Bolivia Take 2

May 31st – June 7th

I returned to Calcha, Bolivia for a few days to close out the program between EWB Cornell and Calcha. Since I’ve never explained fully and mainly focused on the bridge aspect (because that’s the project I was most involved in), this is an overview of the entire set of projects within the 5-year program agreement.

During the summer of 2014, a few students from Engineers Without Borders Cornell (EWB) traveled to the Andean village of Calcha to inspect an existing spring box (which provides water storage and distribution) and test the water quality. The spring box wasn’t functional due to either being broken or not completely installed, so the team planned to do some research during the academic year in order to get it up and running when they returned the following summer. The water test came back relatively clean; the only thing the team could do to further improve the quality was provide them with chlorine tablets, but that didn’t require any type of engineering and the community didn’t show much interest in that idea either. However, while the team was visiting they spoke with individual households, and several community members expressed the need to cross the river when the water rose during the rainy season. The team decided that during the coming academic year they would do a feasibility assessment and, when they returned the following summer, they would potentially do some land surveying. Our team was new and this was their first project, so they didn’t have much experience, let alone in bridge building. The community would also have to show significant interest and commitment as well if the project were to happen.

In the summer of 2015 some team members returned, surveyed the river profile at a few potential locations for the bridge, gathered as many details as possible about the spring box, and spoke with the community again. A couple months later, at the start of the school year, I joined the team. Leadership told us we’d be building a pedestrian bridge in Bolivia partnering with (meaning using the design method and professional guidance of) another similar nonprofit called Bridges to Prosperity (B2P).

As some of you may already know, two years ago during the summer of 2016 I traveled to Calcha for two months with seven other students from our EWB team. We worked with the community members for seven weeks to construct a pedestrian bridge across the Vitichi River, which becomes impassable several times during most rainy seasons, making it difficult and even dangerous to cross, cutting off access to farmland (many families’ main source of income), schools, and hospitals. Between the summers of 2015 and 2016, the government had finally come in and fixed the spring box, so with the water project, again, there wasn’t a lot we could do, so all efforts ended up being focused on the bridge.

During the summer of 2017, a team of four EWB students went to Calcha to reinforce an existing irrigation canal with concrete and to provide an instruction manual and some materials to create gabions to protect both the bridge and the nearby spring box from erosion.

At the beginning of June, marking 5 years of collaboration, and therefore the close of the 5-year program agreement, three of us from the team and a professional mentor traveled to Calcha one last time. It was the final monitoring trip for the various projects, for evaluating the overall impact on the community, and closing out of the program.

I remember leaving Calcha two years ago, not knowing when I’d be back, if ever. I was thinking that the chances were I’d probably never be back, considering how far away it is and how logistically difficult it is to get there (refer to our trip home later on in this post). So having the opportunity to return was wonderful, and a bit strange, because, as Joe put it “it felt like I’d never left,” and it seemed that most things were they way they had been when we left. The bridge decking was a little more weathered and most of the children were a little (or a lot) taller, but other than that, not much seemed to have changed. Everyone we ran into asked us what we we’d been up to and where were Nati and Beti and Mario and Anna, etc. (some of those are nicknames the people gave them), so we gave the best rundown as we could of what everyone is off doing now, most of us already graduated. This time we didn’t have any electricity where we were staying (only the last day when it was finally fixed). Unfortunately only two out of five of us brought any type of illuminating device, so we survived primarily off of my and another person’s headlamps and flashlights for three days.

The trip there went pretty smoothly, especially because I took an earlier flight to Miami, which was delayed anyway but I still arrived with plenty of time to spare before the flight to La Paz.

We inspected the bridge and canal for continued structural stability and measured the canal (which consisted of climbing over large piles of earth and balancing between the steep sides of the canal, with each of us getting wet feet at one point or another), including the full length and that of the newly implemented section. We didn’t see any new gabions, and the existing gabions were leaning drastically, practically falling into the river. We measured the erosion along the river that occurred in the past year, and it turned out to be small, but not negligible. This only increased our concern about the lack of new gabions.

We had a meeting with the community, much like the weekly bridge meetings we had during construction, to explain to the community what we were doing and that we wouldn’t be back again, as a team at least. The community also explained that they hadn’t put in the gabions because the local government had said they would send a truck to collect stones from the river, but it never came, and they asked us to go to the Mayor and advocate for them. At the end, all the community members present came up to shake each of our hands, which they did before we left last time, which is a significant sign of gratitude and friendship. I got to see Evelyn as well, now nearly thirteen and much taller, even if for only about 15 minutes.

The following day happened to be my birthday and at breakfast everyone surprised me with a pocket-sized masterpiece of a birthday card, made with an index card and crayons. It was fantastic. We then drove the 45 minutes to Vitichi, the capital of the region where the government offices are, to see the mayor. We chatted with him briefly (he remembered us from last time; the banner of us in traditional clothing at a local festival still hangs on his office wall), thanked him for his support these last couple of years, and asked him to continue supporting the community after the close of the projects.

At lunch that day the team also surprised me with a chocolate cake (that was apparently brought frozen all the way from La Paz) and a candle that one of the cooks hand carved into geometric shapes and sang happy birthday. Cake is really hard to come by in Bolivia and I wasn’t expecting it at all so it made a great birthday. My only regret is that I was so excited about the cake that I never thought to take a picture of it.

The last day-and-a-half we were in Calcha, we went around knocking on people’s doors and chatting with them. This is not unusual in Bolivian society, to show up at someone’s house unannounced for a visita. We would ask about their perception of the bridge and how the construction went, how often they used it if at all, whether they had land on the other side, and any estimations of how many other people seemed to use it during the rainy season. And of course each visita meant that we were given (not offered, given) various food and drink, including buñuelos (fried dough), sangani (clear wine-like liquor that you drink like a shot), soda, soup, stew, rice, and potatoes. We ended up telling the cooks that they didn’t need to make lunch for us because we ended up having to eat so much food, as it’s considered very rude to refuse food and drinks offered to you at someone’s house.

The trip home was when things got bumpy. We left at 5 AM and drove for 12 hours from Calcha to La Paz (which is NOT a capital of Bolivia, we learned; Sucre is in fact the one and only capital). There we stayed at a hotel overnight, got up at 3:30 AM to drive to the airport, and were scheduled to take off at 6:30 AM. The plan was to fly for an hour to Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia, get off the plane for an hour, re-board the same plane with new people, and fly for six hours to Miami where we would each make our own connections to various parts of the U.S.

What actually happened:

When we were going through the second security check while boarding the plane, I was randomly selected for additional security screening. When they wiped a strip on the inside of my suitcase to test for explosives, it tested positive. Twice. The inspector was very amicable and spoke English, and he searched my bag. He first asked if I’d been to Uyuni (where the salt flats are) and I said yes, I’d been there and taken the same suitcase but that was two years ago. He called over another inspector. This one asked if I had been around any fireworks. Nope. He asked if I took heart medication. No. They asked where I’d been and I said La Paz and Vitichi (the region Calcha is in) and they both looked confused and said they didn’t know where Vitichi was. After a few more questions about what I was doing there they let me go, thank goodness.

We were sitting on the tarmac and delayed for about an hour before we flew the one hour to Santa Cruz. We got off the plane and rushed to get some food and drinks (especially because we weren’t allowed to bring any water on the plane), but when we were supposed to board again, they announced that we were delayed and would be told more in 20 minutes. We were told this repeatedly until about an hour later they said that there were mechanical issues with the plane (and this was literally the only American Airlines plane in Bolivia, so there was no back-up). They ended up giving us lunch vouchers while we waited for several hours. Around noon, 3 hours delayed, we all knew that we would miss our connections in Miami so we attempted to rebook them, which was a huge difficulty in itself. I was the only one that didn’t receive an email giving me the option to rebook my flight so I was pretty stuck.

I wasn’t sure if I was even going to make the latest flight to Orlando that was scheduled to leave Miami at 9:45 PM, so I decided to call my parents (whatsapp via the sketchy airport wifi) to ask if someone could just make the 3-4 hour trek down to Miami to pick me up.

My dad on the other end told me that he wouldn’t be able to pick me up from Miami. They had been waiting to tell me when I got home that my granddad was in the hospital and not doing well so he was going to drive my mom to the Orlando airport that night. I had known he was in the hospital, but before I left he’d been doing better, but apparently a few days prior, on my birthday, he started going downhill. So not only I was stuck in Bolivia with the potential to get stuck in Miami, but I was losing my granddad, rather unexpectedly.

Thankfully, about an hour later they suddenly announced that we were going to board the plane. As I was standing in line waiting for the additional security check, a really kind airline employee at the front desk saw that I was crying, and I’m guessing she thought I was crying over a missed connection or something because she asked if there was anything she could do to help. I asked if she could put me on the later flight to Orlando because there was a chance we would make it and I wasn’t able to rebook. She came back a few minutes later with a new boarding pass.

I found out when we boarded that the flight was actually 7 hours, instead of 6 like I thought, I resigned myself to staying in Miami overnight because there was no way I was going to make the connection still. I started and finished Marley & Me on the plane, crying my way through the end (it was such a beautiful book). As soon as we landed I called my mom, who was still waiting for her delayed flight to Dublin. As we walked to customs and immigration, we all got alerts saying that all our flights had been delayed by about an hour so there was still a chance we could make them. We walked as fast as we could and thankfully I had decided not to check my bag, so as soon as we made it through immigration I checked the departure board and started heading to the gate. I had to go through security again, but there were very few people since it was 10:30 at night. The gate happened to be the first one after security and I got there just as they started boarding. It was once I was on the plane and I checked my phone that I found a voicemail that I hadn’t gotten in Bolivia because I couldn’t receive calls or texts. It was a call from American Airlines to let me rebook my flight. Thanks American.

