for the next day, having met an older Australian woman—“Diane”—in  Amalfi who told us we might have a hard time getting back to Rome in time for our 2 pm flight since May 1 was a national holiday. Which is why we woke up at 4:30 am to pack and catch the first train over to Naples. Yes, misery is what that’s called. We were quite the sight. Luckily Diane was dead wrong, and all was business as usual. We quickly bought train tickets to Rome and arrived at the airport four hours before takeoff.

Despite our myriad hellish transportation experiences, we made it back to Madrid after having an overall wonderful trip. Such incredible food all around (pasta, pizza, gelato, cappuccinos), amazing sights, and ample beach time. Now I can’t wait to take middle-aged style vacations when I’m actually middle-aged.

— 2 years ago