Hasta Luego #Spain

As my uncle wisely commented, this blog should be called “Where in the World was Meriel” because of course it’s never up to date. I still haven’t posted about anything since my trip to Ireland in March and, because I blinked and the rest of my time in Spain suddenly disappeared, I’m on my way back there right now. Unfortunately you’ll have to wait a bit longer for those but hopefully it will be worth it!

Over the past 10 months there have been moments when something unnecessarily difficult and/or incredibly frustrating has come up that would never happen in the U.S. (or most other developed countries for that matter). A less serious example would be the fact that the roundabout right outside my building doesn’t have a pedestrian crosswalk…you kind of just have to go for it and hope for the best. So in these moments, in order to keep my sanity and make light of the frustration, I would simply laugh to myself and with a half-bitter tone say “#Spain.”

However, this time I say it with such heartfelt gratitude, awe, and inevitable sorrow, because while there have been many difficult and less-than-enjoyable moments, there have been infinitely more moments that have made the aforementioned highly forgettable and entirely worth it. I will dearly miss my friends, my niños, my professors, having the opportunity to speak Spanish on a daily basis rather than simply “practice” it, Bachata/Salsa classes, one particular Spanish brand of hummus, my Cornell water bottle with all my stickers on it that I accidentally left on a plane, popping over to see my extended family every now and again, the coffee (not the bitter American caffeinated dirt water), being able to walk everywhere, and I’m especially going to miss the cultural emphasis on the importance of life outside of work and taking time to relax.

 

I just want to say a huge THANK YOU to:

  • Cornell for giving me this opportunity
  • Jenny (DAT’S MY BIG!!) who played a major role in convincing me to go
  • Sydney for being my study abroad inspiration
  • Zoe, a Cantabria veteran, who basically volunteered to plan my life for me and answer my bajillion questions about all things Santander
  • all my fellow Cornellians abroad who have hosted me, hung out with me, and/or shown me around their little part of the world
  • all my friends back home who have provided an insane amount of moral support and letters/postcards
  • Christopher Michael Huber (DAT’S MY LITTLE!!) who has been the only one to consistently FaceTime me through it all and also got me through my “major” crisis (=crisis about my major)
  • my host mom who is the bomb dot com and even gave me her Quesada recipe
  • my flatmates for being super sweet, considerate, helpful, and patient
  • my Spanish families who have been exactly that this past year: my family
  • Eli for finishing my sentences (when the Spanish words escaped me) ❤
  • My friends who came to visit and brought me Girl Scout Samoas, pumpkin pie spice, graham crackers, and a new graphing calculator (right before my exams)
  • My extended family for being my homes away from home
  • All you who read my blog posts; I’m flattered that you’re so caring and interested in my shenanigans
  • Most of all, my PARENTS without whom NONE of this would have been possible because they drove me to the airport (and encouraged me to go to Cornell in the first place and finally said yes to Spain ((And you gave me flat out “NO” the first time I said I wanted to study abroad in Spain hehehe)) and have listened to my skype rants every Sunday and have done all the things that I can’t do from outside the U.S. and gave me life and all that jazz).

You guys are the absolute best.

Spain, you have been so good to me. No digamos adiós, sino hasta luego

Daffodils and Irish Freckle Bread

About halfway through March I was fortunate enough to discover that I had an unexpected three day weekend at end of the month. My first thought, the same as any study abroad student: let’s go somewhere! My second thought: let’s go to Ireland! Call me unadventurous for wanting to go “home” for a weekend (something impossible at Cornell) over somewhere new, but I was ecstatic at the possibility of visiting my granddad and uncle in Dublin (and my wallet was ecstatic about not having to pay for a hostel and food). I checked the flights and it just so happened that Ryanair’s seasonal direct flight between Santander and Dublin started the Sunday of that same weekend. So I would have to fly out of Bilbao and have a layover somewhere on the way there, but at least on the way back it would be directly to Santander. Not quite perfect, but close enough.

I should start by saying that it was 100% worth it, BUT getting there turned out to be wayyyyy more stressful than it should have been. I must admit it was partially my fault but also very much not my fault. I was flying out that Thursday at 6:20PM, my class ended at 2:00, and Bilbao is only an hour and a half bus ride away, so I had plenty of time, right? Well I got to the bus station in Santander around 2:45 planning on taking the 3:05 bus which would supposedly arrive in Bilbao at 4:30, leaving me plenty of time to then take the local bus to the airport.

I don’t think any bus I had taken from the Santander station had ever been late before (and I’ve taken quite a few) but this one didn’t even get there until 3:20, at which point I was already concerned about getting there on time. However, as soon as it pulled up, I realized that I didn’t have a ticket. You can get them online beforehand, at the station, and for some busses you just pay the driver when you get on. I’d taken a bus to Bilbao many times before and always bought the ticket online, but for whatever reason the system was being really finnicky and wouldn’t process the payment. I figured no problem, I’d just get the ticket at the station. For whatever reason I was thinking that for this route you get your ticket on the bus, but when it pulled up and everyone pulled out their paper tickets I ran upstairs (the station has three floors, the ticket desk and bus terminal being as far apart as possible of course) and asked for a ticket for the 3:05 bus. The lady, who seemingly was not having a good day at all, didn’t even look at me and said that wasn’t possible because the bus had already left. I explained that the bus was late and had just gotten there but she said that regardless, it was past the time of departure so she couldn’t sell me a ticket. After a moment of major déjà vu​ (back to standing at the gate in Miami airport last summer, entirely out of breath after running probably the equivalent of a mile from my connecting gate, and being told I couldn’t board the plane to Bolivia that the rest of my team was already on) with a knot in my throat and the tears coming fast, I slid the €7 across the counter and she printed me a ticket for the next bus at 3:45. From checking the bus times beforehand I knew that this bus would make more stops and therefore take longer than the other would’ve, not arriving in Bilbao until 5:30.

So yes, it was my fault for not having a ticket, but if the bus had arrived on time (at 2:55 like it was supposed to so it could leave at 3:05) I would’ve been able to still run upstairs and buy a ticket. And even if I’d already had a ticket, the bus left so late that I probably still would’ve been really pressed for time in getting to the airport.

Thankfully the next bus left exactly on time and on the way there I was able to check in for my flight online and call a taxi to be waiting for me when I got there (as it would be much faster than taking the local bus). Somehow we arrived ten minutes early so, while kicking myself for not having asked for the taxi to be early instead of right on time (I hadn’t wanted to make the driver wait around) I looked around for a taxi stop. I figured there must be one close to the bus station but I couldn’t find one anywhere and there weren’t any station workers around to ask. As soon as the clock turned 5:31 I called the taxi company and they simply told me that the taxi was occupied, which completely defeats the purpose of calling ahead (and that made it sound like they only had one taxi even though it was a whole company), so then I was just fed up with all forms of public transportation. While still wandering around trying to find a taxi, one pulled up right next to me at a stoplight and happened to be empty. I asked if he could take me to the airport and thankfully he said yes and helped me put my bag in the trunk before the light turned green.

He was very friendly and tried to make conversation but at that point it was 5:45 and I was so nervous that I could hardly form sentences in Spanish. He said I would’ve found one faster if I had gone to where all the taxis were, but he was speaking almost too fast to understand and I was too annoyed in general to bother asking where on earth that had been. When we got there I handed him cash, told him to keep the change, and ran inside. I was scurrying between the two screens on opposite sides of the check-in area trying to find out which gate the plane was at but it wasn’t displayed on either of them. I checked the time, 6:10, and ran to the information desk to ask, trying to sound as calm and sane as possible. The man looked at me, smiled, and calmly told me that the flight has been delayed but will probably be at gate 3. To say I was relieved was an understatement.

I went through security and actually had a bit of time to sit and try to relax. The plane was set to leave at 6:45 but didn’t end up taking off until about 7 so I was still a bit nervous about making my connection. The layover was in Barcelona, meant to be an hour and 45 minutes, now shortened to only an hour, and I wasn’t sure if I’d have to go through security again because I was switching from a domestic to international flight. If that wasn’t enough, Ryanair also requires that silly visa stamp on the boarding pass of non-EU passport holders that you can only get at the check-in counter, so I had no idea how I was going to get that. And after hearing stories of people missing weddings, funerals, etc. simply because they didn’t have the stamp, I wouldn’t have put it past them to not let me on.

Thankfully the connection could not have been easier. The two gates were in the same terminal, really close to each other, and I stalked some Ryanair employees from afar until they weren’t busy and asked if they could sign my boarding pass in lieu of the stamp. Also getting their boarding passes signed were two girls about my age with American accents so I introduced myself. In the 45 minutes they made us stand in line before boarding the plane I learned that they were studying for the semester in Barcelona and going to Ireland for the weekend, where they were from, what they were studying, and we even bonded over the fact that we missed the huge snowstorm in the northeast a few days prior.

By the time we landed it was pretty late (11:30) and after the relatively stressful few hours of thinking that I was going to get stuck in Bilbao or Barcelona, I was ready to sleep, so I didn’t even think to try to find the two girls to say goodbye when I got off the plane. I walked down the long walkway to the main terminal but the flow of people stopped and piled up in the hallway right outside the immigration control room. After a few minutes they let a few more people in and I realized why: the room was packed. I have no idea how many flights arrived at the same time as mine but it must have been at least 3 or 4 because I’ve never seen so many people waiting in line to have their passport checked. Normally traveling on a non-EU passport is an advantage because the line is generally shorter, but in this case there were only two non-EU windows open so even though the line was shorter, it moved much much slower.

I got to a window just after 1AM and after asking me the normal question of “what’s the purpose of your visit,” “how long are you staying,” etc. the guy asks to see my boarding pass for my flight back to Spain. Ummmmmm my flight isn’t until Sunday, why would I have the boarding pass right now?? So he asks me to show him a confirmation email or something to prove it. There was no wifi and I didn’t have any data so I wasn’t even sure if I could search through my email (thankfully it was already loaded though), and  for some reason the only email coming up was for my flight there, not the one home. I told him I couldn’t find it but that I could tell him the time, date, airline, everything. He wasn’t impressed. I stood there for at least 5 minutes silently raging at Spain for not letting me get my Irish passport through the embassy in Madrid and frantically scrolling through my email until finally I found it. He let me go but I was honestly pretty annoyed because no one has ever asked me to show physical proof of a return flight when I’m only staying for a few days (and I’ve gone through many passport controls in my life) and he didn’t seem to care that there were a million people waiting behind me in line, including a couple with 5 very young and tired children, at an ungodly hour of the morning after having traveled for probably much longer than I had.

Anyway, I finally made it to my uncle, who had been apparently trying to get a hold of me to ask if everything was all right, at about 1:15 AM, or 2:15 Spanish time. We drove to my granddad’s house where we stayed up for at least another hour chatting and drinking the obligatory Irish tea. So what should’ve taken 7 hours of traveling took 12, but I was just happy to be there. I still can’t even believe how lucky (more like blessed) I was that my first flight was delayed enough so that I didn’t miss it but not enough that I missed my connection, and I am entirely sure that it was quite literally by the grace of God that it all worked out so perfectly.