We landed in Orlando and I checked my mom’s delayed flight to see if she’d still be there, because maybe I’d be able to stop by her gate to say goodbye, but they were boarding just as we landed. I met my dad and we got home at about 2 AM.

Although the end of the trip was rather rough, it was so so lovely to see all the community members again. I hope to one day visit Calcha again as an individual and to make many more visitas.

 

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The Adventure Begins Now

My mom said to me, to offer some words of encouragement (I think) during my final semester of studying Civil Engineering, “you can see the light at the end of the tunnel…but in this case you’re the one building the tunnel.”

I was ready to graduate by the time I finished my junior year. After spending a year in Spain, a year of feeling like a real human being, I was not ready to go back to Cornell for another year. However, the fact that it was only one more year is what kept me going. While I’m proud to say that I have never in my life pulled an all-nighter (for academic purposes), but that doesn’t mean there weren’t times I walked (more like trudged) home from the engineering quad at 4 AM. With starting up a new engineering project team (Bridges to Prosperity), serving as President of Cornell Catholic, still volunteering through Alpha Phi Omega, surviving classes, applying for jobs, studying for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, and spending time with friends whom I hadn’t seen in a year, I was constantly juggling many, many things. Not to mention getting sick three times in my last semester; a record for me.

So by the time graduation came around – let’s be honest, by Spring break I was more than ready to be done with school. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Cornell for the past four years (three years if you count when I took a year-long break from it). I love all that I’ve been able to experience and learn there, I love all the opportunities I’ve had, all the organization I’ve had the chance to be part of, many of the professors, TAs, and staff, and I love and miss all my friends very much. However, I can’t stand a constant schedule of prelims (exams) on top of regular classes and homework, most problem sets (Dynamics was the bane of my existence in the spring), and the pressure to not only do everything, but to simultaneously excel in everything. It’s an incredibly stressful environment and I’m always in awe of the people who spent all four years there, because I was only really there for three and I still at times thought I wasn’t going to make it.

Graduation weekend was so crazy with events (notice the title photo of a very rainy graduation ceremony), packing, saying goodbyes, making sure my parents didn’t get lost, and trying to enjoy my last bit of Ithaca, that I kept waiting for it to sink in that it was all finally over, but it never did. Instead it’s been happening very gradually with small realizations. For example, a few days ago I was telling someone about how Cornell makes its own ice cream and how delicious it is, but I stopped in the middle of a sentence because I realized that I won’t get to have Bavarian Raspberry Fudge for a really long time (it was the first flavor I ever tried and still my favorite).  And it really hit me when I was filling out the customs form just before arriving in Bolivia when my friend Joe reminded me to write ingeniero/a (Engineer) in the “occupation” field. I definitely freaked out a little bit with excitement.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the crazy things I did in college, the adventures, the new experiences, the growth, the messiness, the uniqueness, the inspiring nature, and the beauty of it all. As my very wise friend Michaela said to me, it doesn’t feel so much like an ending, but more like a beginning. It’s the beginning of real life. So I’ve been thinking to myself: these past four years? All these amazing things that I’ve seen, done, and experienced?

This has only been the beginning.

Like, IT GETS EVEN BETTER!

Our whole lives people have asked us what we want to do and who we want to be, then we applied to colleges with our desired programs, picked a major, and worked our butts off for four years, often (and understandably) forgetting what the end goal was. And now we’re all finally going to do the things we’ve been saying we want to do for the last however many years! HOW EXCITING IS THAT!? In a world with so much talk and so little action it’s incredibly beautiful to see so many of my friends and peers setting out to make (and in many cases, have already made) a visible and tangible impact on society. Among those whom I admire greatly, I know people who are volunteering with the Peace Corps, studying robots that aid developmentally challenged children, building bridges, studying earthquake engineering, finding ways to make affordable food more accessible and nutritious, teaching high school AP science classes, becoming a nurse to help mothers and babies, studying theology and philosophy in pursuit of priestly ordination, teaching music, and teaching English as a second language to adult immigrants (many of whom are migrant farm workers from Mexico). That’s only to name a few. And on top of that, several of my friends will soon be getting married and I know they will be the example to show that two people can be joyfully (exuberantly!) committed to one another for the rest of their lives and to raise children to be selfless in this prideful world. I can’t wait to witness and celebrate their profession of love with them!

Michaela and I were lamenting about some (not all) adults we know seem to lead not terribly interesting lives and are very content with that, and we were worrying about ending up in the same situation but being unhappy with it, because we love adventure and travel and always trying new things. But then we had an epiphany. We can still be responsible working adults and still have amazing adventures and do cool things. Perhaps it won’t be quite as straightforward because we’ll have jobs and families, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do what we love. Instead it’ll be us and our families instead of traveling going solo, or it’ll be adventures on a slightly smaller scale, or we’ll be changing scenery once or twice a year instead of what for the past four years has seemed like every few months. I always think of my AP Euro teacher Mrs. Hals and her family, our EWB/B2P Professional Engineering mentor Johann, and the Spanish family whose children I taught English to last year, because all of them lead “normal” lives, but they still find the time to do some really cool things in some really cool places.

You don’t need to have a foreign passport, or make a lot of money, or speak another language, or I don’t even know what else. You just have to keep your eyes open for the opportunities, be persistent in working towards them, and when the times comes, take the leap.

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Still relevant!

To all the graduates, thank you for an unforgettable college experience. Though I already dearly miss living a few minutes away from each other, I am beyond ecstatic to see all the incredible things you all accomplish, all the setbacks you overcome, and all the joyous occasions you encounter. You are amazing.

Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam.

FAQ: Graduation, Across the Pond, and Beyond

Congratulations to the 150th graduating class of Cornell! Which answers the first question: did I graduate? Yes, thank goodness! Although it still feels pretty surreal. I graduated, along with many of my wonderful friends this past weekend. The weekend was very different from what I expected it to be (isn’t it always?) but exciting and memorable nonetheless. I could definitely write a novel on that alone, but as I haven’t even processed it all myself, if I do, it will be later. Right now I’m just doing what I’ve been doing for the past four years: putting one foot in front of the other, despite whatever my level of feeling overwhelmed may be. And, understandably, what those next steps look like garners many questions, so, as per tradition, to keep the growing circle of people I’ve promised to keep updated actually updated I’m answering the most common questions I’ve received in the last few months:

What are your plans after graduation?

In March I accepted a job offer from Hayes Higgins Partnership, a small engineering firm in Dublin, Ireland. They work on many different types of projects, of which I’ll have some say on which I work, but I’ll most likely get to work on residential projects, schools, and renovations for several Dublin Zoo exhibits, which is a highly unique opportunity. It’s exactly what I wanted: a small firm, a structural engineering position, working on various interesting projects, and close to family (it ended up being extended family, but family nonetheless).

How did you find the job?

Google! Seriously. By the time March came around I’d had several interviews for positions within the U.S., but nothing came of any of them. There was one that I really fell in love with at Arup in Houston, but the position technically required a master’s degree (they decided to put my application in for it anyway because they were interested) so understandably the job went to someone probably a little more experienced. I had also applied to the Peace Corps, going so far as to enduring the intense and surprisingly strict hour and 45-minute interview (which was way more intense than I had expected). It wasn’t until a few days later that I finally acknowledged (what I think I had known for a while but didn’t want to accept) that it wasn’t going to help me grow in the way that I’d hoped, and that being in that position for two years wouldn’t really make me happy.

So it was actually out of sheer frustration that this one day I decided to Google search “civil engineering firms in Dublin, Ireland” and contacted the first three that I found located in the center of town. None of them were advertising open positions or anything, but I sent my resume and cover letter, along with a short explanation in the email saying that I’m American with Irish citizenship, graduating from Cornell, and interested in working with them as a structural engineer.

I got one response and it was from Donal Higgins, co-founder of Hayes Higgins Partnership I was guessing, merely an hour after I sent it. He said my resume and cover letter seemed to be missing from the email. The first email I had sent bounced back, so I sent another one and must have forgotten to reattach the files, so I apologized and sent them along. A few hours later he emailed me back again, at this point it was 2 AM Irish time, saying that my resume and cover letter “made for an interesting read,” which was a very odd response, but at the same time a positive one. After more email exchanges and approval from the senior management team, we scheduled a “brief chat” for the coming Friday. It happened to be Good Friday and I was visiting my friend Patrick in Ohio for Easter (shout out Patrick, even though this isn’t a podcast) so at 9 AM EST I found an empty room in the dorm to wait for a call from Dublin. Long story short, the “brief chat” ended up being 40 minutes long and he offered me the job on the spot.

Did you have to get a work visa?

Nope! I automatically have Irish citizenship because my mom was born (and raised) in Ireland. I finally got my Irish passport this past October (after trying to apply for it while I was in Spain, but to no avail because Spanish bureaucracy might just be worse than American). If I didn’t have citizenship I probably wouldn’t have even applied because the chances of getting hired if you also need a work visa are incredibly slim. Plus, after struggling to get even a student visa for Spain, I really didn’t want to go through that again.

How do you feel about being so far away?

