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.

 

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:

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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 ❤

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tears Part II: Sunrises and Pierogis

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

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

A few examples (excuse the spanglish):

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

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

Your lifelong best friend hands you a box and says:

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

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

That is D E E P.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Letting Go: Lisbon

I have both good news and bad news. The bad news is that I’m kinda behind on this blog because November=exams. The good news is that I had my first exam this week in Geotechnical Engineering and I was the first to finish so hopefully that means I knew my stuff! If that happened at Cornell I would be scared out of my mind because it could only mean that I understood absolutely nothing and gave up.

Anyway, we had somewhat of a Fall break because (with Spain being nominally Catholic) All Saint’s Day (Nov 1st) is a national holiday and we had Halloween off and I don’t have classes on Fridays so000 5 day weekend!! The logical thing to do? Fulfill the “abroad” requirement of study abroad and go to Portugal! Did I bring homework/study material for my upcoming exams? Mmmmmmmaybe…

I must say Lisbon was definitely the most…interesting…trip thus far as well as the most exhausting. Seriously, I took a nap the day after I got home. Anyone who knows me well knows that I don’t nap unless I’m either really sick or I pulled an all nighter (of which neither even applied in this case).

In my last post I said that I’ve come to realize how much I still have to learn (about culture, life, and pretty much everything) and this weekend definitely confirmed that. I say this because there was many a moment when it would’ve been so easy to give up and turn back, get frustrated, start complaining, or turn into a decidedly negative nelly for the rest of the day, but instead I did my very best to exercise my positivity muscles.

I could recount all of the missed trains, unplanned and unnecessary mountain hiking, hours spent trying to find a place to eat that wasn’t closed or full, the many times we arrived somewhere only to find that it was closed on that one particular day of the week, and the brief period of panic that ensued when we couldn’t find a taxi to get to the airport at 5:30 AM and were convinced we would have to buy another plane ticket home…but what good would come of that?

Looking back, my favorite part was not when we made the train on time, or finally found a delicious vegan buffet after much hungry wandering, or found a great Fado* restaurant because we triple checked to see if it was in fact open (and actually had Fado). Honestly, my favorite moments include lying on a stone bench with Priya in a plaza at 11:30 at night because we were too tired to walk home and discovering the relation between Fado and crackers, eating an entire fish that frankly was the most delicious fish I have ever eaten in my entire life (even the head, tail, and bones didn’t faze me at all), and moseying around the smaller and more intimate city streets with Michaela while pondering stress, coffee, being abroad, future plans, and the best ways to be a traveler instead of a tourist. And I realize now that many of these things wouldn’t have even happened had our plans not gone awry.

*Fado is a genre of traditional Portuguese music with two types of guitars and vocals. Our tour guide said that most people think it sounds sad but that it’s not meant to be sad. It’s meant to emulate the feeling of when you remember something very good but you simultaneously realize that you will never have the exact same experience again. In my opinion it’s more of a mix between nostalgia and bittersweetness, and can be sad I suppose, but remembering happy things isn’t mean to be sad. The Fado crackers story: I was telling Priya that one time I came home from school really really hungry for some reason and I ate some crackers that I’d had many times before, but for whatever reason in that moment I had never eaten more delicious crackers than those. Of course they never tasted that good ever again, but I still have the memory. It’s definitely a slightly sillier example, but that’s the idea of Fado.

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Plus, I learned some very important lessons while I was there:

  • Portugal is not Spain. Not even close. They may share the same peninsula but they’re also huge rivals. Things are on a different schedule (what I would call the normal non-Spanish timetable) and businesses close one day a week but instead of all closing on the same day one will be closed only on Mondays, another only Tuesdays, another Sundays, etc. It seemed like the majority of people (even random people on the streets) speak English.
  • Don’t try to speak Spanish to the locals. It’s normally received as an insult. If you start speaking English you’re saying “I don’t speak Portuguese but English is becoming a universal language (especially in Europe) so there’s a fair chance you also speak English,” but if you start in Spanish you’re saying “I don’t speak Portuguese because I chose Spanish as my second language instead because it’s globally superior and more useful. Plus it sounds basically the same as Portuguese, right?”
  • The most fun thing to do in any city is try to pretend to be a local. I’m not saying to ditch the tourist label entirely; you will get lost and need directions, and definitely take lots of pictures to help you remember how much fun you had and to share with others, but know that the best parts will probably not be the monuments that cost an arm and a leg to get into. I love wandering all the little streets, especially in the older parts of places, finding hole-in-the-wall cafés, local family-operated shops, and the hidden but beautiful sights.