The following day was my only chance to go into town for a bit so, even after sleeping for not nearly enough hours, I set out for the bus stop. I wasn’t sure how much it was so I asked the only other person waiting, a grandmotherly woman, if she knew. She said she wasn’t sure but gave me an estimate and, due to my clearly-not-Irish accent, asked where I was from. I explained the whole Florida-New-York-Spain-Ireland thing (I’ve had lots of practice at this point) and she said she might know my granddad since he’s lived in the same neighborhood for so long, but she didn’t recognize the surname Green. When we got on the bus she waited with me to make sure I had the correct amount of change and even offered to pay my fare in the case that I didn’t. We chatted all the way until we arrived at her stop and she made sure I knew which stop to get off at before she left. It was only afterwards that I realized that I didn’t even know her name.

When I got into town, thanks to the lady’s very helpful instructions, I stopped in the tourist information office and grabbed a city map since I didn’t think it was worth turning on my phone’s roaming just to have a map for a few hours. I figured between that and the countless times I’ve navigated through Dublin with my mom and siblings during the summers we spent there that I would be fine. I wanted to first visit Trinity College, my mom’s alma mater, so I set off down O’ Connell street. I wanted to double check that I was going in the right direction so while I was crossing the bridge I stepped to the side, pulled out my map, and literally less than three seconds later a very well-dressed businessman stopped and asked me in the most charmingly Irish of accents if I was trying to find somewhere in particular. I told him I just wanted to make sure I was going towards the college and after very happily telling me that I was indeed headed in the right direction and giving further detailed directions to the entrance, he wished me a lovely day and a lovely stay in Ireland. As he trotted away I merely stood there slightly taken aback, in the best of ways.

I had recently heard of the stereotype that Irish people are very kind and friendly, but before then I had really only ever interacted with people who were either related to me, the kids on the block in my granddad’s neighborhood I used to play with, and parish priests; none of whom I’d expect to be unfriendly anyway. But lo and behold, twice within an hour a random stranger was incredibly welcoming and kindhearted towards me.

As I approached the entrance to Trinity, I saw a table covered in Daffodils alongside it (as it was National Daffodil Day for cancer awareness) and in front of the table was a blonde ponytail, boots, and a purse, all looking very familiar. Against all odds it turned out to be the two girls I had met on my flight the previous night! We explored Trinity together for a while, lamented over the insanely long line through immigration at the Dublin airport, and exchanged numbers before they had to head somewhere else for a tour.

Then I made my way through campus to the science museum (which is entirely free, fyi) where they currently have an artificial intelligence exhibition. They had a robot that drew and colored its own pictures, an interactive pet robot, and a machine where if you turned the crank continuously it spit out a penny ever 4 seconds or so to demonstrate the equivalent of their minimum wage. My absolute favorite part, however, was the piano robot. You have to keep in mind that there’s no music school at the University of Cantabria, it’s not socially acceptable in Spain for just anyone to play the pianos in the churches, and I don’t have a piano in my flat of course, therefore I hadn’t even touched a piano since the previous May. So when I walked in the room and saw a piano in the corner I flipped out just a little bit. I racked my brain trying to remember any songs and the only one that came to mind just so happened to be one from an Irish musical (it’s called Once and it’s on Netflix, definitely watch it). The robot’s purpose was to analyze what you were playing and try to play a few notes back that fit with what you’re playing. It didn’t sound very good, but I was so rusty after not playing for so long that I was thankful that all the mistakes I was making blended in with the robot. I probably would’ve stayed and played much longer but figured I should let someone else try. When I got up from the piano, one of the student employees told me he didn’t want me to stop playing.

I did some thorough wandering and exploring around Dublin city center (centre, if I’m culturally correct) and on my way back to the bus stop I went in search of a key part of every summer spent in Dublin: a hole-in-the-wall donut place. And I mean that quite literally because it’s nothing more than a little window where you can buy the most delicious donuts I’ve ever had for €0.80 each, and I had to ask my mom where to find it because I had never bothered to find out its name. They’re nothing at all like Dunkin’ Donuts or Krispy Kreme. They’re homemade, really fluffy and warm, and come in three flavors: sugar, cinnamon sugar, and chocolate. This is one of the few places I will ever choose another flavor over chocolate, and I love watching them toss the donuts in the little tray of sugar. They were even better than I had remembered.

I then realized that I actually didn’t know where to catch a bus home because it definitely wasn’t the place as where it had dropped me off. Again, from the random bits of memories I could gather from nearly a decade ago, I somehow found the block where we always used to wait for the bus after a day in town, and I even bought some daffodils on the way. This time I sat on the top floor (they’re all double decker, another thing I love about Dublin) and at the very front. While walking home from the bus stop the sun was just setting over the horizon and with all the yellow daffodils glowing it was just magnificent. Unfortunately it was also on this short walk that I somehow suddenly realized that I was coming down with a really bad cold. I was annoyed that it might put a damper on my visit but also slightly relieved because I would much rather get sick at home than at school.

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My granddad had a few options we could make for dinner, but like any real Irish meal they all contained meat. I suddenly realized that it was a Friday during Lent so I asked if there was anything we could make that wasn’t meat, but we soon found out that the only vegetarian option in the house was something in a can that had been sitting in the cupboard for many years (we actually found things that had been there since I was in high school). I told him it was perfectly fine if we had meat since there wasn’t really another option, but, even though he himself is not Catholic, he insisted that no it was not fine and we would find something. He had a flyer for pizza on the countertop that he had received that morning in the mail, so we called them up. I’m honestly not sure if my granddad had ever ordered pizza before, so I made the call, relieved that it wouldn’t have to be in Spanish (Spanish over the phone is way harder than Spanish face-to-face). Of course, with my luck, the guy on the other end spoke so fast and with such a heavy Irish accent that I had to ask him to repeat everything he said a second time anyway, but in the end we got our surprisingly cheap thin crust veggie pizza. I felt kind of bad for putting my granddad through so much trouble just because I forgot to tell him beforehand that I wasn’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays, but he was really happy with the pizza and between the two of us managed to eat nearly all of it.

I had promised my parents that we would skype them when they got home from work, so 10PM our time, but I only made it until 8:30 before I went upstairs and collapsed on my bed. I think getting sick was a delayed reaction of the combination of traveling, being around a lot of people, stressing out, and not sleeping much over the past 48 hours. The next morning I woke up around 7:30AM with a full-on chest, head, and everything else cold. And even though that sounds really early, considering that slept for 11 hours (which is highly unusual for me anyway) it really wasn’t. Since I had gone to bed so early I hadn’t gotten as much homework done as I had hoped, so somehow I mustered up the will power and worked, still in bed wrapped in all my blankets, until 9:30 or 10.

It wasn’t until I heard my granddad’s neighbor Mrs. Sheehy come through the front door, like she does every morning, to bring the paper and chat for a bit that I summoned all my energy, shed all my blankets except for one, and shuffled downstairs. When I slid into the kitchen the first thing they said was why didn’t I just put on the robe that was hanging on the back of my door? The thought honestly hadn’t even occurred to me because throughout college I’ve always avoided having extra unnecessary things because having to fly back and forth is such a pain and very limiting in what you can bring, so I’ve never had a robe. I’ve always just shuffled around wrapped in a fuzzy blanket. But I was already downstairs so I wasn’t going back up.

I made some tea and we all sat and chatted for a while about I don’t even remember what, and after Mrs. Sheehy said goodbye my granddad started telling me stories: of an aunt who worked in a leper colony for a few decades in Africa the better part of a century ago, how he found out he’s allergic to whiskey, and, since St. Patrick’s Day had been the previous Friday, I asked him what the holiday was like in Ireland. He said that everything closed, including the bars, everyone had the day off of work and school, there were several big parades in town, and many people had get-togethers with friends and family. It’s also first and foremost the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint so I’d imagine that a lot of Catholics attend a special mass that day. So to me it sounds like the equivalent of our 4th of July, but minus the barbecues. Also, fun fact, they actually don’t eat corned beef and cabbage. That tradition was started by Irish immigrants when they arrived in America, so really it’s Irish-American rather than Irish. Although my mom had told me that she remembers her mother always making special orange and lime Jell-o with whipped cream as an Irish flag-colored treat. All that said, it honestly makes me sad that when celebrated in pretty much any country except Ireland (I saw it here in Spain too), people simply use it as an excuse to be drunk all day.

A few times a week my uncle takes his two dogs (well really his sister-in-law’s and niece’s dogs that he watches often) and my granddad for a walk in Howth Harbor. I like to joke that he walks the dogs and the granddad. (Side note: If you ever go to Dublin, go to Howth Harbor, it’s absolutely beautiful and you literally see the fish part of the fish ‘n chips you’re about to eat coming off the trawlers.) On the way there we stopped at the pharmacy to get sudafed and cough drops so I wouldn’t be a zombie and they worked almost immediately.

Thankfully I got super lucky and the weather the entire weekend was actually better than in Santander, which is crazy unusual, so the drugs and beautiful weather did me a lot of good. I got to walk Luca, the crazy one, and we meandered around the piers a bit. After learning about breakwater structures, ports, wave patterns, etc. in my coastal engineering class, I actually found it really interesting to walk see Howth from an engineering perspective. We also picked up the fish for dinner, Sea Bass I think it was, at a little family-owned fish shop that my granddad has been going to for as long as I can remember. I also noticed for the first time ever that there was a fish tank with a few goldfish (clearly not for the purpose of eating) and I found it amusing but at the same time slightly morbid.

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My granddad and uncle at Howth (taken a while ago though because I was having so much fun that I forgot to take photos this time)

 

On the way home I asked my uncle if all the daffodils in my granddad’s neighborhood had just been planted recently because I didn’t remember ever seeing them there before. “They’ve always been there,” he said. And in that moment I realized that every time I had ever visited was during the summer, so of course they were never in bloom and I just thought they were all patches of extraordinarily long grass.

Back at home my uncle made tea, put on the Rugby game, and pulled out the tea brack. What is tea brack, you ask? According to my two minutes of google research, it’s a type of “breakfast bread” (but I’d say more like a fruitcake) that has dried fruit that has been soaked in hot tea (normally Irish breakfast tea). It’s also nicknamed Irish freckle bread which is an AMAZING name. (I actually laughed out loud when I read it and immediately changed the name of this post because that is just the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.) Anyway, my uncle said he’d give me a “small bit” to try and he gave me a whopping slice that was probably about an inch thick. Luckily I ended up liking it! My granddad also pulled out some rich tea biscuits so along with everything else it was probably as Irish an afternoon as it could possibly get and it was absolutely lovely.

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After my uncle left with the dogs my granddad and I made fish, sweet potato fries chips, and a rhubarb compote with custard for dessert. We chatted a bit more and, thanks to the aforementioned drugs, I was able to do more homework and actually stay awake long enough to skype my parents. My granddad wasn’t too familiar with skyping, as he just makes calls on the telephone, and he thought it was a great invention to be able to hear and see the other person.