Technically being within driving distance of my family in Florida was nearly at the top of the list of what I wanted in a job (hence the being close to family part mentioned earlier), but I figured if I didn’t end up within driving distance, then I might as well make the leap and work abroad. And I knew in that case I’d still be close to family, just not my immediate family. I think this confuses other people, but to me there’s not much difference having to fly back and forth between Cornell and Florida, and between Ireland and Florida. For me, the difference between driving and flying is significantly greater than the difference between flying for 3 hours and flying for 8 or 9 hours. The bane of my existence (apart from problem sets) for the past four years has been fitting my entire life into a couple of suitcases that cannot exceed 50 lbs., so really not much will change in that respect.

Plus, living in Santander for 10 months prepared me for living abroad long-term, and the Ithaca weather prepared me for the Irish weather, so I’m all set.

How long do you want to stay there?

I could tell you, but I’m pretty sure once I give it a concrete number, God will simply laugh and throw all my own plans to the wind (as He very well should, as I’ve learned). Right now I want to say 2 years minimum, because 1 year doesn’t seem like very long to be at a particular job, and my contract doesn’t have a time limit. After that I can reassess and decide how to continue from there. I do hope to return to the U.S. eventually, and yes, I still have hopes and dreams to live some place where it’s consistently warm and my nose hairs don’t freeze to inform me that it’s below 10 degrees.

Are you traveling to Swaziland this summer with Bridges to Prosperity?

Actually no. For the entire Fall Semester I don’t think there was ever a plan for anyone who traveled to Bolivia to travel again besides our Project Manager Nathalie (because PM is required to travel and she’s amazing and talented so she’s probably the best person to lead the team anyway), because we want as many new members as possible to have the opportunity. It was only at the beginning of Spring semester that this plan changed slightly and we decided it would be better to have at least one other relatively experienced student to be in country for the first two weeks to relieve some of the responsibility of the PM and Professional Mentor. Since Bethany and I, the co-leads of the engineering subteam, were the two options. My previous project team, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) also needed one more person who had already traveled to Calcha to travel again for the last monitoring trip (see next question), and again, Bethany and I were the two options. So one of us needed to travel to one and the other needed to travel to the other. The way dates and availability worked out, I ended up on the Calcha trip and Bethany ended up on the Swaziland trip. We both would’ve loved to do both if we could, returning to our friends in Calcha and making new ones in Swaziland, but of course that’s not possible, so we’re both super excited. Really I think the only downside is that we won’t get to travel with each other. If you’d like to stay updated on one or both projects/teams, check out our (their?) websites: B2P and EWB.

Are you going home for the summer?

Mmmmmm sort of? I graduated on Sunday (!!), I’m flew back to Florida along with my family yesterday, and tomorrow I leave to go back to Calcha, Bolivia for a week (June 1st-7th). You may recall that Calcha is the community with whom EWB-Cornell built a suspended pedestrian bridge in 2016 and a concrete irrigation channel in 2017, so we’re returning one last time for a final round monitoring and evaluation of the projects, and official closeout of the (I believe) 6-year program we’ve maintained with the community. I’m incredibly excited to visit the people, the bridge, the stray dogs, and the beautiful mountains at least one more time! What’s also really cool is that I’ll get to be there for my birthday (June 4th). This will actually be my first birthday not at home, because despite the fact that I spend most of my time away from home, somehow I’ve always ended up being home on that day.

After that I’ll be home for a week, and then I head out again to West Virginia to be a sojourner at Nazareth Farm. It’s an intentional living community that does volunteer home repair for the local community members. (if you want to make a donation, check them out here, they do awesome work!). I will be there for four weeks (June 16th-July 14th), and my friend Victoria is marrying her lovely fiancé, Dan, in Connecticut on July 21st, so between WV and CT I’ll be staying in NYC for a few days with my aunt. After the wedding I’m going back home to Florida for a solid month to, figure out how to fit my life into approximately two suitcases, go to some last doctors appointments and all those fun adult responsibilities, and spend time with friends and family. I’ll depart for Ireland sometime in mid-August to give myself time to settle in before I start in September. So it’ll be fairly equal parts craziness and relaxation, which is a much higher ratio of relaxation than I normally get, so I’m totally happy with it.

Thank you so much to everyone who has supported me through this craziness that has been Cornell. I have many thoughts on my last four years, graduating, and all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way, so I hope to find a way to properly say thank you, but for now I at least wanted to let you know what I’ll be up to in the immediate future. I definitely plan to revive the blog, especially because I’ll be off doing who knows what pretty soon. I will do my best to keep in touch throughout the summer and beyond, so if you’d like to contact me and you’re not sure how (since my address, phone number, etc. will all be changing soon) Facebook messenger is (surprisingly) the best bet regardless of where I’ll happen to be.

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Like the balloon says, this is only the beginning (ft. two of my amazing friends, Michaela and Victoria <3)

Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam!

 

Little Spanish Nuns in Lourdes

As the months have gone by this past year, I keep reflecting on where I was and what I was doing exactly a year ago, especially this week. It hasn’t quite been one year calendar-wise, but liturgically, one year ago I was on a pilgrimage in Lourdes, France, and, due to the crazy final month and a half of school, I never had a chance to write anything about it.

As told in my previous posts, I was in Austria and Hungary for the first half of my Easter break, I spent Holy Week in the Vatican, and then on Easter morning I flew to Lourdes, France to meet up with a group of Spaniards.

Each year during the Easter Octave (the week immediately following Easter Sunday), a group of people from Santander make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, many of them disabled, chronically ill, or elderly. Those who are able-bodied can choose attend as either pilgrims as well, or volunteers who care for those in need assistance throughout the week. So for the last week of my Easter break I served as a volunteer helping to get everyone up, dressed, and fed in the morning, transporting people in wheelchairs everywhere we went, and simply providing good company to the more reserved pilgrims.

 

I remember flying into the teeny tiny Lourdes airport, catching a bus, and taking a taxi to the hotel we were to stay at. The bus driver spoke just enough English, but the taxi driver spoke zero, so I mustered up all the French I had absorbed from Duolingo (which wasn’t a whole lot, but it was something). Although I’m sure my pronunciation was horrific, the driver was highly amused by my attempt to make conversation.

Since I arrived a day early, I wandered around the tiny streets filled with touristy religious gift shops. I walked into a shop that sold a wide variety of items made by monastic communities; it had everything from soap to chocolate to rosaries. Very happy to support religious brothers and sisters, I bought a couple of things and, since Lourdes is very close to the Spanish border and many people are bilingual, I began talking to the shop owner in Spanish and when I explained that I’m American but was with the group from Santander her entire face lit up and she exclaimed that she’s originally from Santander! So every time I passed by throughout the week I made sure to stop in and say hello. Another plus was that it also happened to be right next to a fancy cookie shop that always gave out free samples.

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All the Monasteries that make the products

One of the most interesting parts was that all the volunteers had to wear a uniform. For the men it was simply a nice white dress shirt and slacks, but the girls and women had to wear these outfits that greatly reminded me of my relatively ill-fitting plaid Catholic school uniform days and they definitely made us all look like “monjitas” (little nuns). I actually learned recently that the outfits are simply emulating old (like 1920s old) nurse uniforms. So the following day I managed to piece together all the components of my getup, including the cloak, which I found to be the most exciting part because it very much reminded me of a cape, and I went to meet up with the rest of the group.

 

We spent the days attending mass, exploring the church and the properties, playing games, singing and dancing, and meeting people from all over the world. There was a surprising amount of people from Ireland, and I even ran into two girls about my age from the U.S. A group of us from Santander were chatting away in Spanish while in line waiting for lunch and I heard the two talking to each other in front of us and recognized not just the English but also the familiar accent. I turned to them to ask where they were from and they nearly jumped when I started speaking to them in English. It turned out that they were also studying abroad and decided to come as pilgrims, just the two of them.

I found it highly amusing that within our group I was very much the odd one out because I was not only one of the few young people who was on the pilgrimage without other family members, but I was also the only non-Spaniard (surprise surprise). It was like reverting back to when I first arrived and I was grilled with the same questions over and over by different groups of people as to why was I in Spain and why was I in Lourdes and why was I a volunteer (instead of a pilgrim) and how did I learn Spanish and can they practice English with me and can I talk to their son in English so he can practice, etc, etc.

Then one day I was talking to some people in the hallway when one of the women in charge of our group from Santander cuts in and asks in a rather urgent tone if anyone speaks English. She says that there’s a lady who’s lost and asking for directions but doesn’t speak spanish. I offer my services and she brings me over. The lost woman looks at me and starts speaking in rather exasperated French and it takes every ounce of self control I have to not crack up laughing as I told the woman who had brought me over that the lady was not speaking English at all, but French and that unfortunately I was of little to no use in that field (as demonstrated on the taxi ride before).

I had never felt so Spanish and so non-Spanish in the same week.

Some of my favorite parts of the week included the candlelight processions in front of the church with groups taking turns leading a rosary in their native languages, and simply getting to know the pilgrims, seminarians, and other volunteers on the trip. On the last day I was asked to accompany an elderly woman to the spickets where people can fill up containers with the Lourdes water. She had three large plastic containers and was unsteady on her feet and not 100% mentally present so I balanced three gallons of water on one arm and herself on the other. We moved at a snail’s pace but thankfully the weather was lovely and in the time it took us to walk there and back she had gone through the same cycle three times of her telling me a story about a family scandal, asking me my name and where I was from, and kindly informing me that if I ever needed a place to stay in Santander that I was more than welcome to come stay with her. I smiled and thanked her, and I was honestly just happy that she did all the talking because it was rather difficult to understand her at times, so I was more than content just walking and listening.