And most importantly…

  • COFFEE IS  APPARENTLY NOT SUPPOSED TO BE BITTER AND GROSS. AMERICANS ARE JUST DOING IT WRONG. Michaela and I found an adorable coffee shop and I got a latté. Normally I would have to add tons of milk and sugar to coffee to make it even bearable (which is part of the reason I hardly ever drink it) but this was just espresso, milk, and an adorable design in the foam on top and it was absolutely perfect. No sugar necessary and no burning hot, bitter, bean-ey, watery dirt. I was amazed and Mich informed me that this is what coffee is supposed to taste like. Teach me your ways Europe.

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend away from school, exploring a new culture, and learning to let all the negative thoughts go. Things will always end up being ok. Maybe not in the way you’d expect or want, but they will be ok. I’m absolutely positive.

 

 

So Much More to Learn

I think I might be getting the hang of things here. Emphasis on “might.” Every time I start to think that I finally have life here figured out…I realize how much I really don’t.

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When I think I finally have all my ducks in a row but then I look in the mirror… life man.

But that’s ok! I’m here to learn about more than just engineering, right?

Speaking of being educated, I’d like to take a moment to say that if you’re eligible to do so, please do this country a favor, educate yourself, register, and

GO VOTE!!

Please. Do it.

So I voted this morning! Yup, I went through all the over-seas shenanigans so I could have a say in the currently slightly dismal-looking future of America. At the very least I can stop tearing my conscience apart trying to decide the lesser of two evils because as much as I don’t like any of the options, what’s done is done.

On a happier note, so far one of my favorite things about living in Santander is actually my job. I teach English to kids from two different families: twice a week with a sister(12) and a brother(14), and once a week with two brothers(11, 4) and a sister(1). I love all of them simply because I love kids in general, but I especially love getting to see the older kids twice a week because it’s a bit less like babysitting in English and more like goofing off, discussing crazy American politics, and baking real American desserts in English.

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Notice the brownie batter moustache

Honestly I probably shouldn’t have started with the brownies because now all they want to make is brownies…

Lately I’ve been expanding my repertoire (another French word used in English Mich!) of recipes from other countries and so far I have Irish Brown Bread and Quesada.

The bread is a recipe from my Nana that we found in my Granddad’s kitchen when I visited last month. It’s a simple but dense bread (more like cake I suppose, except it’s not sweet) made with whole wheat flour. Apart from being a bit singed and hard as a rock on top, the rest of it came out pretty well for being my first time making it. It goes great with jam or even just a little bit of butter.

Even though it’s much more common to just buy it from a grocery store, my host mom made some fantastic home-made Quesada so before I moved out I made sure to ask her for the recipe. It’s also a very simple recipe and the texture is somewhere between cheesecake and flan, but it has lemon zest and cinnamon so it has a very unique flavor that I don’t know how to describe. With the amount of sugar and butter that goes into it I think it’s definitely a dessert but my host mom always served it with breakfast so who knows, really.

Those who know me know that I was on the cross-country team in high school, and those who really know me know that I was never a very fast runner (but of course I did it because I loved it). I never really stopped running but the business of Cornell definitely made it hard to run more than a couple of miles each week so it was really exciting to run in my first official race in about 3 years. And when I finished the 5K with a time only 24 seconds behind my official high school PR, I was pretty ecstatic! (If you’re not familiar with running times, 24 seconds is kind of a lot, but when you’re talking about my PR, my best time ever, and the fact that I was still feeling a bit under the weather, that’s really not bad at all considering I haven’t been running nearly as intensely as I did during XC season).