Sadly, Sunday had already arrived and my flight was at 1PM. Had I nearly (or even completely) missed this flight I wouldn’t have been upset in the slightest. I would have no problem being stuck in Dublin with my granddad for a few more days, but unfortunately, with having very easy access to the airport via a 15-minute ride in my uncle’s car and a direct flight to Santander, there was almost no chance of that happening. Darn.

I went for a walk around the block where I used to play with the neighbor’s kids, past the cluster of short trees that we used as our clubhouse, and through the empty field across from my granddad’s house where we used to play fetch with Bruno the Bassett Hound when he and his owner were out. It was a lot of Fado. At one end of the block there’s a cul-de-sac and I stumbled upon an intense hopscotch chalking. Seriously, this kid was training for the hopscotch olympics. It went all the way around the cul-de-sac and up to number 311. You go kid, you go.

I didn’t know until the previous day that this particular Sunday was Mother’s Day (I think only in Ireland though) so I asked my uncle if we could stop by St. Mary’s church to see Nana before going to the airport. It’s the church where my mom grew up, where my parents were married, and where my Nana is buried. I wanted to bring the Daffodils but my uncle said they don’t really like people leaving flowers there (I’m not sure why). We stopped by for a bit, ran into the church organist, and I attempted to make the overgrown and very illegible gravestone look a little less overgrown.

My uncle dropped me off at the airport and told me to try not to get everyone on the plane sick. Lo and behold I ended up in a row with only one other person who coincidentally was just getting over a cold. He appeared to be maybe in his early thirties and introduced himself as Iarlaith (pronounced EER-lah) and we ended up laughing for a good ten minutes over all the strange ways people have messed up our names in the past. It turned out that he actually used to teach English in Gijón, a town not far from Santander, and he was going back for a week to visit friends there. Then he asked me where I was from and what brought me to Dublin, and he got really confused when I answered (I don’t blame him haha). ¿Entonces tú hablas Español? he asked. So we launched into Spanish and it was really cool talking to someone who speaks with the same clearly-native-English-speaker accent and makes the same mistakes that I do.

When we were landing there was a bit of turbulence which is not unusual, but every ten seconds or so we could hear the engines increasing the jet propulsion for a few seconds, and then going back down to normal. As we descended, I realized that we were seconds away from landing and still over water, and then right before we landed I heard the engines turn up but they didn’t die down again like before. I’m pretty sure we were incredibly close to landing in the bay, but I figured worst case scenario I would still make it back alive, so I wasn’t terribly worried. Ahhh I’m going to miss the excitement of flying with Ryanair.

If you made it all the way through I commend you for your perseverance, because I’m pretty sure this is the longest post I’ve ever written. Now that I think about it, I think I wrote this more for me so that I can remember my too-brief time in Ireland this year, but I hope you found it at least somewhat interesting. Keep an eye out for my next post about Holy Week in Rome! I’m going a bit out of order because I’m so behind but everything will make it into the blog eventually so just bear with me. But if you’re impatient like my you check out all the photos at least on my facebook. Hasta luego!

I’m Running Out of Interesting Titles but this is What Happened in the First Half of March Even Though We’re Halfway Through April Now

My oh my, where do I even begin? March has brought so much new and so much endearing routine. Thankfully the new includes the arrival (more or less) of Spring!

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Since I still hadn’t been to the El Faro Cabo Mayor, the lighthouse in Santander, nor tried rabas, basically fried calamari, my friend Ana took on a little adventure one Sunday afternoon. She picked me up from my flat and drove to the lighthouse which has a teeny café next to it so we sat outside by the ocean, soaking up the newfound sunshine and sharing a plate of rabas. We took a stroll through the surrounding parks and ventured out to a narrow strip of land that juts out just past the lighthouse itself, from which you can see the ocean, the coast all the way to the East, and most of the city. I think it might be my new favorite place in Santander.

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This photo doesn’t even do it justice
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This is an opposite view, just so you can see from where I took the previous photo

That Tuesday while I was taking the bus to one of the families I work for, we were sitting at a stop light and it was raining relatively heavily, and suddenly a window on the opposite side of the bus from me completely shattered and collapsed. There was an older lady sitting right up next to it and thankfully she wasn’t hurt but I’m sure she got a terrible fright with the noise and all the glass falling on her. It was completely out of the blue. The bus driver went over to inspect it but the bus continued its route and we all just stayed away from it. Just something to spice up a Tuesday I guess!

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The first Wednesday of March was ash Wednesday so, like any remotely-Catholic, I went to mass that morning before class. Since Spain is more culturally Catholic than spiritually, I was trying to mentally prepare to explain in Spanish why I’d be walking around with dirt on my forehead all day, but as it turns out I didn’t need to. Normally the priest gives you a generous smear of ashes mixed with a bit of water, but instead I had some dry gray ash sprinkled on my hairline. I’m not sure if it was that particular priest, that particular church, or just Spain in general that does it differently but I found it rather bothersome because it looked like I had some dust falling from my hair every time I moved. Ah Spain.

That weekend I went on a weekend trip with an Erasmus (the European study abroad program) group to León and Burgos. Normally I steer clear of Erasmus trips because they mostly consist of drinking and pulling all-nighters partying, but this one seemed to have a pretty solid itinerary and it had been a while since I’d visited elsewhere within Spain. On the bus ride there I ended up next to a girl from Brazil who was super sweet and it was great to be able to speak Spanish with someone (not all, but many of the english-speaking Erasmus kids don’t really put any effort into Spanish). And in front of us was one of my classmates who’s from Barbados but studies in England and a boy from Mexico, so we all ended up talking about food from our respective countries which was super interesting. León was first stop of the weekend and some students from Leon’s university gave us a basic (like really basic) tour/history lesson of the city and then we went to visit the Cathedral. Like all churches in my opinion, it was beautiful, and they gave us audioguides that told us the complete history of the construction and architecture of the church, so my history geek/civil engineer/nearly architecture major was really happy.

We had some free time after that and since it was pretty cold, we took a coffee break and went back to the hostel for a bit. I was sharing a room with Catrina and Paula and, being Floridians, we were kind of cold so we had varying layers of sweaters and blankets, dreading the time when we would have to go back outside. I think Catrina won though because she was basically a blanket cocoon on the couch.

The whole group met back up in the main square but, being Spain, everyone was super late so we were the first ones there. While we waited a group of people wearing tradition dress came marching up the street dancing and playing music. They stopped and performed for a few minutes in the square and then proceeded on through the town. We had know idea who they were or what the performance was so we asked a lady and she said they were a group of people from León who simply liked to practice the traditional song and dance and did performances like these throughout the city every so often. It was a nice tidbit of culture. When the rest of the group finally came, we did a pub crawl (which was also technically dinner). We were split into groups randomly and I was with a few German kids, a Chinese girl who actually wasn’t a student but had been living in Spain for  7 years and came on the trip, and a couple others. At each bar we got a pinxto, a drink, and a challenge. These included being required to feed each other, limbo, passing an ice cube, etc. And one boy in my group couldn’t eat gluten so instead of getting beer at each place they gave us wine, which I was super happy with. Then we went to a club for lots and lots of dancing. I left around 2 AM because we had to be up at 8, but that was considered early, even though I ended up only sleeping for about 4 hours.

Unfortunately Spaniards are Spaniards and some people are just generally inconsiderate so we were several hours late getting to Burgos (and we were only going to be there for a day to start with). We had just enough time to explore the beautiful Cathedral before we headed back to Santander, but let me tell you, it might just be the most beautiful Cathedral I’ve ever seen (before anyone calls me out, the Sagrada Familia is not a Cathedral [yet]).

March, like November for first semester, was also my month of exams. From the week after the trip to León and Burgos to the first week of April right before Easter break I had an exam each week. In a way it’s better that they’re all evenly spaced, but after the third week I was also really tired of studying all the time and just wanted it to be over.

The only bump in the road there was my first Ingeniería Sanitaria exam. The Spanish classes are slightly different from the Cornell Program ones and I had never taken a exam in Spanish (that wasn’t simply about Spanish language) so I was a bit nervous to start with. For some reason the professor arbitrarily decided to have the exam outside of class (not the norm here) and told us it would be held on a Thursday at 1PM because the Spanish classes have a break from 1-3:30. The Cornell Program classes, however, have the break from 2-4 (because that was the old system and the Cornell Program never updated for some reason…) so I immediately informed him that I have class during that time. He said I could just take it at 2 then, which was kind of annoying, but I thought it would be fine. I know that the exam had a 15-minute theory section and then a math problem section that would also be timed. I started right as the last of my classmates finished so I was the only one in the room. My professor gave me the theory part and I tried to keep a good pace because even though I knew the material really well, it takes me a bit longer to read thoroughly through questions in Spanish. I looked around after a bit and realized there was no clock and I didn’t have a watch, but I figured the professor would tell me when my time was up, the same as during all exams I had taken up to that point. He didn’t. I got through it relatively quickly and, thinking I still had time, double checked everything thoroughly. When I handed in the theory and asked if I could start the next part he looked confused, looked at his watch, and said that I had gone ten minutes over (so I took nearly double the time allotted). I was dumbfounded and tried to tell him that I had no way of knowing how much time had passed or had left because there was no clock anywhere and that I thought he would tell me when I was out of time, but he didn’t let me finish and said it was fine and to just start the math part. I was so embarrassed, confused, and even more nervous because I still didn’t have any way of knowing how much time I had and I didn’t know if he would subtract that time from my math section or even let me know when that time was up. A few minutes in I asked him a question about the given information and he told me that I was using the information for problem one to try to solve problem two, which was why I was having problems. At that point I was so embarrassed, confused, nervous, irritated, and generally upset that I was trying to hold back tears as I erased everything I had written down so far and started over. Once again, he did not tell me how much time was left, nor when I was supposed to finish so I went as quickly as possible, worried that he was going to suddenly stop me before I had finished, handed him the exam, and left before I really started tearing up.

I knew it could’ve gone better, but I was pretty confident that I had the right idea and did everything correctly for the most part at least. Exactly a week later I got an email saying that the grades were posted. In all other classes, both Cantabria and Cornell Program, either our grades were available on our individual Moodle accounts, or we were sent an email with every person’s grades but with only ID numbers instead of names. For whatever reason, for this class they posted the grades of the entire class on one document, with the breakdown of points for each section and everything, with full names listed next to each score. Lovely. I almost passed…but not quite. I had aced the theory, but hadn’t done very well on the math. Surprise, surprise. Clearly I knew the material and my score had nothing to do with the langauge barrier because otherwise the theory part also would’ve been really low. At that point I wasn’t even disappointed, I was just mad. The professor, however, later told me that I was actually above the mean, which was a bit concerning considering it wasn’t a passing grade.

Thankfully the second exam was during class so I took it with everyone else and the professor gave us warnings with respect to how much time we had. I was the first one finished with both parts and it went much better than the first one.

In  much happier and more exciting news, as you may have seen in my last post, I’ll be spending (or spent, depending on when I finally post this) Easter in Rome and I miraculously was able to get tickets to all the Holy Week masses, even this late in the game. I am ecstatic for the holiest Holy Week ever!