 

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I feel that this snippet encapsulates my sentiment about the whole trip rather well. Most people (including the pilgrims who were there) ask me if I got to go see the baths, to which I reply that I didn’t, but that doesn’t disappoint me in the slightest. Every time I visit somewhere new I receive many well-intentioned recommendations of where to go, what to do, etc, but oftentimes something tells me that’s not where I will make the most of my personal experience. In Lourdes, I feel like I was always where I needed to be, and while for many people that would’ve meant visiting the baths, for me that meant simply walking, sitting, and talking with the pilgrims for most of the time. It was exhausting, both physically and emotionally (especially as an introvert), but beautiful and well worth it.

IMG_3415
Eli and I, Pablo and Ramón (the two seminarians), and another volunteer

 

I was talking to my friend Eli this morning, after she had just returned from Lourdes this past week, and she said that some people had asked for me. It means so much to me that I was able to make such a small yet positive impact on other volunteers and pilgrims that they remembered and cared for the odd American girl who seemingly came out of nowhere to join them on a pilgrimage. I had so many other memorable encounters with different pilgrims and volunteers that I couldn’t possibly include them all here, but I’ll be thinking of and praying for them every time the Easter Octave comes around.

Reverse Culture Shock

  • 285 days
  • 23 flights
  • 10 months
  • 9 countries
  • 8 languages
  • 7 engineering classes
  • 5 niños
  • 4 Cantabria students
  • 3 Cornell students
  • 2 incredibly supportive parents who made this all possible
  • 1 long year of trying to mentally prepare myself to come back

Tuesday starts classes and, along with it, the real reverse culture shock.

In Spain, university is a little different. For one, we only had two weeks off for Christmas break, we came back and had class for another week and a half, and then had exams until the end of January. After my last exam I remember walking home and having that strange but pleasant realization that I don’t have anything in particular that I have to write or calculate or hand in on a certain date at a certain time; of having a seemingly infinite amount of free time, if only for a short while. But somehow I was lacking that usual feeling of great relief that I would always experience while walking out of my last final at the end of a semester at Cornell, as if someone removed all the cinderblocks sitting on top of me and I could finally take a deep breath for the first time since school began. It wasn’t that I thought I had done poorly on my exams and I was worried (in fact quite the opposite, as the Cantabria courses were quite a bit simpler than Cornell’s), but rather that this time, I suddenly realized, I hadn’t even been holding my breath in the first place.

If I had to choose one instance to characterize my experience abroad, at least academically, it would be this.

In Spain I was not constantly tired and I would get stressed out almost exclusively during finals. And even then, only moderately. And even then, not for all of them. In Spain there was almost never any uselessly tedious or overly theoretical homework. The professors took the time to answer questions and only one (out of thirteen) got annoyed with the frequency of mine. In Spain no one was downing cups and cups of coffee to squeeze in one more problem or one more essay before the crack of dawn. No one was comparing their grades with their classmates or beating themselves up for getting a 9 instead of a 10. No one was fretting over their next internship or their GPA or their extracurriculars or their E-board position. They didn’t fill every waking moment with something scheduled, and instead of just working through lunch they actually took a break to go eat something. In Spain they made spending time with friends and family a priority. In Spain I felt balanced; I felt like a real person.

In Spain. But I’m not in Spain anymore. I’m at Cornell, where one of the smart alecky students would probably tell me “all of that is the reason for Spain’s current suffering economy” (that is false, please go take an economics class), “Spaniards are just lazy like that” (also false, please go meet some working Spaniards), or “that’s why Spain isn’t as productive as the U.S.” This last one is actually true, and when one Spaniard said this to me, my response was “so what?” Productivity isn’t everything. If we can cure all diseases and live to be a hundred and fifty but its a century and a half of being overworked and overstressed without the joys of leisure, art, or simply doing things for fun, I will gladly opt for the shorter, happier life.

Perhaps this type of high-pressure, high-stress, and highly competitive environment is just an American thing. Or maybe an Ivy League thing. Or an engineering thing. Or solely an American Ivy League engineering thing. Whatever it is, if this mentality is considered the pinnacle of education and what every school should strive to be, I am more than slightly concerned with where our priorities lie.

While I am incredibly excited to see all my friends, continue working with my Engineers Without Borders team, lead the Cornell Catholic Community, continue volunteering with Alpha Phi Omega, and take advantage of all the amazing opportunities Cornell’s campus has to offer, I have never been so ready to finish school. Don’t misunderstand me: it’s not senioritis, I love to learn and always will. It’s simply that I love to feel like a real human being even more.

Spain (in combination with Bolivia last summer) gave me the opportunity to take one giant step back and look at my life, the world, and their intersection, as a whole, with infinitely greater clarity. After getting so caught up in the minute and insignificant details for a couple of years, I was reminded who I began doing this for in the first place, and thankfully that alone is enough to get me through this final year.

Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam

Grand Budapest Ho[s]tel

As part 2 of my Easter break, I took a bus from Vienna to Budapest to spend a couple of days in the original “twin cities.” I was pretty excited to cross another land border (the only other being Canada) but to my disappointment there wasn’t even so much as a sign anywhere denoting that we were crossing into Hungary, but it’s also possible that I missed it. I checked google maps every now and then to see where our little blue dot was and just after passing through what seemed like another toll both archway thing it showed we had crossed the border, so I’m assuming that was all it was.

Of course, first thing the next morning I head to the main square to meet up with a free walking tour to learn a little bit more about my new temporary home, and the first thing, and possibly most important, that I learn is that Pest is not pronounced “pest,” but rather “pesht.” Pest in Hungarian means “disease” so the tour guide half jokingly explained that we would make all Hungarians really happy if we didn’t refer to their beloved city as such.  We started in Pest, he taught us why all the buildings are the same height, the diverse effects of the communist regime, and then we crossed the bridge over to Buda where he showed us around the Castle (which is more like a little community on a hill), around the famous church, and through the beautifully blooming cherry blossoms.

The tour lasted until early afternoon so he offered to show us where to get real Hungarian food (and therefore less expensive than tourist food) in this incredibly hidden little cafeteria in the upstairs of a building on the Castle grounds. I decided to blindly point and see what I got and I ended up with little pieces of fried dough (that seemed to be the standard base), and some mushrooms in a sauce. Whatever it was, it was delicious. There happened to be another girl by herself, about my age, who asked if she could sit with me and I said of course. She was from France and was only in Budapest to take a standardized exam to get into a Business school, and we talked at great length about what we had thought Budapest would be like and what it actually turned out to be. That’s the wonderful thing about traveling is that even if you travel alone, you still choose whether or not to be alone.

I honestly can’t even tell you with exact certainty what I ended up doing that afternoon (don’t worry, I was completely sober) because I just got so blissfully lost in the beauty of the foliage and the history and the sunshine and the people. I definitely roamed the Castle for quite a bit, went up to the top of the Cathedral to get a better view of the city, and I must have spent a solid thirty minutes, maybe an hour, in one of the main parks just lying in the sun where all the other young whippersnappers (and their dogs) were hanging out. As I was laying there I also happened to overhear a conversation (in English to my surprise) where a young man sat down on some steps next to a girl maybe a little older than me and asked her if she believed in God. She replied that she was an atheist and he asked if she had read the Bible. She replied that she had actually studied the Bible quite a bit and had explored many beliefs but had settled on believing that there was no God, and even if there were, he left creation after he made it long ago. The man was clearly Christian and believed otherwise, but it wasn’t an argument, it was a brief and kindhearted conversation. I only wished that small instances like this weren’t such a rare occurrence.

I decided to walk through town a bit and I happened upon a little donut shop that happened to also be an bookshop (conveniently with books written in English). I decided to stop in and I got an apple pie donut and picked up Matilda by Roald Dahl. I ended up staying almost until the shop closed because I was sucked in by the story, even though I read it when I was little.

For dinner I went back to the Easter market in the square where the tour had met that morning and again I simply picked something and pointed to it. It was some sort of fried pancake thing with roasted vegetables and rice and again, it was amazing whatever it was.

The following morning I got up early to avoid the probable crowds at the famous baths, which was a good call, because the thermal ones were actually relatively small. There was a full size swimming pool (the morning was chilly so I steered clear) and two smaller thermal baths, and although it seemed no different from any other heated swimming pool, it was still quite relaxing. I spent a good long while just floating around, letting the notion sink in that pre-enroll was in exactly a week (the first concrete sign that my time abroad was about to come to a screeching halt) and enjoying the two things I rarely had the opportunity to experience at Cornell: doing absolutely nothing and being warm.

When I got back to the city center I had quite a bit of time before my next endeavor, which was at a set time, so I went back to the donut book shop, bought myself some coffee, and finished reading my previous day’s investment, Matilda.

After a while I went to what’s called the Invisible Exhibition. I happened upon it when randomly searching Budapest on TripAdvisor, and it had great reviews so I decided to check it out. It’s more of an experience than anything else, because a tour guide leads your group through various “places” such as a house, a street, a forest, a bar, etc. in complete darkness (they’re all just rooms though, we didn’t cross actual streets, don’t fret). It was moderately disconcerting staring into space and yet seeing absolutely nothing for about 45 minutes, but it was highly eye-opening (pun intended). We had to follow each other like ducklings, feel statues and try to figure out what they were (astonishingly I guessed the Atlas one correctly), try to distinguish different valued coins (result: impossible), and much more. There were a lot of small things that are very difficult to do without sight that hadn’t really occurred to me before. For one you can’t read and play music at the same time, you can’t really paint, and you can’t read. This last one sounds obvious and I know that braille exists but it had never seemed so real to me that some people can’t simply pick up a book and read it. And I love to read, so that made me really sad. Near the end our guide revealed that she was essentially blind, having lost her sight around the age of 20 (the same age as me). Although I couldn’t figure out how she moved around so easily, as I hadn’t noticed anything unusual about her when we met before the tour. I’d have to say, apart from exploring Budapest in general, this was my favorite part.