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The on-campus international student organization planned a kayaking day-trip on the Río Sella in the region of Asturias (next to Cantabria). My partner, a really sweet medical student from France, and I kayaked 16km through the beautiful mountains and greenery. Since it’s the end of summer, some parts of the river were very shallow so we had to get out and drag our kayak through freezing cold water that was only a few inches deep several times, but overall it was fantastic and definitely worth it.

My most recent international endeavor was going to paris for a weekend and meeting up with Michaela, another fellow Cornellian studying in France this semester. We definitely related on all subjects study abroad: making friends, traveling, new languages, and new norms. (Props to Mich for surviving the stereotype of rude French people that is surprisingly accurate more often than you would think)

And instead of a hostel we stayed with a childhood friend of my mom’s originally from Ireland but who now lives within 10 min walking distance of the Eiffel tower (thank you again Helen, you are amazing!). I met her and her family for the first time when I was in Ireland visiting my granddad when I was 7. I remember playing with her three kids, her daughter being only a few weeks older than me, and I hadn’t seen them since then so after 13 years it was so lovely to spend some time with them.

In terms of touristy things we saw:

  • the Eiffel Tower, which was super interesting from a civil engineering perspective
  • the Louvre, which was thoroughly overwhelming due to the sheer number of paintings per square foot but my inner artist greatly enjoyed it
  • the Arc de Triomphe, of which my favorite part was actually getting to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night!
  • Versailles, my inner AP Euro history geek’s dream

 

The less touristy things included:

  • a very French family dinner the first night, complete with the entreé (more French Mich!!), cheese, salad, and dessert, in that order
  • a visit to Shakespeare and Co., a beautiful bookstore that I could probably live in
  • Germaine and other cute little streets with cafés, secondhand bookstores, knick knack places, chocolate shops, boulangeries, and patisseries (in one chocolate shop I tried chocolate covered spices! It was super cool but unfortunately my tastebuds aren’t that refined)
  • Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame and brunch at Holybelly! (Ok Holybelly is kind of touristy because it’s English-speaking and very American, but it was fantastic all the same)

After all this time adapting to Spain, heading to France and getting hit with a whole other language, culture, and set of expectations has reminded me that studying abroad is about so much more than just studying in school.

I would absolutely go back in a heartbeat ❤

Donostia San Sebastián

Fun fact: There is a region of Spain called the Basque region (not to be confused with País Vasco/Basque Country, a political region of Spain that is part of the Basque region). This includes País Vasco, La Rioja, and Navarra. As well as Castellano (Spanish), they also speak Euskara which is not at all related to Spanish and has unknown roots. San Sebastián is located in Basque Country (next to Cantabria). The city is so close to France that it has shifted between occupations many times throughout history and honestly couldn’t care less which country it’s part of. Thus, the people have a lot of regional pride and there’s a lot of talk of gaining independence from Spain.

More fun facts: Hello = Kaixo (KI-sho),  Goodbye = Agur (ah-GOOR),  Thank you = eskerrik asko (es-KEHR-ik AH-sko)

Anyway, I’ve survived our first sort-of real week of real classes! If that makes any sense. Classes didn’t start until Tuesday because on Monday we spent 2+ hours waiting in the Oficina de Extranjeros, they called our number, and then told us to go take a different number and sit back down. #bureaucracy

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This semester I’m taking Geotechnical Engineering, Engineering Computation, Fluid Mechanics, and (of course) Spanish. Fluids is pretty cool, it’s about (yup you guessed it) fluids and how they move. Computation isn’t difficult (yet) but it’s incredibly boring because all we’ve done so far is some calculus BC review, Taylor/Maclaurin series, and a couple matlab codes.

Surprisingly, I’ve found Geotech to be the most interesting of the three. We’ve learned about the different types of soil and how to classify them, foundations, and basic calculations. I think the coolest part is that in Bolivia we worked with two different types of soil (shale and silt) when excavating and constructing the anchors and foundations so it’s much easier to understand and remember the concepts the professor is trying to convey because I’ve had some hands-on experience.