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The official letter from the Papal Prefecture

Fluency update: In my IS class, the one I’m taking in Spanish, one day my teacher put up a slide with a diagram on it. My professor read all the lables and titles out loud as he explained the stages of the particular process, meanwhile I started copying the diagram. It took me a full 2-3 minutes, until I was about halfway through labeling, to realize that the words I was thinking in my head and the ones I was writing down were not the same but at the same time they were all the same in my understanding and processing of the information (if that makes any sense). In other words, the word I was saying in my head and the word written on my paper weren’t matching up but my brain couldn’t tell the difference between them. As you can see, I was really confused for a second. I looked back up at the slide and realized that the diagram was in English but my professor was of course reading and explaining it in Spanish. Therefore, my mind was repeating what it was hearing while my hand was copying what my eyes were seeing, but my brain extracted the same meaning from both so naturally that it didn’t even notice they were different.

I also sometimes find myself trying to explain or express something in English an the word or phrase that comes to mind is a Spanish one. Even though all the ones (so far at least) have had some sort of English equivalent, for some reason I feel like the Spanish version is more fitting for what I’m trying to say. A few examples have been lo que me dé la ganaagradable, and si te apetece. Out of curiosity,* maybe another Spanish-speaker has felt the same way about any of these?

*Wow, actually I was just about to write por curiosidad and then had to put it into google translate because I couldn’t even think of how the English phrase would be worded. I’m losin’ it guys.

The last weekend of March I also went to visit my granddad and uncle in Dublin (a relatively last-minute decision), but it was so wonderful that I’m actually going to make a separate post about it, so keep an eye out.

And shoutout to a family friend through Girl Scouts, Martha (whose granddaughters troops I used to volunteer with and whose son-in-law was my APUSH teacher junior year of high school (that was an interesting student-teacher relationship haha)) for sending me Girl Scout cookies (like she does so thoughtfully every year) despite my geographical distance!

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She even threw in some cake mix too this time 🙂

Last bit of news so far but certainly not the least: I recently accepted an offer to work as a Civil Engineer intern for Cornell’s Facilities Engineering team in Ithaca this summer! I am over the moon because I miss Cornell dearly (except for the stress, but anyway) and I’m so glad that I get to extend what little time I have left just a little bit more. If you’ll be in Ithaca this summer please tell me so we can hang out!!

See you all super soon 🙂

Study Abroad, de Verdad

Monday

I wake up around 8:30 and attempted to finish the last question of my Uncertainty Analysis (UA) (what a fancy name for statistics) problem set. The question, however, doesn’t make much sense and seems pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of both the class material and my life, so I just jot down a couple things and leave it.

At 11:00 my Ingeniería Sanitaria (IS), aka Environment Engineering, class starts and I have to eat a snack beforehand or else I’ll never make it to lunchtime. It’s my only class in Spanish and I pretty much had to put up a fight to get it approved because it’s outside the Cornell exchange program and the same class is already offered within the program in English. I just thought it would be a waste to spend an entire year studying in Spain and not take a single class in Spanish, and my options were limited because Cornell Engineering is super picky about what they’ll approve. It’s a really interesting class and even though I don’t think I’ll ever need to calculate the volume of a landfill required for a city (essentially the first third of the class was about waste management), we’re starting to get into water contamination and treatment. I actually find it highly practical to learn all this, not just as an engineer, but as an educated human being who should be aware of the environmental impact they make every single day.

Each of my classes is two hours long (twice a week), so at 1:00 I slip into Aula Cornell, the classroom where all the Cornell program classes are taught, trying not to be too disruptive. Since the Cornell program didn’t modernize it’s daily schedule along with the rest of the university, the class times are offset by an hour, so IS overlaps with the first hour of UA every Monday. In all honesty, it’s more of a blessing than a curse because I don’t learn anything in UA. We have a PDF of notes written by the professor, the textbook, and a PDF of all the homework assignments for the semester, and the lectures consist of overly theoretical explanations of otherwise relatively basic concepts and equations. When the professor is trying to clarify a particularly difficult-to-explain concept it always ends the same way: “it’s similar to *example that doesn’t make much sense* but not really, so ehhh…well, you’ll figure it out.” So logically I don’t pay any attention to the lecture and just work on the homework during class teaching myself everything from the notes and textbook. And the best part is that for only the most complicated equations does the professor choose to use different symbols for variables in his PDF of notes than in the textbook so that I have to actually create a key in my own notes so that I can switch between the textbook and his notes and not be entirely lost. For example, for one equation (and this is just one) the professor’s beta equals the textbook’s alpha, his theta equals the book’s beta, and the textbook simply gives you mu but for the professor if you want to find mu you have to take the natural log of beta (the professor’s beta, not the book’s beta). I wish I were making this up. Oh and he finally told us when our exam will be, a mere two weeks beforehand, and only because I specifically asked him if we could fix a date already.

Class ends at 2:00, Spanish lunch/siesta time, and since my motivation level is normally highest on Mondays I head to my favorite study spot in the Interfacultativo (Education) building, about halfway between Caminos (the civil engineering building) and my flat, to do some homework. I’m still not sure if you’re allowed to eat in the library but I’m always on the third floor where none of the staff are and I don’t make a mess so I’m just gonna go with it. It’s my favorite place to work because it has floor-to-ceiling windows and a beautiful view of the Parque de las Llamas, and you can even see all the way to the ocean.

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Since my sushi craving has been gnawing at me for the past week, I go to one of the few sushi restaurants in Santander with some friends. It was a tiny place with just 4 tables, two long and two short, but the sushi is fantastic. We go at 8:30 and Spanish dinnertime is ~9 PM so we’re basically like old geezers at an early bird special when you think about it. Good company + good sushi = a great end to a Monday.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning I have Coastal Engineering at 8:30 and this particular Tuesday we have our first lab session. It’s relatively straightforward in that we go through all the concepts we learned in class and the derivation of the relevant equations pretty quickly and then watch different types of wage propagate through a huge wave flume in the hydraulics lab. It’s all about ocean waves, tides, their behavior, and coastal structures like ports and breakwaters. This might be my favorite class this semester because, growing up in Florida, I always loved watching the ocean from the beach and airplanes and now I actually have a better understanding of how it functions.

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After coastal we have an hour and a half before UA so normally Catrina, Paula, (my fellow Floridians) and I go to the café in the next building over and do homework and enjoy the occasional café con leche or Spanish tortilla. At 12 we migrate back to Aula Cornell for class but I just continue working on my UA homework and normally finish at least the first half by the time class ends at 2.

Since I spend nearly all morning in class on Tuesdays, afterwards I usually get lunch with friends or go home to take a brain break. Since it’s super rainy and chilly, I head back to my flat, about an 8-minute walk straight down the street that the university sits on (I live in front of the Derecho & Economías (Law and Economics) building that’s on the opposite end of campus from Caminos). In the lobby I have to stand on my tip toes to peep into our mailbox (a guilty pleasure of mine every time I come home, even though I know it only comes once a day) and to my delight there’s a thin white envelope sitting there. I see that it’s addressed to me and get excited, and then I see that it’s from the Papal Prefecture of the Vatican and my heart skips a beat. About a month prior I planned a trip to Rome during Holy Week and requested tickets to the masses at the Vatican, knowing that you’re supposed to request them 2-6 months in advance (and since it was for Easter, more like 6). I open it as quickly and carefully as possible, so as to not ruin the official seal printed on the envelope, and by the time I get in the elevator I’ve pulled it out, mentally preparing myself or disappointment…but there’s no need!! I start jumping up and down until I realize that it probably isn’t such a smart idea to jump in an elevator.

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At 6:30 I take the bus to the outskirts of Santander to see two of my niños. Miguel is 14 but he has class so it’s just me and Maria, who’s a whip-smart 12-year-old. She’s pretty much a mini-me in so many ways, which is really cool but actually a little scary; we even have the same birthday. The goal is to “teach” them English but they’re both practically fluent (Maria doesn’t even have an accent when she speaks; she sounds 100% American), so we basically just hang out during our sessions and do whatever we feel like. Recent shenanigans have included bilingual bananagrams and scattegories (meaning they play in English and I in Spanish to make it even), baking apple pie, and looking up trailers and scenes of scary/sad movies (like the shipwreck scene of Titanic).

However, today was cold and rainy so we just sat at the kitchen table drinking tea and talking about life. I honestly don’t even remember exactly what we talked about but it was just really relaxing and took my mind off of school and I genuinely like spending time with Maria. She’s probably the most mature and intelligent 12-year-old I have ever met, and from the very beginning I knew it was going to be hard to say goodbye to her at the end of the year. At the end of the session their dad very kindly drives me home like he does most days, which I appreciate greatly because the bus system is weird and getting home takes 40 minutes as opposed to the 10 minutes it takes me to get there.

Wednesday

Wednesday mornings are my homework mornings because I don’t have class until 12:00 and it’s my only class of the day (something that would never happen at Cornell). I study for my Coastal exam coming up on Friday and when that starts getting on my nerves I decide to update my “wall.” It’s the bit of wall in the corner next to my bed where I hang all my postcards, letters, race tags, etc. and it was long overdue for an update.  Plus, reading all the cards and things everyone has sent me this year make me feel extra loved.

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12-2PM is my Geotechnical Engineering: Foundations, Tunnels, and Excavations class (Geotech for short). I wasn’t originally planning on taking it because it’s not required and we already took the intro class last semester, but my options were limited. Testing soil and designing foundations isn’t exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life but it’s quite practical and really important in any building project. It’s also super cool to go a bit more in-depth about things that we touched on when we were designing/constructing the bridge in Bolivia and things I had already had some hands-on experience with.

After Geotech I go back to my favorite study spot and attempt to continue studying for coastal, but for some reason I just can’t focus. I just really really don’t feel like studying anymore.

Then 5:30 comes much faster than expected and I start walking to the house of my other set of niños. Pablo is 9 but already has the attitude of a teenager, Mateo is 4 and incredibly sweet with a hint of adorable sass, and Lola is 1 and has more energy than I’ve ever seen in a baby. Normally the parents take Lola (as she’s too young to start learning English) and go grocery shopping or just out somewhere, and I watch the boys. I try to always have an activity planned so that all doesn’t melt into chaos, but it’s incredibly difficult because half the time Pablo whines that he doesn’t like my ideas and then when I ask him what he wants to do he says “I don’t know.” Mateo is generally really well behaved but he also follows along with his older brother, so if Pablo is unhappy, everyone’s unhappy. While there are good days and bad days, today is actually probably the worst so far. We were going to make pancakes and the father had told me beforehand that it sounded great, which I took to mean they had checked to see they had the ingredients, but apparently they didn’t. So five minutes in I have no pancakes and two restless kids. Long story short, it ends up being two hours filled with sass, attitude, tears, time-outs, the father apologizing profusely, and me seriously considering quitting (but I didn’t).