The next day I had a flight to Rome, part three of my Easter break, and after my Bolivia flight fiasco last summer and nearly missing my flight to Dublin in March, I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. I was pretty hungry by the time I got there and they hadn’t even posted the gate number yet so I went and got lunch. Ryanair only tells you the gate thirty minutes before boarding, and their take off time almost always ends up being their boarding time (but they still arrive on time because they factor in so much extra time). That being said, I wasn’t worried at all about getting to the gate until I went and looked at the departure screen twenty minutes before boarding time (so only ten minutes after they even posted it), and it says last call. I panic for a hot second, and then take off across the airport trying to find signs to tell me where to go and silently cursing Ryanair for its shenanigans. Before I even get to the gate I encounter a line of people on the same flight waiting to even get to the gate waiting area. So of course, they haven’t even started boarding yet and I look like a crazy person dashing across the airport and completely out of breath by the time I get there. But hey, I made it.

Butterflies, Doggos, Pianos, and Yo-yos

…these are a few of my favorite things!

Unfortunately I didn’t get to visit Salzburg, but believe me, if the time and money had presented itself, I would’ve been there in a heartbeat. And if you didn’t get the reference, please go enrich your life and watch The Sound of Music.

Since Cornell’s spring break this year was right before my Easter break, my friend Lauren decided to come visit me in Spain for the week! And since she had never been to Europe before and flying to JFK out of anywhere was equally expensive, we decided to hop on over to Vienna as well where we would have two days together before she had to return home.

She stuck it out for my last few days of classes, getting to sleep in while I was in class (so until 2 PM), and in the afternoons we would go out and explore. I took her to some of my favorite places in Santander, one being the faro, or lighthouse, and wee went to the pre-history museum, which I hadn’t visited in all the months I’d already been there.

The only downside was that it’s incredibly difficult to find completely gluten-free food in Spain, which poses an obstacle with Celiac disease. Nearly everything has bread in some form, so even if a dish doesn’t explicitly contain bread, there’s so much of it around that pretty much everything is contaminated anyway. When we didn’t eat at home we had to do some serious googling to find good places to eat, and we actually ended up finding places I’d never been before. For example, Cadelo was a super tiny restaurant near the funicular, so pretty close to where I lived, and they basically take regular dishes and trade out each ingredient for something really distinct. For example they had Korean lasagna whose “noodles” were crunchy things (whose name I don’t recall), it still had some sort of ground meat, and the sauce was white and had something to do with either lychee or kimchi. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted before.

That Thursday, being the beginning of my Easter break, we set off for Vienna from Bilbao. It took a three hour bus ride and two flights to get there, with a short layover in Brussels, and we arrived that evening. The next morning we decided to start out with a not-so-touristy option and scoped out the clock museum.

We got there a bit too early before it opened, so we backtracked and wandered around a little Easter market that we had passed on the way there that was just beginning to come to life. There were hundreds of hand-painted Easter eggs, stained glass, odd-looking edible options, and beautifully adorable earrings carved out of bull horns (humanely retrieved from bulls that were already dead, don’t worry, I asked). I definitely would have bought a pair or two had they not been $25 each.

The clock museum ended up being surprisingly delightful, with any kind of clock you can think of and more: grandfather clocks, picture clocks, astronomical clocks, japanese clocks (from before time was standardized), and my favorite was a hand-written clock that told time, astronomical position, date, and a million other things, made by a monk some centuries ago.

Since, it had begun to rain quite a bit and I was feeling really nostalgic, I convinced Lauren to go to a butterfly garden next to a really famous art museum. It was in a type of greenhouse, and although it was really humid to keep the butterflies happy, I greatly appreciated how warm it was compared to the cold rain outside. I felt like a little kid getting to watch all the colorful insects flit around and observe the ones still in their chrysalides (fun fact, that’s the actual plural form of chrysalis apparently, like the aforementioned platypodes).

Afterwards we decided to start trying to find lunch and eventually we ended up at a café called Allergiker, which is a little tiny family-run café that is 100% allergy free (unless you’re allergic to dogs). All of their dishes were completely void of gluten, lactose, soy, meat, nuts, and anything else you can think of. We both ordered the daily special, the risotto, and it was AMAZING. We also spotted their huge fluffy dog and pet him as he wandered past our table, and there was a piano for anyone to play. At that point I hadn’t played a real piano (the one in Ireland was more of a science experiment) since the previous May, about 10 months prior, so I was ecstatic. I played the only song I remembered off the top of my head (Falling Slowly) and then I just improvised until they brought us the check. We liked it so much that we came back the next day as well.

We visited St. Stephen’s Cathedral that afternoon and as we were leaving we were ambushed by a gentleman who looked like he was dressed to be a royal something-or-other. He gushed about the Royal Orchestra that was performing that weekend and he asked us if we’d been to see it yet because it was a “must-see” in Vienna. I remembered the father of one of the Spanish families I taught English telling me that even thought it’s a little expensive, if I had the chance I should go see a concert while visiting. I asked him how much it was and I was able to haggle the price down because we were students, and, since I can sometimes be a little too trusting,  it didn’t even occur to me that there was a possibility it could be a scam until Lauren voiced some concern. In the end we decided to go with it: he gave us the address, our tickets with the seat numbers, and to get there before 7:30.

After going back to the hostel for a bit and drying our soaking wet shoes and socks (as it had decided to pour the entire day), we set out to find a restaurant for dinner, as there weren’t many options. We settled on a slightly more expensive place because it had gluten-free options and it was rather close, but we still got slightly lost, more than slightly wet, and arrived later than intended. We had to wait quite a bit for our food, and when it came Lauren’s was a normal amount but mine ended up being just a few small spinach dumplings (delicious nonetheless), but we were afraid to order more food because it would take too long. We asked for the dessert pancakes to-go, the check, and ate quickly. As soon as the pancakes came in their little box we booked it to the metro station where we started eating the pancakes while waiting for the train. It was probably an odd sight but definitely worth it because I at least was still hungry and the pancakes had homemade apricot jam and oh my goodness it was amazing.

We arrived at the address with two minutes to spare, Lauren still joking that we were going to get kidnapped and/or murdered, and we were directed by a well-dressed gentleman into a fancy elevator with a family. Upon exiting the elevator I was delighted to confirm that it was in fact the real deal, because in the vestibule they were selling CD’s, parephernalia, alcoholic drinks, and they even had a coat check.

The audience was smaller than I had imagined but the performance surpassed all expectations. It was a seven person orchestra that sounded like fifty, they played beautiful classics and other pieces I hadn’t heard before, there were dancers, an opera singer, and the conductor even made a few jokes in between everything. All in all, it was fantastic and completely worth it.

The following morning, since the weather forecast was much better, we decided to attend a free walking tour. We took the tram this time because the metro didn’t run very near to the meeting point, but as a result it took much longer due to traffic, so we got there about ten minutes late. Apparently our tour had already left, but the Spanish one was still there. We joined in anyway and, thanks to my handy dandy new Spanish skills, I asked the guide about the English tour. She said that we could join the Spanish tour for the first half and that we would cross paths with the English one halfway through and that we could switch then. Since Spanish tour was better than no tour we decided to stick with it and Lauren ended up hardly even needing translations! We got to see everything from the stables, the garden monument of Mozart, the first ever coffee shop, the government buildings, churches, and parts of the Jewish quarter.

That afternoon we decided to visit the Schonbrunn Palace, as we’d had many recommendations to visit it, but we ended up getting there just before closing time so we couldn’t go inside. However, there was a lovely Easter market outside so we explored all the beautiful crafts, and I especially enjoyed the stall with the wooden toys 😉

Then we went to the famous and preposterously fancy Mozart Café and got chocolate cake to celebrate Lauren’s last few hours in Vienna before she had to head to the airport. After stopping back at the hostel to pick up her stuff and seeing her off at the metro station I headed back to the hostel and in the kitchen a couple of girls asked me if I wanted some pasta. Not about to turn down a free dinner, we started talking and it turns out that they were from the U.S., also studying in Spain, and traveling around a bit. They had just gotten there, coming from Budapest, which is where I was going the next day. They gave me some recommendations and it was really cool to share the similarities and differences in our experiences as Americans in Spain.

The bus ticket to Budapest I had bought for the next morning, but on the tour I learned of the Church of the Augustinian Friars and that there would be Palm Sunday mass held that morning. Thankfully I was able to change the bus ticket without any extra charge (another reason traveling Europe is a million times easier than the U.S.) so I was able to start off Holy Week in the most beautiful church at my first mass in German. Palm Sunday has the longest Gospel reading of the year and I understand pretty much no German at all so I wasn’t sure how that was going to work. I have an app with all the daily readings in Spanish so I pulled that up and luckily this is also the one time a year when different people read the different parts, so based on who was speaking and key words (like names, “Jesus,” and the few words that sound the same in both languages), I was able to follow along reading at just the right speed. I love that about the Catholic Church: no matter where you are or what language you speak, you can still participate and it’s still home.