Spanish class, on the other hand, is a completely different story. There are only four students (the three of us from Cornell and Pauline, from Sweden) and we’re at four completely different levels of fluency. The professor agrees that it’s a terrible system but there’s nothing anyone can do about it unfortunately. The first thing he had us do today was come up to the board and write a paragraph about Superman, and from that moment I knew I was going to enjoy the class. We were allowed to write anything we wanted about Superman so that he could get an idea of where we each are at, and then he corrected each one. At this point that’s really all I want: to talk and write and have someone correct all my little mistakes. Unfortunately the class is only three hours a week, but honestly I could take it every single day.

For some strange reason the university closes completely on the first Friday of school, so we didn’t have any classes. A few of us decided to take advantage and we went to San Sebastián for two days. The first day we did a free walking tour with a very small group called Go Local and they were fantastic. We also attempted to go to the museum on the top of a hill by the beach but there were so many windy paths that we couldn’t find it, but we were not at all disappointed because the weather was beautiful and the views even more so.

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The second day we went to the beach and then rented a couple of stand up paddle boards. I’d been paddle boarding before but never standing up and never in the ocean, so that was definitely my favorite part of the weekend (I don’t have any pictures though because if I did my phone would be at the bottom of the ocean, sorry!).

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The tree lined walkway with the clock tower reminded me so much of Ho Plaza!

Last week a big group of international students went out for drinks and ironically I met a really nice girl who goes to the university but is actually from Santander. Her name is Eli (pronounced like Ellie) and on Sunday we went to see part of an art exhibition. It was a colorful labyrinth with mind puzzles throughout to figure out which way to turn. Afterwards she showed me where to find the best view of the bay (even though it was raining) and a little café called Gallofa (which doesn’t translate to anything). It had desserts, coffee, hot chocolate, and sandwiches, which may not sound very interesting but it really is because everything is just very different than what you would find in an American café, despite the names being the same.

We ordered Colacao (basically what we think of as hot chocolate, even though Spanish hot chocolate means something different) and tostada especial Ibérica, which translates to “Iberian toasted specialty” but we had no idea what it was when we ordered it. Turns out it’s toast, crushed tomato, Iberian ham, and a little bit of salt and olive oil. We ended up talking for hours and I’m pretty sure that was the longest continuous period of time in my entire life that I’ve spoken Spanish, so I was really happy.

P.S. I still don’t have wifi in my apartment so I apologize if it seems like I’ve disappeared off the face of the earth. If you want to reach me, for any reason at all, just send me a message via email, facebook messenger, groupme, or whatsapp (or all of the above if you’re really feeling it) and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible! Promise 🙂

Adulting and Adventuring (in that order)

So much has happened in the past week that most of this feels like it happened a month ago. I did lots of adulting: I found a flat, got a job, moved in/out, and attempted to get a residency card, and I thought I got a concussion (I didn’t, don’t worry), tried lots of new Spanish food, finished Spanish class (minus the exam), and explored Bilbao. I. Am. Tired. Just a little.

I said goodbye to my wonderful host mom on Sunday when she drove me and my suitcase to my flat right across from the university. I’ll be living with two Spanish girls who both seem very friendly, but they won’t be moving in until right before classes start (around the 19th) so I’ll be on my own for a little while.

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The view from my window; the big brick building is where I had Spanish classes

The same day I found the flat I got a job teaching English twice a week to two siblings, a 14-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl. They’re both quite clever and attend a bilingual school however and started learning very young so they speak better English that I speak Spanish so there’s not too much actual teaching involved. We talk, play with their pet rabbit, and play games, and the very first day they ask me really intense questions like who am I going to vote for. Goooood question.

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Playing Jenga (our way)

Priya and I had to skip class to go get our residency card, which we’re supposed to get within the first 30 days of arrival but we couldn’t go until this week because the university wouldn’t give us our matricula paper. When we got to the Foreigners Office all they did was give us a paper to go pay the fee at the bank and told us to come back in two weeks. Bureaucracy. Is. The worst.

Then one day I hit my head on an open window (on the corner of the little door thingy) really really hard. It hurt a lot and it was bleeding a little but I felt pretty ok other than the throbbing so I put some ice on it for a while. Then the next day in class, at first very gradually and then very suddenly I felt really dizzy, feverish, and slightly nauseous. I spent the rest of class trying to pretend like I was quietly listening to the conversation when really I was just trying not to pass out. After class one of the people in the office took me to the campus medic and he told me that I had really low blood pressure. He didn’t say why or how to fix it, just that I shouldn’t eat anything that would upset my stomach. Super helpful. Welp. Fingers crossed it was just a one-time thing.