On the way home I have to stop to get some groceries because I keep putting it off and two people are simultaneously messaging me asking for help with the coastal homework that’s due the day of the exam, Friday.  I normally go to a Salsa/Bachata class at 9:00 on Wednesdays but I don’t even get home until 9PM so I’ve already missed the beginner level class. I still haven’t eaten dinner either so I turn the stove on to make croquetas really quickly in an attempt to make it on time to the intermediate level class at 10:00, while simultaneously trying to help the others with their homework. I don’t even notice until I smell the burning plastic that the cutting board, which is on the stovetop but on a different burner from the one I (thought I) was using, is spreading everywhere because it’s very quickly turning into a liquid. I accidentally turned on the wrong burner. I jump up to open the window in an attempt to ventilate the smoke that’s quickly building up and to air out the burning plastic smell. Once I assure myself that the melted plastic has stopped spreading and my flat isn’t going to catch on fire I turn on the other burner and put the croquetas in the oil. I’m still trying to help with the homework so these also end up burnt and black, and when I try one to see if just maybe they’re still edible I also burn my tongue. Conclusion: they are not edible.

Somehow I manag to make new unburnt croquetas, scrape the hardened plastic off the stovetop, and finish homework help in time to make it to the intermediate Bachata class. I’ve never been to the intermediate class before but Bachata is like a Spanish swing dance (of which I took two semesters at Cornell) so I feel comfortable enough to try the faster paced class (I wouldn’t have tried if it were salsa though, I think it’s so much harder). Everyone else was too tired or busy studying so just Catrina and I went and have a blast. Partially because it’s less crowded than the beginner class, there are actually enough guys for each girl there, and the teacher is able to work one-on-one with each person more easily. The dance class is always one of the highlights of my week and, especially after my fiasco of an afternoon, it’s wonderful and relieving to forget about everything else.

Thursday

I wake up pretty groggy, even though I got an extra hour of sleep because my first class is at 9:30 instead of 8:30. After IS ends at 10:30 (class is only one hour on Thursdays but only for part of the semester, it’s a little confusing) I walk to the mini bank that’s on campus in the Derecho building to pay for my pilgrimage to Lourdes after Easter with a group from Santander, but the bank is closed for some reason. Still unable to shake the grogginess and seduced by the warm sunshine (something we haven’t had too much of recently), I find a nice little slope angled just towards the sun, pull out my notebook, open it, and proceed to convince myself that I’m study for the next 40 minutes. It was completely unproductive but completely worth it.

After Geotech from 12-2, Catrina, Priya, and I find a table outside to eat lunch and study for Coastal together. Yesterday Catrina and I had been entertaining the idea of going surfing because the weather was going to be so nice today (and what better way to study wave phenomena??) but at the last minute the “study” of study abroad kicked in and we decided to actually study.

At 4:00 I walk to the Interfacultativo building to meet Sofía, the Spanish girl I do a language exchange with once a week. Basically we meet up for an hour and just talk about whatever; she in English and I in Spanish. Today we’re meeting in the park to enjoy the beautiful weather and we end up spending the better part of the hour fangirling over the many adorable dogs meandering through. At 5:00 on the dot, a wall of fog rolls in at an alarming speed. It transitions from really warm and sunny to chilly and misty in just a few minutes. There’s been fog before in Santander, but never as thick or as fast as this, so it’s kind of eerie.

My friend Rachel, who’s studying in Rome this semester, is coming to visit for a few days and staying in Priya’s flat, but since Priya has class until 7 I offered to meet Rachel at the bus station at 6. It’s quite disappointing that she missed the amazing weather, but we decide to walk to the university instead of taking the bus and we have a great time catching up. We even stop in my favorite/the most beautiful church in Santander because we pass by it on the way.

I was planning on getting pintxos with them for dinner later, but when I get home and actually start  studying I realize how much I still have to cover before the exam tomorrow. I end up studying until midnight, taking a study break to make pumpkin blondies. In case you’re wondering, they fail miserably because the recipe calls for peanut butter so then you can’t even taste the pumpkin, and they don’t bake very well no matter how long I leave them in for so they end up being underbaked peanut butter brownies which is fine if you love peanut butter but I think it’s gross unless it’s baked into something so I’m really disappointed.

Friday

My exam is at 9:30 so I eat breakfast in commute (overnight oats are the best). We have two professors and a PhD student teaching different parts of our coastal class so they each wrote their own exam questions for their respective material, but the PhD student is the only one proctoring the exam. As he hands out the exam he informs us that we have an hour and a half but we could easily finish in 30 minutes (that’s what they all say). The professor that wrote the majority of the exam questions did not write very clearly worded questions at all (English isn’t his first language and we understand that, but on an exam it’s super important that the questions be really clear about what they’re asking), so we end up spending at least a third of the time listening to the student explain and re-explain what the questions are asking. As a result, the exam takes 1.5-2 hours instead of the 30 minutes it should have been. It wasn’t difficult, it just really annoying having to clarify so many details to simply understand what the professor wanted.

After trying to unwind my brain from the exam, I take Rachel to lunch at a Spanish vegetarian cafetería that I’ve been wanting to try. Neither of us are vegetarian but we both love vegetables and it’s a nice change from the constant barrage of meat and bread. We decide to go with the chef’s menú del día, which end up being some sort of carrot/sweet potato/pumpkin soup, stir fried veggies with rice, and fried shitake mushrooms, and we finish it off with some really lovely fruit and herbal tea.

I head home and do the first half of my UA homework before going to my niño’s house at 6:30. We hang out on Maria’s bed playing with their rabbit, Tambor (Thumper), when he suddenly bites me for no reason at all. He’s generally a pampered but really friendly bunny, so it’s really unlike him to freak out. We go upstairs to put him in his pen (which isn’t much of a punishment because it’s quite spacious) and then we start nosing around the room. There’s a huge nearly-finished puzzle on the table which we attempt to complete for a solid 5 minutes until we give up (only the sky was left so all the pieces were the same color). Then Maria starts looking through some drawers when she comes across an old hair dryer. I have no idea why this is of such interest but she wants to see if it still works so she scampers to the outlet across the room and as soon as I looked up to see what she’s doing there’s a flash and a gasp and all the lights go out. Naturally, her mom comes upstairs furious and talking so fast that I could barely understand what she’s saying, although the tone says it all. The lights came back on after a minute and we go downstairs. At this point it’s nearly time for me to leave anyway so I grab my coat, politely apologize to her mom (to which she responds that it’s not my fault at all but I still feel somewhat responsible) and say goodbye. Today her dad isn’t home so I take the bus home. The only two busses that stop at that particular stop come every thirty minutes,  one right after the other, so during the 20 minutes until the next one came I wander around a Lidl grocery store nearby just to kill time. I also have to transfer to another bus, so by the time I get home it’s been almost an hour.

At that point I’m just tired and it’s past 9PM so I don’t feel like making a real dinner. I had been planning on making fish or a salad which take very little preparation, but at the last minute I decide to go for the really lazy option: ham, cheese, and crackers, which takes zero preparation. Of course right after I’m finished, my brain frantically tries to remember which day of the week it is and I realize that it’s Friday. During Lent, Catholics aren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays. Since I hardly ever eat meat anyway, this isn’t really a big deal for me, but that also makes it more difficult to remember because meat is not normally on my radar at all, let alone remembering not to eat it on a particular day of the week. I even went to a specifically vegetarian restaurant for lunch without even thinking about it, and came so close to eating a salad (as non-meat as you can get) or fish (the normal go-to on Lenten Fridays). Oh well. If you eat meat because genuinely don’t remember though, it’s ok, so I don’t feel too bad. I’m just complaining about the irony of it all.

Normally I read before I go to bed but I decided to watch a movie today instead. Since coming to Spain I’ve made a point of trying to read and watch things in Spanish as much as possible, but I don’t like dubbed live-action movies. This is less because the words don’t match the mouth movements (which I know bothers some people but I don’t really mind), and more because I find it just too weird to hear different people’s voices, and especially because the Spanish ones always seem to be really high pitched and annoying. So I decide on Spanish Wreck-it Ralph!

Saturday

At the risk of sounding like a hermit, I didn’t really leave my flat all day. I finish my UA homework, review my IS notes and make flashcards for the material we covered this week, and start the coastal lab report that’s due on Tuesday. I also facetime my friend Chris and write some letters to send to friends in the states, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while.

I experiment with a new pumpkin pancake recipe for dinner and they turn out awesome (a nice consolation after the croqueta/cutting board fiasco). Why pumpkin you ask? WELL. I learned that the word for squash is also the word for pumpkin and there is absolutely no distinction between the two even though they are two completely different types of gourds (I’m sure my friend Sydney, an international agrictulture major, could write a dissertation on that). So now I have a bunch of pureed pumpkin in my freezer that I’ve been using to try new pumpkin recipes.

Before going to bed I read a couple of chapters of Harry Potter. I first read the series starting when I was 7 and continued to read them until the last one was published, and I reread them again sometime after that, but I realized last summer that it had been probably almost a decade since I had read them last and wanted to “rereread” them. This was just before I was headed to Bolivia and I wanted to practice Spanish so I came to the conclusion that I should just read the entire Harry Potter series in Spanish. Because why not?? I wanted to reread them anyway, they don’t have a terribly high reading level, and that way at least if I didn’t understand absolutely everything I wouldn’t be lost in the story because I already had an idea of what was going on. It was perfect. I went to the book store and bought the first book and a pocket spanish dictionary (the cashier said “this will be interesting” and looked at me like I was slightly crazy),  took them to Bolivia in June, and now I’m almost finished with the 5th book. I definitely read a little slower in Spanish than in English, but over these five books the amount that I have to actually use the dictionary has decreased dramatically. The words I don’t understand are so few and far between now that sometimes I’m too lazy to even stop to look them up because I normally understand everything even without the one word.

Sunday

In the morning I study for my Geotech exam which is on Wednesday, but normally the exams for this class are pretty straightforward so I’m not too concerned. I also submit some last minute applications for a few summer internships (that would actually be on campus at Cornell). Rachel and I were going to attend mass together at 1:30 at the church that I always go to (the one we visited the day she arrived), but when I get there she says a man has just locked the church and told her the mass was at 5:00. I can’t understand why the schedule would have changed but then I realize it’s Spain’s Father’s Day so they must have special times. Instead we go back to my flat for lunch, which we were planning on doing after mass anyway. We make some salad and fish and talk about the similarities and differences in our experiences studying abroad, like living in Cornell housing with other Cornell students (Rachel) versus living with natives in a random flat (me), and how we really miss the sense of community and diverse extracurriculars and clubs at Cornell. Studying abroad is fantastic so oftentimes it seems like if there’s something to complain about then I’m doing something wrong and that everything should be just dandy, so it’s just nice to know that I’m not the only one who encounters frustrations, whether big or small.

After Rachel leaves to head for the airport I do some more homework and then head to mass just before 5. Mass ends up being at 5:30, despite what the guy said earlier (honestly I’m not surprised, that’s so Spain). When I get home, like every Sunday night, I make some tea, wrap myself in a blanket, and skype my parents. However, instead of talking for an hour or so as usual, we ended up skyping for two hours, which is a nice surprise. Calling my parents is always one of the highlights of my week (in a very different way from dance class though haha) because I get to tell them about absolutely everything that’s happened in the past week: the good, the bad, the frustrating, the exciting, and even the boring!