Still in awe of the incredible choir and music of the mass, I meandered back to the hostel, picked up my stuff, and started walking to the bus station. At that point the only land border I’d ever crossed was to Canada, but not on a bus nor on my own, so I wasn’t sure how it would work. The lady at the desk simply asked me for my passport, barely glanced at it, and waved me on; she didn’t even ask to see my bus ticket. Since I had about three hours until arriving in Budapest, I figured I should sew the rip that had suddenly appeared in my jeans on the first day after leaving Spain (of course). Having to travel very light, I had only brought two pairs to begin with, so I was essentially down to 1.5 pairs of pants just one day into my two-week trip. If you’d asked me to imagine my study abroad experience, I would not have included in my list of likely memorable moments receiving some inquisitive looks while sewing my pants on a crowded bus between countries. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

FAQ Part II

During this time of transition from studying in Spain to moving back and starting my summer internship on The Hill, much like last year I’ve been getting a sínfin of questions, so I figured a Part II would be appreciated.

What was the biggest difference in Spain?

If we’re not counting the foreign language part, the biggest adjustment was actually their daily schedule. Eating lunch at 3 PM and dinner at 10 PM with my host family for the first two weeks was a struggle. One day I forgot to bring a snack for the morning and during the last half hour of class I could barely focus or speak because my stomach hurt so much. (So how millions of children manage to go to school without breakfast every day, I have no idea). Once I moved into my own apartment it wasn’t so bad but I still had class until 2 so there was no way around that. After 10 months though I still don’t feel like eating lunch until 1 PM at the earliest, and I’ll eat dinner closer to 8. Never at 10 PM. Never again. Oh, and pretty much everything was closed 2-4 every day and all day on Sundays and I kept forgetting until I would walk up to a closed shop.

What was your favorite part?

This could go in a million different directions. Favorite city: Santander (might be biased). Favorite place to visit: wherever I have family (Dublin, Northampton, Paris, etc.) ((again, might be biased)). Favorite trip: spending two weeks during Christmas with my aunt and uncle in England. Favorite trip not to see family: Rome (probably because it was during Holy Week…biased?). Favorite trip not during Holy Week: I was very happily surprised by Krákow. Favorite tourist site: La Sagrada Familia, which is what originally inspired me to become an architect (then turned civil engineer). Favorite thing I learned: Spanish (of course). Favorite Spanish food: croquetas. Favorite non-Spanish food: this one particular brand of hummus. Favorite store: Primark. Favorite part of living in Spain: First, that I was much much closer to my extended family, so I was able to visit more often. Second, life is truly less stressful. People thoroughly understand the need to balance work and relaxation.

What was the most difficult part?

Trying to get anything done logistically. E.g. voting from abroad, opening a bank account, getting a class approved, applying for internships from abroad, etc. I’ll be writing a whole other post on this, just you wait.

What did you miss the most from the U.S.?

Honestly, probably my dog. I was able to stay in touch with my friends and family (probably more so than when I’m at Cornell because I had much more free time and flexibility in Spain) but my dog isn’t smart enough to recognize that the noise coming from the phone or the face on the screen is any sort of living being. Granted, the same goes for when I’m at Cornell, but normally I’m home for a month at Christmas, so it was just a long stretch of time without seeing him at all.

What was the hardest part about leaving?

María. 100%. (If you’re unfamiliar with the name, I also call her my niña, my Spanish mini-me, and the coolest 12-year-old I’ve ever met. She shares my affinity for baking, sea otters and platypodes, foreign languages, the color purple, and chocolate).

Are you fluent now?

Officially, no; technically, close enough. According to the international standard for fluency (set by Cambridge for English, Instituto Cervantes for Spanish) I am currently at level C1 in Spanish, which is normally labeled “proficient,” whereas C2 would be considered “fluent.” I actually decided to take the C1 exam in NYC last week, so if I pass I’ll get my Spanish certificate, which is really just a more official way of saying “yo hablo español” and will hopefully help me out if I apply for jobs in other (possibly Spanish-speaking) countries. BUT if by “fluent” you mean “can you read the entire Harry Potter series in Spanish?” the answer is yes. Many people laughed or gave me weird looks when I mentioned that I’ve been re-reading HP in Spanish, but look who has a kick-butt vocabulary now!

Does that mean you’re bilingual?

Now instead of speaking two languages, or even one and a half, I feel like I don’t fully speak either anymore haha. One time I was writing an email and I wrote “I standed” and, truth be told, I would never have noticed anything wrong if that red underline hadn’t shown up. Even so, it took me a solid minute of wracking my brain to figure out why it was considered incorrect. Also, a lot of bilingual people will remember a word in one language but not the other. This has happened to me before, but sometimes I can’t think of the word in either language. However, there is also the increasingly frequent occasion in which I feel like the Spanish word actually expresses what I want to say better than the English, even if there’s technically a direct translation. So honestly, I don’t even know…

Have you dreamt in Spanish?

Yes, but my level of comprehension and speaking is exactly the same as it is in real life. I still have to think a little more when I want to say something and I still make some mistakes.

Are you now going to be one of those annoying people who randomly drops foreign words in casual conversation?

Yes. Hopefully not all the time, but yes. My sincerest apologies.

Are you excited for the upcoming year?

Except for the part about being really stressed out about classes, absolutely! Even though my year abroad in Bolivia and Spain is over, I am no less excited for what’s to come because even if it’s not in the extranjero, it will be no less of an adventure and a challenge.

What are you doing this summer?

I am the Architectural/Structural intern for Cornell Facilities Engineering! This means that I help perform and check calculations, check that designs are up to date with the most recent safety codes, inspect roofs, explore places that I wouldn’t be allowed to go otherwise, update measurements on official drawings, and write up Quick Responses (recommendations for smaller scale repairs). I LOVE my job and if I could forgo my last year of classes and just continue working there until I graduate I absolutely would.

What do you do at your job?

Within Cornell FE is the Architectural/Structural team made up of seven people (including me) and my job is to provide support for whatever projects are underway at any given moment. I draw up plans, update existing ones, help with surveying land, perform calculations (e.g. check how many bolts we need, what size, and how far apart), double check others’ calcs, write up Quick Responses (analysis summaries and repair instructions for smaller scale things), and this week I was entrusted with supervising a concrete pour in making checking the specifications of the mix, placing curing blankets correctly, observing any bumps in the road (figuratively, not literallly), and taking notes and photos of everything.

Do you like your job?

No, I LOVE it. There are always so many different projects happening at once that it’s never boring and I get to spend 30-50% of my time on site visits, inspections, etc. So it’s a 9-5 job (actually 8-4:30 but close enough) but I get to spend so much time out and about and interacting with other people, which I love. The vast majority of my coworkers are adult males, and until last week I was the only female on my team. I think throwing in a 21-year-old female college student really spices  up the mix, especially during our section meetings, because everyone tells me they love the “energy and enthusiasm” I bring. And the homemade baked goods of course 😉

How is being back at Cornell after so long?

It’s definitely a little weird, in part because I keep saying “last year” referring to sophomore year and I completely forget that there existed a year at Cornell between then and now. But it’s actually mostly due to the fact that it’s summer so there are very few people around, I’m not taking classes at odd hours of the day, I’m living in a new place (love that too), I’m not constantly stressed out, and it’s consistently warm. So it looks like Cornell, but doesn’t really feel like Cornell. Regardless, I’m really glad to be back and have the opportunity to enjoy all the great outdoorsy things Ithaca has to offer; something so often overlooked amidst the craziness of semesters and lost in the freeze of winter.

What do you plan to do once you graduate?

Normally when I try to think about this I end up with a headache.

Well, what are some options you’re considering?

Getting my masters (even though the thought of more stress school after graduation makes my stomach churn), volunteering with the Peace Corps, taking a gap year to volunteer in some other way, getting a regular job in the U.S. (not in NYC), working in Europe for a bit (I just applied for my Irish passport), or working in Chile for a bit (I have family there and am technically a citizen anyway). But I won’t be meeting with my advisor until August sooooo no one really knows right now.

Do you still want to be a missionary?

Yes. Whether I end up finding a way to do mission work (e.g. what we did in Bolivia except not necessarily a bridge and not necessarily in Bolivia) full time or if I work a normal job for most of the year and take time off to do mission work, at this point at least, it’s still what I see myself doing with my life.

I hope that’s an adequate update on my life’s shenanigans. If you’re in Ithaca let me know, I’ll be here ’til Christmas pretty much, and if you’re in Florida…welp I won’t be back until Christmas. Hasta luego!

 

By the Grace of God

I didn’t believe in love at first sight until I set foot in Rome.

I had an easy trip coming from Budapest on the Wednesday afternoon before Easter, armed with some Duolingo lessons and the fact that Spanish and Italian share quite a few words (that’s all you need, right?). I took the instructions from my friend Rachel, who’s studying abroad in Rome this semester, and took a bus from the airport to the city center. I honestly just assumed that you paid the bus fare on the bus (as I’ve done with every other bus system I’ve ever encountered) but before I could ask how much it was the driver hastily ushered me onto the bus and pulled away from the curb. Since there was no coin receptor and it was so packed that there was hardly even room to breathe I simply said a mental thank you for the free bus ride.

My hostel, which happened to be a convent previously (how cool is that!?), was located in Trastevere, so the ten minute walk between the bus stop and my hostel consisted of sauntering along the length of the Tiber river, lined with ancient domes and buildings;   not to mention that the temperature was perfect and probably the warmest I’d experienced in several months. I found the hostel easily amongst the little cobblestone streets and after taking a few minutes to get settled I headed right back out to pick up my tickets at the Vatican for the Holy Week masses.

I remember the moment I stepped into St. Peter’s Square (which is not at all a square) and immediately felt something tug at my heart. I was pretty excited about the fact that it was my third ever land border crossing, but it was something much more than that. I’m honestly still not entirely sure what it was, but my best guess is that it was caused by simply entering into a place that is so historically significant, so beautiful, and where some of the most incredible examples of human beings have lived, prayed, mourned, and celebrated.