Saturday Priya and I took a bus (3 hours round trip) to Bilbao for the day. We went to the Guggenheim museum, which is supposedly very sophisticated and famous, but honestly most of the artwork looked like it was made my preschoolers. It was a bit of a let down, but there were some highlights. My favorite part of the day was kayaking on the river that runs through the city!

I’ve also had many opportunies to try new Spanish (and some not-so-Spanish) foods

The most characteristically Spanish food I’ve had is seafood paella, but I was really disappointed that it turned out to be very bland and even worse, imagine how unnerving it is to be digging through some rice and suddenly out pops these:

All in all, it’s been a crazy awesome week. This week I’ll be heading to Ireland for a few days to visit family that I haven’t seen in many years so I’m super excited!

The Dream Team

This past summer, along with 7 other students from Cornell’s Engineers Without Borders team, I traveled to Calcha, Bolivia for 8 weeks. We built a suspended (hanging) pedestrian bridge that gives the community easier and safer access to their farmland across the Vitichi River. This bridge is vital because during the rainy season (approximately Oct.-Apr.) the river swells to the point where it’s nearly uncrossable and the villagers are unable to reach their crops; their only viable source of food and income. In addition to constructing the bridge we performed further assessment tests and are in the process of designing and implementing a water filtration and storage system that will provide reliable long-term access to clean water during the dry season. EWB-Cornell and our professional mentors partner with Calcha to make these projects a reality to revitalize the community and save it from possible abandonment.

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I’ve been home for about 3 days now. I’ve taken more showers than I used to take in a week, my skin has reverted from dry reptilian back to its normal mammalian, my hair is back to happy and curly because it no longer has to be strangled in two braids anymore, my arms and face seem to be a different race than the rest of me, my fingernails are now white instead of black, I don’t wake up with ice cold feet anymore, and I think I’ve finally shed even the most embedded layers of dust and cable grease.Thank goodness.

But now I don’t get to doodle with the kids anymore when the weekly meetings get boring, I can’t walk to the soccer field to find someone to play with us, no one tells me it’s time to “mobilize” twice a day every day, I don’t get to smile and nod when a sweet old lady tries to talk to me thinking that I speak Quechua, I can’t walk down the street saying “buen día” to everyone because I know them all by name, I don’t get to play 7 rounds of UNO in one night, or discuss the drama happening among the local dog population, or listen to a bedtime story about 3 ducklings and a chocolate bunny, or spend 10 minutes trying to find some unknown tool/material because the mason asked me for “el chiquito” (which could mean literally anything), and on top of all that, I’m missing my team.

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Piled in the car for several hours from Sucre airport to Calcha (the first of many many group selfies)
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Literally piled

 

The most important thing I learned this summer is that engineering isn’t actually about engineering; it’s about the people you’re working with and for. Focusing on the “with,” I don’t think you could’ve found another set of 8 personalities that were more divergent than ours, but we were unbelievably lucky that our team meshed together so perfectly. By the end I felt like I had 7 siblings with whom I got to work, play, and travel with every day. That said, let me introduce (as one of our mentors Sam appropriately dubbed us) the “team of the millennium”:

Anna: The baby of the team (a rising sophomore) and one of our two beloved Colombians. I actually ended up spending 24 hours at her house with her parents in Miami when I got stuck there because I missed the flight to La Paz by 2 minutes (not my fault, that is another story entirely). She is funny, genuine, and a real sweetheart. She was also our health and safety officer (basically the band-aid police) so I hit her up quite often.

Bethany: A saving grace when it came to being impartial and patient, keeping calm in frustrating situations, and volunteering when clearly no one else wanted to. She’s very compassionate and always concerned about the well-being of others. Bethany was also Susan’s trusty water project assistant.