Before going to bed I read a couple more chapters of Harry Potter and get so into it that I actually end up staying up much later than I had anticipated. But Monday classes don’t start until 11, something I’m going to miss when I return to Cornell, so might as well take advantage now 😉

¿Qué es el tiempo?

Because I switched my phone over to Spanish back in August, that’s what my Siri speaks, and sometimes my weather app glitches so sometimes I just ask Siri ¿qué es el tiempo hoy? meaning “what’s the weather today?” One day I guess I was just being a minimalist and asked ¿qué es el tiempo? expecting a little sun or some clouds to pop up, but Siri responded “el tiempo es una ilusión.”  Um what? Well, in Spanish tiempo can mean “weather” or “time” depending entirely on the context, so since I didn’t specify “today” she interpreted it as “what is time?” Wow Siri, so deep.

But now that I think about it, Siri is completely right! I am absolutely flabbergasted that it’s already March. It wasn’t until I started planning out my semester that I realized just how little time I have left here. I know I titled my last post “halfway there” but I swear it’s practically over and I’m already beginning to feel the bittersweetness of it all coming to an end. I think this semester is going by so fast in comparison to last semester because even though I arrived in August, we didn’t start class until September, and we had a week long break in December and then another two week (Christmas) break before final exams, so everything was much more spread out. This time February went by in a flash, partially because it took me two weeks to just finalize my class schedule. March will be a blur of exams, half of April is Easter break, 2 friends are coming to visit at various times for a total of 2.5 weeks, I have a bit of time to study, and then BAM. Finals. Over.

Which brings me to summer. For which I still don’t even know which country I’ll be in. But don’t worry, when I know, you’ll know, because I’ll (hopefully) be so excited that I won’t be able to keep it to myself.

Anyway, I’m jumping ahead of myself. This semester I’m taking four classes, three in English and one in Spanish(!!!). I tried to pick a favorite but I’m not sure if I can, so I’ll pick a least favorite: Uncertainty Analysis. It’s really just a fancy name for statistics. Yes, it’s necessary because really engineering ultimately relies on statistics, but oh my goodness it’s such a confusing and mind-numbing subject. And please, someone explain to me what a gram squared is. I would love to know.

I’m also taking Coastal Engineering and Geotechnical Engineering (part II) which are two of my design electives and I find them both super interesting. Coastal is about waves, patterns, statistics, and designing coastal structures like ports, docks, etc. And it made me realize that my physics 2214 class (waves and optics) was actually somewhat useful for civil engineering purposes and worth all the pain. Emphasis on “somewhat.” Geotech is about designing tunnels, excavations, and foundations, and after learning about soil last semester, we finally got to learn about ROCKS!! So enthralling, I know! (But seriously, it’s quite cool). Not to say that the basic engineering courses aren’t practical because they’re absolutely fundamental, but it’s so cool to finally be taking classes where all of our calculations/work have more visible and tangible results.

Lastly, I’m taking Environmental Engineering, or rather Ingeniería Sanitaria. I think one of the interesting parts so far is that now I know how to describe a great many illnesses in Spanish.  We also went on a mini field trip to the waste processing facility in Meruelo, which is where all the waste from the Cantabria region goes. The facility includes screening processes, a compost area, an incinerator, and of course a landfill. It definitely cemented both everything we learned in class and the smell into my brain.

Overall, my classes require a bit more effort this semester and I no longer have the luxury of no classes on Fridays (I knew it was too good to last) but I already know it’s going to be just as much fun as last semester, if not even more so.

In support of that theory, a few weeks ago I went skiing for the first time ever!! When I pictured studying abroad in Spain, skiing on a snowy mountain never entered the picture, but I’m so glad it did. The two girls I went with also happen to be from Florida, and only one of us had ever been skiing before so it was a rough start. Lessons were really expensive so we decided to wing it and the second I got off the ski lift at the top of the bunniest of bunny slopes I fell as flat on my back as my skis allowed me. The slope monitor lifted me back up and steered me in the right direction, but then I couldn’t figure out how to stop so I had to make myself fall again to avoid colliding with the barrier (still at the top of the slope). Thankfully after that I learned rather quickly, and even though I definitely fell the most that day I mastered both green slopes and managed to only fall on the really steep part of one of the blue slopes. Everyone told me that afterwards my legs would be super sore, but the only agujetas I had were in my shoulders and upper back from lifting myself back up each time gravity got the best of me.

Speaking of things I’m really not good at, I found a Salsa/Bachata class at a little hole-in-the-wall bar offered every Wednesday night. Before the first class, the last time I had done any sort of dancing was my freshman year when I took Swing Dance I and II as my two required PE classes at Cornell (which I loved), and this reminded me how much I enjoy dancing. I’m not the greatest at it but the teacher has a great sense of humor and explains things really well and it’s a great excuse for a brain break in the middle of the week. I just wish I had found it sooner!

Another “first” that I would never have expected to happen in Spain: baking apple pie! (And how appropriate that I’m posting this on Pi Day). Anyone who knows me knows that I will never not bake and that my repertoire is pretty encompassing. Except for pie. I made a chocolate silk pie for Pi Day in middle school and I made a pumpkin pie last year from the innards of my first ever jack-o-lantern but that’s about it. Honestly, for the majority of my life I didn’t even like pie.

Anyway, my niña and I were planning on making apple crisp (easier and tastier than apple pie in my opinion), but when I walked in the door she told me she had bought some pre-made pastry and wanted to make apple pie instead. I saw no reason why not so I said let’s do it! Then she informed me that she didn’t have a recipe…so I just googled one. And it actually turned out great! It was so simple that in the end the most tedious part was just peeling, coring, and slicing a million (ok fine, more like five hundred) apples. And she decided to get creative with the leftover dough, which I thought was really cute.

Last news update, but certainly not the least, in December I decided to submit a very last-minute application for the Clark Construction Scholarship (Clark Construction is a huge Civil Engineering company in NYC) and this past month I was selected as the recipient for the 2016-17 academic year! It’s awarded annually to a “top civil engineering junior who has shown an interest in and aptitude for construction.” Honestly I wouldn’t have described myself as a “top” anything, but I’m so glad that my experiences and what I had to say made an impression on them. Shoutout to Sam, one of our professional mentors in Bolivia/the coolest and most joyful engineer I’ve ever met, for writing my letter of recommendation!

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Name: Samuel, Sprit Animal: Golden Retriever

Thank you so much for reading my blog! Quite a few people (many more than I would’ve ever imagined) have told me that they read every single post and always look forward to the next one, and I’m incredibly flattered. If my blog makes someone’s day just a little bit better then it’s served its purpose. I wish I had as much diligence writing these posts as you all do reading them 😉 I’ll do my best to post again soon. ¡Hasta luego!

 

 

 

Halfway There

I hope the little voice inside your head started belting Bon Jovi, because mine just did.

One semester down, one to go!

January was probably the most disjointed month yet. I went from Christmas break to more class with the second round of prelims to final exams to a week of break (an actual break this time because I didn’t have to study for anything) but through all of this I’ve been applying to every internship under the sun. Although my schedule resulted in 7 exams in two weeks (prelims and finals), it gave me one week off before the beginning of the next semester. Had I been unlucky enough I could’ve had one or more final exams on Saturday and new classes starting today.

Instead, I spent my glorious 9 days back in England to visit my best friend (and roommate for the past two years) Celine because she’s studying abroad at Oxford this semester (she’s so smarticle!!). After two years of sleeping in a bed just 3 feet away from hers it feels a little empty. I’m absolutely not complaining about having my own room but I do miss having someone to bounce ideas off of, complain about homework with, and talk about each other’s day with. And I especially miss hearing random snippets of singing every so often.

So I slept on her and her new roomate’s narrow couch for four nights, only to figure out on the last day that it was actually a pull-out bed and then end up going to bed so late that we were too tired to even figure out how to pull it out. It was great fun hanging out with her friends, attending their slightly fancier Friday night Hall (which is just dinner but people serve you), going to ents (a party thrown by the college every other Friday night), and attempting to fill in all the gaps from the past seven months apart. Then this weekend we gallivanted around London which included Borough Market, a temporary outdoor book market, the Columbia Flower Market, an 18th century silk-weavers home/museum, and a lot of backtracking on the tube.

Now I’m back in siesta land starting a new semester and whaddaya know? Cornell STILL hasn’t told me which (if any) of the five classes I inquired about have been approved or not. Even though I started the process in November. Because God forbid I take an actual class in Spanish (that’s not just Spanish language) while I’m living in Spain for a year. And because my Spanish language class schedule, work schedule, and any potential travel plans all hinge on whatever Cornell tells me, all I can do is sit here, twiddle my thumbs, and hope everything somehow falls into place. Oh and I’m missing an essential prerequisite class for half of the electives that I was planning on taking senior year and it’s not offered here in the Spring and the professor of said electives has stopped answering my emails. Thanks Cornell. In short, academically, this semester is off to a fantastic start.

In other news, I am currently at the 5.5 month mark (out of 10) and I’ve been gradually coming to the realization that the two semesters that sounded like a lifetime when I signed away my junior year at Cornell are starting to close in on the end. I’m sure it sounds silly because I still have over 4 months left, but ask anyone who has studied abroad for a semester and they will tell you that, time-wise, was nothing. Going into this I already knew that two wouldn’t feel like much longer. It’s already bittersweet because when the New Year came I realized that this year I’ll get to see all my friends and family again, but then I also realized that I have to pre-enroll for Cornell classes this semester and it felt like someone dropped a cinder block on my intestines. Looking back at last semester and knowing that I have to do it all over again is partly overwhelming and partly invigorating. You just can’t have it all. However, I am still incredibly excited for this semester because I can spend a lot less time “figuring it out” and much more time enjoying it. And to top it all off, I still have no idea what I’ll end up doing this summer so I don’t have a plane ticket home yet either, and not knowing is also reason for some excitement. So really I could just stay here forever. Just have to wait and see 😉

¡Sigue, sigue!

Story time! So I decided to go for a run down to the beach one morning a few days shy of the winter solstice. When I got there I started to watch the sunrise and ended up sitting there for a solid 30 minutes. At one point a friendly older gentleman wandered past me and then came back around a few minutes later and went to take a picture of the sunrise. Thinking I was in his way, I got up to move, but he said “no, sigue sigue!” After he took a few shots he came over and showed me the potos. I thought he was just being friendly, but to my surprise he was showing me pictures of me! He said he was a photographer for Eltomavistas Santander and asked me if he could potentially post the photos on their facebook page and if I had an email address that he could send them to. I happily obliged and thanked him profusely for the striking photos.

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One of the negative side effects of being a Cornellian is that I feel like I always need to be doing something productive (because at Cornell there’s always something). Since coming to Spain I’ve been working on getting out of that mindset by taking a few minutes every so often to do absolutely nothing except enjoy being exactly where I am. I have to constantly remind myself of this so I’m really happy that the lovely gentleman captured one of those moments so beautifully.