After standing in awe for a solid several minutes, I started looking for the Puerta de Bronce, where the letter I had been sent told me to pick up the tickets. I wandered around clutching my little piece of paper and ended up asking the post office, the tourist shop, and finally the military guards wielding huge firearms where it was, because all I could find was the ridiculously long line to go through to security to walk through the Basilica. Finally, I ended up wandering in the right direction and when the security guard saw my letter he put me at the very front of the line to go through the metal detector. Then, instead of following the trickle of people up the steps of the Basilica, I went up some side steps to a couple of Swiss Guards and handed over the letter. While one searched for the tickets I chatted with the other, and it turned out that he was more comfortable with Spanish than English, so I was delighted to oblige. The one came back and asked if I was sure that I had tickets and that they were in my name (of which I was 700% sure) and asked for my passport. He didn’t end up finding anything with my name on it but thankfully he gave them to me anyway. Despite their serious demeanor, they were super friendly and nearly impossible to take seriously in their colorful get-ups.

I then took advantage of having already skipped the line for security and took a peek into the Basilica. As I was leaving the sun was just setting and it was absolutely breathtaking.

For dinner I met up with Rachel in Trastevere at this little restaurant and, while sharing some amazing fish and pasta, we huddled over the map and she circled all the most significant places to try to visit in the three short days ahead. If I had been excited before, I was about to leap out of my seat by the end of dinner. We crossed the river and walked around the center of the city quite a bit, stopping at some ruins (home to many many cats), the Pantheon, and Giolitti, where I discovered the wonder that is caramelized fig gelato. Rachel even showed me the Cornell in Rome program classrooms and workspaces, which just happen to share the building with the Russian embassy. It’s all very new and elegant and we chatted with a couple of the other Cornell students; definitely an odd but quite pleasant experience to talk to other Cornellians again.

At that point it was about 10 o’ clock at night so I was about to slowly wander back to my hostel and sleep because I had to be up early the next day, but I forgot it was a Wednesday until they were about to have a meeting for a group project. I had honestly forgotten that it’s entirely normal (and necessary) for Cornell students to work until pretty late at night, and I had a small pang of dread realizing that this would once again be my reality in a few short months. As I’ve may have mentioned before, I have very much a love-hate relationship with Cornell.

The next morning I was up before 7:00 to get to the Vatican by 8:00. The Holy Thursday Chrism mass didn’t start until 9:30 but seating in the Basilica is first-come first-serve so a ticket only guarantees entrance if there’s still room. Again, I felt like a VIP walking up to the Basilica because there was no line or anything; all I had to do was hold on to my bright green slip of paper and flash it to all the police officers, military personnel, security guards, ushers, and Swiss guards (there was a lot of security if you couldn’t tell). There was a door on the right and the left and I chose the right without even thinking and grabbed a seat in the closest row to the front that was still free. I ended up in the 5th or so row next to some seminarians but when I looked across the aisle I regretted not going in the other door because I saw a superfluity of nuns (yes that’s actually what a group of nuns is called, I just googled it), many of whom were Missionaries of Charity (the order founded by Mother Teresa).

The seminarians next to me were speaking English but they seemed to be in deep conversation and I didn’t want to interrupt. They then began to say morning prayer (part of the Liturgy of the Hours) so I listened silently as they read the various psalms and readings. A few minutes after they finished, when I was zoned out and my mind was on an entirely different continent, the seminarian closest to me quite suddenly turned to me and said “so you speak English?”  Trying to hide how startled I was, I said yes. His name was Will and he and his fellow seminarians were all actually from the U.S. but finishing their last few years of studying at the North American College in Rome. He was quite kind and we talked about everything from Charleston, NC to the requirements to become a Pontifical Swiss Guard.

The Chrism mass is held every Holy Thursday where both the washing of feet and blessing of all the chrism oil to be used over the next year takes place. It was  B E A U T I F U L. Everything about it was beautiful. The Basilica itself, the choir, the mass parts all in Latin, the readings in different languages, and, despite only understanding the Italian words that are similar to Spanish, the homily as well. I had never even seen Pope Francis in person before (missed him by just a few minutes in Philadelphia) and suddenly he was only a few people-widths away, looking just as ordinary and grandfatherly as always.

Since Will and I had talked about confession and I told him I hadn’t gone at all during Lent because I was too chicken to do it in Spanish, after mass he tried to help me find a priest. This is much easier said than done in Rome during Holy Week because all seminarians are required to wear clerical collars in Rome, as mandated by one of the 20th century popes (I don’t remember which), so you couldn’t tell who was actually a priest and who was a seminarian. We were unsuccessful so we parted ways, and I was honestly kind of sad because I knew the chances of running into him again, especially with so many people in Rome that week, were slim.

I found one of the pasta places Rachel had recommended to me, Pastaciutto, where I got a bowl of homemade pasta for €5! I asked for it to-go and found a sunny bench right outside St. Peter’s Square. It was still pretty chilly in Santander at that point, so with a dose of sunshine and pasta I was in heaven.

I decided to make the most of the afternoon and explore the Vatican Museums. As I was walking there, a guy jumped in my way and tried to get me to buy a ticket to skip whatever line and the conversation went something like this:

Guy: Have you seen St. Peter’s Basilica yet?
Me: Yes.
G: But you’ve only seen the outside.
M: No, I was there this morning for mass.
G: Noooo, you must’ve just been outside.
M: No, I was at the Chrism mass in the Basilica this morning.
G: No no no, it’s closed to tourists today.
M: No. I had a ticket and went to the mass this morning. Which. Was. In. Side.
G: *still skeptical* oooookay

Because St. Peter’s Basilica is definitely nothing more than a tourist trap where you can glimpse a cute old man named Francisco wearing a pointy hat.

What I didn’t realize until I finally made it into the museum was that you couldn’t just walk freely around. I supposed theoretically you could, but, being Holy Week, it was packed, so there was only a slow trickling mob of people in every hallway. I figured, since the Museums were so vast, that I’d make my way to the Sistine Chapel first and just enjoy whatever art was on the way. Even so, it took me about two hours to get there.

There;s a quote from a great movie called “Goodwill Hunting” (thanks Priya 😉 ) and a great actor named Robin Williams:

“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michaelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”

So now I can tell you not only what it smells like, but also what it feels like to stand in a crowded room where everyone is just chatting away and the security guards are constantly yelling at everyone to stop talking and to stop taking photos. The visuals? Breathtaking. The atmosphere? Thoroughly lacking in awe.

That afternoon I simply walked. I went to the Pantheon, got gelato at Della Palma, and somehow ended up all the way at the Spanish steps, which was almost an hour’s walk from my hostel. It was pretty late by the time I got back and I had done so much walking that I physically needed to give my feet a break before even attempting to find dinner, something I don’t think I’d ever experienced before.

The morning of Good Friday I met up with Rachel at Villa Farnesia. We got an audioguide to share and she gave me an extra in-depth tour, as per usual, of all the beautiful artwork since she had gone on school trips there before. While making our way through Trastevere, stopping at countless churches along the way, we happened upon a bakery that Rachel is particularly fond of. We bought some little cookies, including two that were shaped like some sort of indistinct farm animal, and another pastry (at this point I’ve forgotten the name) that looks like a little pie but is even better. We followed the Tiber River nearly all the way to the Colosseum and the last stop, before Rachel had to head back to her schoolwork, was a huge double door with a little teeny peephole. She wouldn’t tell me what everyone was looking at and let me see it for myself after waiting in line for at least 20 minutes. I won’t ruin the surprise but it was definitely worth the wait 😉

By the time I arrived at the Colosseum and the Roman Forum I had to turn around to get to the Good Friday service (it’s the only day of the year there is [technically] no mass, so we just call it a service), and that’s when my bad luck with transportation kicked in. The Via Crucis was to be held later that night outside the Colosseum, so some roads were blocked off. I had been planning on taking the metro, but that particular station was closed and I didn’t know where the nearest bus stop was and I couldn’t get to the tourist info place because it was located on one of the blocked off parts of the street. Luckily, I had taken a photo of the bus map on the first day and found a route that would take me in the general vicinity of the Vatican. I simply walked in the right direction until I came to a bus stop and, since I didn’t have a bus card nor did I know how or where to get one, I hopped on and fortunately the bus was so crowded that I wouldn’t have been able to verify my ticket in the little machine even if I’d had one. And I figured of all the reasons in the world to hop on a bus without paying, getting to the Vatican on Good Friday was an incredibly valid one.

Thankfully I got there pretty on time, but not early enough to go to reconciliation (although I’m not sure if they would’ve had it anyway considering the special occasion). As I tried to find a seat I super quickly scanned the room to see if I could find the seminarians, but I didn’t see them so I just picked the first empty seat I found. Of course, the service was quite somber, but nonetheless beautiful.

Afterwards I had a relatively small window to get from the Vatican back to the Colosseum for the Via Crucis (stations of the cross), but I wanted to see Rachel again so I stopped at the Cornell space for a bit. It was lovely to sit down for a few minutes and someone brought an Italian Easter cake so it was a short but lovely visit.

On the way to the Colosseum I grabbed a slice of pizza (from a place that happened to be named “Florida”) and ate it as I walked. As I got closer, a steady flow of people formed and we ended up being pretty packed together yet surprisingly comfortable as we waited for Pope Francis. Somehow I missed the person handing out booklets (or maybe they ran out) so my brain ended up wading through a flood of Italian words, but I know the stations so I was actually able to follow along pretty well.