Joe: He hates spoons and saliva. That’s really all you need to know (kidding, haha sorry Joe ;)). He is the Go Pro master, Quality Control extrodinaire (aka cement bag counter), and most importantly, the margarine king. Oh and he also never wears sunscreen so his face and arms are actually a different race than the rest of him.

Jon: The only real adult on our team (Class of 2016, congrats!) because he has a real adult job* in Nicaragua in the fall. Jon is the quietest, calmest, zen-est, and least-likely-to-have-murderous-tendencies-towards-you-if-you-vomit-all-over-his-stuff-est. He’s a hard worker, slow and steady and persistent, and has a huge heart. (*Jon has to raise money to be able to work at his non-profit in Nicaragua so if you’re interested in financially supporting him in his endeavors to help others, please see his message at the bottom of this post)

Mario: The best of the best when it comes to immune systems (probably from living in Colombia for half his life), our de facto team translator and community representative, and my personal insanity prevention person when we waited two hours in the Church for the Catholic mass to start. Mario is known for going into town on official business and getting sucked into parties, so he’s now bros with all the community members. ALL of them. He also probably took more showers over the two months than the rest of us put together.

Nathalie: The bridge team leader who spent the most sleepless nights doing calculations, writing banal bureaucratic reports, and prepping for travel. She’s the most upbeat, sunshiney, morning person of the team, always ready to mobilize us right on time. She also has a superior immune system, being one of the only ones to remain vomit free (since ’93! haha) for the duration of the trip. Nathalie’s main task was to constantly make sure that the rest of us didn’t mess everything up. Hahahahahaha…but seriously. I wish I were joking.

Susan: The mastermind behind every logistic of the trip and our water sanitation and distribution project expert (the other project our team is also working on). She is the most dog friendly, strong willed, and bravest team member in the sense that she knew almost zero spanish before the trip. Despite the two of us being very different people, we bonded over a surprising number of commonalities, especially not understanding why it appears to be physically impossible for most young males to take off a sweatshirt without consequently pulling off their entire shirt. STAHP. PLEASE.

Sam: There were only 8 students, but really our team was 9 because we would’ve been so lost without our mentor Samuel along with his old and wizened 24 years of life experience, his gnomie socks, and snazzy get-well-soon pants. While we had three different mentors at different points in the trip, Sam was there for the most difficult part of construction, he was there for the longest period of time (one month), and he balanced being our friend and being our mentor so perfectly. He was all smiles and sunshine, all 5 feet and 6 inches of him, all the time.

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SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMMM! Mere hours from departing/abandoning us

I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing team, and I must say, *cue British accent* ’twas even better than summering in the Hamptons.

 

 

A message from Jon: “I’m raising money for my internship in Nicaragua this fall to cover transportation and living expenses. If you’re interested in financially contributing, you can go to http://emiworld.org/donate.php and click either Create Account or Make One-Time Donation. On the donation page under “Select Category” pick “Interns (Select name below)” and pick “Mabuni, Jonathan – 3215″ to ensure the donation gets credited to my account. E-check is recommended to avoid credit card fees. If you’ve got any questions or want to receive updates, you can shoot me a fb message or email (jonathan.mabuni@gmail.com) and I’ll try to respond as soon as I can.Thank you to all who have responded so far!”

FAQ

As you may already know, this next year is going to be my craziest yet. A crazy year meaning a “sometimes-I-question-why-I’m-doing-all-this-but-it’s-going-to-be-amazing” year. So naturally, this past semester when people started asking about my plans for the summer/next year I was subsequently bombarded with a multitude of questions, to some of which I didn’t even know the answers yet. Although it’s been a few months and after answering the same questions, I think I’ve finally got it all down pat. So if you haven’t already heard my whole spiel, brace yourself, the suspense is over!

Q: Meriel, what are you doing this summer?

(short) A: I will be spending 8 weeks in Calcha, Bolivia with my project team, Engineers Without Borders, constructing the suspended footbridge that we have been working on for the past two years.

(long) A: http://ewb.engineering.cornell.edu/

Q: Wow that’s super awesome! Will you be able to keep in touch with people while you’re there?