Not long before Christmas I discovered that my niña, my dear mini-me, has never ever decorated a gingerbread house before! So I figured there was no better way to spend our last day before Christmas break. This proved to be rather difficult though because Spain doesn’t seem to have Gingerbread house kits, I didn’t have any molasses (nor the time, I must add) to make gingerbread from scratch, and Spain doesn’t have graham crackers either (one of the American things I miss most). So I picked up a box of Neapolitanas (cinnamon cracker/cookie things that are the closest we have to graham crackers) and Lacositas (essentially the Spanish brand of M&M’s).

Then all we needed was the icing. Easy, right? I wish. Apparently I picked a very unoriginal recipe for gingerbread house icing that required tons of whipping to reach the necessary consistency and of course that day we happened to be unable to find the whisk attachments for the mixer. So we ended up painting the glue and praying that it dry fast enough. We had moderate success for a bit, but the more we put things together, the more it began to fall apart. At one point we had all four corners assembled, ready to be put together, and by then end we just had an icing-drenched heap of cinnamon deliciousness.

Once we knew the construction project was scrapped she got really into messing around with the food coloring and icing. Like REALLY into it. So much so that by then end she had red hands, I had icing on my shoes, and Thumper (their super fluffy bunny) had streaks of grayish-purple icing in his fur (he was not happy).

The event will probably haunt me for the rest of my Civil Engineering career, but I will always remember how much we laughed, our attempt to clean the rabbit, and eating a pile of Neapolitanas and Lacositas.

Spain has a weird schedule and because the first semester didn’t start until the last week of September, we had classes up to Dec 22nd, a two week break for Christmas, New Year, and Three Kings Day, another week plus two days of classes, and then 2.5 weeks of exams before the second semester starts the following Monday. In other words, the first semester ends Feb 3rd and the second begins on Feb 6th. I don’t think it’s a great system.

Anyway, since we only had a two week break and I still had to do homework and study over the break and transatlantic flights are expensive, it wasn’t feasible to go all the way home to Florida. So I stayed with my aunt and uncle who live in England!

For one of my Spanish classes our assignment over break was to write an essay about our Christmas away from home, and, since I think it just about sums it all up pretty well, I’m just gonna leave it here (translated from Spanish so bear with me):

“You know those moments in which you wish the whole world would simply stop? On Christmas morning my aunt, uncle, older cousin, and I promised ourselves that we would each open one present and then go eat breakfast before opening the rest. Approximately twenty minutes later we found ourselves sitting on the sofas (settees, if we’re going with the British translation) amongst a sea of wrapping paper, still without breakfast, and, when we realized this, we all looked at each other and started laughing. We sat for a little while longer, still in our pajamas and robes surrounded by the mess, sipping our coffee and tea and chatting. In that moment I wanted nothing more than to hit the pause button and stay there.

These past two weeks have been incredible because, like during each of my travels, I’ve gotten to know a (relatively) new culture y experienced many of things I’d never encountered before. It was an adventure for sure, but this time instead of staying in a hostel in a huge city, I stayed in a little house in Northampton about an hour north of London. I’ve been told to “make the most” of my time abroad and to visit as many places as I possibly can, but in my opinion those two things are not always synonymous. Instead of tiring myself out each day running from one place to another on sketchy public transport, I learned how to bake bread pudding, we all played makeshift minigolf in the living room, I befriended two lovely cats, my uncle gave me a tour of his woodworking/furniture factory, we visited Cambridge, we went to a ballet (so fancy), my cousin and his fiancée gave me a grand private tour of London, and I taught my aunt how to make french toast. It was fantastic.

After all, there’s no better way to get to know the culture than to live with the locals, right? For one thing I was never very interested in coffee and I could never bring myself to really enjoy tea, but somehow within two days of arriving I was drinking tea or coffee once or twice a day. They’ve converted me. It’s contagious I swear. Additionally, I am now an expert on every type of pudding in existence. In the U.S. pudding is a dessert and normally chocolate or vanilla flavored, but in England pudding could mean so many different things. There’s Yorkshire pudding (a savory pastry), white pudding (spiced sausage), black pudding (blood sausage *gag*), bread and butter pudding (a dessert made of bread, milk, and eggs), and christmas pudding (a dark fruit cake), to mention a few.

This Christmas has been one of the best because even though I haven’t been able to be with my immediate family, I’ve had the privilege to experience a Christmas filled with new traditions and loved ones whom I hadn’t seen in a decade. No amount of traveling could replace that.”

So if you hadn’t already guessed, I really really did not want to leave at the end. But now I’m back in the “real world” of school, studying, and exams. And speaking of not studying for exams… If you’re just as intrigued about this new world of puddings just as much as I am, there’s an entire wikipedia page dedicated to it. Learn way more than you ever needed to know about the versatile deliciousness here. That’s what I’ll be doing until exams are over! 🙂

 

Tears Part II: Sunrises and Pierogis

There are countless reasons I find Spanish is much more interesting than English, but I think I just discovered my favorite one. In the Spanish language there are two words that generally mean “for”: por and para. Any nonnative Spanish speaker will agree that, almost without a doubt, one of the most difficult parts of the language is learning when to use which one. After listening to Spaniards for the past four months, I’ve finally begun to get the hang of it. During my most recent Spanish class, my professor ended up explaining one case:

Para normally means something “like in order to,” e.g. “I practice in order to improve.” It also means “for,” e.g. “I made this present for you.” Por normally means “by,” “via,” or “per.” However, in certain (but less common) cases, it also means “for.” But this for isn’t just any for. It’s not that I bought these flowers for you, it’s not that I took notes in class for you when you were sick, it’s that I would drop everything for you. The way my professor put it, in this case, “for you” is closer to “because of my love for you.”

A few examples (excuse the spanglish):

“I would swim para ti“= If you were injured I’d take your place in the 100m freestyle race.

“I would swim por ti“= If you needed me, I’d cross oceans just to be there for you.

Your lifelong best friend hands you a box and says:

para ti”= I know how much you love cupcakes so I stopped by your favorite bakery this morning and got a box of them for you.

por ti”= I know your child needs a heart operation that you can’t afford but I made some sacrifices and scraped together the money to make it possible and put it inside this box for you.

That is D E E P.

As you probably already know, I spent a week in December traveling in Barcelona and Kraków. Spain has a strange calendar of fiestas, normally celebrating a random day off here and a random day off there. Dec 6th and 9th are always holidays and this year they happened to fall on a Tuesday and Thursday, so even though the rest of the university had school Monday, Wednesday, Friday, the Cornell program gave us the entire week off. I decided to take advantage and spend 10 days traveling to Barcelona, then to Krakow, and back to Santander. In my previous post I focused on my visit to Auschwitz in Poland, a very dismal but all-important part of the week, and now I’ll get to the rest of the trip!

I’ve never been entirely an extrovert or entirely an introvert, but traveling on my own for 10 days made me realize just how much of an introvert I can be, and it was almost a little scary. I thought that maybe I would get lonely after a couple of days, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even though I enjoyed making a couple new friends along the way, by the end I felt almost unprepared to go back to socializing with people I already know. And yet sometimes after a weekend spent studying I’m convinced I’ll die if I don’t get some social interaction soon. So introvert of extrovert? The world may never know!

I spent the 5 days in Barcelona, which I spent exploring the Gothic quarter, attending a chocolate tasting workshop, exploring Montjuic, visiting the Monastery at Montserrat, watching the sunrise over the Sagrada Familia from Parque Güell, and, of course, wandering in and around the Sagrada Familia itself for (literally) hours on end. Along the way I befriended a fantastic Australian student named Ray who has been studying in France for a semester. We kept bumping into each other so it was a good time!

There were actually two best parts and one was definitely standing in the middle of the Sagrada Familia with the morning sun shining through the stained glass windows and setting the entire nave aglow with soft rainbows. I do like the pictures that I snapped, but I assure you it was a million times more beautiful than anything any number of pixels can create. As with sadness I rarely cry out of happiness, but this entire week proved to be the exception to those rules because I just couldn’t help tearing up from the sheer magnificence of it all.

My other favorite part was watching the sunrise over the Sagrada Familia from Parque Güell. It. Was. A M A Z I N G. See for yourself.

“The sun is the best painter.” –Antoni Gaudí

Now to Kraków. I didn’t realize until I got there that I had never been to eastern Europe before and I had never ever been in a country where I understood almost zero percent of the language. Everywhere I had ever been spoke either English or one of the romance languages, of which if you know one you can figure out enough to get by with the rest. Honestly, I felt rather uncomfortable speaking English, not because the people were rude or disdainful (in fact, quite the opposite), but because I felt like an uneducated/lazy American who has to rely on the fact that the rest of the world speaks my language in addition to their own. I know that’s not exactly the case, but it seems almost wrong to go to a different country and expect them to speak my language instead of going the extra distance to speak their own. But of course, you also couldn’t possibly learn every language of every country you travel to (you can only do so much duolingo in a month), so in that respect having a “universal language” is incredibly helpful. On the bright side, I picked up on the pronunciation pretty quickly so if I was asking for directions I could at least pronounce the place names correctly enough, and by the end I was able to ask for things like food and train tickets in Polish (until the other person would ask me a question beyond the basics and I would understand absolutely nothing).

As traitorous as I feel for saying this, apart from the Sagrada Familia I liked Poland much more than Barcelona. I’m not sure if it’s because it was a bit less touristy, or because it felt a bit more wintery with the freezing weather and Christmas markets, or maybe I’m just so accustomed to Spain now that Barcelona wasn’t quite as exciting. Regardless, as soon as I got there I knew that three days wasn’t going to be enough. There’s still an entire universe of history, Catholicism, St. Pope John Paul II, a monastery with a sacred icon of the Virgin Mary, and so much more that I didn’t have time to even begin exploring. Not to mention that I can no longer imagine my life without pierogis.

I went on a tour around the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, spent some time at Auschwitz, took the miner’s route at the Wieliczka Salt Mine (way more fun than the tourist route), and did some Christmas shopping at the Christmas market in the main square (while eating lots of pierogis), just to name a few things. I also found an adorable little bookshop/café where you can get coffee/dessert, pick out a book, and sit in one of their many rooms, either at a table or in a comfy armchair, and just read for hours. I only let myself go a couple of hours before closing time so that I couldn’t spend an entire day there.

 

As I mentioned briefly before, the people of Kraków were so kind overall. When someone started speaking to me in Polish and I had to respond in English, they switched languages automatically and continued the conversation with exactly the same friendliness as they had started. When I tried to speak Polish and crashed and burned halfway through the second sentence, the person would just give a friendly laugh, very much amused by and appreciative of my attempt, and then kindly ask if I’d prefer English. Even when I spoke English and the other person didn’t, they were incredibly understanding and patient and we would both use what little we knew of each other’s language to figure things out. In any situation, they were all so welcoming and kind. I absolutely cannot wait to (hopefully) return one day.