Here’s the crazy part. As I was walking back, again in a sea of people, I hear someone to my right say “hey, look who it is!” and out of the corner of my eye I see them point to their left, so I look to my left, expecting to see I don’t even know who, but I don’t recognize anyone. I simply figure that they’re talking about someone I don’t know and keep walking, but oddly enough something makes me turn to the people who were talking to see who they are and LO AND BEHOLD it’s the seminarians! They had been pointing to me! This time there were a couple more with them so we introduced ourselves and they asked where I was staying. It turns out that they live in a house somewhere near Trastevere and, especially since it was nearly midnight at that point, they offered to walk me home, which was incredibly kind of them. I found out that they had also gotten tickets to the Easter Vigil mass the following day, but we knew it would be even more crowded than other event, so when we got to my hostel we said our goodbyes knowing that we probably wouldn’t run into each other again.

Holy Saturday was my last full day in Rome so I got up even earlier than the previous days and set out towards the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. I kept on walking right past all the really crowded touristy places, and anyone who knows me well knows that under all the engineering/sciency stuff I’m also a history geek, but don’t think I was skipping out on all of Rome’s historical sites. Don’t get me wrong, the Colosseum is cool, but I had my sights set on somewhere infinitely more historically significant than a crumbling ampitheater. Not far from all the hustle and bustle is a tranquil plaza with a plain door guarded by two armed military officers with a set of steps inside. They’re made of marble but hidden underneath they are actually wooden. They’ve been named the “Scala Sancta,” or “Holy stairs” because they’re the steps Jesus ascended just before being presented to Pontius Pilate; before being sentenced to death on the first Good Friday.

Before you get all historically accurate, no, none of that actually happened in Rome, but rather in Jerusalem. In the 4th century the steps were removed (who knows why) and specifically brought to Rome. They’re covered with marble because the wood is extremely old and delicate, and quite possibly because they’re simply so sacred. Out of sheer reverence and solidarity with Christ’s suffering, they can only be ascended on one’s knees.

A couple friends of mine visited here a while back and told me that it was actually painful to go up the steps on their knees, and I distinctly remember thinking that I’ve kneeled on countless hard surfaces (marble, concrete, wood, you name it) and it’s not that bad. Kids, do not try this at home. They were absolutely right. I don’t know if it’s because of the marble or because I was practically crawling up the stairs or because I was essentially walking with Jesus en route to his crucifixion, but it HURT. I was nearly in tears halfway up, but I was trying so hard to hide it.  There was a group of nuns there who appeared completely unfazed and spent much longer on each step than I did, so I was completely humbled watching them. I could’ve sworn that my knees were going to literally be blue and green with purple polka dots (yes, I’ve had bruises like that before), but when I got up and hobbled away they were very stiff and sore, but they looked 100% normal. You wouldn’t have even been able to tell that my knees felt like they were going to melt away.

Afterwards I went to visit the church that houses relics of what is believed to be the cross and a replica of the Shroud of Turin. I then met up with Rachel for lunch at Rosciolo, a really good pizza place. They had all their Easter cakes hanging upside down in the back of the shop (I’m not sure why but they have to hang like that to rise properly I believe). We took the pizza to-go since there wasn’t really seating inside and she brought me to a little park nearby and told me the story of how the giant hole in the fence came to be when an old couple crashed into it during the parks opening ceremony. The weather was absolutely perfect and I was also able to pass along to Rachel some extra Vatican Easter Mass tickets that the seminarians had given me because they somehow ended up with so many. I thanked her for being such a wonderful tour guide and we parted ways.

I headed back to the Vatican because I wanted to get some souvenirs for friends and family before it got really busy and crazy for the Easter Vigil, and I still hadn’t been to reconciliation. I went to every souvenir shop I passed by (and there were a lot) to see if they had blue miraculous medals, Saint Theresa of Calcutta medals (ones that specifically said saint on them), and a green scapular. This last one got me the highest tally of weird looks, but it definitely exists. Eventually I found all except the green scapular, and since I still had a bit of time before I figured I’d have to get in line for the Vigil, I decided to try to find a priest for confession. You’d think this would be incredibly easy being in St. Peter’s Square at Easter, but the problem is that all seminarians are required to wear the clerical collar while in Rome, a rule created by JPII. So every time I saw someone in a collar who wasn’t busy I’d ask them if they were a seminarian or a priest, but every answer was the same. Finally, as I stalked the ever growing line to get into the vigil, I spotted a slightly older man in a collar and figured the older he is the more likely he is to be a priest rather than a seminarian. Bingo!! He was actually a priest! And he happened to be from Uruguay but spoke English perfectly. He agreed to hear my confession and tried to see if we could go in a little church nearby but it was closed to the public those few days. So it ended up being a literal sidewalk confession. I think on the sidewalk in line for the Easter Vigil is about as last minute as you can get, but it was totally worth it.

I wanted to find a bathroom before committing to the line and I had to essentially walk along the line on the other side of the barrier to get there and at one point I see an unusually large cluster of clerical collars and I’m like WAIT A SECOND. It was them. For the third day in a row. Against all odds. And this time there were eight of them. All because I was trying to find a bathroom. The seminarians spotted me and insisted that I join them in line because navigating the mass of people alone would’ve been quite an ambitious endeavour. We were standing in line for probably about two hours and at that point it was getting late but I hadn’t thought to get dinner before staking out a spot in line. Seminarians came to the rescue once again when one of them made a sandwich run and brought back food for all, including me.

Once they actually opened the gates to the square everyone was packed together like sardines. Somehow some of the seminarians who were behind got ahead of us and one or two ended up forging ahead to save us seats once they got through security. We ended up breaking into smaller groups so no one got left behind and when we all got through we were concerned about finding each other, but again we all reunited somehow.

The mass began as all Easter Vigils do: in complete darkness with one candle giving light to others and those continuing to pass it on until the whole church is a sea of little glowing lights. That’s always my favorite part. If you’ve never been to an Easter Vigil mass before, I would highly highly recommend going at least once in your life. It’s definitely a commitment because they’re normally about three hours long, but it’s once a year and incredibly beautiful.

During the mass we made our way through the old testament in Italian, French, English, and Spanish, and when it came time for Pope Francis to give the homily (in Italian and unfortunately the only part not in the booklet) I pulled out my journal and decided that writing down the words that I could understand might help. By the end I had an interesting mix of words but it still wasn’t enough to get the gist of what he was talking about. Afterwards I was talking to one of the seminarians about it and I said that most of the words I understood were “Jesus,” “death,” and “mercy.” He simply replied, “Well those are the most important parts, so what more do you need?”

TRUE. THAT.

By the time the vigil ended it was about midnight and the seminarians didn’t want me walking home by myself.  However, the seemingly perpetually hungry Y chromosome was kicking in and they wanted to get something to eat. One of the few places still open was a little gelatería near the Vatican Museums so we ended up there and they told me that the Knights of Columbus wanted to buy me gelato. I was already pretty cold because of the wind but I certainly wasn’t going to turn down free gelato, not to mention that it was finally Easter and we were supposed to be celebrating! I had ordered gelato a few times before so I made an attempt at doing it in Italian, and I tripped up quite a bit but the servers had a great sense of humor and thoroughly enjoyed watching the seminarians come to the rescue.

On the walk home Will taught me a story (I don’t remember why) to remember all the greek letters, and although I think he made it way more interesting than this, I found a video that tells the same story! (the whole part about the little lambdas made me laugh to hard)

Before they dropped me off at my hostal they invited me to Easter brunch with them because they didn’t want me to spend Easter alone, but very sadly I had to decline because my flight to Lourdes was leaving at 1PM the following day.

If I hadn’t already bought the plane ticket I would’ve 1,000% stayed in Rome for the rest of my Easter break. I was heartbroken that I had to leave both the city I had just fallen in love with, of which there was still so much left unexplored, and the seminarians I had just befriended. I’m not gonna lie, I cried for a bit on the plane and made a very comprehensive list of what I wanted to do and see when (not “if,” but “when”) I return to Rome. Then, when I looked up and peered out the window, I saw this:

IMG_3324

It was truly a once in a lifetime experience because I honestly will probably never again be in Rome during Easter, and it was, by far, outside of visiting family, my favorite trip during my year abroad. I still can’t believe that I was able to visit, out of all the seasons of the year, during Holy Week, that I was able to get a ticket for each mass happening while I was there, that I was able to get any tickets at all considering that you’re supposed ask six months in advance and I asked one and a half, that I happened to sit next to an American seminarian on the first day, and that I ran into them every subsequent time I was in St. Peter’s. I’m entirely convinced that this was all purely by the grace of God.

AND, if that all wasn’t enough, it was through Rachel mentioning her past summer internship at Cornell Plantations that made me check the student job site for summer openings because my Ithaca lease started in June anyway and I was already sad about missing one of my short few years at Cornell so I knew I’d love spending a summer in Ithaca. AND when I checked for non-engineering jobs (I was getting desperate), there just so happened to be a posting for a single summer internship with Cornell Facilities Engineering. AND it just happened to be Civil Engineering focused. AND subsequently I found out that two of my best friends and I all, without each other knowing, ended up applying to Cornell summer internship/research positions. AND all three of us ended up getting the position we applied for, even though we each only applied for a single one. AND a dear friend who was abroad the semester before I was and just graduated in May, whom I thought I was never going to see ever ever again, happened to end up working with a middle school summer program on campus in July and the beginning of August. Call it what you want, but I call it the grace. God is good everyone ❤

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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