A: Probably not. I won’t be bringing my phone with me and even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to use it in Calcha anyway. The plan is to drive to Potosí, one of the larger cities that has electricity/wifi, about once every two weeks so I may or may not be able to check my email. And even if I do have the opportunity…I may just not check :))))  I personally love spending time “off the grid” and away from the overwhelming connectivity.

Q: Fair enough. When do you leave?

A: I leave on June 10th and arrive back in the U.S. on August 8th.

Q: So you’ll be there for essentially the whole summer?

A: Yes.

Q: Ok, so I’ll see you when you get back, right?

(Melbourne) A: I’ll be in Melbourne from the 8th until somewhere around the 20th so if that’s where you’re at within that timeframe, then definitely!

(Cornell) A: Unfortunately no because around the 20th I’m hopping on a plane to study abroad in Santander (northern coast of Spain) at the University of Cantabria.

Q: So you’re not going back to Cornell before going to Spain?

A: No.

Q: Ah ok. So you’re studying abroad for a semester?

A: Welllllll it’s actually for a year.

Q: THAT’S SUCH A LONG TIME!!! [not really a question but every person has kept me well informed]

A: Yes. Yes it is.

Q: But you’re coming home for Thanksgiving/Christmas*/Easter/Slope Day, right?

A: No, unfortunately. They don’t have Thanksgiving over there, the Christmas break isn’t long enough and I’ll have to study for finals anyway (because they’re after the break, which is super annoying). I honestly don’t  know if we have any sort of break in the spring. Exams aren’t even until the first week of June so there’s no chance of stopping by Cornell on the way home, and I hope to get an internship there over the summer anyway. Regardless, it’s too expensive to fly home for such short amounts of time, and I’ll only be there once so I want to make the most of it.

*I’ll be spending Christmas with my Aunt and Uncle who live in England though, so don’t worry, I’ll still be with family!

Q: Wow, that’s a long time. But you’re going to have so much fun. [see previous comment]

A: [I’m never really sure what to say to this because it feels more like a command than a statement… Yes I hope it will be fun, but I can’t imagine every waking moment getting lost in a foreign country, struggling through a foreign language, away from my family and friends, not knowing anyone, and staying on top of difficult classes will be sunshine, daisies, and rainbows. Goodness, I wish!]

Q: How is the visa process going?

A: As of May 27th I have my visa!! (To the people who asked me between January and May I told them it was the bane of my entire existence. But that’s another story entirely).

Q: You can travel all over Europe! Where are you going to go?

A: Actually, I don’t know how much traveling I’ll do. My mom’s side of the family lives in Ireland, England, and Scotland so if anything I’m going to visit there because the last time I saw most of them was 6 years ago. The only thing I’m dying to see in person is the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I wrote a 10 page paper on it in my Modern Structures class freshman year and it’s hands-down the COOLEST building to have ever been built.

Q: Will I be able to contact you while you’re over there?

A: Yup! I’ll have to get a Spanish cell phone so I can’t call or text anyone in the U.S. but there’s always facebook message and email!

Q: Where will you be living?

A: I will be living in a homestay (with a family) for the first month, before real classes start and while I’m taking the required intensive Spanish class. Then I will hopefully find some friendly international students to rent an apartment with.

Q: What will you be studying?

A: Civil Engineering (my major). If you’re into specifics, I will be taking Intermediate Sold Mechanics (I think it’s like dynamics…or more statics maybe?), Computational Engineering (stats), and various Geotechnical, Foundational, and Coastal Engineering design classes.

Q: Are the classes in Spanish?

A: No, they’re in English (thank goodness). I can barely understand my engineering classes in English so I can’t even imagine trying to learn it all in Spanish haha 🙂

Q: How are you going to survive for a whole year?

A: Great question. When I find out I’ll let you know 😀

And the questions no one has asked me yet, but I ask myself almost every day:

Q: Am I nervous/scared?

A: Yes.

Q: Am I still going to go?

A: Absolutely.

Of course, these are the easy questions and these aren’t even all of them. And sometimes by the end of the conversation I get a “Wow Meriel, you sure seem to have your life figured out.” Rest assured, I do not. In fact, most days at school I feel like this:

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And when I’m not at school, I’m at home baking my heart out like:

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#accurate