Despite the fact that I was having the time of my life, the ten days didn’t rush by like I though they would. They seemed to pass almost a little slower than usual; so much so that by the time I got home, Barcelona felt like forever ago. I’m not complaining though, it was a much needed break after a month of exams and it gave me a little more energy to push through the last couple of weeks before Christmas break. It was probably the longest but also best week of the semester (so far) 😉

Tears Part I: Socks and Bricks

I think I’ve figured out why I don’t like writing:

  1. I never seem to have a pen and paper or my laptop with me when I have all these thoughts I feel like I need to write down before I forget about them. “Well that’s an easy fix Meriel, just carry a notebook with you!” I wish it were that simple. I do have a travel journal and a perfectly matching handy dandy pen to go with it (Chris you’re the bomb dot com) but there has been many a time when it’s not smart/possible to just stop and pull out a journal (e.g. on a metro, in the funicular, while I’m walking) and other times I simply can’t physically carry it with me (e.g. some places have limits on bag sizes and my journal doesn’t fit in a purse).
  2. My writing can’t keep up with my thoughts. Ever. If there’s one thing Cornell has taught (or perhaps more accurately, conditioned) me to do is to be constantly thinking. Whether it’s about the problem set I need to finish, the meeting I have to attend, wherever I need to be exactly 6.5 minutes after this class ends, the thank you letter I should probably write, or the GF Cornell Dining brownie I’m really craving (fact: they are amazing), my mind is pretty much always racing, jumping from one thing to the next.

Today I encountered both of these dilemmas because I visited Auschwitz, the most famous of the concentration/extermination camps from the Holocaust. I could only bring a small purse so I couldn’t bring my journal, and even if I had been able to, there were so many thoughts racing through my mind both during and afterwards that there’s no way even a fraction of them would’ve made it onto paper. As a result, this is only a fraction of a fraction, which, as you can see, is still quite a lot.

After two decades of frequently learning about various aspects of one the largest genocides of the 20th century, a few years of AP history classes, and the phrase “60 million Jews” forever ingrained in my brain, I thought I had a pretty firm grasp on the scale of the Holocaust. Looking back I realized that I absolutely did not.

While visiting Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum, Auschwitz I Museum, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau,* there were countless thoughts and emotions wreaking havoc in my mind, but I’m just going to focus on the three things that truly struck me:

#1: The “Room of Choices”

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Room of Choices (a stock photo)

The entirety of Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum was incredibly well done, but one of the last rooms was especially overwhelming (as it’s intended to be), both visually and emotionally. It’s a relatively small circular room with several rotating columns (each in a different language). The white walls and columns are entirely covered with fragments of memories and quotes from survivors, witnesses, and people who had the chance to hide/rescue Jews. I wish I had taken a picture but in the moment, taking a photo was the last thing on my mind. There were snippets of valiance: a sister who volunteered to be deported solely because she wanted to protect her younger brother who had been randomly selected. There were also harrowing regrets: a farmer who turned away a Jewish family who asked to hide in his house during a raid, only to then witness their capture when they subsequently hid in the bushes outside his home.

#2: A girl’s recount of her mom giving her own socks to her and her brother, one each, before the siblings were transported to a different camp. I’ll spare you the rest of the story because I’m sure you can imagine how it ends. I myself could hardly read the rest after that because my vision became so blurred with tears.

#3: The silent forest of brick “chimneys”

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A very small glimpse of the hundreds of towers

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where the vast majority of the killing took place, was incredibly eerie for several reasons. It was strange to see the main gate, railway, and watchtowers because I felt as though I was simply looking at a photo from a history book, except this time I couldn’t just turn the page. The trees were bare, the land relatively flat so there was absolutely no protection from the wind and simply walking from one end of the camp to the other took about 10 minutes. To the left were rows of dilapidated wooden sheds, the “bunks” where the prisoners slept. To the right were rows upon rows upon rows, as far as I could see, of brick towers. This side probably used to be a mirror image of the wooden sheds except there were only outlines where the walls used to stand, with two towers in each silhouette. They resembled chimneys but I wouldn’t believe for a second that they were used for warmth, cooking, or anything of the sort. The most unsettling part was that despite the highway located not far away, all the tour groups meandering around, and the incessant wind, the camp somehow remained in almost complete silence. It was as though even the slightest sound was absorbed back into the muddy ground. I could fill a book with all my heartbreaking realizations, but essentially every train of thought always came back around to a single phrase: “I can’t even imagine…”

I cannot. I cannot. I cannot.

Oddly enough, I very rarely cry when I’m overwhelmingly sad, and this today was the rarity. Honestly, I was incredibly self-conscious while standing in front of a wall of text, sniffling and hiccupping while trying to make it to the end of the sock story, and standing frozen in front of the brick towers (still crying a bit) for what felt like an eternity because I simply could not processes the sheer size of the camp. It even sounds rather silly having written it down. But I absolutely believe it was anything but a waste to shed a few (hundred) tears on behalf of those who couldn’t in order to remain courageous for the sake of others.

While I  wouldn’t describe the visit as easy or pleasant, it’s a humbling opportunity that, if you ever have the chance, I would highly recommend. Perhaps the most important thing that has resulted from this experience is that I left with a permanent reminder to act upon and speak nothing but kindness, always.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

-Anne Frank

 

*Oskar Schindler’s Factory (the focus of “Schindler’s List”) is museum in the office building where the factory used to be (all traces of the factory’s existence were removed when Schindler fled the Nazis). Auschwitz I is the concentration camp with brick building “blocks” and one gas chamber, used as more of a labor camp. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is an expansion of Auschwitz I but it’s a few kilometers away and built on a much larger scale, including five gas chambers, each twice the size of that in Auschwitz I.

The Smaller Joys

Since this didn’t make it into my last post, please enjoy this picture of my 12-year-old mini-me and I attempting to take a picture with both of our spirit/second favorite animal (an otter!) in Lisbon because coincidentally their family was vacationing there the exact weekend I was there so we went to the Oceanarium together! Definitely one of the best parts of the trip. She’s my favorite ❤

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Anywayyyyy, November has gone by so fast that Thanksgiving just snuck up on me this year. I’m a little bummed because I did’t get a break, but I’m also super thankful that I get to live in a different country for an entire year. Still sounds a bit crazy when I say it.

So far it’s been a month of exams, so I made the conscious decision to put all my international adventures on hold and focus on just being a student. Our prelim “season” started, but as all Cornellians know, “season” refers to everything except the first few weeks of any semester. Once it starts, it never ends. Even still, things here are much less stressful so I’m also incredibly thankful for that. Some exams went really well and others…not so well. On the bright side, while all this will still show up on my transcript at least it won’t get factored into my GPA, which is good, right?? Welp, only time will tell…

It’s also been a month of small but really exciting milestones! Despite having had very little time to run due to multiple exams, I PR’d (broke my personal record) on Saturday during Santander’s annual night race (which was so cool with all the lights!). I beat my time, which I set all the way back in high school when I was super in shape during cross country season, by 3:21. Yup, three minutes and twenty-one seconds. For running, that’s a lot. And it also beats my last race that I ran a few weeks ago by 4:05. Where were these legs back when I actually had a team counting on me!?!? That’s what I wanna know!! Regardless, I’m ecstatic.

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I got a nifty headlamp and they even knew my graduation year!

Another small but really important milestone? My niño’s (spanish children’s) bunny finally likes me! It only took him two months.

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A bunch of international students took a day trip to Parque Cabarceno, which technically has “zoológico” (zoo) in its name, but it’s not really a zoo. It’s more like a nature park with a couple fences here and there. It was BEAUTIFUL. I got to get so close to so many different types of animals (sea lions, elephants, and an ostrich, to name my favorites) and at the highest point in the park you look south and see the Picos de Europa (Cantabria’s mountain range), and if you look North you see Santander and its bay (seen in this post’s cover photo). Absolutely breathtaking.

Aaaaand, since Spain doesn’t have Thanksgiving, I invited a bunch of American and Spanish (and even one Italian) friends over to my flat for “Thanksgiving dinner” complete with chicken (turkey isn’t very common…), stuffing, sweet potato, roasted veggies, ham, mashed potato, apple crisp, empanadas, and, of course, Spanish tortillas. My mom even mailed me cute Fall themed paper plates and napkins, a plastic tablecloth, and cute sparkly maple leaf decorations! It wasn’t anything huge or crazy, but I just loved getting to introduce my friends to a beautiful holiday with lots of friendship and food ❤

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SPANISH UPDATE: I had a dream with Spanish in it!! Not to say that the entire dream was in Spanish but I started talking to some people in Spanish AND used the subjective. Twice. Correctly. So that’s definitely a good sign if even subconscious Meriel can get it right without thinking too much. I’ve also started to outsmart google translate. Sometimes when I’m writing an essay I’ll type in the English to double check my Spanish structure but the translation comes out weird, so instead I reverse it, put in the Spanish, and the English comes out just how I intended it to. Perfecto. Even in Spanish class I’m starting to realize that even when I haven’t previously learned the official grammar rules, oftentimes I can tell what sounds right and what doesn’t, even though I can’t explain why. Knowing that it’s only November makes me so excited to see how far I can get with my language skills by the time summer rolls around!

Some self-reflection:

I have always hated writing. So much. That’s not to say that I’m bad at it though: I did well in AP Lang and AP Lit, I gave a speech at my graduation, and apparently people actually read this blog so I can’t be that bad (right?). However, for some reason writing has always been my least favorite way of expressing myself. Maybe it’s because it takes too much patience to write out words with a paper and pen, or perhaps because a lot of times drawing or music can express so much more without uttering a single syllable. Regardless, even if it’s about something I’m interested in (like this blog!), it’s always been a chore for me.

If you recall from one of my first posts, in my Spanish class (I’m taking two, this is the one through the Cornell program) there are only three of us and we’re at three completely different levels of fluency, so to add a little more challenge and practice for myself, I opt to write an essay each week and my teacher corrects all the grammar, punctuation (it’s actually a bit different in Spanish…weird), and things that just don’t come out quite right. The first week my teacher told me to compare and contrast two regions of Spain. B o r i n g. The next week he just told me to write something in the past tense. Each week he gave me more and more freedom over what to write about so one week when I was a bit homesick I wrote about baking chocolate chip cookies with my mom when I was younger, and when I missed a friend I wrote about seeing them again when I get back.

Ever since then I’ve started to enjoy writing and getting all my feelings on paper, but for some reason I only enjoy writing in Spanish. Maybe it’s because it’s something new and different, maybe it’s because I’m obsessed with learning Spanish, or maybe it’s because things just sound prettier in Spanish, who knows! Granted, I will probably never sound quite as eloquent in Spanish as in English, but I’m mostly just happily surprised that I found at least some form of writing that I don’t absolutely dread. It’s only been a couple months and already I’ve found myself growing in ways I didn’t think were even possible, and that’s just a small example.

Overall, I feel like everything is starting to come together more and more each week, so gradually that I don’t even notice it until I look all the way back to August. Whether I’m holed up in my room doing homework, making pizza with my favorite 12-year-old, or reading my Spanish Harry Potter books, I’m so happy to be here. God is good.